Colorado Town Considers “How Much Renewable Energy is Feasible” – 80% by 2025?

Date: 18 Apr 2011 | posted in: Energy, Energy Self Reliant States | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

A great story of a city looking to – literally – take ownership of its energy future:

The Colorado Renewable Energy Standard, as amended last year by the state Legislature, requires Xcel Energy to get 30 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020.

 …Boulder leaders — who let the city’s 20-year franchise agreement with Xcel Energy lapse at the end of 2010 — are now considering whether they can get an energy mix for their residents with a larger percentage of renewable energy than what Xcel is offering.

…At the “Clean Energy Slam” event in February, which gave participants two minutes to pitch a vision for Boulder’s energy future, a representative of Southwest Generation told the crowd that he believed his company could provide Boulder with an energy mix of 50 percent renewables and 50 percent natural gas by 2014. And by 2025, the company could provide up to 80 percent renewable energy to the city, the representative, David Rhodes, said.

…Jonathan Koehn, the city’s regional sustainability coordinator, said adding more renewables is only part of the equation.

“We’ve heard a lot of concern that, perhaps, more clean energy is driving this analysis,” he said. “But this is about long-term economic stability. When we talk about what our portfolio might look like in the future, we don’t have a predetermined notion of a certain percentage of renewables. What we want is to be able to analyze how we can have long-term stable rates.”

It’s not just about clean energy and stable rates, however.  The decision to eschew a utility franchise was also about localization, described on a city website as “taking more control in determining:

  • Where the energy supply comes from – Locally produced
  • What types of energy are provided – Renewables over fossil fuels
  • How much we pay for it – Rate control

Local generation of renewable energy will add more to Boulder’s economy than importing clean electrons, and if those projects can also be locally owned (perhaps via a community solar project like the Clean Energy Collective is doing in Carbondale, CO) then the economic benefits multiply significantly.

Photo credit: Flickr user respres (photo is of Denver, not Boulder, but I wanted a sunrise…)

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Michigan Utility Freezes its Hot Solar PV Program

Date: 15 Apr 2011 | posted in: Energy, Energy Self Reliant States | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

Consumers Energy in Michigan, with a peak demand of around 4,000 megawatts (MW) just put the brakes on its pilot 2 MW solar PV program.  The program sold out very fast, but rather than expand the program to accommodate demand, the utility says it needs to study the program.

The program was modeled on CLEAN Contracts, also known as feed-in tariffs, that provided a fixed payment per kilowatt-hour over 12 years that was high enough for residential and commercial solar PV systems to earn a decent rate of return.  Similar programs operate on a larger scale in Gainesville, FL, Vermont, Ontario, and in many European countries.

A lot of local businesses were strongly interested in participating, in part for the spillover economic benefits:

“When I looked at all the businesses that benefited,” [said Mr. Draper, regarding Fluid Process Company’s] installation, “the local steel fabricator for the mounting poles, the tree remover, the ditch digging, crane, and concrete companies—Consumers would be giving the state a much-needed boost.”

For now, many solar industry and advocacy groups are trying to convince Consumers Energy to reinstate the program, especially since the utility is also trying to roll back its renewable energy surcharge from $2.50 to 70 cents per customer.

Said David Wright, of the non-profit Ecology Center, in Ann Arbor,

“We just don’t want to see the program end. It’s in everyone’s best interest to diversify power supplies, find out about cost reductions, improve the program, and support our local solar industry.”

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Smaller Generation Incites Largest Renewable Energy Gains

Date: 14 Apr 2011 | posted in: Energy, Energy Self Reliant States | 2 Facebooktwitterredditmail

While seeming counterintuitive, a focus on smaller-scale distributed generation enables more and faster development of cost-effective renewable energy.

Last week I wrote about the illusion that we can “move forward on all fronts” in renewable energy development; rather, a bias toward centralized electricity generation in U.S. policy reduces the potential and resources for distributed generation. 

Solar Economies of Scale Level Off at 10 Kilowatts

In contrast, distributed generation provides unique value to the grid and society, and its development can also smooth the path for more centralized renewable energy generation.

First, distributed generation is cost-effective.  Economies of scale for the two fastest-growing renewable energy technologies (wind and solar) level off well within the definition of distributed generation (under 80 megawatts and connected to the distribution grid).  Solar PV economies of scale are mostly captured at 10 kilowatts, as shown in this chart of tens of thousands of solar PV projects in California.  Wind projects in the U.S. are most economical at 5-20 megawatts, illustrated in a chart taken from the 2009 Wind Technologies Market Report.   

