March 31, 2011 - Canada backs Lower Churchill hydro project

Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Canadian federal government has just announced that it will support the Lower Churchill hydroelectric project in Labrador.  The $6.2 billion project has been in the planning phases for years, but now appears to be moving forward.

Rich in natural resources, Canada is home to a great number of rivers with significant hydropower potential.  Many of these rivers have been dammed and developed in the past century; second only to China, Canada is now a leading producer of hydropower in the world.  In recent years, Canada has been one of the few countries to produce a majority of its electricity from hydropower, with some provinces like Quebec, Manitoba, and Labrador producing over 90% of their electricity from hydro dams.

Since 1971, much of the Churchill River's flow has been diverted into the Churchill Falls hydroelectric station.  At 5,428 MW, the existing Churchill Falls project has the second largest capacity of any power station in North America.  The Lower Churchill project entails building two new plants (Gull Island and Muskrat Falls) with a combined capacity of over 3,074 MW.

It remains to be seen what form the support of the Canadian federal government will take.

March 29, 2011 - Delaware offshore wind site lease moves forward

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Offshore wind in Delaware just got a boost, as the U.S. federal government is moving forward with a site lease with NRG Bluewater Wind.  This represents the first commercial wind lease under the “Smart from the Start” Atlantic Offshore Wind program.  Under that program, the Department of Interior's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE) is charged with streamlining the regulatory process for offshore wind projects.  An early step in the Smart from the Start process is BOEMRE's issuance of a request for interest (RFI) in obtaining commercial leases for the construction of wind energy projects on the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS).  Under the federal OCS Lands Act, before developers can lease sites from the government, BOEMRE must determine if there is competitive interest in developing projects in a particular zone of the OCS.  If two developers’ staked areas of interest fully or partially overlap, BOEMRE will determine that there is competitive interest in the area, triggering a competitive leasing process for that zone.  If developers’ interests do not overlap, BOEMRE may proceed with a simpler noncompetitive lease process.

For the Delaware OCS sites, BOEMRE's April 2010 RFI received only one qualified response: Bluewater Wind Delaware, LLC's proposal to site a project 11 miles east of Dewey Beach.

To see if any other developers were interested in Bluewater's proposed site, BOEMRE published a second notice in January 2011, which did not reveal any additional expressions of interest.  (You can find the public comments here.)  BOEMRE thus determined that there is no competitive interest for commercial wind energy development in this area of the Outer Continental Shelf, placing Bluewater's project on the faster non-competitive track.  This determination will soon be published in the Federal Register.

NRG, which joined with Bluewater in developing the Delaware project, has entered into an agreement to sell power from the project to Delmarva Power, Delaware's largest utility.  Next steps include moving forward with the noncompetitive leasing, which will entail several layers of environmental reviews, other regulatory approvals, and technical engineering for the project.

March 23, 2011 - energy grants for schools

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Schools can participate in grant and incentive programs to help them develop energy efficiency and renewable energy projects.  The possibilities are as varied as are the programs, combining federal incentives, state-level programs in most areas, and even utility-specific efficiency programs.  If it puts together a winning application, a school could receive anything from technical assistance to cash to support these projects.

The University of New England in Biddeford, Maine, serves as an example. Last year, the University's Sustainability Office received a $50,000 grant from Efficiency Maine, Maine's one-stop shopping point for energy efficiency efforts.  The University is using the grant to install a solar hot water system, along with a display to monitor the system's performance.  Due to their core mission of education, schools often combine energy efficiency and renewable technologies with educational tools about projects' value and technology.

Across the country, at any given time, a number of open requests for proposals and prescriptive incentives are available to help schools save or harness renewable energy.  Particularly when the economic value of these projects is coupled with their educational value, schools are taking a broader look at their options.

March 22, 2011 - Maine wind news roundup

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Today, a quick roundup of recent news about Maine wind energy projects and policies:

The Bangor Daily News ran an editorial in support of renewable energy -- including wind, solar, and tidal power -- arguing that the Fukushima I nuclear disaster in Japan highlights the need for less harmful ways to power our society.  The editorial concludes, "The developed world will face either an apocalyptic, painful end to its reliance on fossil fuels — wars, shortages, famine — or it will embrace the new paradigm willingly. But the new technology must be jump-started with investment, much of it public funds."  Thus in the editorial board's view, society should support renewable projects with public dollars, at least to prime the pump to bring renewables to a more cost-competitive level.

