Oil-by-rail loophole keeps emergency spill plans in the dark

(Photo by Roy Luck via Creative Commons)

(Photo by Roy Luck via Creative Commons)

©2014 E&E Publishing, LLC
Republished with permission

By Blake Sobczak

U.S. transportation officials don’t review how railroads would handle worst-case oil train disasters like last summer’s derailment in Quebec, which killed 47 people in a fiery explosion.

While railroads must keep “basic” emergency response plans in their own files, the Federal Railroad Administration does not monitor or review those plans.

That’s because railroads are required to provide “comprehensive” oil spill response plans to the FRA only if they use tank cars that hold more than 42,000 gallons of crude. In an April 10 letter responding to a Freedom of Information Act request from EnergyWire, FOIA officer Denise Kollehlon said the FRA’s files “do not contain any records related to the active comprehensive ‘oil spill prevention and response plans’ for oil shipments.”

‘Internet of things’ turns up the heat on utilities

(Photo by Ben Terrett via Creative Commons)

(Photo by Ben Terrett via Creative Commons)

©2014 E&E Publishing, LLC
Republished with permission

By David Ferris

Like most people, Sean McBriarty has always been less than thrilled with his thermostat. Programming it involved using an instruction manual and pushing tiny buttons. He would set it to an energy-saving mode, only to be countermanded by his daughter, who liked it hotter.

Now the Tulsa, Oklahoma, resident has a Nest thermostat. It has a cool-looking dial that, strangely enough, he doesn’t need to use very often. The embedded motion sensor knows when he’s home, and after a few initial adjustments, the unit has learned his family’s comfort zone. He hears no complaints from his daughter, and he realized savings on his energy bill of around $150 a month.

What he might not fully realize is that his thermostat — this wireless, cloud-connected, attentive gadget on the wall — is much more than a thermostat.

In Missouri, industry wants off the ‘solar coaster’

Solar panels at Elixir Farm in Brixey, Missouri. (Photo by SARE Outreach via Creative Commons)

Solar panels at Elixir Farm in Brixey, Missouri. (Photo by SARE Outreach via Creative Commons)

©2014 E&E Publishing, LLC
Republished with permission

By Jeffrey Tomich

Solar installers, the businesses supposedly causing heartburn for old-school utilities across much of the country, are staring at their own “death spiral” in Missouri.

A utility rebate program authorized by voters in 2008 is making Missouri into a solar leader in the Midwest. But $175 million set aside to subsidize solar installations is fully subscribed in most parts of the state where it was available, and the same small businesses that scrambled to add workers last year to help meet surging demand are facing layoffs.

Several bills have been filed with the Missouri General Assembly to fully or partially revive the rebate program. But none really has traction, and with just over a month remaining in the legislative session, time is running out.

Enbridge pipeline moves a step closer to reality in Illinois

Map via Enbridge (click for larger version)

Map via Enbridge (click for larger version)

©2014 E&E Publishing, LLC
Republished with permission

By Jeffrey Tomich

Canadian pipeline company Enbridge Inc. moved a step closer to being able to move ahead with an $800 million oil pipeline in Illinois — a project initially proposed almost eight years ago.

An administrative law judge on Thursday recommended that Enbridge be granted authority to use eminent domain to acquire easements across 127 tracts of land. The final decision will ultimately be made by the Illinois Commerce Commission.

The Southern Access Extension pipeline would cross eight counties and 165 miles directly south from the company’s Flanagan oil terminal at Pontiac, Illinois, to an oil terminal and pipeline hub at Patoka.

The 24-inch-diameter line is just one piece of a much broader strategy by Enbridge to expand its network of North American oil pipelines, and the Southern Access Extension, itself, has evolved since it was proposed.

Could a bypass take Bakken oil around Chicago?

Freight trains can take as long as 24 hours to navigate Chicago's sprawling rail infrastructure. (Photo by Eric Allix Rogers via Creative Commons)

Freight trains can take as long as 24 hours to navigate Chicago’s sprawling rail infrastructure. (Photo by Eric Allix Rogers via Creative Commons)

©2014 E&E Publishing, LLC
Republished with permission

By Blake Sobczak

Rail-bound crude traffic has faced intense public scrutiny and hours of delays in Chicago, the nation’s busiest freight rail hub.

Frank Patton thinks he has found a way around all the fuss — specifically, a roughly 150-mile-long way around the city itself.

The 70-year-old founder and managing partner of Great Lakes Basin LLC has proposed building a new track network to cut through the Windy City’s less-populated southern suburbs.

