April 28, 2011 - storms knock TVA nuclear plant offline

Thursday, April 28, 2011

The rash of tornadoes and powerful storms across the American midwest and south have knocked three nuclear reactors in Alabama offline.
This small dam maintains water levels in Haley Pond in the village of Rangeley, Maine.
I've previously noted the Tennessee Valley Authority's nuclear power program, and how stormy weather can impact generation and the electric grid.  Yesterday, a series of severe storms and tornadoes damaged eleven major transmission lines in the Southeast, cutting the power supply to TVA's Browns Ferry nuclear plant in Alabama.  Browns Ferry is home to three reactors with a combined capacity of 3,274 megawatts.

The TVA is a congressionally-chartered federal corporation operating a variety of generation resources.  Most famous among these may be the TVA's 29 hydroelectric dams, although TVA also operates three nuclear power plants (totaling six reactors), as well as coal plants, natural gas combined-cycle plants, and some non-hydro renewable power.

The storms may have some electric upside: TVA is running 8 of its 9 dams on the Tennessee River at full production -- primarily to control flooding, but producing hydroelectricity at the same time.

April 26, 2011 - Ivanpah solar deals with tortoise impacts

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Two weeks ago, I noted Google's investment in the 392 MW Ivanpah solar project in California's Mojave Desert, and how it benefited from $1.6 billion in Department of Energy loan guarantees.  Developer BrightSource Energy started construction on Phase I of the Ivanpah project in October 2010, with two subsequent phases slated for development shortly thereafter.  BrightSource's business plan also includes an initial public offering, which led the company to file an S-1 securities registration with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

Solar photovoltaic panels above Beaver Mountain ski area near Logan, Utah.
The Ivanpah project has now hit a speedbump in the form of a tortoise.  The desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) lives in the Mojave desert, including in the area where the Ivanpah project is proposed.  As a result, BrightSource has apparently stopped work on the construction of Ivanpah's second and third phases.

BrightSource noted in its S-1 filing that "in April 2011, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, or BLM, advised us that it will require the issuance of a revised biological opinion by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, or FWS, prior to providing permission to proceed with the construction of Ivanpah’s second and third phases".

The Fish and Wildlife Service is reportedly developing that opinion now, which should be finalized over the summer.

April 25, 2011 - Maine legislative committee considers wind

Monday, April 25, 2011

Today, the Joint Standing Committee on Energy, Utilities and Technology of the Maine State Legislature is considering an array of bills about generating electricity from wind.  Among the bills up for public hearing today include a number of proposals to modify the Maine Wind Energy Act and Maine's expedited permitting process for wind energy development.  Another proposal would make wind energy developers compensate nearby landowners for any lost property value.

Electric transmission lines cross a field near Colchester Pond, Vermont.
The Committee room is full, with significant public interest in these bills; both citizens and legislators alike have their work cut out for them.

April 20, 2011 - DOE offers $2.1 billion loan guarantee for CA solar projects

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

In recent weeks, I've looked at the Department of Energy's loan programs, how DOE's loan programs have helped financed renewable and low-emission energy projects, and how DOE's loan guarantee program is at risk from being cut from the contentious federal budget.  I've also looked at California's recent enactment of a renewable portfolio standard requiring utilities to source 33% of their electricity from renewable power plants.
Seen earlier this year outside the Maine State House: Northeast Charter & Tour's "green machine", a 29-passenger hybrid coach.

Now, the Department of Energy has announced that it has offered a conditional commitment for $2.1 billion in loan guarantees for a pair of 242 MW concentrating solar thermal plants in California.  Solar Trust of America, a joint venture of German companies Solar Millennium AG and Ferrostaal Inc., has started construction on the projects outside the city of Blythe, California, near where the I-10 interstate highway crosses east into Arizona.  The ambitious Blythe solar project includes multiple phases that could add up to 1,000 MW of solar capacity.