Besides providing economical power relative to large-scale renewable energy projects, distributed renewable energy generation also has unique value to the electric grid.  Distributed solar PV provides an average of 22 cents per kWh of value in addition to the electricity produced because of various benefits to the grid and society.  The adjacent chart illustrates with data coming from this analysis of the New York electric grid.  Grid benefits include peak load shaving, reduce transmission losses, and deferred infrastructure upgrades as well as providing a hedge against volatile fossil fuel prices.  Social benefits include prevented blackouts, reduced pollution, and job creation.

Distributed wind and solar also largely eliminate the largest issue of renewable power generation – variability.  Variability of solar power is significantly reduced by dispersing solar power plants.    Variability of wind is similarly reduced when wind farms are dispersed over larger geographic areas.

Not only are integration costs reduced, but periods of zero to low production are virtually eliminated by dispersing wind and solar projects over a wide area.

As mentioned at the start, distributed generation also scales rapidly to meet aggressive renewable energy targets.  Despite the conventional wisdom that getting big numbers requires big project sizes, the countries with the largest renewable energy capacities have achieved by building distributed generation, not centralized generation.  Germany, for example, has over 16,000 megawatts of solar PV, over 80 percent installed on rooftops.  Its wind power has also scaled up in small blocks, with over half of Germany’s 27,000 megawatts built in 20 megawatt or smaller wind projects.  In Denmark, wind provides 15-20 percent of the country’s electricity, and 80 percent of wind projects are owned by local cooperatives.

With all these benefits, distributed generation can also smooth the way for centralized renewable energy, in spite of energy policies that favor centralized power.  When distributed generation reduces grid stress and transmission losses by provided power and voltage response near load, it can defer upgrades to existing infrastructure and open up capacity on existing transmission lines for new centralized renewable energy projects.  A focus on distributed generation means more opportunity for all types of renewable energy development.

It may seem counterintuitive, but distributed renewable energy should be the priority for reaching clean energy goals in the United States.

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Distributed Solar Power Worth Far More Than Electrons

Date: 12 Apr 2011 | posted in: Energy, Energy Self Reliant States | 3 Facebooktwitterredditmail

From the ability to reduce peak demand on the transmission and distribution system, hedge against fuel price increases, or enhance grid and environmental security, solar power has a monetary value as much as ten times higher than its energy value. The cost of residential-scale distributed solar PV is around 23 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh) in a … Read More

Michigan Editorial: We Prefer to Generate Our Own Renewable Energy

Date: 1 Apr 2011 | posted in: Energy, Energy Self Reliant States | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

The large transmission authority serving the upper midwest – the Midwest Independent System Operator – has plans for new high-voltage transmission lines leading from windy states like the Dakotas to places like Michigan.  The purpose is to bring renewable energy from big western wind farms to places East.

Some of these places – like Michigan – would rather do it themselves.

The initial list of projects in the MISO region has an estimated cost of $4.8 billion. But MISO has pointed to additional projects over the next several years that could total between $16 billion and $20 billion. Michigan’s share of $16 billion worth of projects would be about $640 million annually. And most of these funds would be sent out of the state.

…This would happen even though Michigan already has its own state law requiring that 10 percent of its power must be generated using alternative sources by 2015. And all of that renewable-source energy must be generated within Michigan — which means electricity consumers likely won’t be buying or using power generated in other states.

The article doesn’t even get into the meat of the issue: that renewable electricity imports may be marginally cheaper than wind and solar power in Michigan, but that the economic impact of locally developed projects doesn’t show up on electricity bills. 

Michigan isn’t alone in their desire for self-reliance.  Ten East Coast governors signed a letter to members of Congress to protest visions for a new nationwide network of transmission that would have them importing Midwest wind at the expense of domestically built renewable energy.  And the Canadian province of Ontario developed a comprehensive clean energy program with a requirement that all renewable energy and a majority of the actual components of new renewable energy facilities come from inside Ontario.

It may seem counter-intuitive that citizens would prefer more expensive electricity, but when weighed against the economic opportunity of local ownership and development, perhaps it’s no surprise.

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Cash Incentives for Renewables Cost Half as Much as Tax Credits

Date: 30 Mar 2011 | posted in: Energy, Energy Self Reliant States | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

Using the tax code to support wind and solar power significantly increases their cost.  I wrote about this problem last year because project developers were selling their federal tax credits to third parties at 50 to 70 cents on the dollar.

