Archive for the ‘Energy’ Category

California communities seize control of their energy futures

February 26, 2015

An energy revolution is breaking out in California and a few other states, one that could radically increase the amount of renewable energy available to citizens and end the tyranny of foot-dragging utilities. Outside of the rapidly falling costs of solar power, it’s just about my main source of domestic optimism these days.

I’m talking about community choice, or, in the horrid legalese, “community choice aggregation.” I’ve discussed it before in passing, but it’s starting to seriously catch on, so I want to take a closer look.

Say a town, city, or county is dissatisfied with the power it gets from its utility — it’s too expensive, or too dirty. One option would be for each municipality to leave its utility and form its own “municipal utility.” That has its advantages, but it’s a pretty huge step, since the municipality would have to take over not only power procurement but grid operation and maintenance, billing, customer service, etc. In many smaller towns, it’s not practical.

The other, emerging option is community choice aggregation, whereby a county or municipality takes over only the job of buying and selling power, leaving grid management and billing to the utility. It aggregates customers from every participating city, town, and county and uses their collective purchasing power to procure exactly the kind of electricity it wants.

The two main motivations to opt for CCA are cheaper power and cleaner power. At least to date, those two goals have not come into conflict. In most cases, CCAs get power that’s cheaper and cleaner than what they were getting from their utility. (Whether those goals conflict in the future will be of keen interest.)

CCA must be enabled by legislation and it has been in six states: California, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Ohio, and Rhode Island. According to the website Local Power, which tracks these things:

Today, 5% of the U.S. population is under CCA service for electricity in 1300 municipalities, including well-known population centers like City of Chicago, Cincinnati, Cape Cod, Sonoma County as well as hundreds of less known small towns and rural counties. CCA formation by municipal ordinance or local election is allowed and provided for under state laws governing 25% of the U.S. electricity market.

California has been particularly on the ball. Marin County startedthe state’s first CCA program — it now serves 125,000 customers. Sonoma County has followed suit. San Mateo County isconsidering it; county supervisors just voted to do a study of the proposal. The mayor of San Francisco, who’s running for reelection this year, has reversed his previous opposition to the city joining a CCA. Now he says his only objection was that there wasn’t enough local power required!

Perhaps the most interesting battle is happening in San Diego. Whereas San Francisco represents only about 5 percent of utility giant PG&E’s customer base, San Diego represents over 40 percent of San Diego Gas & Electric’s. That’s a big chunk to lose!

CCA is a key part of San Diego’s Climate Action Plan, which among other things commits the city to a legally binding target of 100 percent renewables by 2035. There is effectively no way for it to hit that target if it has to accept whatever power SDG&E sees fit to buy for it.

There have been various efforts to kill CCA at the state level, some supported by the state chapter of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), many of whose members work for utilities. The local San Diego chapter of IBEW, however, supports the city’s 100 percent renewables target. The fate of the San Diego’s climate plan, or at least CCA’s place in the plan, remainsuncertain. It if did go through, it would represent something of a watershed for the CCA movement.

CCAs vary from place to place, but Cali’s share a few common features. They are opt-out rather than opt-in — customers can choose to remain with the utility, but they have to affirmatively indicate as much. That alone ensures high participation rates (readers of Nudge will understand why).

There are tiers of participation: in Marin, you can choose a base level 50 percent renewables or pay a premium for 100 percent renewables; in Sonoma, it’s 33 percent or 100 percent. Some also include a premium option for 100 percent local renewables. The tiered system allows low-income customers to choose an affordable option while more eco-minded or well-off residents can indulge their aspirations.

CCA can also give a huge boost to a bunch of other policies that utilities typically fight or slow-walk, including net metering, feed-in tariffs, and efficiency programs. This post by Woody Hastingslists a few of the benefits that came along with the Sonoma County CCA. In addition to the basic benefit — giving those consumers more choices in energy — it also has 30 percent lower emissions than the utility, and it boasts rates that are 5 to 8 percent lower than the utility’s (depending on the tier).

Sonoma’s CCA features a robust net metering program, “NetGreen,” that compensates solar customers better than the utility. It features a version of my own favorite policy, feed-in tariffs, in the form of “ProFiT,” which guarantees clean energy developers favorable terms for the power they feed into the grid. It has doubled the amount of solar in Sonoma County’s energy mix and established power purchase agreements for 70 megawatts of new solar. And it will bring the level of geothermal in the county’s mix up to around 23 percent by 2018.