The BDN also ran a letter to the editor from wind developer TransCanada's operations manager for the Kibby Project.  Writer Greg Shelton told his story of how the development of wind projects in Maine enabled him to return to his family from out of state, where he had traveled to find work.  Mr. Shelton described the value of renewable power development in creating jobs and economic development.

Meanwhile, Portsmouth, New Hampshire-based Eolian Renewable Energy has proposed a 10 megawatt wind project in the Maine town of Frankfort.  The $25 million wind project would entail four to six turbines atop Mount Waldo.  Eolian described its strategy as developing projects that fit better into communities and landscapes by siting smaller wind energy projects in areas with existing infrastructure like radio towers (Mount Waldo sports three such towers already) and roads.  To promote its cause, Eolian points to the potential tax benefits to a host community, suggesting that a 10-megawatt project might generate $100,000 in annual local tax revenue.

March 18, 2011 - FERC's ruling on demand response compensation

Friday, March 18, 2011

This week, a ruling by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission opened the door to the broader use of demand response to lower society's energy costs.  This ruling, called Order No. 745 (116 page PDF), has the potential to transform energy markets across the country and to provide electricity consumers a tangible benefit.

Part of the nation's smart grid strategy, demand response -- when customers respond to signals about the scarcity of electricity by temporarily reducing their consumption -- helps us reduce the height of the peak demand for electricity.  If we can reduce the height of those peaks, we can minimize the need for expensive peaking generation units that only run during the few hours a year when the grid is most stressed.  Demand resources can thus function much like generators, by creating "negawatts" instead of megawatts.  Because most electricity markets are designed so that power from marginal peaking generators is more expensive than baseload generation, it can often be cheaper to pay a demand resource to curtail its load than to pay a marginal generator to start up and run for several hours.

The value of demand response is clear, but until Tuesday's FERC ruling, how people should be compensated for demand response was up in the air.  The United States' electric grid is made up of a number of interconnected but distinct organized wholesale energy markets.  Each of these markets has been compensating demand response resources differently.  Some markets, like the Midwest ISO and California ISO, paid the same wholesale energy price to demand resources for their negawatt-hours as generators received for their megawatt-hours.  Other markets, like mid-Atlantic grid operator PJM, paid demand resources a reduced price for their negawatt-hours.

In Order No. 745, FERC found that this lack of uniformity of compensation across the nation's energy markets created barriers to reaching demand response's full potential.  FERC also found that other barriers to demand response existed under the status quo, including a disconnection between the wholesale and retail rates for energy.  By establishing a nation-wide policy that -- as long as they are cost-effective and capable of displacing the need for generation -- demand resources should be paid just like generators in organized wholesale markets, FERC hopes to eliminate these barriers.

So what does this mean?  In the wake of Order No. 745, we are likely to see greater use of demand response as a tool to save energy and lower its cost.  A number of businesses already help consumers participate in demand response, providing the technologies and strategies needed to make consumer participation a success.  Through the elimination of uncertainty and the establishment of a clear and fair compensation standard, these companies may see their businesses grow.  End-use consumers will also see a benefit, whether or not they participate in demand response.  Those consumers who do enroll in demand response programs will now know that they will be compensated fairly for their negawatts, a strong incentive to help the grid by curtailing their load during peak demand.  Even for those consumers who don't directly participate, greater implementation of demand response will lower everyone's electricity costs by displacing expensive marginal peaking generation.  Smart grid technologies are touted as capable of saving consumers money; through Order No. 745, the potential consumer savings have become more real.

