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?
A wind-to-hydrogen demonstration project in Scotland. (Photo by James Morrison via Creative Commons)
For all the theoretical promise of pairing wind energy with hydrogen production, no U.S. project has ever made it to full commercial scale.
In Minnesota, that may be about to change.
Hydrogen has long been studied as a potential solution to wind’s timing problem, which is that wind generation tends to be highest at night when demand for electricity is low.
Through electrolysis, in which electricity is used to split water into oxygen and hydrogen, surplus wind power at night could be converted to hydrogen, which could then be used in a fuel cell to generate electricity the next day during peak demand.
A handful of pilot projects have demonstrated the technology works, but no one in this country has succeeded in making it economically viable.
A Minnesota project developer believes it may have the answer: Supplementing hydrogen energy storage with sales of “carbon-free” hydrogen for industrial uses.
(Photo by Toshihiro Oimatsu via Creative Commons)
Scott Cramer has sold offbeat, left-leaning T-shirts, political buttons and bumper stickers through his Northern Sun Merchandising company in Minneapolis for more than 30 years.
These days, one of his more popular slogans has an energy theme. “It says: Whenever there is a huge spill of solar energy, it’s just called a nice day.”
Which is why Cramer is more than happy to lease his 5,000-square-foot rooftop for what will soon be one of Minnesota’s first shared, community-owned solar installations.
Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton signed a bill last week that requires the state’s largest utility, Xcel Energy, to establish a community solar gardens program early next year.
The idea is to let customers who can’t or don’t want to install solar panels on their own rooftop instead buy individual panels in a nearby solar development. The electricity generated by a customer’s panels is credited to their utility bill as if they were installed on their home or business.
Solar panels at the Audubon Center of the North Woods near Sandstone, Minnesota. (Photo by CERTs via Creative Commons)
Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton on Thursday signed into law an energy bill that’s projected to give the state a more than thirtyfold increase in solar generation by the end of the decade.
The Solar Energy Jobs Act was rolled into a larger, omnibus economic development bill and approved by the state’s legislature last week.
The section that’s drawn the most attention is a 1.5 percent by 2020 solar electricity standard for large utilities that is on top of the state’s existing 25 percent by 2025 renewable mandate.
But the bill has several other components that could rival the solar standard’s impact, from expanded incentives and net-metering reforms to the creation of shared, community “solar gardens.”
A forest in north-central Minnesota. (Photo by Faruk Ates via Creative Commons)
As a Midwest biomass group promotes a goal of drawing 10 percent of the region’s heating energy from wood fuels by 2025, more questions are sure to arise about whether that amount of fuel could be harvested sustainably.
Heating the Midwest, which announced the goal at its conference last month, estimates that the region has more than enough logging and agricultural residue to supply a tenth of its heating energy by the middle of the next decade.
Making sure that those feedstocks are collected in a way that doesn’t damage the environment will require a review and updating of state harvesting standards, the group says in its 2025 vision document.
Getting the rules right could mean the difference between developing a fuel source that helps address climate change and air pollution challenges versus one that ultimately does more harm than good.
The smokestack at the #4 unit of the Boswell Energy Center near Grand Rapids, Minnesota is seen in this December 2006 photo. (Photo by Than Tibbetts via Creative Commons)
In January, northern Minnesota electric utility Minnesota Power announced a new direction forward for its generation portfolio.
The company’s “Energy Forward” plan calls for adding wind and hydropower, retiring one coal-burning unit, and converting two others to natural gas. Along with continued conservation efforts, the investments are projected to lower the utility’s carbon emissions 30 percent by 2015 compared to 2005 levels.
It’s the years beyond that, however, that worry climate activists.
That’s because Minnesota Power has also proposed investing more than $350 million on an air-quality project at the utility’s largest generator, a 585-megawatt coal-fired unit near Grand Rapids, Minnesota, known as Boswell 4.
The project, which has the support of the Minnesota Department of Commerce, would bring dramatic reductions in particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, and mercury emissions, which would mean less haze over the region’s scenic lakes and forests and a lower risk to residents for respiratory and neurological health problems.
But it could also financially commit the company to burning coal for another two decades, during which the unit could spew more than 6 million tons of greenhouse gases at a time when scientists warn major reductions are needed to avert the most catastrophic effects of climate change.
A billboard opposing the Goodhue Wind project in Minnesota. (Photo via Minnesota Watchdog)
Cross-posted from Minnesota Watchdog
By Tom Steward
A letter from the owner of a proposed southeast Minnesota wind farm to regulators shows his frustration in the permitting process and a willingness to sell off assets of his investment.
“New Era has no confidence that due process for this project will ever end, nor that an ABPP (Avian and Bat Protection Plan) will ever be approved, however comprehensively and carefully drafted,” said Peter Mastic, owner of New Era Wind Farm, in an April 17 letter to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission.
“A lot of the people that have been fighting this think it’s too good to be true,” said Kristi Rosenquist of the Coalition for Sensible Siting. “They want to see the official death certificate from the Public Utilities Commission before they’ll believe it’s really dead. People have called this the Lazarus Project because every time we thought it was dead in the past, it came back to life.”