Perhaps best of all, enrollment in the plan’s phase-one rollout was much higher than expected: 85 percent of customers stayed with the CCA.

Not every CCA is going to spur all those policies. But that’s kind of the point: they will enable the exact mix of policies that best expresses the needs and values of their customers. It will give consumers some power and agency in the process, something they haven’t had for some time.

Is CCA power really cheaper? At least in California, at least so far, yes. These charts come via San Diego reporter Lisa Halverstadt:

As you can see, the Marin and Sonoma CCAs are charging slightly lower rates than the utilities they left behind, despite providing substantially more clean energy.

How do they do it? This post from lawyer Ty Tosdal hits the basics. First, CCA represents competition for utilities, putting pressure on them to keep costs down and keep customers happy. (Utilities aren’t used to competition, to say the least.) And this:

An alternative energy provider behaves differently than a utility. CCA programs, for example, have used the political and legal process to advocate for lower transmission and distribution charges, utility fees and rates in general. You’re not going to see that kind of advocacy from utilities, who must serve shareholders, or regulators that are struggling with proper oversight.

(If you read the linked story, you’ll see that “struggling with proper oversight” is a rather charitable characterization.)

In other words, CCA provides not just an economic and environmental but a civic counterweight to utilities. It enables electricity consumers to organize on behalf of their interests and values. Why, you could almost call it democratic.

Naturally California utilities hate this. Just hate it. In all the stories I read, this passage was the most poignant:

A PG&E representative did not respond to a request for comment. A 2011 law prohibits the company from using ratepayer revenue to market against community choice aggregation.

Aww. I doubt utilities will be similarly restrained in other states. Watch for them to go after CCA with even greater fury than they’ve attacked net metering. It is a strike directly at the heart of their business model.

For all the same reasons utilities hate CCA, I love it. It completely cuts through the utility Gordian knot — the tangle of restructured and unrestructured regions, corrupt PUCs and broken business models, obscure political maneuvering and big-money deals — and puts power directly in the public’s hands. It opens up opportunities for all the talk about Utilities 2.0 to become reality, to start experimenting in the real world.

Most of all, it enables citizens who want clean energy to get it. That seems like the kind of thing Americans could rally around.

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Portland Installs Turbines in City Water Pipes, Powers City by Flushing Toilets

February 26, 2015

Greg Semler, the CEO of Lucid Energy. (photo: Mind)
Greg Semler, the CEO of Lucid Energy. (photo: Mind)

By Minds

26 February 15


he turbines work where water is flowing downhill, and are already recouping some of the energy cost in keeping the water system running. When fully in place, these pipe generators can power hundreds of thousands of homes.

Gregg Semler, CEO of Lucid Energy, followed his dream of “helping water become more sustainable” by developing this smart piping system. Not only are they electricity generators, they also have state of the art sensors to detect change in water pressure to keep pipes from bursting, and the ability to detect if drinking water is contaminated.


UK Makes Plans for Largest Offshore Wind Farm in the World

February 24, 2015


The UK is a sustainable energy forerunner like no other. And now the government is beefing up their already productive offshore wind power with plans to build the largest offshore wind farm in the world.

The UK already hosts seven of the world’s largest offshore wind farms, making it a sustainable energy forerunner like no other, but that isn’t stopping them from even more grandiose plans. The government has given consent for the building of the largest offshore wind farm in the world.

Dogger Bank Creyke Beck will sit in the North Sea approximately 81 miles from the UK coast, and cover 8660 square kilometers. This means that the wind farm will be only slightly smaller than the country of Puerto Rico.

The UK already has more offshore wind power than all of Europe combined. The Dogger Bank project will have enough capacity (2.4 gigawatts) to power 1.8 million households, coming only second in power to the Drax coal-fired energy station in North Yorkshire.

Though the project gained consent from government regulators, it has yet to be built, and the process for its realization is a long, and sometimes tedious one. A collection of British and Norwegian countries is backing the project, and pre-construction is expected to last into 2019.

Much of the mega wind farm’s financing will come from subsidies. A UK general election in May could promote renewable energy or cause interest to grow stale, depending on the outcome. All energy projects in the UK have to bid for the same pot of government subsidies.