DOE's conditional loan guarantee offer would help finance the first two units at Blythe, which would use parabolic trough mirrors to concentrate solar energy to boil water in a closed loop.  The resulting steam would spin turbine-generator sets to generate electricity.  This technology is a variant on that planned for the 392 MW Ivanpah solar project (which itself benefits from $1.6 billion in Department of Energy loan guarantees).  Helping complete the project's financial picture, So. Cal Edison Co. has entered into a PPA to buy the project's output.

April 19, 2011 - 400 MW solar project proposed in California

Monday, April 18, 2011

Last week I noted Google's investment in the 392 megawatt Ivanpah solar project in California.  That project, which is currently under construction in the Mojave Desert, is on track to be the world's largest solar thermal project.  Ivanpah uses heliostat mirrors to focus sunlight on centrally located solar power towers.  The towers use the solar energy to generate steam.  The steam runs through steam turbines and a generator to produce electricity.
"Turn your grocery bags into green energy" - seen at a Vermont market
Now an even larger solar project has been proposed for California -- this time solar photovoltaic.   Developer Pegasus Energy has proposed a 400 MW solar PV power plant on about 2,000 acres in Alameda County California.  The Mountain House Solar Farm would sell power to local utility PG&E, and might break ground in early 2013.

As we often see, the twin challenges of financing and regulatory uncertainty team up to add a wrinkle to these plans.  The developer has built a financing model based on using an incentive authorized by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act: a cash grant in lieu of the federal 30% business energy investment tax credit (ITC).  That incentive program, known as the 1603 grant program, is currently slated to end this year.  The developer is reportedly hopeful that grant funds will be extended until January 1, 2013, and would be available to help finance the project.  This may be a realistic hope, as the 1603 program has already been extended once (by Section 707 of the Tax Relief, Unemployment Insurance Reauthorization and Job Creation Act of 2010), so renewal is possible.  On the other hand, recent struggles over the federal budget do call into question the continued survival of any given clean energy incentive programs.  Will Congress renew the 1603 energy grant program?

April 15, 2011 - Moore Dam in New Hampshire

Friday, April 15, 2011

Where is the largest conventional hydroelectric dam in New England?

Built in 1957 at 178' in height and featuring 192 megawatts of capacity, the Samuel C. Moore Dam on the upper Connecticut River in northern New Hampshire and Vermont is the largest conventional hydro facility in New England.  Named for a former president of the New England Power Company, the 3500 acre Moore Reservoir, where the river's waters back up behind the dam, is New Hampshire’s largest undeveloped lake, and the state's fourth largest lake overall.  The Moore Dam, along with the downstream Comerford and McIndoe dams, flooded out a river section formerly known as Fifteen Mile Falls.

The Moore Dam is just over twice as large as Maine's largest hydroelectric facility.  That honor falls to the 85 megawatt Harris Station facility on the upper Kennebec River, built in 1954 during the same era as the Moore Dam.

April 14, 2011 - Canadian hydro imports as renewable

Thursday, April 14, 2011

What energy sources are renewable?  What does renewable mean?  Any state developing a renewable energy standard would be wise to consider these questions.  There is broad consensus on a core group of technologies, while the degree to which some other energy sources may be renewable remains a subject of debate.  When it comes to renewable portfolio standards - laws mandating that a certain portion of electricity sold be sourced from qualified renewable resources - it can take an act of the legislature to deem a particular resource type "renewable".
Wood pellets: biomass for homes, on display at a gas station.

The Nova Scotia Legislature is currently considering this very question.  The provincial minister of energy and natural resources proposed a bill to declare hydroelectricity "renewable electricity" by legislative mandate.  That bill, Bill No. 15 classifies hydroelectricity as renewable electricity, for the purpose of meeting Nova Scotia's 40% renewable electricity by 2020 goal.  Bill No. 15 would apply to hydroelectricity generated in Nova Scotia - there are about 40 small hydro plants in Nova Scotia, collectively supplying about 11% of provincial capacity - as well as to hydroelectricity produced elsewhere and imported into the province.

