Large hydroelectric projects around the world

Friday, September 30, 2011

Hydroelectricity provides a significant amount of usable power across the world.  According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, in 2008 hydroelectric generation produced 3,119,012 million kilowatt-hours, or 16% of the total electricity produced in the world.  In the U.S. between 1998 and 2009, hydroelectric generation produced between 6-9% of the nation's total electric generation, depending on water availability.

Hydroelectricity is also responsible for many of the largest generating facilities.  For example, the federal Grand Coulee Dam in Washington has a summer nameplate capacity of 7,079 megawatts, making it nearly twice as large as the next biggest U.S. power plant (Arizona's Palo Verde nuclear generating station).

Around the world, large hydroelectric projects produce immense amounts of power.  When China's Three Gorges Dam project on the Yangtze River is complete, it is projected to include 32 separate 700 megawatt generators, producing a total project capacity of 22.5 gigawatts.  This will make the Three Gorges Dam not only the largest hydroelectric dam in the world, but also the largest power station of any type.

Brazil's Itaipu Dam, producing up to about 14 gigawatts from the ParanĂ¡ River along the Brazil-Paraguay border, is both the second largest hydroelectric plant and the world's second largest power station of any type.

Brazilian developers have also proposed the Belo Monte dam on the Amazonian Xingu River, which has received key environmental permits despite opposition on social and environmental grounds.  If built, Belo Monte would be able to produce up to about 11 gigawatts of power, making it the third largest hydroelectric facility in the world.  This week, a Brazilian judge issued a legal injunction against the Belo Monte development, noting the risk that fisheries would be damaged by its construction and operation.  Will Belo Monte become the world's third largest power plant?

NY Great Lakes wind project ends

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Great Lakes of North America are home to significant potential for generating electricity from offshore wind.  As it turns out, Chicago is called the Windy City for a good reason, and the winds blow even more consistently over the lakes.  A study by the United States Department of Energy found 742.5 gigawatts of potential developable generation capacity in the Great Lakes.

In response to this potential, in 2009 the New York Power Authority announced plans to fund one or more offshore wind projects in the Great Lakes.  NYPA's Great Lakes Offshore Wind program (GLOW) issued a competitive solicitation for proposed projects, and received proposals from five potential developers.  As NYPA reviewed the bids, repeated delays in its announcement of winners and turnover within the Power Authority leadership pointed to increasing uncertainty about GLOW's future.

This week, the NYPA board voted to terminate the GLOW project.  As reported by the Elmira, NY-based Star Gazette, the trustees voted unanimously not to pursue the project at this time.  Reasons the board may have considered include local siting opposition and the size of the subsidies NYPA's consumers would have to pay project developers.  Under NYPA's model, a 150 megawatt offshore wind project would have received between $60 million and $100 million a year.  NYPA staff recommended that such an expenditure was not fiscally prudent at this time.

With GLOW dead in the water for now, offshore wind in New York's Great Lakes waters may not occur for some time.  Will other states or provinces be the first to try to capture the Great Lakes winds?

Computer energy efficiency increases

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Computers can do amazing things, but are often viewed as consuming significant amounts of energy.  For example, centralized server operations like large data centers can consume as much power as heavy industrial manufacturing.  Whether powered by the default electricity mix or by purely renewable power, we often think that crunching numbers on computers means using a lot of power.  For this reason, computer makers and customers alike push for energy efficiency in their computing activities.

Newly published research suggests that the energy efficiency of computers doubles roughly every 18 months.  A team of researchers led by Stanford professor Jonathan Koomey looked at the peak power consumption of electronic computing devices ranging from 1946's ENIAC to the present.  ENIAC, which the U.S. Army used to calculate trajectories for artillery, took up 1,800 square feet (bigger than the average U.S. house at the time), and could consume up to 150 kilowatts of electricity.  Modern computers, and even smart phones, can now outperform ENIAC when it comes to computation, but are much more efficient in terms of their power demanded to perform a fixed set of calculations.  According to what is now being called "Koomey's Law", over the years since ENIAC first powered up, computers' energy efficiency on that basis has doubled roughly every 18 months.

This finding follows on Professor Koomey's July 2011 report on data center energy usage, which found that although data centers consume more and more electricity each year, their energy consumption is growing less than their increase in server power.

Small hydro approved under fast process

Monday, September 19, 2011

This month, federal energy regulators approved a small hydroelectric project within two months of its formal proposal under an innovative streamlined regulatory path.

Recognizing the potential of small hydro projects, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is interested in simplifying the regulatory process for small projects.  Last year, FERC signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the state of Colorado to streamline the procedures for developing small-scale hydropower projects in that state.  Colorado has identified hundreds of small (5 MW or smaller) or conduit hydropower projects (turbines in water pipes and irrigation canals) whose total capacity could exceed 1,400 MW.  Under the Memorandum of Understanding, Colorado is developing a pilot program to test ways to simplify the processes through which project developers obtain exemptions for small projects.  For example, the application is presented to multiple agencies for simultaneous comment, rather than a prolonged multi-agency back and forth process.

