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Article filed under Energy, Energy Self-Reliant States | Written by John Farrell | 1 Comment | Updated on Aug 18, 2011

U.S. Could Get 20% of Its Power from Solar on Transmission Line Right-of-Way

The content that follows was originally published on the Institute for Local Self-Reliance website at http://www.ilsr.org/us-could-get-20-its-power-solar-transmission-line-right-way/

Ontario Hydro transmission line forest cutUpdate 8/23/11: While solar can be built right under high voltage transmission lines, it can’t necessarily interconnect right at the tower.  Thus, this piece should be read as an analysis of land use rather than easy interconnection.

What if the U.S. could get 20 percent of its power from solar, near transmission lines, and without covering virgin desert?

It can.  Transmission right-of-way corridors, vast swaths of vegetation-free landscape to protect high-voltage power lines, could provide enough space for over 600,000 megawatts of solar PV.  These arrays could provide enough electricity to meet 20% of the country’s electric needs.

It starts with the federal Government Accountability Office, which estimates there are 155,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines in the United States (defined as lines 230 kilovolts and higher).  According to at least two major utilities (Duke Energy and the Tennessee Valley Authority), such power lines require a minimum of 150 feet of right-of-way, land generally cleared of all significant vegetation that might come in contact with the power lines.

That’s 4,400 square miles of already developed (or denuded) land for solar power, right under existing grid infrastructure. 

Of course, the power lines themselves cause some shading, as may nearby trees (although the New York Public Service Commission, and likely other PSCs, has height limits on nearby trees that would minimize shading on the actual right-of-way).  To be conservative, we’ll assume that half of transmission line right-of-way is unsuitable for solar. 

That leaves 2,200 square miles of available land for solar.  With approximately 275 megawatts (MW) able to be installed per square mile, over 600,000 MW of solar could occupy the available right-of-way, providing enough electricity (over 720 billion kilowatt-hours) to supply 20 percent of U.S. power demands (note: we used the average annual solar insolation in Cincinnati as a proxy for the U.S. as a whole).

Making big strides toward a renewable energy future doesn’t require massive, remote solar projects, but can use existing infrastructure or land to generate significant portions of our electricity demand.  Transmission right-of-way, providing 20% of U.S. electricity from solar, is just one piece of the puzzle, with another 20% possible using existing rooftops and a solar potential of nearly 100% from solar on highway right-of-way.  Solar can help achieve a 100% clean – and local – energy future.

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Article filed under Energy, Energy Self-Reliant States | Written by John Farrell | No Comments | Updated on Aug 17, 2011

Challenges Ahead: Brown’s 12,000 MW Local Renewables Target

The content that follows was originally published on the Institute for Local Self-Reliance website at http://www.ilsr.org/challenges-ahead-browns-12000-mw-local-renewables-target/

Commentary by Al Weinrub, August 10, 2011

jerryBrown_3477Jerry Brown led off his conference of 250 high level renewable energy stakeholders July 25-26, 2011 by calling for a “more secure, more sustainable, more American” energy system. The conference was organized to help chart the path to 12,000 MW of local renewable power by 2020, as called for by the Governor.

Key to achieving the 12,000 megawatts will be overcoming significant obstacles, among them being bureaucratic approval and permitting barriers, grid integration and interconnect difficulties, and finding appropriate amounts of investment capital. And, of course, building political consensus.

The conference started off with a bang as the governor, referring to some of these obstacles, blatantly asserted that “some kind of opposition you have to crush.”

With that auspicious beginning, and after the Governor and press cameras had departed, two intensive days of deliberation began. The by-invitation-only participants consisted of about 50% renewable industry representatives and consultants, 25% government personnel (the governor’s staff, energy agency commissioners and staff, a few legislators, and county and regional agency representatives), and the remainder representing  investor-owned and municipal utilities, a few unions, financial institutions, environmentalists, and a smattering of decentralized/distributed generation advocates.

There seemed to be a great deal of consensus at the conference about the need to streamline renewable energy project approvals across the plethora of government agencies that are often involved, and also about the need for utilities to be more forthcoming about technical data required by project developers. There was much less consensus, however, about what kind of projects would be developed, where, and by whom.

In fact, the main contention at the conference was between those who emphasized least cost of energy as the main criteria for decentralized generation projects and those who stressed other values, such as local economic development, jobs, equity, community health, and the like. The conflict was framed in many ways, but emerged most directly between those parties who advocated for large projects (5 – 20 MW) through a renewable auction mechanism (RAM and those who advocated for community-scale projects (0 -5 MW) promoted through a feed-in tariff mechanism.

Not surprisingly, the utilities and big developers like Recurrent Energy were pushing the least-cost criteria, calling for the 12,000 MW to be developed as larger 10 -20 MW ground-mounted solar PV projects close to transmission substations and selected through a RAM program. Surprisingly, they were joined by The Utility Reform Network (TURN), which argued that this approach would result in the least cost of energy and hence best protection of ratepayers.

