January 28, 2011 - Utah power prices

Friday, January 28, 2011

Earlier this month, I noted that low power prices in Utah are attracting development and jobs to that state.  For example, the National Security Agency chose Utah to site a new 1 million square foot data center that may consume up to 65 megawatts of power - electricity that is generally cheaper in Utah than in many other states.  (The EIA reports that the September 2010 average all-sector electricity price in Utah was just 7.42 cents per kWh, significantly below the U.S. average of 10.24 cents per kWh for that time period.)

Now, PacifiCorp, operating as Rocky Mountain Power in Utah, has requested permission from the Public Service Commission of Utah to increase prices by an overall average of 13.7 percent. Rocky Mountain Power describes this price request as "necessary to serve our Utah customers’ growing electricity needs and to comply with environmental requirements".  In a 4-page PDF, Rocky Mountain Power points to increasing demand in Utah, and forecasts continued increases in demand based on forecasts of economic growth.  (As I noted last year, energy consumption has traditionally been viewed as directly correlated to GDP.)   Rocky Mountain Power states that building new facilities (generation and transmission) is more expensive than older facilities: "Our newest power plants are primarily natural gas and wind projects. While among the lowest cost options today, either one is about twice as expensive as the generating plants built in the 1970s and early 1980s."  Finally, Rocky Mountain Power points out, "Compared with our largest industrial customers, the company’s returns are modest and in line with other electricity providers."

The Public Service Commission of Utah will now consider Rocky Mountain Power's request.

January 25, 2011 - Ruby Pipeline

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Photo: a recent view of the beach in Seal Harbor, Maine.
Last week, I had the chance to see the development of the Ruby Pipeline in northern Utah.  Construction of this project started in July 2010, and work is proceeding along the 680-mile route from Wyoming, across Utah and Nevada, to Oregon.  The project is aiming to begin shipping gas from the Rocky Mountain region in June 2011.  The pipeline will interconnect with other pipelines serving local distribution companies with customers in California, Nevada and Oregon.  It is being developed by El Paso Corporation, the owner of North America’s largest gas pipeline system and one of the continent's largest independent natural gas producers.

Here's a link to the project's website and a PDF of the route map.  I saw a portion of the route across Box Elder and Cache Counties in Utah, where the pipeline runs along the Wasatch Front and climbs up over a pass to Cache Valley.  The pipeline itself generally runs underground (buried about 3 feet deep).

If you're really interested, here's a link to the pipeline's tariff (a 236-page PDF).

January 21, 2011 - quick update

Friday, January 21, 2011

A quick update from the road: I've been in Utah, getting a first-hand look at the Ruby Pipeline.  This project being developed by El Paso Corporation's subsidiary Ruby Pipeline, L.L.C. represents about $3 billion in investment in natural gas infrastructure.  The route travels about 680 miles from the Opal Hub in Wyoming to Malin, Oregon, and has an initial design capacity of up to 1.5 billion cubic feet per day.  As I've noted before, Utah already has low electricity prices, and a good supply of natural gas to businesses and households alike.  Next week, I'll share some photos of the project, and some observations about its impacts.

January 11, 2011- Maine's Supreme Judicial Court to consider two wind cases

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

In any major development, securing siting and environmental approvals is a key step.  This can be especially true when siting renewable and wind energy projects, where local sentiments about siting can be strong.  This afternoon, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court will entertain oral argument on two appeals relating to separate wind energy generation projects in Maine.  Both are appeals of orders of the Maine Board of Environmental Protection issuing permits to projects.

In the first case, Concerned Citizens to Save Roxbury Pond et al. v. Board of Environmental Protection, a group of individuals and camp owners are challenging the Board's issuance of permits to Record Hill Wind, LLC.  Record Hill intends to construct a wind energy facility in Roxbury, Maine.  (This summer, the Maine PUC conditionally approved a plan to upgrade transmission lines from 34 kV to 115 kV to enable the Record Hill project to get its power out.) The citizens now argue that the Board committed a variety of errors in the case, including denying their requests to hold a public hearing and to supplement the record after it was closed.  The citizens also argue that the Board improperly reached findings that Record Hill had sufficiently demonstrated safeguards to prevent adverse health effects from noise, financial capacity to fund the project, and licensing requirements with respect to decommissioning the project.

In the second case, Martha A. Powers Trust et al. v. Board of Environmental Protection, appellants challenge a decision of the Board issuing permits to Evergreen Wind Power II, LLC, to construct a wind energy facility in the Town of Oakfield.  Similarly, in this case, appellants claim that the Board committed a variety of errors in the case, including denying a request to hold a public hearing.  Appellants also dispute whether the developer sufficiently demonstrated safeguards to prevent adverse health effects from noise, financial capacity to fund the project, and decommissioning requirements.

After today's oral argument, the Court will likely take the matters under advisement.  In each case, the Court should issue a written opinion providing its analysis and judgment.  How will the agency's permits weather these gusts?

January 10, 2011 - Ballville Dam removal; Lake Erie wind

Monday, January 10, 2011

As many dams in America are approaching their centenary years, dam owners face pressures to maintain or upgrade their infrastructure to comply with safety or environmental regulations - or else face dam removal.  Located outside Fremont, Ohio, the Ballville Dam now faces this choice.

