Minnesota Finds Net Metering Undervalues Rooftop Solar

Utilities should be paying more for their customers’ surplus solar power generation according to a solar pricing scheme approved by Minnesota’s Public Utility Commission last month and expected to be finalized in early April. Minnesota’s move marks the first state-level application of the ‘value of solar’ approach, which sets a price by accounting for rooftop solar power’s net benefits, pioneered by the municipal utility in Austin, TX.

Minnesota is one of 43 U.S. states that requires utilities to pay retail rates for surplus solar power that their customers put on the grid. Utilities across the U.S. are fighting such net metering rules, arguing that they fail to compensate the utility for services that their grid provides to the distributed generator. So last year pro-solar activists and politicians in Minnesota called the utilities’ bluff, passing legislation tasking the state’s Department of Commerce with calculating the true value of rooftop solar power. Continue reading

Electrical Upgrade Prescribed for Japan’s Crimped Grid

An advisory body for Japan’s powerful Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) has endorsed a tripling of the capacity to pass power between Japan’s otherwise estranged AC power grids: the 50-hertz AC grid that serves Tokyo and northeastern Japan, and the 60-hertz grid that serves western Japan. This frequency divide hascomplicated efforts to keep Japan powered since the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami — a task that keeps getting harder with the inexorable decline in nuclear power generation (at present just one of Japan’s 54 reactors is operating). Continue reading

Notorious Grid Bottleneck Spawns Western Blackout

The blackout that squelched power flows to nearly 5 million residents of Arizona, California and northern Mexico last night and shut down California’s San Onofre nuclear power plant may be the latest sign of strain in an outdated U.S. power grid. The incident began during maintenance at a substation in Yuma, Arizona that lies at the center of a sclerotic section of the grid between Phoenix and Tucson—one long recognized as critically congested and thus at heightened risk of failure. Continue reading

Negative Prices for Clean Power

How do you know that congestion on high-voltage transmission grids is stranding valuable renewable energy? When the price of electricity goes negative. American Wind Energy Association electricity industry analyst Michael Goggin delivers a snapshot of the phenomenon in a recent column for Renewable Energy World.

Goggin points to data from the Electricity Reliability Council of Texas or ERCOT, the state’s grid operator, showing an increasing incidence of generators paying buyers to take their power. According to Goggin, such conditions track the explosive installation of wind farms in West Texas — and are very bad news for their operators.

Prices fell below US -$30/MWh (megawatt-hour) on 63% of days during the first half of 2008, compared to 10% for the same period in 2007 and 5% in 2006. If prices fall far enough below zero that the cost for a wind plant to continue operating is higher than the value of the US $20/MWh federal renewable electricity production tax credit plus the value of other state incentives, wind plant operators will typically curtail the output of their plants.

Worse still, consumers in adjacent areas are paying top dollar for power because the transmission lines between them and the excess wind power are overloaded.

Texas is running into trouble because it pushed wind power harder and faster than other states, but it is also leading the way to address what is really a nationwide problem. This summer the Public Utility Commission of Texas approved a scheme called the Competitive Renewable Energy Zone (CREZ) process to incentivize construction of new transmission lines to evacuate stranded wind power. Earlier this month a consortium of major utilities including MidAmerican and AEP announced their intention to do so.

For a detailed yet accessible look at Texas’ renewable energy transmission challenge and efforts to clear out the bottlenecks, see this overview from the State Energy Conservation Office.

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This post was created for Tech Talk – Insights into tomorrow’s technology from the editors of IEEE Spectrum.

Rethinking Energy Deregulation’s Green Dividends

The European Commission proposed new rules today to break up Europe’s energy monopolies and I must say it makes me wonder whether they aren’t trying to fix something that isn’t broken–at least as far as the environment is concerned.

Commission President José Manuel Barroso told reporters today that: “We need a common European response to combat climate change, to achieve greater energy security and provide abundant energy at a fair price for citizens. This is only possible if we have a competitive gas and electricity market.” But that assumed connection between responding to climate change and competition is worth questioning.

Certainly, the EC’s proposal to take control of power transmission grids out of the big utilties’ hands seems a good bet, giving innovative new players such as wind farm developers a better chance of gaining access to the grid. In fact, the European Wind Energy Association says the EC should go farther and force utilities to sell their interest in power transmission. “Allowing power generation companies to own the transmission grid makes as much sense as allowing an airline company to own the sky,” comments EWEA CEO Christian Kjaer in a press statement issued today.  

However, one of my conclusions from reporting on China and the U.S. is that the increasing drive towards deregulation–in particular the conversion of utilities from state-owned entities into profit-focused firms–can make it more difficult to drive change in energy technology. As I reported in Part II of my feature for Technology Review, China’s Coal Future, China’s move to a more open economy hampered efforts to deploy that countries first gasification coal-fired power plant. 

In 1993, China’s leading power engineering firm, China Power Engineering Consulting in Beijing, began designing the country’s first gasification power plant for the monopoly utility of the era, the State Power Corporation. This demonstration plant was to be the beginning of a transition to cleaner coal technology. Instead, the plant went on a roller-coaster ride to nowhere. The project was delayed by cost concerns in the mid-1990s and then revived in the late 1990s, only to be cut adrift after 2002 by the breakup of the State Power Corporation.

Anyone who’s breathed the air in China recently knows that was an immense lost opportunity.

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Let the Electrons Blow

Up close and personal with a Pennsylvania wind turbineFor several years now the American Wind Energy Association has been telling anyone who’d listen that access to power transmission lines was quickly emerging as the greatest impediment to continued expansion of wind farms — renewable energy’s biggest success story of the decade. This puts wind power in a very uncomfortable place given the cost and unpopularity of high-voltage power lines, which multiply similar issues faced by the wind farms themselves.

Case in point is recent opposition to new power lines under construction in southern California to bring wind power out of the Tehachapi Mountains. Southern California Edison and California regulators say the 500kv lines are needed to meet the state’s agressive renewable portfolio standard, which mandates that the utility meet 20% of electricity demand with renewable sources by 2010.

But according to today’s LA Times a few dozen cabin owners in the Angeles National Forest, to be bisected by the lines, pose an unacceptable fire risk to their cabins. This otherwise fine piece of reporting neglects to ask one important question: Should these people be living in a national forest, where fire is a natural component of the ecosystem?

One piece of good news from California: the state is not only expanding grid capacity for renewable energy today, but also creating new approaches to grid financing that will help address the cost burden of building new power lines. Under current market rules set by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) in D.C., windfarm developers must pay up front for the cost of new transmission capacity built to bring their electricity to market.

However, FERC recently approved a California proposal enabling utilities to pay the upfront cost of building new transmission lines and then recover that investment from the line’s users as they feed in their power. Folks at CalISO, the independent system operator which controls California’s grid, tell me the new financing scheme has kickstarted other wind projects and a geothermal project elsewhere in the state that were heretofore stymied by the transmission cost-penalty.

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