The Transition off of Fossil Fuels 

March, 2018. By Jim Baerg, AERO Energy Task Force Co-Chair

Suggestions or opinions are red. Links are in blue.  

Montana Energy News

Montana Energy Policy was given an “F” on the Institute for Local Self Reliance’s 2018 Community Power Scorecard which measures how well each state’s policies helps or hinders local energy action. 

Coal and Colstrip  “The Future of Coal” conference in Billings has been scheduled for April 6th at the Northern Hotel. The conference is hosted by the Burton K. Wheeler Center at MSU. 

Continued pressure to stop using Montana Coal. In spite of recent moves on the West Coast to reduce Montana coal use, energy activists continue to protest Puget Sound Energy’s plan to keep using coal. I think that we can expect further reductions to MT coal and that we also need to start seeing ourselves as a renewable energy exporting state.

Colstrip:  For those of you who haven’t followed the decline of mining and generation in Colstrip, here’s a well balanced view from the Seattle Times.

Net Metering Study: During the last legislative session, the PSC was directed to study the costs and benefits of Net Metering with an eye towards establishing a new rate structure. The study, currently in progress, is being done by NW Energy under the supervision of the PSC. During the session, I testified, in response to NW Energy’s assertion that net metering shifted costs to low income customers, that there were already a dozen studies done nationally that showed the opposite, that renewables were a net benefit to the grid. Click here for a broad overview of the issues from the renewable/customer perspective.

NorthWestern Energy announced new residential energy rebates. Their rebates are for natural gas heated homes. The rebates are for high efficiency heating equipment and thermostats, and for insulation.  The insulation rebates will apply only for attics, basement walls and floors with no existing insulation. This is unfortunate. Unless the existing equipment is in real bad shape, these purchases aren’t the best place to invest in energy savings. Attic insulation, coupled with air sealing is terrific, but most of the attics that I’ve worked on have at least 2 inches of old insulation. Rebates for commercial buildings are available too.

Low Income Energy Assistance Program (LIEAP) is a Federal program which subsidizes utility bills for low income households. LIEAP requests are up 4.6% this winter with approvals up 14.4%. The program in danger of being cut by the Feds.  The sister program, Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP) weatherizes a smaller number homes but has been perpetually been short of funding to meet the applications and is also in danger of losing funding.  I’d much prefer the federal government spend money on permanently solving the low income energy problem by fixing houses, rather than just paying energy bills.

NorthWestern Energy has issued a RFP for 45 MW of Solar. The Community Renewable Energy Portfolio (CREP) RFP is a key component of the Montana Renewable Portfolio Standard which has been ignored up until now.  The requirement was put into place specifically to encourage the development and ownership of smaller renewable energy projects by in-state owners. CREP limits the size of projects, specifies particular ownership structures and imposes guidelines on the attributes required of eligible projects, including its overall cost-effectiveness. Environmental groups that have participated in the case before the PSC complain that the judging criteria for NW Energy’s RPF are opaque to the public and to solar developers. Developers don’t know how to tailor their proposals to the law or to NW Energy’s criteria. According to one participant, NW Energy is continuing its previous approach to CREPs, which is to sandbag the process so that projects don’t ever get built.

Montana Renewable Projects

Montana-Dakota Utilities is expanding their North Dakota Wind Farm, increasing the utility’s percentage of renewable energy from 22 to 27%.

Community Solar projects are big in some states, but not Montana, where the legislature and the major utilities have resisted sharing the benefits of low cost (currently about $2/Watt) generation systems.

Four Montana Electric Coops, Flathead, Missoula, Ravalli and Fergus, have installed Community Solar Projects where coop members can purchase panels and receive credits to their utility bills. The most recent project was last year in Lewistown where engaged members and a supportive coop management worked out the details together. 83 members bought panels to sell out the first phase of the project and a second phase is being considered.

A new, approved 80MW wind farm will be built near Great Falls this year.  Allete Clean Energy, a Minnesota Utility holding company, has a 15 year Power Purchasing Agreement (PPA) with NorthWestern Energy. 

After trying out one charger at their headquarters, the Flathead Electric Coop is planning to install more EV charging stations. They are now looking for businesses to partner with to provide charging stations for employees.

