2014: natural gas, wind, solar led new projects

Friday, January 30, 2015

Natural gas, wind, and solar power projects dominated the rankings of new U.S. electric generation placed in service in 2014.

According to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission staff's December 2014 Energy Infrastructure Update, developers placed in service 15,384 megawatts of new utility-scale electric generation capacity in 2014.  This new capacity buildout is within 4% of 2013's figure (15,886 megawatts).

Of 2014's new generating capacity, nearly half (7,485 megawatts, or 49%) is powered by natural gas.  U.S. production of natural gas has increased significantly in recent years, and natural gas prices have decreased in most regions of the country.  At the same time, new environmental regulations have made historically dominant coal relatively more expensive as a fuel source, while relatively low carbon emissions have made natural gas more attractive.  2014 thus continued the trends of coal-fired power plant retirement and the construction of new natural gas-fired generating capacity.

Wind represents the next largest category of new U.S. electric generating capacity placed in service in 2014.  Nearly 27% of 2014's new capacity, or 4,080 megawatts, is powered by wind.  As President Obama noted in his 2015 State of the Union address, the U.S. has more wind energy supplying its electrical grid than any other country.

Solar energy represents the third largest category of new generation placed in service last year.  Over 20% of new 2014 capacity, or 3,139 megawatts, is powered by solar energy.  The rapid growth of solar energy in the U.S. was also featured in President Obama's 2015 State of the Union speech, in which he noted, "Every three weeks, we bring online as much solar power as we did in all of 2008."

Combined, these three energy sources (natural gas, wind, and solar) account for over 95% of all new utility-scale generation capacity placed in service in 2014. Of the remaining capacity, biomass took the largest share (1.6% of total new capacity), with a diverse mix of other sources including water power, coal, and nuclear rounding out the list.  Notably, renewable sources including wind, solar, biomass, and hydropower account for nearly half of all new capacity placed in service in 2014.

What will 2015 bring?

Federal offshore wind auction held for sites off Massachusetts

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Federal ocean energy managers have concluded an auction to lease over 350,000 acres off the Massachusetts coast to prepare for offshore wind development.  Of the four parcels up for bid in today's auction, one was provisionally awarded to RES America Developments, Inc. and another to Offshore MW LLC.  Two other parcels failed to attract any bids.

Onshore wind turbines near the Massachusetts coast.
In today's auction conducted by the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), RES America Developments, Inc. provisionally won the rights to Lease OCS-A 0500 (187,523 acres) after two rounds of bidding, with a winning bid of $281,285.  Offshore MW LLC provisionally won the rights to Lease OCS-A 0501 (166,886 acres) after two rounds of bidding, with a winning bid of $166,886.  These winning bids are significantly below those that were required to win previous federal competitive lease sales for offshore wind sites.

While today's lease awards are a step forward for U.S. offshore wind, neither lease awarded today grants the right to construct or operate an offshore wind project.  Rather, these leases have a preliminary term of one year, to allow the lessee time to prepare a Site Assessment Plan describing the installation of meteorological towers and buoys and other activities the lessee plans to perform to assess local wind resources and ocean conditions.  Site Assessment Plans must be submitted to BOEM for review and approval.

Once BOEM approves a Site Assessment Plan, the lessee will then have up to five years in which to prepare and submit to BOEM a Construction and Operations Plan (COP) providing detailed information for the construction and operation of a wind energy project on the lease.  After BOEM receives a Construction and Operations Plan from a lessee, BOEM will conduct an environmental review of and public comment period for the proposed project.  If BOEM approves a Construction and Operations Plan, the lessee will have an operations term of 25 years.

Lease OCS-A 0502 (248,015 acres) and Lease OCS-A 0503 (140,554 acres) did not receive bids in today's auction.  As shown on a BOEM nautical chart of the Massachusetts Wind Energy Area, these lease areas are generally farther from the Massachusetts coast than the areas awarded through today's auction.

BOEM touts its offshore wind leasing program as part of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan.  The auction held today by BOEM represents the nation’s fourth competitive lease sale for renewable energy sites in federal waters.  Including this auction, competitive lease sales have generated more than $14.5 million in high bids for more than 700,000 acres in federal waters.  Previous auctions covered sites off Rhode Island and Massachusetts, Virginia, and Maryland.  BOEM expects to hold another competitive lease sale offshore the New Jersey coast in 2015.  

FERC and EPA's Clean Power Plan

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Following the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's 2014 proposal to regulate carbon emissions from electric power plants and other major sources, federal energy regulators have scheduled a series of public technical conferences on how the Clean Power Plan may affect electric reliability, wholesale electric markets and operations, and energy infrastructure.