Constructed in 1911, the Ballville Dam was built on the Sandusky River about a dozen miles upstream from Lake Erie to impound and direct water into a downstream hydroelectric station.  The dam is 34.4 feet high and over 300 feet long.  In 1946, the downstream hydroelectric facility ceased generation.  In 1959, the city of Fremont bought the Ballville dam for water supply.  In the ensuing 50 years, issues including upkeep and maintenance costs for the dam led the city to create an alternative reservoir to replace the dam.  The dam has been implicated in fish passage problems, and its removal is anticipated to open up over 22 miles of habitat to gamefish like walleye.  The dam has also been implicated in problems with ice jams above Fremont.  All this, without a revenue stream from the dam, has led Fremont to work towards dam removal.  Fremont has since won approximately $6 million dollars in grant funding to support dam removal, which is slated for summer 2011.

If the dam is removed, large amounts of backed up sediment - including a contaminant burden of heavy metals and polyaromatic hydrocarbons - will either come with it or be swept downstream into Lake Erie.  A report suggests 350,000 cubic meters of sediment may need to be removed to establish the channel of the Sandusky River through the impoundment.  However, the report suggests that the sediment pollutant concentrations are less than or equal to those in existing Lake Erie sediment, and thus that mixing with the lake would dilute any effects.

Interestingly, the Ballville Dam has faced trouble before.  Two years after its construction, the dam failed due to poor anchoring into the sediment, causing serious flooding in Fremont.  Today's dam was rebuilt using a stronger foundation. In 1913, the dam served a useful purpose: supporting the nearby hydroelectric station.  In 2011, without that support for hydroelectric generation, will the Ballville Dam be removed?

Meanwhile, on Lake Erie, the Lake Erie Energy Development Corporation continues to make progress toward the nation's first inland offshore wind development: five wind turbines in state waters about 7 miles off Cleveland.  Great Lakes wind offers many of the advantages of both terrestrial and oceanic wind, while posing other challenges.  Will the Lake Erie project be the first to reach success?

January 7, 2011 - data center power demands

Friday, January 7, 2011

As the volume of digital data we create and consume increases, how much electricity is required to store, manage and analyze this information?  Smart grid technology has been described as relying on the "internet of things", a vision becoming real of constant real-time data communications between interconnected devices like home appliances, heating systems, and vehicles and the overall power grid.  This will represent a multifold increase in the volume of data being produced - and for those entities interested in analyzing that data, a likely increase in the volume of energy required to do so.

Even now, when smart grid communications are still a relatively small portion of the total volume of data flying around the country, it can take a surprisingly large amount of electricity to run a data storage and analysis center.  In Utah, the National Security Agency has just broken ground for its Utah Data Center, a complex enclosing about 1 million square feet of space, 100,000 square feet of which will be devoted to computer hardware.  Sen. Orrin Hatch has been quoted as describing the data center as creating 100 to 200 jobs for information technology specialists and engineers.  The NSA describes the data center as a component of the Comprehensive National Cyber-security Initiative designed to help the intelligence community meet domestic cyber-security requirements.

So how much power will the Utah Data Center consume?  Apparently up to 65 megawatts.  Indeed, the availability and cost of that much power was one factor behind the siting of the facility in Utah.  In 2006, the agency reportedly nearly consumed the entire free electric capacity of the Baltimore, Maryland power grid, causing the agency to look elsewhere for the installation of this new computing capacity.  The relatively low cost of energy in Utah may also have been attractive; the EIA reports that the September 2010 average all-sector electricity price in Utah was just 7.42 cents per kWh, significantly below the U.S. average of 10.24 cents per kWh for that time period, let alone costlier markets like Washington, D.C. (13.74 cents/kWh), California (15.27 cents/kWh), or Connecticut (17.26 cents/kWh).

As society generates more and more data, can we expect to see more and more data centers?  Will they consume more and more electricity?  Because data can be directed to any geographic location, does this place areas with less expensive power at a relative advantage for the economic development opportunities posed by data centers?

January 5, 2011 - Maine PUC opens smart meter investigation

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Smart grid infrastructure has the potential to not only reduce the cost of electricity to consumers, but also to enable society to use energy more wisely.  Smart meter installation programs have been approved by FERC, and are moving forward in a number of utilities' service territories.  In Maine, Central Maine Power's $192 million Automated Metering Infrastructure (AMI) program was originally approved by the Maine Public Utilities Commission in February 2010 (Docket Number 2007-215).  The PUC approved the AMI program based on its benefits, including improving customer service, enhancing storm restoration efforts, and reducing both ratepayer and utility costs.  CMP secured a federal Department of Energy (DOE) grant to fund about half the cost of the AMI program.  Smart meters are now being installed in homes and businesses in CMP's territory, with over 50,000 already deployed in the field out of about 620,000 total meters to be installed.

Yet when it comes to the details of the rollout, concerns have been raised including the alleged lack of an opt-out for ratepayers who do not wish to be metered through smart meters.  Two separate ten-person complaints were filed to the PUC requesting an investigation of the AMI program (Docket Numbers 2010-345, and 2010-389).  This week, the Maine PUC voted unanimously to open an investigation of the issues raised, including both whether there truly is no opt-out, as well as whether such a lack of an opt-out would be “unreasonable, insufficient or unjustly discriminatory”.  The investigation may also include an evaluation of the availability and technical feasibility of alternative metering technologies that don't rely on wireless communications, as well as the cost implications of any such alternatives.

The formal order opening investigation should be issued shortly, with opportunities for public comment and participation.  Will the PUC find that the smart metering program is being implemented properly?  If smart metering brings public benefits to ratepayers, what should utilities do to educate the public about these benefits?