Energy News from other states

California leads the country in the amount of renewable energy produced and in supportive policies, so it is worth watching, both for accomplishments, and for emerging problems.  Recently, the California Independent System Operator (CAISO) has announced that on Sunday, March 4 at 12.58 PM local time the state’s grid hit an all-time ‘peak percentage of demand served by solar of 49.95%.’ The previous record was 47.2%, set in May 2017. In a tweet the following day Joe Deely pointed out that CAISO also broke 10 GW of utility scale solar power production for the first time.  California also has a lot of wind too. Also on March 4th, at 10.20 AM – according to a rough analysis by Carter Lavin – if we were to have included the 5,000MW of production coming from smaller rooftop project, roughly two-thirds of California’s electricity was coming from solar power for a moment.

California has mandated “Zero Energy” in new residential homes by 2020.  As it gets closer to that mark, it’s getting more difficult. It’s time to start incorporating Demand Response and battery storage into these systems. 

Idaho is working on a new Net Metering law driven by a Idaho Power request.  No specific rates have been proposed yet.

Washington State Governor Inslee’s Carbon Tax proposal was rejected by the legislature. It will now be an initiative. Collecting signatures is just beginning.

National Energy News

The PV tariff case: The dust is settling on the effects of Trump’s 30% PV module tariff. Affected countries, such as South Korea and Mexico have filed petitions filed at the WTO; 4th year of tariffs unlikely. Bloomberg estimates that the tariff will add up to 10% to large system costs, and around 3% to residential scale systems. Importers had stockpiled huge supplies in the U.S. in preparation for the tariff.

There is mixed evidence of increased US manufacturing of modules due to the tariff. 

SunPower Corp., which imports solar cells and then manufactures the modules in the U.S. has announced a layoff of 150 to 250 employees due to the new tariff.

The EPA has proposed to repeal the Clean Power Bill and is obligated to conduct regional listening sessions. The nearest session will be in coal friendly Gillette Wyo on March 27th.  Call Northern Plains Resource Council at (406) 248-1154 if you would like to participate. According to the current EPA, ending the Clean Power Plan could kill 100,000 Americans by 2050.

Utility Moves: Duke Energy, one of the largest utilities in the country, is proposing a 60 cent/Watt rebate for residential PV solar systems. This would be about $4,800 for an 8kW system. The $62 million proposal is in response to a Competitive Energy Solutions for North Carolina law passed last year.  Duke Energy currently has about 6,000 rooftop systems in it’s network with 50 MW of capacity

World Energy News

Tesla’s battery in Australia made $1 million in a few days.

Energy Trends, Topics, Studies and Concepts: Mini essay – The inevitability of Renewable Energy

I’ve been watching the changes in the energy field for a long time, since the mid 1970’s when I hooked up with AERO and served as Technical Director of the New Western Energy Show. I have to admit that I drank the Koolaid. (forgive the gruesome metaphor). For a host of reasons, I have never been able to shake my belief that we must transition off of fossil fuels by focusing on energy conservation, efficiency measures and renewable energy.

It has been a long 40+ years; often I’ve felt like a voice crying in the wilderness. The public as a whole hasn’t been that interested, except for the few times when we’ve been slapped in the face by rising energy prices or the local effects of climate change. Unfortunately, selling conservation, renewables and the need to address climate change has turned into a partisan political issue, fostered by money from big oil, seduced by the luxury of cheap oil and blinded by the tyranny of the status quo. In the political arena, we’ve been resisted by conservative political forces for most of my career. Yet I’m optimistic. Here’s why.

First, the logic of thermodynamics and the need to conserve resources is irrefutable and based in physical reality. According to the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, when we use energy, we lose it. It’s gone forever. Secondly, we are in the age of limits to growth, limits to economic natural resource extraction and limits of the earth’s capacity to support billions of people living an energy rich lifestyle. Even the earth is rebelling. This reality grows more obvious and acute the further into the future one looks.

Because of this recognized threat, people, governments and corporations are reacting and responding all over the world, reacting with disruption, migration and war, responding with policy initiatives and creating new technological and financial instruments,. Despite and also because of the political roadblocks, policy changes always seem to come from other directions, from other countries, other states, and other agencies. Technological improvements, combined with those incentives, have given us the practical experience, the economic track record and a growing constituency. Renewable energy is fast becoming a mature industry.