Minnesota regulators set to decide on ‘value of solar’ today

Solar panels at the Audubon Center of the Northwoods in Sandstone, Minnesota. (Photo by CERTs via Creative Commons)

Solar panels at the Audubon Center of the Northwoods in Sandstone, Minnesota. (Photo by CERTs via Creative Commons)

©2014 E&E Publishing, LLC
Republished with permission

By Jeffrey Tomich

The value of rooftop solar energy systems goes on trial in Minnesota today in a case drawing attention across the country as regulators, utilities and clean energy advocates grapple with how to integrate customer-generated energy into the century-old utility business model.

The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission will hear arguments from at least a dozen parties on how to devise a formula to compute solar power’s value, including its contribution to stemming greenhouse gas emissions and the effects of climate change (EnergyWire, Jan. 2).

Minnesota’s Legislature passed a law last spring that required the state Department of Commerce to propose methodology for computing a solar tariff that investor-owned utilities could offer their customers to compensate them for self-generated power.

Joint-operating dispute reignites between Midwest grid operators

(Photo by Adam Theo via Creative Commons)

(Photo by Adam Theo via Creative Commons)

©2014 E&E Publishing, LLC
Republished with permission

By Jeffrey Tomich

A running dispute between Midwest grid operators is heating up again in a closely watched case likely to affect the flow of power across the region and that could shape the build-out of high-voltage transmission lines.

In a complaint filed with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the Southwest Power Pool, the grid operator administering in all or part of nine states across the south-central Plains, accused its neighbor, the Midcontinent Independent System Operator, of violating a joint operating agreement between the parties by dispatching power across SPP’s transmission system without compensation.

The complaint followed warning letters from SPP executives to MISO at the end of last year, and ultimately invoices for millions of dollars. The bill stood at $9 million according to a recent FERC filing, and the meter is still running, according to SPP.

MISO, meanwhile, says it has no intention of paying the tab. It filed a counter-complaint last week, asking that the commission order SPP to stop sending bills.

Efficiency gets credit for milestone drop in Midwest demand

(Photo by Tau Zero via Creative Commons)

(Photo by Tau Zero via Creative Commons)

©2014 E&E Publishing, LLC
Republished with permission

By Jeffrey Tomich

Clean energy advocates are pointing to recent reports on electricity use in the Midwest as clear evidence that state efficiency programs and technological advances are paying dividends in the region and fundamentally altering the landscape for utilities, regulators and consumers.

One example is a recent projection from the Midwest’s grid operator that showed electricity demand in the region is expected to decline almost 1 percent annually through 2016.

The forecast of a 0.75-percent reduction in annual electricity demand within the Midcontinent Independent System Operator Inc.’s North and Central regions represents a shift from the 0.8 percent growth rate in the organization’s previous long-term reliability assessment.

‘The great crew change’ forces utilities to rethink hiring

(Photo by Portland General Electric via Creative Commons)

(Photo by Portland General Electric via Creative Commons)

©2014 E&E Publishing, LLC
Republished with permission

By Pamela King

It goes by many names — the great crew change, the silver tsunami, the talent gap — and it’s a problem nearly all industries are facing. The baby boom generation is retiring, leaving a large hole in the U.S. workforce.

But the trend is especially troubling for the utility sector, which has traditionally employed “lifers” with highly technical skills in jobs that require deep knowledge and quick reaction to problems.

Though experts predicted the baby boomers’ departures would begin several years ago, the recession put many workers’ retirement plans on hold. Utilities have also been able to stave off losses by hiring back retirees as contractors — at a high price to employers that may be responsible for pension costs on top of contractor pay. But as the economy recovers, an increasing number of experienced workers are expected to head for the exit.

In Kansas, renewable energy standard again under attack

Wind turbines in Butler County, Kansas. (Photo by Brent Danley via Creative Commons)

Wind turbines in Butler County, Kansas. (Photo by Brent Danley via Creative Commons)

©2014 E&E Publishing, LLC
Republished with permission

By Jeffrey Tomich

In Kansas, home of sprawling wind farms and the Koch brothers, conservative groups and renewable energy advocates are girding for a battle over the state’s green power law — a fight with broad political implications that’s drawing interest from far outside the state’s borders.

Kansas was the last among 30 states to put a renewable standard into law — one that requires utilities to step up their use of renewable resources for electric generation to 20 percent by 2020. Now opponents seek to be the first to win a repeal of a clean energy mandate.

The legislative tussle began two years ago in Kansas and is set to intensify this spring after the state Chamber of Commerce, led by a former Kansas House speaker, made a rollback of the renewable energy standard one of its legislative priorities.