As a municipal utility executive in Austin, Texas, Karl Rábago led a team that came up with the very first value-of-solar tariff, an alternative to net-metering that aims to pay utility customers a rate for solar power that reflects its actual value to the grid and society.
Today, as an independent consultant, Rábago is the concept’s chief evangelist. He’s been hired by the Minnesota Department of Commerce to participate in a series of stakeholder workshops that will help the state set the rules for how value-of-solar tariffs should be calculated in Minnesota.
Here is a transcript of a conversation we had with Rábago last week, edited some for clarity and conciseness.
Midwest Energy News: Of all the discussions you’ve been involved in regarding the value of solar, how does this one stand out?
Rábago: It reminds me of the way we did it first at Austin Energy, but even better. When I first launched the value of solar concept, I did it from inside a utility. Utilities generally stay pretty close to the vest on things they’re working on. There’s a certain amount of nervousness or paranoia inside the utility culture. It’s the nature of the industry. But Austin Energy was a municipal utility so we built in from the start conversations with stakeholders and engagement with our policymakers.
In Minnesota, it’s been a public process from the very start. It’s been wonderful. My first visit up there as a consultant was just informational; sharing the experience and talking to groups; MnSIEA and utility people in very open discussions. The Department of Commerce has just set up this wonderful [process]. Everybody is being very forthcoming and honest and direct.
The Sherco coal plant near Becker, Minnesota. (Photo via Minnesota Pollution Control Agency)
©2013 E&E Publishing, LLC
Republished with permission
By Daniel Cusick
One of the Midwest’s largest coal-fired electric generation units is set to restart this week after a nearly two-year shutdown that required the unit to be rebuilt from the ground up.
Xcel Energy Inc.’s Sherburne County Unit 3 generator, a 900-megawatt behemoth that provides baseload power to the Minneapolis-St. Paul region and points beyond, is expected to begin sending power to the grid after several days of testing, according to officials with the Minneapolis-based utility, which has a 59 percent ownership stake in the coal unit.
The “Sherco” Unit 3 was severely damaged in November 2011 during the testing of safety equipment intended to automatically slow the steam turbine if it began spinning too fast. The test, which briefly pushed the turbine’s rotors to more than 3,600 rounds per minute, led to a catastrophic failure marked by severe vibration and turbine blades coming loose from their mounts, sending metal shards through the 80-ton rotor, destroying it. The crisis worsened when hot oil and other flammable liquids caught fire, filling portions of the plant with smoke.
High-efficiency water heaters are manufactured at a factory in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo via GE)
The 2009 federal stimulus program put thousands of contractors and tradespeople to work weatherizing low-income homes and retrofitting government buildings.
A new report by a Wisconsin nonprofit suggests such investments in energy efficiency may also play a role in growing manufacturing jobs, too.
The Energy Center of Wisconsin (ECW) study was able to trace a direct link between six utility conservation programs and 46 manufacturers in the Great Lakes region.
“The finding that, at a minimum, dozens of manufacturing operations in the Great Lakes Region benefit from the small group of utility programs we examined suggests that the economic effects are widespread and could be substantial,” the report says.
(Photo by Nic McPhee via Creative Commons)
The developers of an embattled wind project in southeastern Minnesota finally pulled the plug this week, telling the state on Tuesday they would no longer be pursuing the controversial project.
The 78-megawatt, $179 million project was initially proposed in 2009 by a subsidiary of T. Boone Pickens’ Mesa Power Group and, after a string of setbacks, was sold last year to New Era Wind.
A group of citizens fought the project from the beginning on every front. Early testimony focused primarily on health and financial fears, with residents raising concerns about spoiled views, property values, and so-called wind turbine syndrome.
Ultimately it was flaws in the developers’ wildlife impact studies and protection plans that did in the project. Minnesota regulators rejected the developers’ eagle protection plan in February 2012 after objections were raised by opponents and the state Department of Natural Resources.
Dave Roeser’s orbiting gardens save energy by keeping the tops of plants closer to a small number of lights. (Photo courtesy Garden Fresh Farms)
Skyscraper farming has been a thing of futurists’ fascination in recent years.