The twin forces of climate catastrophe and financial opportunity have created a transformation that has now reached a volume and momentum that is unstoppable. What was once only obvious looking back over decades can now be observed on a weekly basis. Fossil Fuels will be replaced by renewables and conservation much quicker than most expect. Because of this growing transformation, there is a small chance that we may survive as a civilization over the next century. With that, I choose to remain optimistic and to carry on.  JB

Solar Trends: As a whole, solar installations were down in 2017. Here’s an article looking at the bright spots in a tough year for rooftop solar.

Economics of Rooftop Solar: The Levelized Cost of Energy (LCOE) for residential PV declined from $0.52/kWh to $0.15/kWh from 2010 to 2017, according to “Cost-Reduction Roadmap for Residential Solar Photovoltaics (PV), 2017–2030” from the DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). What would it mean if rooftop solar could be produced for $.05/kWhr? How would utilities respond? A new DOE paper is projecting that price by 2030 as a possibility with the right innovations.  This is a good survey of current thinking about price trends.

The New Utility: Green Mountain Power is perhaps the most forward thinking investor owned utility in the country. Here is an interview with the CEO about their approach to customer service, grid modernization and profitability. They are actually encouraging distributed ownership of renewables and storage, recognize that larger commercial and industrial customers are starting to install their own micro-grids and are planning for large weather events that are becoming more common.

Utility Survey:  UtilityDIVE has just released its 2018 State of the Electric Utility Survey which queried more than 600 U.S. and Canadian utility executives. Chief concern this year was regulatory uncertainty and opposition to key administration energy priorities. On the whole, utility execs expect to install more solar, wind, distributed resources and natural gas in the next decade, and modernize their grids to accommodate them. 

Community Solar: Rocky Mountain Institute has a new report out documenting the rapid advance of community solar installations and the dropping prices. This progress is very state specific, with Minnesota leading the way. 

Utilities and customers in US Southeast embrace Community Solar.

Distributed solar goes big in Texas: good discussion of pricing.

Fremont, Nebraska, population 26,000, sold out 1.55 MW of Community Solar in 7 Weeks. Customers can either by panels at $170 each or buy blocks of output at 6 cents/kwh. Description here

Climate: The North Pole has been 50 degrees above normal and Europe is in a tough winter.  Climate scientists suggest that the two events are related, that changing atmospheric currents have shifted warm air north and arctic air down to Europe.

Crazy, crazy stuff’: Arctic has warmest winter on record as climate change fears increase.

A new report by NOAA calculates future high tides with a focus on the East Coast.  It assumes two “intermediate” forecasts of how much sea level will rise — from one and a half feet to three feet by 2100. The estimates do not include more severe scenarios should the ice sheets in Greenland or the Antarctic melt. Even with intermediate rise, by 2050 cities on the Atlantic would see high tides flooding the streets 25 to 130 times a year. By 2100, it could happen almost every day. I think that we’ll see some substantial immigration into Montana over the next century caused by inhospitable conditions on the coasts and in the South.

The Winter Olympics is now over. A new report finds that Climate Change could take a $1 Billion bite from winter sports in the US.  

In Montana, The Citizen’s Climate Lobby and other organizations held an event called “SAVING SNOW” that included a film showing and panel discussion showing the effects of climate change on the ski industry.  The event was held in Bozeman at the Emerson Center on March 6th. (Sorry, it’s over). Approximately 400 people attended. The movie will also be shown on March 28th in Whitefish.

Health, Air Pollution: Air pollution is linked to about 9 million deaths around the world each year according to a study by the British medical journal, The Lancet. The majority of these pollution-related deaths are due to non-communicable diseases caused or exacerbated by exposure to pollution, including asthma, heart disease, stroke, lung cancer, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

In the U.S., about 200,000 deaths are attributable to air pollution each year, mostly from transportation and power generation.

Damage from fossil fuels is estimated to result in $225Billion (2014) in economic damages. (See WHO, The Lancet, NCBI

Renewable energy technology developments: Wind power is forecasted to surpass Hydro for the first time in the coming year.

RE prices and performance: World-wide, costs for solar are expected to drop by 50% by 2020 according to a new cost analysis from the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA).  This is for utility scale systems.

Mix of solar and batteries is starting to beat natural gas.

According to a study out of California, the U.S. could achieve 80% solar+wind  generation with 12 hours of storage. This is without incorporating a large scale high voltage DC power grid.