March 17, 2011 - how nuclear power works in 250 words

Thursday, March 17, 2011

As we watch the situation in Japan, where a number of reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant have been damaged by the earthquake and tsunami, I've been looking for a simple explanation of how nuclear power plants -- in Japan and here in the U.S. -- work.  Perhaps because it's a complex technology, or because there are a variety of ways humans use nuclear fission to generate electricity, I haven't found a very simple explanation -- so I decided to write one up myself.
Most nuclear power plants use the energy released by fission -- splitting atoms (usually uranium or plutonium) to heat water into steam.  The steam spins a turbine, which spins a generator to create electricity.   These turbines work much like other steam turbines found in other thermal electricity plants (such as those powered by biomass, natural gas, or coal).

The reactor is the heart of a nuclear power plant.  This key component differentiates nuclear plants from other thermal generators.  While most thermal generators create or release thermal energy (heat) through combustion, nuclear fission creates thermal energy by splitting atoms.  When one uranium atom splits, it releases heat and several neutrons -- subatomic particles that fly off the split atom.  If one of those neutrons smacks into another uranium atom at the right speed, that atom will then split, releasing more heat -- and importantly, more neutrons.  By controlling the speed at which these splits occur, operators create a sustained but controlled fission chain reaction.

When the heat produced by this chain reaction is absorbed by cooling water (like in your home’s boiler or car's radiator system), the water heats up to between 500 °F and 600 °F.  Depending on the reactor design, this heat either transforms the water into steam (in an open-loop boiling water reactor), or goes through a heat exchanger to create steam in a secondary loop (in a closed-loop pressurized water reactor).  Either way, the steam produced flows through a turbine, which spins a generator to create electricity.

That's an overview of the basics of nuclear power generation.  I've simplified it greatly to make it easier to understand.  If you dig deeper, the details are fascinating, and point to both the challenges and opportunities of harnessing fission to create electricity.

March 16, 2011 - victory for demand response

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The smart grid just got smarter.  Demand response -- when customers respond to signals about the scarcity of electricity by temporarily reducing their consumption -- is a key tool in efforts to reduce the cost of energy through the use of smart grid technology.  As a society (or as a grid), if we can reduce the peak amount of electricity being demanded, we can not only reduce the need for the most expensive marginal peaking generation units, but we can also reduce the need for expensive transmission lines.  Demand response thus benefits not only the person reducing consumption, but also all other ratepayers and the grid as a whole.  It is a key component of our transition to a smart grid.

On March 15, 2011, demand response took a big step forward through a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission ruling on how people should be compensated for demand response participation.  In Order No. 745 (116 page PDF), FERC ruled that organized wholesale energy market operators must pay demand response resources the market price for energy, known as the locational marginal price (LMP), when those resources have the capability to balance supply and demand as an alternative to a generation resource and when dispatch of those resources is cost-effective.

FERC noted that doing so is necessary to preserve and enhance the competitiveness of wholesale electricity markets, something FERC and Congress have promoted across the board.  For example, in the Energy Policy Act of 2005, Congress established a national policy of eliminating unnecessary barriers to demand response participation.  FERC has long held that active participation by customers in organized wholesale energy markets through demand response helps to increase competition in those markets, but had not previously required all organized wholesale markets to compensate demand response resources in the same manner.  For example, PJM has been paying the LMP minus the generation and transmission portions of the retail rate, while ISO New England has paid LMP only when prices exceeded a threshold level.  Even within a given market, the continual threat of policy changes resulted in a chilling effect on the full implementation and deployment of demand response.

FERC's Order No. 745 takes away this uncertainty.  FERC held that demand resources should be paid at market-based prices when two criteria are met: capability and cost-effectiveness.  First, the demand resources must have the capability to balance supply and demand as an alternative to a generation resource.  To be paid at market prices, demand resources must be effective at displacing the need for bringing additional generation online.  Second, the demand resources must be cost-effective alternatives to generation, based on a "net benefits test".  In essence, this test is satisfied when the overall benefit of the reduced energy price resulting from dispatching demand response resources exceeds the cost of dispatching and paying LMP to those resources.  If both of these criteria are satisfied, organized wholesale energy market operators must pay demand response resources the market price for their energy value.

Demand response has long had great potential to transform the way our power grids work.  To reach its full potential, people must be compensated fairly for the value they provide through interrupting their consumption of electricity.  With FERC's Order No. 745, that value has been established clearly.

