Oroville Dam evacuation and relicensing

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

A California dam in the midst of a federal relicensing process has experienced flooding and storm-related damage, prompting the evacuation of over 180,000 people.  Evacuation orders and a reservoir drawdown represent the most rapid responses to the Oroville Dam incident -- but future discussions of engineering, dam safety, and public policy are likely to continue after the emergency has been resolved.

Oroville Dam is the tallest dam in the U.S.:  a 770-foot high earthfill embankment dam on the Feather River in northern California.  The dam was built from 1961-1968 by the California Department of Water Resources, as part of the State Water Project.  The resulting impoundment, Lake Oroville, can store over 3.5 million acre-feet of water, making it California's second largest man-made lake.

The Oroville project is subject to licensing by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission under the Federal Power Act.  Its first license was issued on February 11, 1957, for a 50-year term which expired on January 31, 2007.  The Department of Water Resources filed an application for a new license for the project, which remains pending in Docket No. P-2100, although a settlement agreement was also filed.  In the meantime, the project continues to operate under a series of annual licenses issued by the Commission.  According to a DWR website, it "anticipates that FERC will issue a new license order in 2017 pending issuance of the aquatic biological opinion from the National Marine Fisheries Service."

According to state documents, California was hit by three major storms during January and February 2017, with major rain and runoff.  As Lake Oroville reached its full capacity, operators opened a spillway to allow excess water through the dam.  But on February 7, the spillway began to erode.  Four days later, operators opened the auxiliary emergency spillway, but eventually determined that this too was "in danger of failing."  Since a failure could cause widespread and severe flooding, officials called for evacuations downstream in the Feather River Valley.  On February 12, Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. issued an emergency order strengthening the state's response.

Focus for now remains on safely resolving the risks that the Oroville Dam or its spillways might fail in a way that releases damaging waters.  The Commission could investigate what happened under its authority over the project through its existing license.  It could also raise issues relating to the incident in the context of the project's relicensing.  That case has been pending for roughly a decade, with a settlement agreement having been reached years ago.  But it is possible that the 2017 Oroville Dam incident could have consequences in the relicensing context, such as revised spillway designs or operating plans that could be reflected as conditions in a new license.

Teton County power outage in focus

Friday, February 10, 2017

What happens when a storm damages utility transmission towers?  Some consumers in the Teton Village area near Jackson, Wyoming, are facing multi-day power outages as local utility Lower Valley Energy scrambles to restore power safely.

Lower Valley Energy is a cooperative serving about 29,000 electricity customers in wesstern Wyoming and southeast Idaho, including the Jackson area.  Its 2015 financial statements describe about $126 million in net utility plant, and operating revenues of about $52 million. 

The Teton County outage started on the evening of February 7, 2017.  The utility announced that at least 10 transmission poles had buckled, causing a "major outage in Teton County."  At the time, it noted that while it did not yet know why the lines fell, wind gusts had been documented over 90 miles per hour.  The utility estimated up to 4,000 customers were without power the next morning, including the Teton Village area, Jackson Hole Mountain Resort ski area, and the airport.

Ultimately, the utility discovered that 17 steel transmission poles had buckled, among other failures. Lower Valley Energy announced a plan to replace them temporarily with wooden poles to restore power, and to "re-route power, hopefully at least on an intermittent basis, to the airport area."  But the damage to the transmission system serving Teton Village led the utility on February 8 to describe an expectation that Teton Village would be without power for 5-7 days.  This would lead the ski area to announce that it will "not be operating until further notice."

Later on February 8, the utility announced that the Jackson Hole airport was fully operational with its own backup generation, but restoring power to Teton Village could take days.  On the next morning, it announced that it had not been "successful in energizing the Teton Village Fire Department and facilities yesterday due to other outages in the valley," but that it hoped to accomplish that day.

Utility reliability comes at a cost, but also provides a value.  Businesses, local people, and visiting vacationers expect reliable access to electricity, but storms and their effects on infrastructure can be unpredictable.  An outage places issues of utility reliability in sharp focus.  After power is restored, questions for follow-up might include how the transmission towers failed, how the utility responded to the incident, and what should be done in the future to prevent similar incidents. Businesses, institutions (like the fire station) and people affected by the Teton County outage might consider how they could reduce their exposure to the risk of a prolonged utility outage -- for example, solar panels or other distributed generation, or battery backup -- and whether the cost is worth the benefit.

NH energy efficiency resource standard workshops

Monday, February 6, 2017

Following the New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission's adoption last summer of an energy efficiency resource standard, a regulatory board has scheduled a series of workshops to allow public input on how utilities serving the state plan to met the standard over the next three years.

