Illinois Science and Energy Innovation Foundation grantees tour Ameren facilities in downstate Illinois. (Photo courtesy ISEIF)
The smart meters being delivered to Illinois homes under the state’s 2011 smart grid law could potentially spark significant energy savings – relieving burden on the grid and on power supplies and saving money for residents.
But that’s only if people use the information provided by smart meters to modify their habits, by shifting when they use energy, installing more efficient appliances and the like. Figuring out how to use a smart meter and respond to the data it provides is a complicated and intimidating task for anyone.
It is especially challenging for renters and public housing residents who don’t own their appliances or even pay their own energy bills; or for senior citizens who don’t know how to use the internet; or for immigrants who don’t speak English. And for people in low-income and marginalized neighborhoods in general, beset by violence, decrepit housing, and a lack of well-paying jobs, understanding and modifying energy use is likely to be a very low priority.
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Minnesota led Midwest states in energy efficiency in a recent study while two of its western Dakota neighbors scored among the worst in the country.
The American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy’s (ACEEE) annual State Energy Efficiency Scorecard rankings — which includes the District of Columbia — shows four other Midwest states in the top 20 in its State Energy Efficiency Scorecard: Minnesota (10), Illinois (11th), Michigan (12) Iowa (14) and Wisconsin (17).
The ACEEE lauded Wisconsin for being among the top four states for improving its energy efficiency environment. The rest of the region had a much more mixed scorecard, with both Ohio (25) and Indiana (40) falling substantially in the rankings due to legislative decisions that backtracked on energy efficiency standards.
Nancy North and John Gaddo moved into their near-passive house in Lanesboro, Minnesota, in July. The house has about has a little more than 1,500 square feet of living space and is expected to achieve net zero. (Courtesy photo)
When John Gaddo and Nancy North set out to build a small, energy-efficient house in southeast Minnesota, they found themselves gravitating to passive house, a rigorous design standard that aggressively slashes energy use.
But computer modeling showed their plan would fall just short of the standard, which was devised in Germany, unless they made some onerous changes. Among them: eliminating most north-facing windows, piling on to the already copious insulation, and adding unwanted floor space in order to satisfy a limit on heat demand per square foot.
“All of those compromises just didn’t make sense to us,” said Gaddo, a manager at Wisconsin Public Radio. North runs a strategic communications firm that specializes in environmental conservation projects.
The standard also wouldn’t credit the couple for using solar panels to offset their energy use, even though PV was an affordable way to make the house net-zero.
Like some other sustainability-minded homeowners, they decided it wasn’t worth sacrificing some great design features and their pocketbook to meet the passive house benchmarks.
“We’re a little disappointed,” Gaddo said. “Even though we don’t have a piece of paper that says it’s certified, it does everything that a passive house can and should do.”
A solar thermal system is installed on a Minnesota barn in 2008. (Photo by Clean Energy Resource Teams via Creative Commons)
While soaring propane prices last winter helped build interest in solar thermal systems, results from a Minnesota rebate program show the market is still lukewarm.
The state’s Department of Commerce has enough rebate money left over to fund dozens more solar hot water or solar thermal projects through its Made in Minnesota (MiM) program. Meanwhile, a much larger pool of money for PV has been exhausted.
Although the deadline for rebates has formally passed, MiM’s coordinator Kim Havey said the department has extended the program until the end of the year. Solar thermal could be particularly attractive to rural customers using propane, which may be in short supply again this winter.
Workers install a municipal geothermal system in West Union, Iowa. (Photo courtesy Main Street West Union)
District heating and cooling, typically powered by steam, is going underground in a small Iowa town.
The community of West Union, with a population just shy of 2,500, has completed a geothermal system beneath its town square, and early this year began providing heating and cooling to nearby businesses. About a dozen now are connected to the system, and more are expected to join.
While several universities have installed large-scale geothermal systems to serve multiple buildings, the West Union project is believed to be one of the first of its kind for a municipality.