March 15, 2011 - US nuclear industry

As Japan assesses the damage from last Friday's magnitude 8.9 earthquake and tsunami, one element of the disaster that remains ongoing involves damage to several of that nation's nuclear power plants.  Utility Tokyo Electric Power has imposed blackouts due to a 25 percent capacity shortage, which may be the least of the concerns stemming from the damaged nuclear plants.  Concerns over meltdown and release of radioactive materials loom larger.

A recent snapshot of the price of gas in Maine: $3.539 per gallon for 87 octane regular.

In the immediate wake of the situation in Japan, it may be helpful to consider a snapshot of the U.S. nuclear power industry.  According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (1 page PDF), in 2009 the U.S. nuclear industry was composed of 104 generators with an aggregate nameplate capacity of 106,618 megawatts.  This represents about 9.5% of the nation's 1,121,686 MW total installed nameplate capacity.  Electricity derived from nuclear power thus ranks third in nameplate capacity behind natural gas (459,803 MW) and coal (338,723 MW).

Nuclear power plays an even bigger role in the U.S. electric industry on a megawatt-hour basis.  Remember that megawatts of capacity refer to how much energy could be produced at a given moment if all the units ran full-bore, while megawatt-hours of energy refer to how much energy was actually produced.  In 2010, nuclear power produced 981,815 thousand MWh out of a total 4,120,028 thousand MWh produced -- or about 24% of the nation's total electric generation.  This is due in part to the high capacity factor of nuclear power, meaning that nuclear plants tend to run near their full capacity and have minimal downtime.

Let's keep Japan in our thoughts and hope the people and the nation recover well and quickly.

March 11, 2011 - powering data centers with renewable energy

Friday, March 11, 2011

What happens when you combine customer choice, voluntary renewable power markets, and electricity-hungry data center?

Data centers house computer systems for things like telecommunications and storage of large amounts of digital information.  I've written before about how much energy data centers can consume: in the case of the National Security Agency's Utah Data Center, estimates suggest up to 65 megawatts of electricity at any given time.  This demand for electricity can drive data centers to locate or relocate themselves in areas of lower power pricing.

Another possibility is for data centers to choose their electricity sources not based on pricing but on other characteristics, such as the sustainability of the power generated.  For example, IT services company Datapipe, Inc. recently chose to buy all its power for its US facilities from renewable sources.  This won them Leadership Club status in EPA's Green Power Partners program.  Datapipe buys almost 56,000,000 kilowatt-hours per year, all of which it now sources from renewable generation.  Assuming they run at an even electricity load 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, that's an average of 6.4 megawatts of demand.  While that's less than the Utah Data Center's anticipated consumption, it's impressive to see a consumer choosing to buy 100% renewable electricity.

March 10, 2011 - more natural gas in Maine?

Thursday, March 10, 2011

I had a great time at yesterday's Focus the Nation event at Northern Maine Community College.  I was honored to be among great speakers and experts on renewable energy and other energy issues.  Thanks to all who were involved.

In the meantime, a news story has broken about the Kennebec Valley Gas Company's plans to build a $70 million 56-mile natural gas pipeline running through 12 communities from Richmond to Madison by 2013.  As I've noted before, natural gas can be an inexpensive energy source compared to oil, a condition that some experts (like the U.S. Energy Information Administration) believe will continue for the next 15 or more years.  For a fossil fuel, generating electricity from natural gas using modern technologies can also have relatively fewer emissions of carbon dioxide, NOx and SOx per kilowatt-hour generated than other alternatives like oil or coal.  It will be interesting to see what happens.

March 9, 2011 - Focus the Nation conference at NMCC

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

A quick blog entry today from Presque Isle, Maine.  I'm speaking at the Focus the Nation forum held at Northern Maine Community College.  NMCC was chosen to host this event by Focus the Nation, a nonprofit whose mission statement focuses on “accelerat[ing] our transformation to a clean energy future by fostering connections between generations, and empowering young people through education, civic engagement, and action”. The event fits nicely with NMCC's role as a leader in renewable energy education, offering the first wind power technician degree in New England.  I'm excited for the opportunity to speak and to get to know the students and industry leaders who will be in attendance.