Experts agree that the US has great potential for wind energy as well. Even taking into account that wilderness areas and national parks, as well as other areas which are unlikely to be developed, such as some urban areas and water bodies, mass swaths of US land, even in areas you wouldn’t expect, are prime for wind harnessing.

A recent study by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University also showswhich areas would be best to build wind farms in the US.  Oddly enough, New Jersey would offer more overall benefits than Arizona.  A wind farm built in West Virginia would be more beneficial than one in California.

New technologies are also making wind turbines not only more eco-friendly, (i.e., they won’t turn 50,000-plus birds into a mess of feathers and bird song annually) but more efficient. ‘Wind-lens’ turbine-less wind technology candouble or even triple conventional wind turbine power.


January 21, 2015




Ohio’s Anti-Green Suicide

Harvey Wasserman | January 20, 2015 9:41 am | CommentsSwing state Ohio is plunging ever deeper into the fossil/nuke abyss.Its Public Utilities Commission may soon gouge the public for $3 billion(BILLION!) to subsidize two filthy 50-year-old coal burners and America’s most dangerous nuke.

Approval would seal Ohio’s death notice.

Ohioans speak out against the $3 billion bailout to subsidize coal plants and the Davis-Besse nuclear plant owned by its unregulated affiliate, FirstEnergy Solutions. Photo credit: Ohio Citizen ActionNone of those coal/nuke burners can compete with the rising revolution in renewable energy. Throughout the world, similar outmoded facilities are shutting down.

In 2001, Ohio deregulated its electric markets. But the state’s nuke owners demanded nearly $10 billion in “stranded cost” handouts so the obsolete Davis-Besse and Perry reactors on Lake Erie could allegedly compete with more efficient technologies.

Today, despite the huge subsidies, renewables and fracked gas have completely priced them out of the market.

Davis-Besse—a Three Mile Island clone—is infamous worldwide for its horrific breakdowns, including two of the five worst in U.S. history since 1979 as listed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. ….


Denmark Sets New Wind Power World Record

January 18, 2015
From: Leon Kaye , Triple Pundit, More from this Affiliate
Published January 9, 2015 08:47 AM

Denmark has long been one of the world’s leaders in wind power. The country of 5.6 million has set a goal of generating 50 percent of its power from clean energy sources by 2020 and aims to be entirely fossil fuel-free by 2050. Those goals, especially the one for 2020, are well achievable: Denmark has announced it scored 39.1 percent of its energy from wind in 2014.

That statistic is quite a jump from 2013, when Denmark generated 33.2 percent of its electricity from wind, and it has more than doubled its wind power capacity from a decade ago (18.8 percent). The result is a country that has understandably dubbed itself the world’s “Wind Power Hub.” Considering the Danish wind industry’s claim that it has built over 90 percent of the world’s offshore wind turbines, Denmark’s continued surge in wind power development, while stunning, has its origins in long-term planning.

Denmark’s wind energy policy dates back to the 1970s, when the oil shocks resulting from the Middle East crises sent the energy import-dependent nation scrambling for new sources of power. At first nuclear energy was the preferred choice, with up to 16 locations across the country identified for future power plants. But an anti-nuclear energy campaign launched, eventually nudging the Danish parliament to abandon that option by the mid-1980s — even before the Chernobyl disaster spooked many countries into abandoning their more ambitious nuclear power plans. Meanwhile a nascent wind power sector began to take shape, eventually leading to today’s giants such as Vestas and DONG Energy. Long before feed-in tariffs became commonplace in Europe, the Danish government launched such programs in 1990 to help scale wind power throughout the country.

Now Denmark has over 5,200 wind turbines in operation, with about 25 percent of those offshore. The Danish government is offering strong support for its wind power sector, with approximately €135 million ($200 million) earmarked for wind power research and development and other energy technologies annually. Meanwhile coal, long the backbone of Denmark’s energy infrastructure, is slowly being phased out. Denmark estimates less than 30 percent of its energy needs will come from coal by 2020.

Continue reading at ENN affiliate, Triple Pundit.

Caribbean Island Says Goodbye Fossil Fuels, Hello 100% Renewable Electricity

January 11, 2015


Many Caribbean Islands, including the island of Bonaire, once relied solely on fossil fuels for their residents, but now use renewable energy. Bonaire is on the verge of becoming 100% environmentally friendly with renewable energy sources.