Many states and provinces are wrestling with the question of whether hydroelectricity imported from Canadian large-scale hydro projects should count towards their own renewable portfolio standards.  For many states in the northeastern US, importing hydroelectricity from Hydro-Quebec is one option; New Hampshire's review of the proposed Northern Pass transmission line raises these issues.  In Nova Scotia's case, the province is a partner in the Muskrat Falls portion of the Lower Churchill hydro resource in Labrador.  A 180-kilometer underwater cable called the Maritime Link will connect Labrador and Newfoundland with Nova Scotia.  Nova Scotia will put up 20% of the project capital, in exchange for which it will receive 170 megawatts of hydroelectricity for 35 years, with an option for an additional 330 megawatts.  The province expects this one project to account for a quarter of the province's 40% renewable mandate.

In this context, what does Bill No. 15 do?  By proposing to clarify that imported hydroelectricity counts toward the province's renewable energy standard, does the bill imply that it is not currently clear that hydro is renewable?  Or is Bill No. 15 simply part of the overall package of Nova Scotia's 40% renewable electricity mandate, helping clarify that Nova Scotia can rely on cost-effective regional resources in its pursuit of environmental goals?

April 14, 2011 - California establishes 33% renewable energy standard

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

California established a 33% renewable energy standard this week when Governor Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 2X.  That bill creates a legislative mandate that California utilities and other electric service providers must source 33% of the electricity they sell to retail consumers from renewable resources.  The Governor's signing ceremony followed the bill's passage by each chamber of California's legislature with a majority vote - 26-11 in the Senate and 55-19 in the Assembly.

Electric vehicle charging station, Burlington, Vermont.

California's new 33% RPS law is not its first renewable electricity standard.  The California Legislature had previously enacted an RPS that required utilities to source 20% of their electricity from renewables. In fact, California has already had a 33% RPS.  After legislation increasing the renewable mandate failed to pass at the end of the last decade, in September 2009 Governor Schwarzenegger raised the RPS to 33% by executive order.

SB 2X also relieves some jurisdictional uncertainty over the RPS.  California's original legislative 20% RPS was administered by the California Public Utilities Commission, but Governor Schwarzenegger's  Executive Order gave the California Air Resources Board authority over the additional RPS mandate beyond 20%.  SB 2X restores the CPUC's authority over the RPS, giving it a mandate to develop rules implementing the shift.

April 12, 2011 - Google invests in Ivanpah solar

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Google has committed $168 million in funding for what might be the world's largest solar project, proposed for construction in California's Mojave Desert.
Water spills over a dam near a paper mill on a river in Maine.

This story ties together several threads that run through this blog.  In February 2010, I wrote about the 392 MW Ivanpah solar project, and how it benefited from $1.6 billion in Department of Energy loan guarantees (the same program now at risk of being cut from the federal budget).  If built as proposed by developer Bright Source Energy, the large solar thermal project would the world's largest solar complex, featuring up to three thermal generation units.  Coincidentally (or not), that same day I followed up on an earlier look at Google's nascent interest in energy markets after it obtained market-based rate authority from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

In the ensuing months, Google has emerged as a sophisticated player in the energy world - investing in underwater transmission infrastructure to connect regions and support ocean energy projects, buying power directly from a wind project, investing in fuel cell research and development, and promoting real-time electricity pricing and programs.  Now, Google can add an investment in utility-scale solar thermal projects to its portfolio.

Meanwhile, the fate of DOE's loan program remains uncertain; reports suggest that the energy portion of the budget is still being finalized, with a vote possible as early as Thursday.