PV performance continues to improve. Longi Solar, a Chinese company, just set a new efficiency record for mono PERC modules at 20.41%

Methane emissions from gas wells: almost 5 times higher than official estimates.

A new study finds that the methane escaping from Pennsylvania’s oil and gas industry “causes the same near-term climate pollution as 11 coal-fired power plants.” And that is “five times higher than what oil and gas companies report” to the state….

The PACE financing program continues to make strong progress in a couple of states. This mechanism is used on both residential and commercial programs.

Tech Developments:  Mostly on Electric topics

Wind:  Big wind turbines are on the verge of a significant leap in size and height. This increase will sharply increase output, and most significantly, capacity factors. The majority of these machines will be located off-shore.

Storage: German Solar giant Sonnen is producing residential battery systems that can be coupled with a “virtual” community. The batteries can be stand along or combined with a RE system. What is fascinating is that a homeowner could just buy the batteries, purchase cheap electricity when there is surplus available on the grid, and then sell it back during times when the prices are high.

Nova Scotia homeowners get new Tesla Batteries in a utility trial.

Hydrogen:  This is the first article I’ve seen, by the always thoughtful David Roberts of VOX,  that hydrogen fuel may be close to commercially viability.

Demand Response:

According to the Rocky Mountain Institute, grid-connected appliances help utilities harness demand and spur renewables development.

In Montana, the major public utilities charge a flat rate for electricity even though their costs of generation and wholesale purchase vary wildly because of fluctuating demand. Many utilities charge Time of Use (TOU) rates based on the time of day; higher during peak times, lower at night. The intent is to modify usage patterns and reduce the need for peaking generators. A recent study by an Arizona utility found that TOU rates applied to charging Electric Vehicles is effective in shifting charging times to off peak hours.

European auto makers are getting into the residential battery storage business using recycled EV batteries

ENERGY TIPS: Residential Building Science #2: Tracking consumption, setting goals and making a plan.

I tend to be very methodical when thinking about energy conservation solutions. It is often hard to get a handle on energy use because heat and electron flows are very fluid and usually invisible. Utility costs are one marker of energy use, so I use a variety of techniques to make use of that information. I first evaluate utility bills, then interview homeowners for their comfort levels and perceived energy problems, do a visual inspection and then some level of detailed energy audit. 

To track energy costs and amounts, I input the amounts of kilowatt hours (kWhr) of electricity and Dekatherms (dkt) of gas plus the cost of each on a spreadsheet (here’s a copy) each month. I then look at the total annual cost of utilities averaged over 2 or 3 years. When meeting with the homeowners, I like to project this amount over the time the homeowners expect to live in the house. I then ask them to look at that total cost and to think about how much they would like to reduce this budget item. I also include in that thought experiment the important issues of comfort, health and safety, building upkeep and resale value. I also explain economic concepts such as payback, cash flow and Return on Investment (ROI).As I mentioned last month, the average MT bill is around $1,650 ($50k over 20 years) per year, so spending $5k or 10k or more often makes sense, especially if monthly cash flow is positive. I also compare this total to similar houses in the same climate. 

Next, it is time to dig down deeper into the numbers. The average annual heating cost can be used to help set weatherization goals and the annual electric bills (after conservation measures) can be used to size a solar PV system. Your energy bill includes the energy use and cost for space heating and cooling, water heating, laundry, cooking, lighting and plug loads (stuff that gets plugged in), but they don’t get itemized separately. Each one of these areas needs to be evaluated separately for conservation opportunities. I usually do a walk-through of the house with the clients, use a check list and then make recommendations about obvious deficiencies. A more detailed energy audit measures, counts and inspects the building and then inputs that information into software for a numerical result. These results can be prioritized based on the cost and the savings of each measure. This prioritized list is often modified based on practical construction issues, weatherization sequencing and homeowner preference. 

The quality of the audit depends on the experience of the auditor and the accuracy of the data used in the calculations. Common sense and knowledge of construction and building science should prevail but conventional wisdom often should be looked at skeptically. There are a lot of myths about how to weatherize homes which are still floating around from the 1970’s even though the field of Building Science has made a lot of progress since then. We often caution against popular measures such as window or furnace replacement.  The high cost and moderate energy savings rarely pencil out. More mundane measures such as air sealing and insulations need to be done first and usually offer fantastic investment opportunities.

Next month, I’ll talk in more detail about Energy Auditing techniques, using a Blower Door and IR camera.

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