Bonaire (pop. 14,500), a small island off the coast of Venezuela, is famous for its beautiful marine reefs, which are visited by 70,000 tourists every year. What many of the tourists don’t realize is that the majority of the electricity powering their needs comes from renewable energy. Yet for the residents of Bonaire, the switch from fossil-fueled to renewable energy systems has made a world of difference.

Like many Caribbean islands, Bonaire originally relied on diesel fuel to generate electricity for residents, with a peak demand of 11 megawatts (MW). This fuel had to be shipped in from other nations, resulting in high electricity prices for Bonaire residents, along with uncertainty about when and how much prices might increase with changing fuel costs.

In 2004, everything changed when a fire destroyed the existing diesel power plant. Although tragic, the situation provided an opportunity for Bonaire to consider what kind of new electricity system to build. Temporary diesel generators were rented to provide power for the short term. Meanwhile, the government and local utility began working together to create a plan that would allow Bonaire to reach a goal of generating 100 percent of its electricity from renewable sources.

Bonaire’s Electricity System Transformation

The result is a transformed electricity system on Bonaire. The island is now home to 12 wind turbines with a total of 11 MW of wind power capacity, which contribute up to 90 percent of the island’s electricity at times of peak wind, and 40-45 percent of its annual electricity on average. Battery storage (6 MWh) is included in order to take advantage of available power in times of excess wind, and provide that stored electricity in times of low wind. The battery also boosts the reliability of the overall system—it is capable of providing 3 MW for over two minutes, allowing time for additional generation to be started when there is a sudden drop in wind.

The Bonaire system also includes 14 MW of diesel generation, five total generators, which provide the necessary power to meet the load when there is not enough wind power available. The generators are equipped to run on both traditional diesel as well as biodiesel. The next steps in the island’s energy transformation involve using local algae resources, grown in the large salt flats on the island, to create biofuel, which can then be used in the existing generators. This will allow Bonaire to operate a 100 percent renewable electricity system—with on average 40–45 percent from wind and 55-60 percent from biodiesel.

The new electricity system led to more reliable electricity, more employment opportunities, reduced dependence on oil (and its fluctuating prices), and a reduction in electricity bills. Bonaire residents currently pay $0.22/kWh for electricity, much lower than prices on other nearby Caribbean islands, which are often $0.36/kWh or above. When oil prices spiked in 2008, while Bonaire was still using temporary diesel generators before making its transition to renewables, electricity prices on the island reached $0.50/kWh. The new electricity system also created jobs for the construction and ongoing operation of the wind farm, and for research and development of algae production capabilities and conversion to biofuel. Additional employment opportunities will be created for continuing algae production and operation of the biodiesel plant.

The success of the updated electricity system on Bonaire provides an important example to other nearby islands of the opportunity to achieve high levels of renewable energy penetration.

Why Did Bonaire Make the Switch to Renewables?

Two aspects unique to Bonaire’s situation may have contributed to the decision to switch to a 100 percent renewable electricity system. One driver may have been Bonaire’s status as a special municipality within the Kingdom of the Netherlands. This provides a connection with the Netherlands and Europe in general, where many countries have incorporated large amounts of wind and other renewable sources of electricity. Nearby Aruba, also a Dutch Caribbean island, has a wind farm as well, which provides up to 20 percent of the island’s electricity. There may be a common theme of islands with ties to European countries moving to renewables more quickly than others. In the case of Bonaire, the consortium that is developing the project, Ecopower Bonaire BV, is made up of Dutch and German companies.

Secondly, Bonaire’s government and local electricity provider were presented with an opportunity to build a new renewable electricity system since they needed to replace the plant that was damaged. Many other Caribbean islands still have existing diesel resources that are not at the end of their lifetime. These existing generators may remain a part of the electricity system, especially as renewables are incrementally added to the system, and may even remain as backup power for a transformed system that operates mostly with renewables. However, if some or all of the existing diesel resources on an island are completely shut down before the end of their available lifetime, that island will need to consider the sunk costs involved and incorporate that into their overall energy transformation plan.