April 11, 2011 - Northern Pass transmission

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Northern Pass project - a proposed high-voltage DC transmission line capable of sending about 1200 MW of power from Hydro-Quebec into New England - continues to be controversial.  The $1.1 billion line from the Canadian border has been proposed by Public Service of New Hampshire's parent Northeast Utilities, along with utility NSTAR and Hydro-Quebec.  These utilities promote the line as empowering New England markets to buy renewable power from Canada - primarily from Hydro-Quebec's nearly 40 gigawatts of hydro capacity.  Opponents raise concerns both about local siting issues related to the line - which runs through the White Mountain National Forest and a number of communities - as well as about the impact of importing gigawatts of Canadian renewable power on the development of renewable power projects in New England.

Now, two of New Hampshire's Congressional delegation, Senator Kelly Ayotte and Representative Charles Bass, have sent a letter to Secretary of Energy Chu expressing opposition to the project in its current form based on the public hearings that have been held.  They call on the Department of Energy to study alternatives to building towers along the Northern Pass's route through New Hampshire - alternatives like burying the lines or using existing rights-of-way.  The Congressional delegation points to a need to protect New Hampshire's north country lands as "prime economic assets and pristine landscapes."

If the Northern Pass project is to be developed, proponents may have to navigate the political waters as well as the regulatory process. 

April 7, 2011 - DOE loan guarantees not dead yet

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Check out the piece I wrote for the Offshore Wind Wire analyzing the potential value in the race to build larger offshore wind projects and larger turbine generators: cheaper electricity thanks to the economy of scale.

Earlier this week, I looked at the Department of Energy's loan guarantee programs.  In the past 6 years, DOE has backstopped $26 billion in financing for 21 energy projects.  As Congress wrestles with the U.S. federal budget, these loan programs may be on the chopping block; the current Republican draft budget makes significant cuts to DOE's loan program funding.

The battle over DOE's loan programs is not yet over.  Today a dozen Democratic senators submitted a letter urging Senate leadership to preserve the current levels of loan program funding.  Led by Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington, other signatories include Senators Mary Landrieu (LA), Carl Levin (MI), Jeff Bingaman (NM), Ron Wyden (OR), Chris Coons (DE), Barbara Boxer (CA), Tim Johnson (SD), Jeanne Shaheen (NH), Jeff Merkley (OR), Tom Harkin (IA), and Dianne Feinstein (CA).  Will this be enough to sway the Senate to preserve DOE's funding level for its loan programs?

April 5, 2011 - DOE loan guarantees

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

As Congress wrestles with the U.S. budget, one piece of energy policy that is under fire is the Department of Energy's Loan Guarantee Program.  A loan guarantee represents a commitment by the government to cover a borrower's debt to a commercial lender in the event that the borrower defaults.  Loan guarantees thus allow the government to function as a financial backstop to ensure lenders that their loans will be repaid.  In practice, this can result in a lower cost of money for project developers.  Since the Energy Policy Act of 2005, the U.S. Department of Energy has used loan guarantees to help energy projects get financed, committing over $26 billion to support 21 projects ranging from nuclear power to solar, wind to transmission, biofuels to energy efficiency.  For example, last year I wrote about a DOE loan guarantee for a trio of solar projects in the Mojave desert.  (I also noted President Obama's announcement of loan guarantees for a nuclear power plant in Georgia, touted at the time as part of the "nuclear renaissance".)

In recent years, DOE has operated three loan programs, two of which derive their names from the legislation enacting them.  First, DOE's 1703, loan guarantee program is used to support innovative clean energy technologies that can't find conventional private financing due to high technology risks.  These technologies must avoid, reduce, or sequester air pollutants or anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases, and must truly be innovative: technologies with more than three implementations that have been active for more than five years are not eligible.  Second, DOE's 1705 program was added through the 2009 stimulus legislation; the 1705 program backstops certain renewable energy systems, electric power transmission systems and leading edge biofuels projects that commence construction no later than September 30, 2011.  Third, DOE offers support through its Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing (ATVM) Loan Program, which makes direct loans to support the development of advanced technology vehicles and associated components in the United States. 

As Congress continues to refine the federal budget, will DOE's loan guarantee programs make the cut?