On August 2, 2016, the Commission issued its Order No. 25,932, approving a settlement agreement establishing an energy efficiency resource standard or EERS.  The Commission described the EERS as "a framework within which the Commission’s energy efficiency programs shall be implemented," effective January 1, 2018.  Compared to previous energy efficiency structures, the EERS represents a a long term, binding energy savings target consistent with a policy directive to capture all cost-effective energy efficiency.  According to a public notice issued by the Commission, "Implementation of an EERS is expected to increase investment in cost-effective energy efficiency resources, reduce energy costs for NH ratepayers, and create new jobs."

As implementation of the standard nears, the Energy Efficiency Resource Standard (EERS) Committee of the state's Energy Efficiency and Sustainable Energy Board has scheduled a series of stakeholder workshops to allow stakeholders and the general public "the opportunity to influence, early in the planning process, how utilities serving the state are intending to achieve the EERS over the next three years." Workshop topics announced so far include residential, municipal, and commercial and industrial programs; how to evaluate program cost-effectiveness; project finance and program marketing; and evaluation, measurement and verification.

Workshops have been scheduled through March 3, 2017.  Utilities are expected to file a proposed EERS plan with the EESE Board by April 1, 2017, with a final plan to be filed with the Commission by September 30 for approval by December 31.

Maine 2017 solar, energy legislative proposals

Friday, February 3, 2017

The 128th Maine Legislature's first session kicked off last month in Augusta.  Over 2,000 legislative requests or proposed bills were submitted for the 2017 session, most of which will eventually be "printed" or released to the public as bills or "Legislative Documents."  Energy items on this session's docket are expected to include a variety of bills addressing solar energy.  While most of these bills have yet to be printed, energy-related bills that have been printed so far include items related to protecting the grid against geomagnetic disturbances and electromagnetic pulses, consumer protection in the form of limits retail electricity rates, and retooling the Governor's energy office:

  • LD 255, An Act To Implement Electric Grid Reliability Recommendations: as drafted, this concept draft proposes directing the Maine Public Utilities Commission to take certain actions regarding geomagnetic disturbances and electromagnetic pulses on the State’s electric grid, including installation of equipment to enable grid monitoring and protection. 
  • LD 259, An Act To Limit Rates Charged by Competitive Electricity Providers: as drafted, this bill would prohibit competitive electricity providers from charging a residential consumer a rate for generation service that is higher than the applicable standard-offer service rate.
  • LD 260, An Act to Create the Maine Energy Office: as drafted, among other changes this bill would revamp the Governor's Energy Office into a Commissioner-led office, with funding from Efficiency Maine Trust.
Beyond the bills that have been printed so far, a list published by the Legislative Information Office of bill titles organized by subject matter shows 12 legislative requests relating to solar energy:
  • LR 19, An Act To Encourage and Support Solar Energy for Use in the Private and Public Sectors 
  • LR 34, An Act To Grow Maine's Economy through Increased Solar Power Generation
  • LR 179, An Act To Enhance the Commercial Development of Solar Energy
  • LD 394, An Act To Modernize Maine's Solar Power Policy and Encourage Economic Development
  • LR 402, An Act To Promote the Development of Solar Energy in Maine
  • LD 529, An Act To Modernize Maine's Solar Power Policy and Encourage Economic Development
  • LR 1071, An Act To Protect and Expand Access to Solar Power in Maine
  • LR 1367, An Act Regarding Solar Power for Farms and Businesses
  • LR 1424, An Act To Advance Locally Owned Solar Energy Systems
  • LD 1425, An Act To Modernize Community Solar Policy
  • LR 1856, An Act Regarding Large-scale Community Solar Procurement
  • LD 1944, An Act To Address Solar Power in Maine 
The Joint Standing Committee on Energy, Utilities and Technology will hold public hearings on bills referred to it over the course of the session.  

National park solar microgrid proposed

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The National Park Service has proposed a solar-powered microgrid to replace a power line in a remote area of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  If developed, the Mt. Sterling Sustainable Energy Project could serve as an example of microgrids as cost-effective alternatives to transmission or distribution lines.

Solar panels on a campground facility inside Arches National Park, Utah.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is located in a rugged area of North Carolina and Tennessee.  Today, NPS radio equipment located at the Mt. Sterling Fire Lookout Tower is powered by a 3.5-mile overhead line.  According to the NPS, "Maintaining the line is challenging and expensive based on its remote location and steep terrain."

