Park and forest service renewable energy

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Managers of national and state parks and forests are considering whether they can cut their energy bill by developing distributed generation projects.  In many cases, distributed generation such as solar photovoltaic systems can be a good match for powering facilities like park headquarters, campgrounds, and maintenance buildings.  This can be especially true for places that are off the main electric grid, such as pockets of development within preserved lands.  It can also be true for grid-tied facilities, as incentives like net metering can make rooftop solar or other projects cost-effective for the end user.

Solar photovoltaic panels power the campground at Goblin Valley State Park, Utah.

Whether developed by a national park or state forest, connecting renewable generation to the grid involves working with the local electric utility.  In many parts of the country, interconnecting with the utility can be a challenging process.  Utilities typically must study whether the proposed generation can work with the existing set of transmission and distribution wires, and may get into disputes with customers over whether and how much upgrading is needed.  Some utilities claim to be swamped with interconnection requests, and are missing deadlines for studying system impacts and cooperating with customers.

In California, a different set of difficulties is preventing millions of dollars of renewable energy projects on federal land from connecting to the grid.  In response to economic incentives favoring distributed generation, the National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service have developed major new renewable projects at a variety of sites in California.  For example, the Park Service developed an $800,000 solar project at Death Valley National Park, anticipated to cut 70% off the visitor center's annual electric bill of about $45,724.  The Forest Service developed a large solar project at its Mono Lake facilities, along with other projects at existing sites.  However, the federal agencies have been unable to sign interconnection agreements with utility Southern California Edison, meaning the parks' renewable projects remain idle despite federal policy supporting sustainable operations.

At issue is a provision of federal law that prevents agencies from signing contracts exposing them to the risk of unknown future damages because such contracts would commit money outside the congressional budgeting process.  Federal agencies have been able to work around this restriction with other utilities, as evidenced by Yosemite National Park's successful interconnection of its $5.8 million solar photovoltaic project with the Pacific Gas & Electric grid.  Southern California Edison appears to be a holdout.

Will 2012 see a continuation of the trend toward replacing diesel electric generation in parks and national forests with alternative resources?

No comments:

Post a Comment