These Habitat homes in Wisconsin are equipped with solar panels and other energy -saving technology. (Photo courtesy St Croix Valley Habitat for Humanity)
If all goes according to plan, a nearly completed neighborhood of 18 Habitat for Humanity houses in northern Wisconsin will produce as much energy as it consumes.
And along with photovoltaic panels and a solar thermal system and walls that are 17 inches thick, very detailed monitoring of energy production and consumption at each of the houses will be used to try to keep the occupants on track to achieve “net zero” status.
When they applied to Habitat, potential purchasers of the house were notified that they would have to agree to intensive energy monitoring for three years.
“There was a little reluctance at first,” said Jim Cooper, project manager for the St. Croix Valley Habitat for Humanity. “People were not understanding and were thinking we were going to have cameras and microphones in their house. We assured them that we will maintain confidentiality and won’t share individual results or who’s doing what.
The District Energy cogeneration plant (lower left) provides heat for buildings in downtown St. Paul. (Photo by rhoadeecha
via Creative Commons)
District Energy St. Paul was the only American project to be recognized in a recent report on the potential of district energy by the United Nations Environment Program.
The UN’s “District Energy In Cities: Unlocking the Full Potential of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy” cited the St. Paul organization’s work using biomass, thermal storage and solar arrays to produce 289 megawatts of heat annually while reducing CO2 emissions by 280,000 tons. The facility’s electric plant has a capacity of 33 MW.
The major source of fuel for the downtown St. Paul facility is 300,000 tons of municipal wood waste, the report said, which displaces 275,000 tons of coal annually.
District Energy’s CEO and president, Ken Smith, isn’t surprised by the UN’s citation. The utility was created 30 years ago as a model for district energy and has received visitors from around the world, he said.
“I spoke to the folks at the UN and what they’re hoping to do is identify leading systems that others can reach out to, learn from and be mentored by,” Smith said.
Students compete in the EcoCar 2 competition in 2013. (Photo by Advanced Vehicle Technology Competitions via Creative Commons)
Working on energy-efficient cars at the college level can be a route to a career in the Michigan auto industry. That’s what generations of students participating in the United States Department of Energy’s Advanced Vehicle Technology Competitions have discovered over the past 26 years.
The trend continues with the EcoCAR 3 competition — an automotive engineering challenge in which 16 teams will engage in a four-year race to design the most eco-friendly and cost-efficient Chevrolet Camaro they can build.
EcoCAR 3 will give students hands-on experience integrating energy storage systems, simulating and testing hardware and software, developing interactive interfaces for displays, creating control systems, testing powertrain components, and improving aerodynamics.
Bloomfield, Iowa could save millions on utility costs through increased efficiency and renewable energy, according to a new study. (Photo by Pete Zarria via Creative Commons)
A pair of Iowa studies found that both utilities and their customers in small towns can substantially cut costs if they invest in deep efficiencies and, to a lesser extent, in renewable sources of generation.
The analyses, done by energy consultant Tom Wind and the Iowa Association of Municipal Utilities with some funding from the Iowa Economic Development Authority, explored whether the communities of Bloomfield and Algona could become energy independent.
The conclusion: in about 15 years, Bloomfield could get to net-zero — generating as much energy as it consumes over a year — but not necessarily always at the times needed.
Algona could get about half that far, cutting current electricity use by about 50 percent.
Electric vehicle parking in Allen Park, Michigan. (Photo by Ian Muttoo via Creative Commons)
Despite its automotive legacy, Michigan is behind its Midwestern neighbor states in establishing a better market for electric and other alternative-fuel vehicles, according to a recent report by clean-energy experts.
“Michigan’s auto history, manufacturing expertise and legacy of innovation in the personal transportation sector position it arguably better than any other state in the country — or any other place in the world — to be the dynamo for these advanced transportation policies,” said Joshua Rego, project associate at the Clean Energy Coalition who co-authored the report. “I believe there needs to be an effort for us in Michigan to lead and not be led.”
“We really should be at the top,” added the coalition’s Allison Skinner, another author of the report.