March 8, 2011 - Maryland's long-term contracting for offshore wind

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Offshore wind development in the mid-Atlantic states is moving forward - what will it cost?  The Maryland legislature is considering a plan by Governor Martin O'Malley to kickstart offshore wind development.  The Governor has said that offshore wind projects are a critical part of how Maryland can meet the state's renewable energy goal of sourcing 20 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2022, but without long-term contracts, it is unclear whether enough (or any) projects would be built.  To get over this hurdle, Governor O'Malley's plan would require Maryland utilities to sign long-term contracts to buy offshore wind power at prices above the current market rate.  Project developers view the contracts, lasting up to 25 years, as essential to getting the projects financed and built. 
So how much will this cost?  Figures diverge by a factor of more than sixfold.  Governor O'Malley's estimates are that the plan will cost the average ratepayer $1.44 per month, but that figure has been called into question by other more recent analyses.  The Maryland legislature's budget analyst's has concluded that the monthly cost to average ratepayers will be $3.61, while Maryland's Public Service Commission has predicted a range of monthly costs between $2.16 and $8.70.

March 7, 2011 - long-term pricing for offshore wind in New Jersey

Monday, March 7, 2011

New Jersey is pursuing offshore wind in earnest.   The Board of Public Utilities will be holding a public open question and answer session in Trenton on March 25, 2011, to discuss the recently adopted Offshore Wind Rules (N.J.A.C. 14:8-6).  This comes just over a month after an affiliate of Fishermen’s Energy of New Jersey filed a petition to the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities seeking approval for offshore renewable energy certificates (ORECs) for a wind project to be developed offshore of Atlantic City.

The project, to be developed pursuant to the New Jersey Offshore Wind Economic Development Act, would be a six-turbine demonstration-scale project about 2.8 miles east of Atlantic City, generating up to 25 megawatts of energy.  Governor Christie signed the Offshore Wind Economic Development Act in 2010, authorizing the development of up to 1,100 megawatts in offshore wind capacity off New Jersey.  To help fund such projects, the Act also gives the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities the authority to set a long-term price for ORECs, guaranteeing up to 20 years of price certainty for developers.  In recognition of the economic value of siting offshore-wind associated manufacturing capacity in the state, the Act also provides $100 million in tax credits for the creation of such jobs.

Fishermen's project is in the race to be the first grid-connected offshore wind facility in the country.  Will they cross the finish line first?

March 1, 2011 - solar ships

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

For millennia, humans have used renewable energy to propel ships over the oceans.  The winds that have filled the sails of hundreds of generations' most technologically advanced vessels gained their power from the Sun's radiation shining on land and sea, creating temperature differentials that in turn caused the winds to blow.  Archaeological evidence suggests that the first sailboats may have been used by the Egyptians over 6,000 years ago.  Sail technology may have arisen in multiple separate regions of the world over time, but whoever was responsible for the first sailboats clearly started something big: harnessing renewable energy to move people and cargo over the water.

Photo: winter in Northeast Harbor, Mount Desert Island, Maine.
 Sailcraft still ply the world's waters of course, though the development of commercially-viable steam engines in the 18th century significantly changed the course of ship design and technology.  Naval engineers and marine architects continue to make advances in sailcraft design, using new materials and new design tools to create faster and more efficient vessels.  At the same time, a new kind of renewable propulsion system is arising: solar-powered ships.

As you read this, the 100-foot MS Turanor PlanetSolar has crossed the Atlantic, traversed the Panama Canal, and is well under way across the Pacific in its bid to be the first solar-powered vessel to circumnavigate the globe.  Constructed by Knierim Yacht Club, in Kiel, Germany, the PlanetSolar uses 537 m2 of solar PV panels to generate up to 93.5 kW of power - about 125 hp.  The solar PV panels have an efficiency of 18.8%, and are linked to six 388-volt lithium ion batteries with an aggregate storage capacity of 2910 amp-hours (Ah).  (Compare the current Toyota Prius hybrid drive battery, which has a nominal capacity of 6 Ah.)