A row of homes in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Ian Freimuth via Creative Commons)
In the past two years, scores of communities across the Midwest, particularly in Illinois, have adopted municipal aggregation of their electricity supplies, wherein city officials break with long-standing utilities and decide where to buy cheaper and often cleaner electricity from alternative suppliers on behalf of residents.
Chicago is among the most recent, and with the city’s vast buying power, renewable energy advocates are hoping to use the opportunity to make a significant dent in pollution and carbon emissions.
However, if the experience of another Midwest state is any indicator, whether that actually happens could be difficult to determine.
Ohio was one of the first states to enact legislation allowing municipalities to aggregate, adding the concept to the legislation that deregulated the state’s energy market in 2001. Currently at least 220 Ohio communities have chosen electric aggregation, and 120 have adopted natural gas aggregation, according to the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio. And in the last two years at least 160 new electric aggregator broker companies have gotten state certification.
Ohio provides an interesting case study in the ways aggregation can play out; especially since it is historically known as a coal state: the fifth-most coal-dependent in the country according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, with a powerful mining industry and 20 major coal-fired power plants (though about half of them are scheduled to close in coming years).
Ohio also symbolizes the way aggregation can be a complicated mix of idealism and pragmatism, of making realistic deals in the present while hoping for more sweeping changes in the future.
CHICAGO — Former President Bill Clinton invoked the ancient Sumerians, campaign stops at wind-blown Texas border towns, the looming budgetary fiscal cliff and an eclectic assortment of other concepts while proselytizing for more investments in the grid and clean energy, during his speech at the Wind on the Wires gala in Chicago Wednesday night.
Veering between big picture philosophical conclusions and wonkish descents into policy details and proposals, Clinton made the case that renewable energy is symbolic of a struggle central to human nature: “a constant tug of war between the demands of the present and the possibilities of the future.” Between sticking with long-time practices that seem most safe and lucrative in the present, versus forays into new territory that offer more hope for the future.
(Photo courtesy General Electric)
CHICAGO — As coal-fired power plants are closing around the country, more natural gas plants are expected to be built to fill the gap, in some cases on the sites of old coal plants.
GE is hoping the trend sparks demand for their new combined cycle natural gas power plants, which they say are the world leader in fuel efficiency and can ramp up more quickly and idle at a lower generation rate than other systems, meaning they are well-suited to backing up increasing amounts of renewable energy on the grid.
GE sold six of their new “FlexEfficiency 60” combined cycle plants to Japan, and they are hoping to drum up orders in the U.S., through a 25-stop cross-country road trip in an 18-wheel tractor trailer outfitted with models and electronic displays about the plants.
Like other combined cycle plants, GE’s new models generate electricity through turbines powered by burning natural gas, then the waste heat is collected and used to create steam which turns another turbine to generate more electricity. The standard model is known as a “2 on 1,” meaning it has two gas turbines and one steam turbine capable of generating up to 750 MW, but it can also be constructed as a “1 on 1” or “3 on 1.”
(Photo by Wavy1 via Creative Commons)
There’s been much buzz about the potential of “smart grid” projects wherein people’s homes and businesses are outfitted with meters that let them know the price of or demand for electricity at any given time of day.
But some energy experts say a disproportionate amount of attention and resources have been given to such “advanced metering initiatives” (AMI) and argue that the term “smart grid” is a misnomer for such systems.
That’s because to reduce energy demand and improve efficiency, advanced meters still depend on consumer behavior and decisions.
These experts say that a more viable way to improve the grid’s efficiency, reduce energy demand and facilitate renewable energy is to actually make the grid itself smarter, by investing in grid-based technology including sensors, routers, switches and storage systems that allow the grid to automatically adjust or redirect electricity flows in real time and to keep voltage levels stable, without human intervention.
One of the challenges facing Germany’s renewable energy transition is getting wind power from coastal areas, like these turbines near Rostock, to urban centers inland. (Photo by Vattenfall via Creative Commons)
Editor’s note: Kari Lydersen recently spent two weeks in Germany and the UK on a Climate Media fellowship from the Heinrich Böll Foundation North America
As European countries aggressively ramp up renewable energy, they face a constraint that is familiar in the Midwest: The need to expand and overhaul the electric grid.