Bonaire as Inspiration for the Caribbean

Rocky Mountain Institute and Carbon War Room’s ongoing Ten Island Challenge works with Caribbean islands to utilize their local renewable resource potential to transform electricity systems and provide a renewable, reliable, secure and affordable energy supply for their citizens. One of the participating islands is Aruba, which neighbors Bonaire and forms part of the ABC islands in the Netherlands Antilles, along with Curacao. Although the shift to renewables on Bonaire is not part of the Ten Island Challenge, Rocky Mountain Institute and Carbon War Room’s ongoing work in the area will strive to spread the success that Bonaire has achieved to the rest of the region, so that more Caribbean islands can take advantage of efficient and renewable electricity systems.

Denmark Sets New World Record for Renewable Energy in 2014, Powering 39 Percent of Country With Wind

January 9, 2015

Wind farm. (photo: Getty)
Wind farm. (photo: Getty)

By The Local

07 January 15


With 39 percent of Denmark’s electricity use covered by wind power in 2014, the climate minister says the nation is well on its way to hits its 2020 goals.

ccording to year-end numbers from, 39 percent of all electricity used in Denmark last year was produced by wind power. The 2014 totals dipped slightly from the 41.2 percent of electricity generated by wind through the year’s first six months, but the climate minister said Denmark is still well on its way to achieving its energy goals.

“We will definitely hit our 2020 goals. We have set a one-of-a-kind world record. And it shows that we can reach our ultimate goal, namely to stop global warming,” Climate Minister Rasmus Helveg Petersen told broadcaster DR.

The Danish government has set the goal of having half of all electricity produced by wind power by 2020.

According to, there was nothing extraordinary about the amount of wind in 2014 and the increase in electricity production can be attributed in part to the more than 100 new offshore windmills that were installed in 2014.

The amount of electricity produced by wind varied throughout the year, from a high of 61.7 percent in January to a low of 23 percent in June.

Petersen said the wind record puts Denmark well on its way to phasing out coal, a process that he said in October he would like to see happen in just ten years.

“I think this gives us some opportunities to get rid of coal sooner and get going with the green conversion,” he told DR.

But while wind power accounted for nearly 40 percent of Denmark’s electricity in 2014, wind only covers about five percent of the nation’s total energy use. According to the Danish Energy Association, electricity only makes up one tenth of Denmark’s total energy usage and the use of fossil fuels like oil, coal and natural gas still accounts for about three fourths of Denmark’s total energy use.

In order to truly reach the next level of sustainable energy, Aalborg University professor of energy planning Brian Vad Mathiesen said that Denmark’s combined heating and power plants need to invest in heat pump systems that run on wind-generated electricity rather than fossil fuels.

“It is moving too slowly with getting the heat pumps into our heating systems and thus integrated into the energy and heat sector. That becomes more and more pressing as the amount of wind energy increases,” he told DR.

Petersen responded by saying that the government has set aside 60 million kroner toward a heat pump trial programme meant to encourage Danish power plants to embrace the more climate-friendly, but currently more costly, solution.


California Governor Calls for 50 Percent Renewable Energy by 2030

January 8, 2015


Gov. Jerry Brown’s announcement—and his vision of a vibrant, clean-energy economy—was especially refreshing coming at a time when Congress is threatening to gut environmental regulations.

As he was sworn in today for his fourth term as governor of California, Jerry Brown announced a program of ambitious new environmental goals that would enhance the state’s reputation as a forward-thinking pacesetter for the entire country.

The goals include increasing the amount of electricity the state generates from renewable sources to 50 percent by 2030, well beyond its current goal of 33 percent by 2020. He proposed reducing use of gas to fuel vehicles by 50 percent and to double the energy efficiency of existing buildings while making heating fuel cleaner. And he said that the state must reduce the release of methane, black carbon and other potential pollutants, manage farms, forest, wetlands and rangelands to store carbon, and transform the electrical grid and the transportation system.

“Neither California nor indeed the world itself can ignore the growing assault on the very systems of nature on which human beings and other forms of life depend,” said Brown. “Edward O. Wilson, one of the world’s preeminent biologists and naturalists, offered this sobering thought: ‘Surely one moral precept we can agree on is to stop destroying our birthplace, the only home humanity will ever have. The evidence for climate warming, with industrial pollution as the principal cause, is now overwhelming.’”