On June 2, 2014, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced the Clean Power Plan, its proposed rule under Section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act to reduce carbon emissions from the nation's power plants.  Designed to reduce carbon emissions 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, EPA's proposal would impose limits on each state's rate of carbon emissions per megawatt-hour of electric energy generated.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission regulates the transmission and wholesale sales of electricity in interstate commerce, monitors energy markets, and protects the reliability of the high voltage interstate transmission system.  Acting out of concern over the possible impacts of the EPA Clean Power Plan on its regulated sector, on December 9, 2014, the Commission scheduled a series of technical conferences to develop public comment on these issues.

First, the Commission will hold a National Overview technical conference on February 19, 2015, at its Washington, DC headquarters.  Earlier this month, the Commission issued a supplemental notice describing the agenda for the National Overview.  After an introduction by EPA, the Commission expects to discuss:
  • Electric reliability considerations: How will the Clean Power Plan affect electric reliability?  How can the U.S. sustain reliability as states and regions develop their plans to comply with the proposed carbon rule?  How could state, regional, and federal plans for compliance affect grid operations?  What tools are available to identify potential reliability impacts?  How can reliability planning processes and compliance planning efforts  coordinated to address potential issues?  What is the Commission's role in this area?
  • Identifying and addressing infrastructure needs: What potential infrastructure needs may arise from various state or regional compliance approaches?  How can any infrastructure needs met in a timely manner in order to ensure system reliability?  How can relevant planning entities, industry, and states coordinate reliability and infrastructure planning and siting processes with state and/or regional environmental compliance efforts to ensure the adequate and timely development of new infrastructure?  Are additional mechanisms needed to ensure timely development of new infrastructure? Are adaptations to current Commission policies needed to facilitate the infrastructure needed for compliance with the proposed Clean Power Plan?
  • Potential implications for Commission-jurisdictional markets:  How could potential compliance approaches to the proposed Clean Power Plan impact Commission-jurisdictional electric and natural gas markets?  What aspects, if any, of the wholesale and interstate markets would facilitate implementation of state or regional compliance plans?  What tools are available to address market issues as they arise?  What opportunities are available to coordinate compliance approaches with Commission-jurisdictional markets to meet the requirements of the proposed Clean Power Plan rule?
Following the National Overview, the Commission has scheduled three regional conferences in February and March 2015.

Natural Gas Pipeline Permitting Reform Act

Monday, January 26, 2015

Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to pass a bill to expedite federal review of some spects of proposed natural gas pipelines.  Known as H.R. 161, the Natural Gas Pipeline Permitting Reform Act is officially summarized as providing for the "timely consideration of all licenses, permits, and approvals required under Federal law with respect to the siting, construction, expansion, or operation of any natural gas pipeline projects."  If enacted into law, what would H.R. 161 do?

Congress debates proposed reforms to the natural gas pipeline permitting process.
Relatively brief for federal legislation, the printed draft of H.R. 161 comes in at just 3 pages.  Overall, it defines and accelerates the timelines for federal approvals of some proposed natural gas pipelines.  If enacted, the bill would give the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission one year to decide whether or not to issue a pipeline permit, following which other federal agencies would have 90 days to issue any ancillary permits.

The pipelines that would benefit from this bill are those that have applied to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission under Section 7 of the Natural Gas Act (15 U.S.C. 717f) for a certificate of public convenience and necessity, and have used the Commission's "prefiling" process.

First, H.R. 161 amends Section 7 of the Natural Gas Act to require the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to approve or deny an application for a certificate of public convenience and necessity for a prefiled project not later than 12 months after receiving a complete application that is ready to be processed.

Second, H.R. 161 requires any agency responsible for issuing any license, permit, or approval required under Federal law in connection with a prefiled project for which a certificate of public convenience and necessity is sought under the Natural Gas Act to approve or deny the issuance of the license, permit, or approval not later than 90 days after the Commission issues its final environmental document relating to the project.  Generally speaking, if such as agency cannot complete its review process within this timeline, it is compelled to deny the license, permit, or approval, but H.R. 161 would allow the Commission to extend the 90 day deadline by an additional 30 days.  H.R. 161 also changes federal law to provide that in the case of agency inaction within the 90 day time period or extra 30 day period, the requested license, permit, or approval shall take effect upon the expiration of 30 days after the end of such period.

On January 22, the House voted 253-169 in favor of the bill.  It now goes before the Senate.  But on January 20, the Executive Office of the President issued a statement of administrative policy stating, "If the President were presented with H.R. 161, his senior advisors would recommend that he veto the bill."  In that administrative policy statement, the administration acknowledged the need for additional energy infrastructure and supports the timely consideration of project applications, but notes risks from that H.R. 161.  These risks include effective limits on public participation in pipeline review processes, and that agencies may be forced to make decisions based on incomplete information or information that may not be available.  The executive branch's statement also cites a FERC report that since Fiscal Year 2009, FERC has completed action on 91 percent (512 out of 563) of all pipeline applications that it has received within one year of receipt, with the remaining decisions involving complex proposals that merit additional review and consideration.