In Germany and Britain, greatly increased reliance on wind power and distributed solar generation are dependent on building new high voltage transmission lines from ideal wind farm sites to population centers, while also making the grid smarter and more responsive.
And while there are significant differences in economics, politics and geography on either side of the Atlantic, many of the obstacles remain the same.
(Photo by Collin Votrobeck via Creative Commons)
With several ambitious transmission projects being proposed or planned in Iowa, the state’s utility board is taking stock of the major projects in a workshop today.
Wind development has slowed in Iowa lately, in part due to transmission bottlenecks. In response, utilities and developers are working on hundreds of miles of new high-voltage power lines aimed at moving wind power to customers in and outside the state.
The Iowa Utilities Board has been collecting information on the projects more than 50 miles long and 345 kV. They include the following:
MISO – the Midwest Independent Transmission System Operator – voted Thursday to approve a significantly scaled-down version of a transmission line expansion in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula for which American Transmission Company (ATC) had requested expedited “out-of-cycle” approval.
Though the plan approved by MISO involves half the cost and less than half the line mileage of ATC’s proposal, critics say it is still unfair that Wisconsin ratepayers will pick up about 90 percent of the cost for infrastructure primarily serving Michigan — and specifically new hard rock mining operations in the UP.
The transmission plan still needs to be approved by the Wisconsin Public Service Commission and face regulatory scrutiny in Michigan. The Wisconsin commission will consider the plan when ATC files a request, likely sometime next year.
Geese flock to Silver Lake in downtown Rochester in this photo from December, 2000. (Photo by Dalton Iwazaki via Creative Commons)
As a kid, Joel Dunnette remembers the flocks of then-endangered Canada geese that arrived each winter at Silver Lake in downtown Rochester.
“It was kind of a special place,” says Dunnette, who is now past-president of the Zumbro Valley Audubon Society.
And it was all because a coal-burning power plant discharged warm wastewater into the lake, keeping it from freezing over in the winter.
Silver Lake has been a wintertime destination for tens of thousands of geese. They were even documented in a 1989 book, The Geese of Silver Lake.
Lately, the lake’s been freezing over again — the result of a greatly diminished and fading role for what was once the city’s sole source of electricity.
The birds will be fine. There’s plenty of other suitable habitat for the now thriving species, Dunnette notes.
But the days are now numbered for the power plant. The Rochester Public Utilities board voted Tuesday to phase out the facility by 2015, further evidence that cheap natural gas and wind power are putting the squeeze on smaller, less-economical coal plants.
A barn adorned with anti-mining messages on the north side of Big Bay, Michigan. (Photo by savethewildup via Creative Commons)
As Midwest Energy News reported Tuesday, American Transmission Company is planning hundreds of miles of new high voltage transmission lines across Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and Northern Wisconsin. Meanwhile the region is also poised for a major resurgence of hard rock mining.
Mining operations of course require a lot of electricity, and the major new transmission lines are considered partly driven by – and essential to – a new mining boom. But even with new high voltage lines and substations bringing more power to the region, individual mining projects will still typically need smaller individual lines connecting their operations up to the expanded grid.
As a case near the UP town of Big Bay shows, permitting and building these lines is not a simple process even for powerful mining companies, and residents who oppose new mining see these lines as a pressure point to try to slow down or block mine development.
The fate of the Presque Isle power plant in Marquette, Michigan is among the factors driving a major transmission upgrade in the Upper Peninsula. (Photo by Christopher P. Bills via Creative Commons)
As plans progress for a major transmission upgrade to serve Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, opponents say the region’s revived mining industry – not ratepayers – should shoulder the cost.
American Transmission Company (ATC) plans to build hundreds of miles of new high voltage lines, at a cost of $1 billion, through the forests of northern Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
The Wisconsin-based company says the upgrade is necessary to alleviate the area’s chronic blackouts and ensure a stable power supply as the futures of various coal-burning power plants in the region are in doubt.
Critics — including major environmental and utility watchdog groups and residents – question the scale of the upgrade, and whether the new lines will contribute to ongoing environmental harm by continuing the region’s reliance on coal-fired power.
But also at issue is whether the project is primarily to facilitate new industrial mining operations, a distinction that would change the way the line’s costs are allocated.