He boasted that California already has “the most far-reaching environmental laws of any state and the most integrated policy to deal with climate change of any political jurisdiction in the Western Hemisphere. Under laws that you have enacted, we are on track to meet our 2020 goal of one-third of our electricity from renewable energy. We lead the nation in energy efficiency, cleaner cars and energy storage. Recently, both the Secretary-General of the United Nations and the President of the World Bank made clear that properly pricing carbon is a key strategy. California’s cap-and-trade system is doing just that and showing how the market itself can generate the innovations we need. Beyond this, California is forging agreements with other states and nations so that we do not stand alone in advancing these climate objectives.”

But, he added, that’s not enough. He said if there is any hope of reaching the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) goal of limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius by the year 2050, “California must show the way. We must demonstrate that reducing carbon is compatible with an abundant economy and human well-being. So far, we have been able to do that. In fact, we are well on our way to meeting our goal of reducing carbon pollution and limiting the emissions of heat-trapping gases to 431 million tons by 2020. But now it is time to establish our next set of objectives for 2030 and beyond.”

Brown listed a multi-pronged approach to achieving the goals he announced, including more distributed power, expanded rooftop solar, micro-grids, an energy imbalance market, battery storage, full integration of information technology and electrical distribution, and millions of electric and low-carbon vehicles.

“Taking significant amounts of carbon out of our economy without harming its vibrancy is exactly the sort of challenge at which California excels,” said Brown. “This is exciting, it is bold and it is absolutely necessary if we are to have any chance of stopping potentially catastrophic changes to our climate system.”

“Governor Brown’s relentless commitment to tackle climate change couldn’t be more important or timely,” said Derek Walker, associate vice president for Environmental Defense Fund. “The world is moving toward an inflection point on climate action and Governor Brown is showing how California innovation and ingenuity will deliver deep reductions in pollution from electricity, transportation fuels and working lands while growing the state’s economy for decades to come.”

His announcement—and his vision of a vibrant, clean-energy economy—was especially refreshing coming at a time when some states are considering following Ohio’s lead of freezing or even eliminating renewable energy standards and the incoming Congress is threatening to gutenvironmental regulations.

“We applaud Governor Brown for working to secure a cleaner, brighter future for California and paving the way for the rest of the country and the world to follow,” said Earthjustice vice president Abigail Dillen. “Weaning the state offdirty fossil fuels and embracing clean energy is the kind of immediate action we need to confront the worst effects of climate change. California has long been a leader in solar and wind power which has resulted in a robust and expanding renewable energy industry and drastic reductions in climate warming carbon emissions.”

BlueGreen Alliance California director JB Tengco also weighed saying, “The Governor got it right when he said, ‘Taking significant amounts of carbon out of our economy without harming its vibrancy is exactly the sort of challenge at which California excels.’ We must address climate change in ways that create and preserve family-sustaining jobs. We can’t let the clean economy be a low wage economy.”

Wind Supplied 98% of Scotland’s Household Power in 2014 and Other Amazing Green Energy Stories

January 5, 2015

 (photo: Green Alternatives to Incineration in Scotland)
(photo: Green Alternatives to Incineration in Scotland)

By Juan Cole, Informed Comment

04 January 14


ome 41% of the electricity consumed in Scotland annually is for households, while industrial and other facilities use the other 59%.

With regard to the households, i.e. domestic energy consumption, Scotland’s wind turbines generated enough to cover 98% of it in 2014. In addition, in some months of the spring and summer, those homes that have solar panels generated all the electricity the household used. Scotland tripled its solar installations in 2014.

Scotland is well on its way to getting 100% of its energy from renewable sources by 2022.

In Germany, renewables (wind, solar, hydro and biomass but mainly wind and solar) for the first time topped 25.8%of the total energy generated in that country and became the single largest source of electricity, outstripping lignite coal. Critics of Germany’s Energy Switch in recent years have snidely pointed out that as it closed nuclear plants, its use of coal was increasing. But Germany is rapidly replacing nuclear and coal with wind and solar, so much so that coal use was down 11% last year.

Carbon emissions in Germany were down 5% in 2014!

In contrast, Germany added 3.3 gigawatts of power from wind in 2014.

Japan has put in 11 gigawatts of new solar power in the past 2 years, after the Fukushima tsunami knocked out six nuclear reactors. Among the new projects yet to go online is an enormous floating solar farm. Most of Japan’s 71 gigawatts of planned new energy generation is in solar.