Along these lines, the Bipartisan Policy Center released a study [last week] showing that simply handing cash to clean energy developers is twice — yes, twice — as effective as supporting them through tax credits. [emphasis added]

The problem is that all but the largest renewable energy developers or buyers can’t capture the full value of the federal tax credits.  So, prior to the economic collapse, a number of enterprising investment banks (and others) started buying up tax credits to reduce their tax bills. 

This was great for big banks, but lousy for taxpayers and electric ratepayers.  In fact, using tax credits instead of cash grants for wind and solar projects increased the cost per kilowatt-hour produced by 18 and 27 percent, respectively.  (Wait, why not 50 percent?  Because even though the tax credit is only half as good as cash, the cash payment only covers up to 30 percent of a wind or solar project’s costs.  So cash in lieu of tax credits can only improve that portion of a project’s finances.)

Seen another way, if the $4 billion spent on renewable tax incentives in 2007 had been given as cash instead, it could have leveraged 3,400 MW of additional wind power and 52 MW of additional solar power.  This would have increased incremental installed wind capacity in 2007 by 64%, and installed solar capacity by 25%. 

The increased costs come from higher prices that utilities pay for wind and solar power (and pass on to consumers) as well as the the cost to taxpayers of passing half of the tax credit value to investment bank shareholders instead of wind and solar projects.

The problem isn’t solved, but has simply been postponed.

When the economy tanked, so did profits (and tax liability) for big banks.  Wind and solar producers had no one to buy their tax credits and the entire industry was in danger of collapsing.  The adjacent chart illustrates the idiocy of relying on the tax code for energy policy.

Congress stepped in with a temporary fix, allowing project developers to receive a cash grant in lieu of the tax credit.  The temporary cash grant (currently extended through 2011) kept the wind and solar industry running during the recession and has saved taxpayers and ratepayers billions of dollars. 

It’s also helped level the playing field, allowing for local ownership of wind and solar projects, rather than requiring complex tax equity partnerships.  It’s meant more revenue from wind and solar staying in the local community.  And this means a larger, stronger constituency for renewable energy.

The cash grant option will expire at the end of 2011, but hopefully the climate hawks and fiscal hawks in Congress will take note: we can support wind and solar at half the price with smarter policy.

Hat tip to David Roberts at Grist for the study link.

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Grid on Hawaiian Island of Oahu Can Handle 25% Wind and Solar

Date: 28 Mar 2011 | posted in: Energy, Energy Self Reliant States | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

A new study released in February adds evidence that utility grids can handle high levels of renewable energy penetration.  The latest study examined adding 500 MW of wind to the electric grid on the Hawaiian island of Oahu (home to Honolulu).  The result would be a grid with 25% of the energy coming from wind and solar power.

Results of this study suggest that 400 MW of off-island wind energy and 100 MW of on-island wind energy can be integrated into the Oahu electrical system while maintaining system reliability. Integrating this wind energy, along with 100 MW of solar PV, will eliminate the need to burn approximately 2.8 million barrels of low sulfur fuel oil and 132,000 tons of coal each year. The combined supply from the wind and solar PV plants will comprise just over 25% of Oahu’s projected electricity demand. [emphasis added]

By its nature, the wind and solar power will be largely distributed generation, although much of the wind power reaching Oahu would arrive via undersea transmission.  Regardless, it’s a promising opportunity for Hawaiian energy self-reliance.

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Ontario’s Buy Local Renewable Energy Policy: An Update

Date: 15 Mar 2011 | posted in: Energy, Energy Self Reliant States | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

In January, we released a report – Maximizing Jobs From Clean Energy: Ontario’s ‘Buy Local’ Policy – highlighting the impressive job forecast (43,000 jobs) from Ontario’s CLEAN Contract (a.k.a. feed-in tariff) program.  News from the province suggests that the program is overcoming hurdles and continuing to grow. Forecasts for 2011 indicate that Ontario could become North … Read More

U.S Grid Can Handle Lots of Solar PV with Low Integration Costs

Date: 10 Mar 2011 | posted in: Energy, Energy Self Reliant States | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

A state such as New York should be capable of absorbing and benefiting from well over 7 GW of high- value PV without having to incur significant integration costs beyond the cost of PV itself, further noting that the storage sizes involved could well be met with a smart deployment of interactive plug-in transportation...the low-cost penetration potential is large enough to allow for the development of a considerable localized, high-value PV generation market worth 100’s of GW in the US.

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