Last week, FERC approved Colorado's first hydroelectric project under the Memorandum of Understanding.  Docketed as Project P-14230, the Meeker Wenschhof hydroelectric project will be developed on an existing ranch irrigation pipeline in northwestern Colorado.  Historically, water flowing through the pipe has been slowed by a valve before being stored in an underground cistern.  As approved by FERC, the rancher will install a 23-kilowatt turbine in place of the valve.  The project is expected to generate 100,000 kilowatt-hours per year on average.

The Meeker Wenschhof project's engineering details are interesting, making innovative and efficient use of the power of flowing water.  Equally interesting is the speed with which the project flew through the regulatory approval process, with the application granted just two months after it was filed with FERC.  Admittedly, this expedited process is currently limited to small hydro and conduit projects.  Nevertheless, the Meeker Wenschhof project's rapid approval illustrates how quickly the regulatory process can be completed if it is designed to accommodate developers' needs.

Maine green power offer moves forward

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Green power offers are one way to help connect electricity customers with renewable energy.  These voluntary programs are designed to make it easier for willing consumers to choose a greener energy mix for their home or business.  Green power offers are typically voluntary, meaning customers must affirmatively enroll in the program and select their product.  In many states, they create a mechanism for customers to buy renewable power over and above state renewable portfolio standards.  While customers in competitive markets are free to select their energy supplier, under the green power offer program one supplier is designated by regulators as the default green supplier at any given time.  This formal designation gives the default green supplier better marketing access to its customers and facilitates interactions with the transmission and distribution utility.

Maine’s green power offer will launch soon.  In December 2010, following on the state legislature’s enactment of a community-based renewable energy pilot program, the Maine Public Utilities Commission issued a request for proposals from suppliers to operate a green power offer for residential and small commercial electricity customers for a three year term.

Eligible resources for the Maine program include fuel cells, tidal power, solar arrays, geothermal installations, hydroelectric generators that meet all state and federal fish passage requirements, biomass generators, and wind power installations.  In response to the Maine commission's request for proposals, suppliers submitted bids proposing to supply products consisting of sufficient renewable energy credits (RECs) to cover half or all of each customer’s load.

At Tuesday's deliberative session, the Maine Public Utilities Commission selected the state’s first green power offer supplier.  While many of the details of the winner’s offering remain confidential for the moment, the regulators expressed interest in a flexible product composed entirely of RECs from renewable energy facilities in Maine.  The product would remain resource-agnostic, meaning the supplier could provide RECs from any eligible Maine resource.  This flexibility contrasts with other offers to deliver RECs from a specific resource such as wind.  This product, which comes in addition to a customer’s underlying energy supply and local utility wires charges, is reported to cost 1.5 cents per kilowatt-hour.

With the winner selected, Maine’s green power offer will move forward.  The success of the program will depend on a number of factors including customers’ appetites, the economy, and the green supplier’s marketing practices.

Delaware offshore wind project faces deadline, uncertainty

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Securing a power purchase agreement – a long-term contract by a utility or power marketer to buy electric energy from a generator – is often a key step in the finance and development of a new electric generation project.  Where the buyer is a state-regulated utility, as in the case of Cape Wind’s offshore wind PPA with National Grid, state approval of the contract may be required.

In 2008, offshore wind developer Bluewater Wind Delaware, LLC signed a 25-year contract with utility Delmarva Power for up to 200 megawatts of power from Bluewater’s proposed wind farm 11.5 miles off the Delaware coast.  That deal was approved by the Delaware Public Service Commission in 2008, and covers about a third of the project’s expected output.

Like most power purchase agreements entered into prior to project construction, the Bluewater-Delmarva contract contained a series of milestones and deadlines that each party must meet on schedule, or else the agreement may be terminated.  Many of these project milestones specified in the PPA were predicated on expectations that agencies like the former U.S. Minerals Management Service would develop regulations and programs allowing for the development of offshore wind projects.  As these regulatory developments took longer than expected, last year Delmarva got the Delaware PSC’s permission to extend a number of these deadlines.

While most of these deadlines were extended for two years, one date was extended for only three months.  Under the original PPA, Bluewater could recover $4 million of its $6 million development security deposit as late as June 23, 2011 if it cancelled the deal.  While the Delaware PSC partially extended this deadline, Bluewater only has until September 23, 2011 to withdraw from the agreement or else it will forfeit $2.75 million of its deposit.

Reports claim that Bluewater believes it needs a federal loan guarantee to complete the project’s finance – but funding for the Department of Energy’s loan program has been drastically slashed.  Will the offshore wind developer choose to press forward given this uncertainty?  Will the utility and the developer agree to seek a further deadline extension?  What will Congress do to the DOE loan programs?