Some think that coal and natural gas only have a decade to go before solar in particular is so cheap it will drive them out of business.


A bit of good green energy news for your holidays, courtesy of New England

December 26, 2014

I write about bad news pretty much all the time, so for the holiday season, let’s check out a little piece of good news.

Of all the criticisms lobbed at renewable energy, two points are most common:

  • Wind and solar are intermittent — the wind doesn’t always blow, the sun doesn’t always shine — which means they are not “dispatchable,” i.e., a grid manager cannot reliably and predictably deploy them to meet demand.
  • Renewables are more expensive than fossil fuels.

As it happens, the New England ISO (Independent System Operator) is busy upending that conventional wisdom.

ISO-NE, as the nerds call it, is the nonprofit organization that administers the New England grid and its wholesale power market. It is responsible for making sure that supply (generation) matches demand (load) at all times; it tells all the 82 large generators in its territory when to put electricity on the grid and when not to. Every hour, generators “bid in” to the wholesale market and the ISO draws from the cheapest power first.

Two exciting bits of news out of ISO-NE, both brought to us by Jerry Elmer of the Conservation Law Foundation.

First, the ISO is busy at work making renewables dispatchable. Of course it can’t make the wind blow or the sun shine. But to an ISO, “dispatchable” has a specific technical and legal meaning. It needs the generator to be in constant electronic communication with the ISO control room. (Check.) It needs reliable five-minute-ahead forecasts for wind strength and sun intensity. (Check.) And it needs algorithms that will enable it to dispatch renewables when circumstances line up. (In the works, due some time next year for wind and hydro, the year after for solar.)

There’s lots of technical detail about what it means for renewables to be “within dispatch,” but I won’t burden you. The main takeaway is that ISO-NE is soon going to treat wind, hydro, and solar as dispatchable resources, which will make them much more competitive in New England wholesale power markets.

Second, as of earlier this month, ISO-NE is for the first time permitting what’s called “negative price offers.” This one requires a bit of explanation.

Renewable generators often bid their power in to wholesale markets at $0. (They act, in the lingo, as “price takers.”) After all, they have no fuel cost. If they’re generating power and the grid doesn’t take it, it just goes to waste. So they’ll accept any price for it.

That doesn’t mean they get $0 for it. The wholesale spot price is set by the bid from the most expensive source necessary to meet demand. That’s why wholesale power is more expensive during times of heavy demand — the price is being set by expensive “peaker plants” that are only rarely fired up. Theoretically, if all demand were being met by renewable generators that had bid in at $0, then the price would be $0 (which actually happens occasionally during periods of low demand). But in normal circumstances, all the $0 price bid does is guarantee that renewable energy will be used first.

Now. That’s all well and good. Here’s the twist: Renewable energy generators also get Renewable Energy Credits (RECs) for the power they generate, which they can then sell for profit. But they only get RECs for power they feed into the grid. Sometimes the amount they would get in RECs makes it worth it for them to paythe grid to take their power — in other words, to bid into wholesale markets at a negative price, just to ensure that they’re allowed to generate as much power as they can.

Until recently, ISO-NE didn’t accept negative price offers, so renewables couldn’t take advantage of this competitive strength. On Dec. 3, however, that policy changed. Elmer explains what happened next:

[O]n Thursday, December 11, the wholesale price of electricity in New England dropped to minus $151.73 during one hour of the ISO’s “Operating Day.” Today (December 19) we had a clearing price of zero for an hour this morning, and then the clearing price dropped to minus $47.67. Negative wholesale electricity prices in New England are not merely a theoretical possibility; they have been happening this month.

As Elmer acknowledged when I chatted with him, this period of negative pricing was probably something of an anomaly, for reasons too boring to get into. It will likely be a while before renewables reach a scale where negative prices are a regular feature.

Nonetheless, it will happen more and more frequently. As renewable generation grows, negative price offers allow it to undercut fossil prices and displace fossil generation. In New England, renewable energy is no longer more expensive.

Remember: For years, Very Serious People have been telling us about things renewable energy can’t do. Meanwhile, renewable energy keeps doing them.

Within the next year or two, New Englanders are going to enjoy cheap, dispatchable renewable energy, something VSPs said was impossible. It must be a Christmas miracle.

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