As the world becomes more urban and crowded and a host of environmental challenges put more pressure on existing crop land, it’s intuitive that indoor farming might someday play a bigger role in feeding city populations.
On the ground, though, energy demands and real-estate realities have been consistent barriers.
A Minnesota start-up company is sprouting past these obstacles, though, with a compact, energy-efficient design it thinks could be a new model for urban farming.
Great River Energy’s Coal Creek Station in North Dakota (Photo via Great River Energy)
Minnesota’s second largest electricity provider received a vote of disapproval from state regulators Wednesday for its long-term planning efforts.
The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission voted 3-2 to reject Great River Energy’s biennial 15-year plan for how it intends to meet its customers’ energy needs in the future.
The decision doesn’t carry any legal or regulatory consequences, but the wrist slap could lend ammunition to customers who were already upset over recent rate increases.
“It’s sending a message to this company: this is not what we expect in Minnesota for resource planning,” said Beth Goodpaster, an attorney for environmental groups that intervened in the case (including Fresh Energy, where Midwest Energy News is based.)
An infrared scanner is commonly used in energy audits to assess wall insulation. (Photo by Wisconsin Technical Colleges via Creative Commons)
Utility-run energy-efficiency programs have grown robustly over the past decade and are one of the factors contributing to a cooling of the prospects for coal-fired power plants, according to a recent report.
The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy’s National Review of Exemplary Energy-Efficiency Programs [PDF] says there has been “a great turn-around in coal-fired electric-power generation. What had been an overall capacity-constrained situation has shifted dramatically in some cases to an over-capacity of electric supply.”
About 40 gigawatts of coal-fired generation are “at risk of retirement,” according to the study, mostly in the Ohio Valley, upper Midwest, mid-Atlantic and Southeast. Those areas, the study states, “simultaneously are sharply increasing investment in energy-efficiency programs.”
(Photo by pirate johnny via Creative Commons)
When it comes to energy efficiency, a kilowatt-hour saved is more than a penny earned.
Spending money on energy conservation has been a better investment for most utility ratepayers than building new power plants and transmission lines.
In Minnesota, utility conservation programs have returned an average of 8 cents per kWh for every 1.5 cents spent, according to the Center for Energy and Environment (CEE), a nonprofit that promotes efficiency.
Yet the two are rarely compared head-to-head in planning discussions. Savings are generally seen as an accounting adjustment to be made before decisions about how much and what kind of new generation to add to the system.
A subtle change to a state statute this spring seeks to change that by making Minnesota’s “energy efficiency power plant” a part of future energy planning debates.
(Photo by Melanie Cook via Creative Commons)
Utility customers who own solar panels are doing society a favor, helping to cut carbon emissions and ease transmission line congestion, among other benefits.
Or, they’re power-grid freeloaders, lowering their own electric bills but sticking everyone else with a bigger share of costs for infrastructure they still depend on after dark.
These two competing views of solar power have led to rising tensions in recent years over policies for connecting customer-owned solar arrays to the grid.
Minnesota’s new solar law could help shed some light on that debate.
As part of a broader solar energy bill signed last month by Gov. Mark Dayton, the Gopher State will soon give utilities an alternative to paying customers the retail electricity rate for their unused solar power. Instead, utilities will be able to pay a different rate based on the “value of solar” to their system, including cost-savings to other ratepayers and broader environmental benefits.
The state’s energy office will come up with guidelines for utilities that want to calculate a value-of-solar tariff, and the utilities’ studies will need to be approved by utility regulators.
(Photo by Kate Ausburn via Creative Commons)
As the population grows, the economy improves and the climate warms in its service territory, Xcel Energy projects rising demand for electricity on hot summer days before the end of the decade.
On April 15, the Minnesota utility proposed meeting that new peak demand by building three 215-megawatt natural gas power plants — one in the Twin Cities and another two in North Dakota.
Six weeks later, though, Xcel and other investor-owned utilities in Minnesota were presented with a new legislative mandate to generate 1.5 percent of their electricity from solar by 2020.
The state’s new solar standard is expected to spur development of an estimated 450 megawatts of solar power over the next six and a half years, which raises the question: does Xcel still need all three of those gas peaking plants?