Will the Natural Gas Pipeline Permitting Reform Act be enacted into law?  How will its enactment -- or non-enactment -- affect proposed new natural gas pipelines, and the customers they would serve?

FERC issues EIS for Algonquin Incremental Market gas project

Friday, January 23, 2015

Staff of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission have issued a final Environmental Impact Statement for a proposed natural gas transmission project connecting New York and New England.  In that report, Commission staff found that Algonquin Gas Transmission, LLC's Algonquin Incremental Market Project would result in some adverse environmental impacts, but that most of these impacts could be mitigated and reduced to less-than-significant levels.

A marker for the Williams Northwest Pipeline in Arches National Park, Utah.
 Algonquin Gas Transmission, LLC -- a subsidiary of Spectra Energy Partners, LP -- already owns a natural gas pipeline and transmission network running from the Texas Eastern Transmission system in New Jersey to the Maritimes & Northeast system near Boston.

In 2014, Algonquin proposed the Algonquin Incremental Market project.  The AIM project's would provide firm transportation service of 342,000 dekatherms per day of natural gas to local distribution companies and municipal utilities in Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts.  Algonquin’s stated objectives for the Project are:
  • to provide the pipeline capacity necessary to transport additional natural gas supplies to meet the immediate and future load growth demands of local gas utilities in southern New England;
  • eliminate capacity constraints on existing pipeline systems in New York State and southern New England;
  • provide access to growing natural gas supply areas in the Northeast region to increase competition and reduce volatility in natural gas pricing in southern New England;
  • improve existing compressor station emissions through the replacement of existing compressor units with new, efficient units; and
  • provide the additional service by November 2016.

As envisioned by Algonquin, the project will include the construction and operation of about 37.4 miles of natural gas pipeline in New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts.  The project entails replacing some segments of existing pipeline, extending an existing loop pipeline to increase the system's capacity to ship gas, and installing some new pipeline.  It also includes modifications to six existing compressor stations, modifying existing meter and regulating stations, and the construction of 3 new meter and regulation stations.

Under federal law, Algonquin needs authorization from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to construct and operate the AIM project.  Algonquin filed its application to the FERC on February 28, 2014.  As part of the FERC's review process, the National Environmental Policy Act requires the agency to analyze and document the environmental effects of proposed federal actions such as granting Algonquin's application.

In Algonquin's case, that documentation took the form of a Final Environmental Impact Statement issued by the FERC staff today. In the final EIS, FERC's environmental analysts conclude that construction and operation of the AIM project would result in some adverse environmental impacts. However, FERC staff found that most of these impacts would be reduced to less-than-significant levels with the implementation of mitigation measures and plans proposed by Algonquin, along with additional measures recommended by the FERC staff.  Staff pointed to factors including the degree to which proposed AIM project pipeline facilities would be within or adjacent to existing rights-of-way, the planned use of the horizontal directional drill method to cross the Hudson and Still Rivers, which would avoid any direct impacts on these resources, as well as plans to minimize impacts on natural and cultural resources during construction and operation of the Project.

With the final Environmental Impact Statement issued, the FERC Commissioners will consider its staff's recommendations in making a final a decision on the AIM project.  Multiple studies have highlighted the need for up to 2 billion cubic feet per day (Bcf/d) of new pipeline capacity into New England and neighboring markets to improve reliability and reduce the cost to consumers of electricity and natural gas.  At a planned size of 342,000 dekatherms (or 0.342 Bcf) per day, the AIM project is relatively small in capacity compared to other proposed projects such as Tennessee Gas Pipeline Company, L.L.P.'s proposed Northeast Energy Direct Project, which is designed to be scalable up to 1.2 to 2.2 billion cubic feet per day of natural gas capacity.  Which pipelines end up being approved and built will shape the New England energy landscape in the coming years.

Energy and State of the Union 2015

Thursday, January 22, 2015

President Obama delivered his 2015 State of the Union address on January 20, 2015.  In his remarks as prepared for delivery, he addressed energy-related themes including the growth of U.S. energy resource production and climate change.