Monhegan ocean energy

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The waters around the Maine island of Monhegan are a powerful force.  Located about 12 nautical miles offshore, Monhegan sports both a vibrant year-round community and significant seasonal tourism industry.  The island’s ocean resources – including fish, lobster, wildlife and scenic location – form the basis for much of its economy.
Nearing the dock, Monhegan.

Monhegan’s waters may also be home to ocean energy resources.  In 2009, the Maine Ocean Energy Task Force selected a site off Monhegan as an offshore wind test site.  At the site about 2 miles south of the island, the University of Maine-led DeepCWind Consortium plans to develop a scale-model floating platform and test turbine.  The Monhegan wind project may be built and installed in 2012.

Monhegan is lashed by powerful waves as well, as evidenced by stories of hurricane-spawned waves sweeping people away from the island.    Waves can contain significant amounts of energy; under the right circumstances, some of that wave energy can be harnessed to produce usable power.  Although there are no formal proposals to develop wave energy projects off Monhegan, the rocky eastern shore demonstrates the power of the ocean.

Landmark FERC electric orders promote fairness

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is the lead federal agency in a variety of energy-related fields.  FERC regulates the transmission and wholesale sales of electricity in interstate commerce, the transmission and sale of natural gas for resale in interstate commerce, and the transportation of oil by pipeline in interstate commerce.  FERC also approves the siting (and abandonment) of interstate natural gas pipelines and storage facilities, as well as siting applications for electric transmission projects under limited circumstances.  FERC also licenses and inspects private, municipal, and state hydroelectric projects.
FERC has issued a number of landmark orders pursuant to its jurisdiction over electric utilities.  These landmark orders focusing on promoting fair and competitive markets include:
  • Order No. 888 (Transmission Open Access. Promoting Wholesale Competition Through Open Access Non-discriminatory Transmission Services by Public Utilities; Recovery of Stranded Costs by Public Utilities and Transmitting Utilities).  This landmark rulemaking fostered greater competition in wholesale power markets by reducing barriers to entry in the provision of transmission service.  Historically, vertically integrated utilities dominated the electric power industry.  Despite efforts to empower independent power producers and to promote competition, the Commission noted that “[b]ecause many traditional vertically integrated utilities still did not provide open access to third parties and favored their own generation if and when they provided transmission access to third parties, access to cheaper, more efficient generation sources remained limited.”  In 1996, the Commission adopted Order No. 888 prohibiting public utilities from using their monopoly power over transmission to unduly discriminate against others.  The Commission required interstate transmission utilities to file open access non-discriminatory transmission tariffs – Open Access Transmission Tariff or OATTs – containing minimum terms and conditions of non-discriminatory service. It also obligated such public utilities to “functionally unbundle” their generation and transmission services.
  • Order No. 890.  An outgrowth of Docket Nos. RM05-17-000 & RM05-25-000 (Preventing Undue Discrimination and Preference in Transmission Service), Order No. 890 cracked down on opportunities for utilities to unduly discriminate against certain customers under the Commission’s pro forma OATT.  In Order No. 890, the Commission strengthened its pro forma OATT to remedy undue discrimination, facilitate the Commission’s enforcement, and increase transparency of transmission planning and use rules.
  • Order No. 1000.  The result of Docket No. RM10-23-000 (Transmission Planning and Cost Allocation by Transmission Owning and Operating Public Utilities), FERC Order No. 1000 reforms how public utilities plan and pay for transmission upgrades.  Previously, grid operators had fairly broad discretion to determine who should pay for an approved transmission line -- all regional consumers, the subset of consumers benefited by the line, generators, or others.  FERC observed that the lack of a uniform framework for cost allocation decisions meant that on the one hand, consumers could be paying more for transmission than they should, while on the other hand renewable power projects might be stifled by a lack of transmission expansion.  To fix this problem, the Commission issued Order No. 1000 to provide a framework for fair and open evaluation of transmission needs and to allocate the costs of transmission solutions fairly to those who receive benefits from them.
  • Order No. 719.  The product of Docket Nos. RM07-19-000 and AD07-7-000 (Wholesale Competition in Regions with Organized Electric Markets), Order No. 719 offered a series of reforms to improve the operation of organized wholesale electric power markets.  Based on the premise that improving the competitiveness of organized wholesale markets is integral to the Commission's mission, FERC required regional grid operators to reform their tariffs and practices in the areas of demand response, long-term power contracting, market monitoring, and the responsiveness grid operators to their customers – and through them, to the consumers who benefit from and pay for electricity services.
  • Order No. 745.  The product of Docket No. RM10-17-000 (Demand Response Compensation in Organized Wholesale Energy Markets), Order No. 745 requires regional grid operators to compensate customers fairly for reducing their consumption of electric energy in response to the grid operator’s warnings of supply scarcity – demand response – when that reduction in energy use is cost-effective and capable of displacing the need to additional generation online.