As an alternative, Duke Energy has proposed installing a microgrid to power the radio equipment at the old fire tower: 30 solar panels tied to a zinc-air battery.  This solar microgrid would then operate separately from the interstate electricity grid, and according to NPS "would allow greater reliability while using a renewable energy source."  While its estimates suggest 10 trees would need to be cleared for site development and to prevent shading, NPS notes that "the microgrid would allow the existing overhead line to be decommissioned and the existing maintained corridor would return to a natural state."

The Mt. Sterling Sustainable Energy Project is subject to approval by the National Park Service as well as the North Carolina Utilities Commission.  If approved, implementation could occur in spring 2017.

More broadly, microgrids may be suitable alternatives to traditional transmission and distribution infrastructure.  Remote locations such as the Mt. Sterling radio site, where the cost of traditional grid power is either high or prohibitive, could be especially attractive candidates for microgrid development.  Infrastructure development in national parks can be controversial, even if the infrastructure in question is "green" or less intrusive than alternatives -- but microgrids may be particularly appealing if they can offer improved performance with reduced cost and environmental impacts.

FERC 2-year licensing pilot workshop

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The regulatory process for Federal Energy Regulatory Commission licensing of hydropower projects can take many years and significant expense -- but can it be improved following a two-year pilot process ordered by Congress?  After running a pilot process for one license application, the Commission has scheduled a workshop to discuss lessons learned from its pilot licensing process.

Under the Federal Power Act, the Commission is responsible for licensing most non-federal hydropower development in the U.S.  Concerned over the duration and expense of the regulatory process, Congress enacted the Hydropower Regulatory Efficiency Act of 2013, section 6 of which directed the Commission to investigate the feasibility of a two-year licensing process, develop criteria for identifying projects that may be appropriate for the process, and develop and implement pilot projects to test the process.

After a January 6, 2014 solicitation for pilot projects, the Commission selected Free Flow Power Project 92, LLC's (FFP) proposed 5-megawatt project at the Kentucky River Authority's existing Lock & Dam No. 11 on the Kentucky River.  The January notice set minimum criteria and a process plan for projects that may be appropriate for licensing within a two-year process, including:
  • The project must cause little to no change to existing surface and groundwater flows and uses;
  • The project must not adversely affect federally listed threatened and endangered species;
  • If the project is proposed to be located at or use a federal dam, the request to use the two-year process must include a letter from the dam owner saying the plan is feasible;
  • If the project would use any public park, recreation area, or wildlife refuge, the request to use the two-year process must include a letter from the managing entity giving its approval to use the site; and
  • For a closed-loop pumped storage project, the project must not be continuously connected to a naturally flowing water feature.
After trying a two-year pilot to abbreviate its hydropower project licensing process, the Commission has scheduled a workshop to discuss the pilot's effectiveness.

Kitty Hawk NC offshore wind auction set

Thursday, January 26, 2017

U.S. plans to auction ocean sites off North Carolina for commercial offshore wind energy development advanced last week, as the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management scheduled a commercial lease sale for the sites for March 16, 2017.  But will the Trump administration continue the Obama administration's offshore wind leasing program?

Under federal law, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is charged with leasing sites on the Outer Continental Shelf for fossil fuel or renewable energy development.  To date, BOEM has held six competitive lease sales and has also awarded several leases on a non-competitive basis.

Up for auction on March 16 will be the rights to about 122,405 acres offshore Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.  The Kitty Hawk Wind Energy Area was first identified by BOEM in 2014, and was the subject of a Proposed Sale Notice last year.  As described in the Final Sale Notice for the Kitty Hawk offshore wind auction, the lease area is located about 24 nautical miles offshore. 

The Final Sale Notice for the Kitty Hawk lease area also identifies nine companies that BOEM has deemed legally, technically and financially qualified to participate in the upcoming lease sale:
  • Avangrid Renewables, LLC
  • Enbridge Holdings (Green Energy) LLC
  • Shell WindEnergy Inc.
  • Northland Power America Inc.
  • Wind Future LLC
  • Outer Banks Ocean Energy, LLC
  • PNE Wind USA, Inc.
  • Statoil Wind US LLC
  • wpd offshore Alpha LLC
The Kitty Hawk offshore wind site lease auction is scheduled to be held on March 16.  According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the U.S. is home to an estimated 4,200 gigawatts of potential offshore wind capacity, with most potential located in federal waters.  Competitive lease sales by BOEM to date have yielded over $58 million in winning bids.  But it may be possible for the Trump administration to change direction with respect to policies affecting federal leasing of sites for commercial offshore wind development.  President Trump's "America First Energy Plan" does include a focus on increased production of domestic energy resources, although it singles out shale oil, gas, and coal (and does not mention offshore wind).  How will U.S. offshore wind fit into America's domestic energy strategy?