As in his 2013 and 2014 addresses, increased domestic production of energy resources featured prominently in the 2015 State of the Union speech, for its economic, political, and national security benefits:
At this moment – with a growing economy, shrinking deficits, bustling industry, and booming energy production – we have risen from recession freer to write our own future than any other nation on Earth.  It’s now up to us to choose who we want to be over the next fifteen years, and for decades to come...
We believed we could reduce our dependence on foreign oil and protect our planet.  And today, America is number one in oil and gas.  America is number one in wind power.  Every three weeks, we bring online as much solar power as we did in all of 2008.  And thanks to lower gas prices and higher fuel standards, the typical family this year should save $750 at the pump.
During the past several years, U.S. production of oil and natural gas has increased significantly.  According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, total U.S. crude oil production averaged an estimated 9.2 million barrels per day (bbl/d) in December 2014, and forecasts for oil productino continue to grow.  EIA predicts that projected crude oil production will reach 9.5 million bbl/d in 2016, constituting the second-highest annual average level of production in U.S. history (after 9.6 million bbl/d in 1970.)

EIA also predicts continued growth in the use of renewable energy resources to produce electricity and heat. In 2014, 6.4% of electric generation came from hydropower and 6.7% from nonhydropower renewables. EIA projects continued growth of nonhydropower renewables, reaching an electricity generation share of 7.9% by 2016.  Wind is the largest source of nonhydropower renewable generation, and it is projected to contribute 5.3% of total electricity generation in 2016.

President Obama also addressed climate change in this year's State of the Union address, and his administration's efforts to combat and mitigate its effects:
2014 was the planet’s warmest year on record.  Now, one year doesn’t make a trend, but this does – 14 of the 15 warmest years on record have all fallen in the first 15 years of this century. 
I’ve heard some folks try to dodge the evidence by saying they’re not scientists; that we don’t have enough information to act.  Well, I’m not a scientist, either.  But you know what – I know a lot of really good scientists at NASA, and NOAA, and at our major universities.  The best scientists in the world are all telling us that our activities are changing the climate, and if we do not act forcefully, we’ll continue to see rising oceans, longer, hotter heat waves, dangerous droughts and floods, and massive disruptions that can trigger greater migration, conflict, and hunger around the globe.  The Pentagon says that climate change poses immediate risks to our national security.  We should act like it.
That’s why, over the past six years, we’ve done more than ever before to combat climate change, from the way we produce energy, to the way we use it.  That’s why we’ve set aside more public lands and waters than any administration in history.  And that’s why I will not let this Congress endanger the health of our children by turning back the clock on our efforts.  I am determined to make sure American leadership drives international action.  In Beijing, we made an historic announcement – the United States will double the pace at which we cut carbon pollution, and China committed, for the first time, to limiting their emissions.  And because the world’s two largest economies came together, other nations are now stepping up, and offering hope that, this year, the world will finally reach an agreement to protect the one planet we’ve got.
His 2015 remarks on climate change reflect a belief or fear that Congress will not act on the issue, or will act to frustrate the Obama administration's efforts on climate change.  In 2013, President Obama asked Congress to develop a market-based solution to climate change, but said he would take executive action if Congress failed to act.  In 2014, he noted Congress's apparent unwillingness to act, and highlighted his administration's proposed new standards on power plant emissions of carbon.  This year's remarks continue the trend of featuring executive-branch solutions, and downplaying the likelihood of near-term legislative support.

Will U.S. production of energy continue to grow?  What economic, political, and national security impacts will flow from the shifts in and growth of the U.S. energy sector?  Will the U.S. continue to act -- or take more serious action -- on climate change?  The remainder of 2015 -- and of President Obama's term in office, which runs into January 2017 -- will show how these themes evolve.

Topaz Solar becomes largest solar power project

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

A recent expansion has made a California solar energy project the world’s largest solar facility. Built in three phases, MidAmerican Renewables LLC’s Topaz Solar project in San Luis Obispo County now sports 550 MW total generating capacity.

A small distributed solar photovoltaic installation in Arches National Park, Utah -- much smaller than the Topaz Solar project.

Iowa-based MidAmerican Renewables LLC is a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway Energy formed to handle its expansion into the unregulated renewables market.  Its subsidiaries MidAmerican Solar, MidAmerican Wind, MidAmerican Geothermal and MidAmerican Hydro each focus on particular types of renewable energy generating technology.  In all, MidAmerican controls over 3,000 MW of renewable generating capacity in the U.S.

MidAmerican acquired the Topaz Solar project from First Solar in January 2012, after First Solar had acquired previous project developer OptiSolar, Inc.  Project construction began in November 2011, and proceeded in three phases.  Earlier phases came online in February 2013 and in January 2014, for a total of 300 MW of capacity.  With the recent expansion, the 550-megawatt project includes over 8 million photovoltaic modules, installed on 4,700 acres of the Carrizo Plain in the southern California desert.

The power produced by the project is sold to utility Pacific Gas and Electric Company under a 25-year power purchase agreement.  Topaz Solar won the long-term contract rights through its response to a 2007 solicitation by PG&E for renewable power.

According to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the Topaz Solar project is now the world's largest solar energy plant.