The other side included the Los Angeles Business Council, the California Environmental Justice Alliance, the Clean Coalition, the Local Clean Energy Alliance, Solar Done Right, and other long-time decentralized generation advocates who called for the 12,000 MW to be developed as smaller-scale projects in urbanized areas where economic recovery, jobs, equity, and health are key goals. These parties argued for a comprehensive feed-in tariff program that would promote this type of local renewable development. They also argued against the prevailing assumption that larger scale projects are less expensive, pointing not only to rapidly declining prices for solar PV installations, but to a fuller set of socio-economic costs and benefits, which the big players conveniently ignored.

Amidst the palpable jubilation of the renewable energy industry over Brown’s commitment to local renewable energy, the Governor’s conference revealed emerging battle lines over how that 12,000 MW target will be deployed. Will California’s “local” renewable energy projects primarily represent the interests of the big industry players or the interests of local communities?

This is a question for which the stakes are high; whether California will go down the old road (simply calling it something new) or whether it will take a qualitatively different approach. If the representation of invitees at this conference is indicative of the Governor’s leanings, there is reason for concern, if not alarm. Despite Brown’s campaign platform of more democracy and more local control, there was very little community present at this conference.

A political battle over who will benefit from decentralized/distributed generation of renewable energy is shaping up. This is a battle for which our communities will need to mobilize if we are not to be first marginalized and then regarded as an opposition to be crushed.

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Article filed under Energy, Energy Self-Reliant States | Written by John Farrell | No Comments | Updated on Aug 15, 2011

New Small Hydro Could Add Significantly to State Renewable Power

The content that follows was originally published on the Institute for Local Self-Reliance website at http://www.ilsr.org/new-small-hydro-could-add-significantly-state-renewable-power/

Over at Climate Progress, Stephen Lacey recently asked why there isn’t more development of micro hydro in the U.S., given its potential to provide more than 30,000 low-cost megawatts of power to U.S. states (and bipartisan political support).

We can’t answer that question any better than Stephen, but we can provide a good illustration of that potential, replicating a map from our 2010 report Energy Self-Reliant States (click here for a larger version):

New Micro Hydro Power Potential (Percent of State Electricity Sales)

 

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Article filed under Energy, Energy Self-Reliant States | Written by John Farrell | 1 Comment | Updated on Aug 9, 2011

Local Solar Could Power the Mountain West in 2011, All of America in 2026

The content that follows was originally published on the Institute for Local Self-Reliance website at http://www.ilsr.org/local-solar-could-power-mountain-west-2011-all-america-2026/

The Germans have installed over 10,000 megawatts of solar panels in the past two years, enough to power 2 million American homes (most of Los Angeles, CA).  If Americans installed local solar at the same torrid pace, we could already power most of the Mountain West, could have a 100 percent solar nation by 2026, while enriching thousands of local communities with new development and jobs.

The following map shows the states that could be powered by solar if the U.S. kept pace with Germany on solar power in the past two years (installed the same megawatts on a per capita basis).

Solar Would Power the Mountain West if The U.S. Kept Pace with Germany

The spread of solar has not resulted in covering natural areas or fertile land with solar panels.  Rather, 80 percent of the solar installed in Germany was on rooftops and built to a local scale (100 kilowatts or smaller – think the roof of a church or a Home Depot store).  Solar in the U.S. also can use existing space.  The following map shows the amount of a state’s electricity that could come from rooftop solar alone, from our 2009 report Energy Self-Reliant States:

State Potential Rooftop PV:

While the local rooftop solar potential of these states varies from 19 to 51 percent, there’s much more land available for solar without covering parks or crops.  Once again, data from Energy Self-Reliant States (p. 13):

On either side of 4 million miles of roads, the U.S. has approximately 60 million acres (90,000 square miles) of right of way. If 10 percent the right of way could be used, over 2 million MW of roadside solar PV could provide close to 100 percent of the electricity consumption in the country. In California, solar PV on a quarter of the 230,000 acres of right of way could supply 27% of state consumption.

Such local solar power also provides enormous economic benefits.  For every megawatt of solar installed, as many as 9 jobs are created.  But the economic multiplier is significantly higher for locally owned projects, made possible when solar is built at a local scale as the Germans have done.

With local ownership, making America a 100% solar nation could create nearly 10 million jobs, and add as much as $450 billion to the U.S. economy. 

The Germans have found the profitable marriage between their energy and environmental policy.  It’s time for America to discover the same opportunity.

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Article filed under Energy, Energy Self-Reliant States | Written by John Farrell | No Comments | Updated on Aug 3, 2011

Could Rooftop Solar Prevent Texas Blackouts?

The content that follows was originally published on the Institute for Local Self-Reliance website at http://www.ilsr.org/could-rooftop-solar-prevent-texas-blackouts/

Just a reminder that while Texas swelters and its electric grid sags, rooftop solar PV alone could meet 35 percent of the state’s electricity needs. Map from Energy Self-Reliant States:

State Potential Rooftop PV:

 

Not only is the potential high, but the cost is low.  The levelized cost of solar is just 14 cents per kilowatt-hour in Texas, when including the federal 30 percent tax credit.  Cost estimates from ILSR.

Levelized Cost of Solar PV @ $3.50/W over 25 years – 30% ITC included

Texans should start using the sun to beat the heat.

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ILSR energy program slide.014
Article filed under Energy, Energy Self-Reliant States | Written by John Farrell | No Comments | Updated on Aug 3, 2011

ILSR’s Energy Work, In 16 Slides

The content that follows was originally published on the Institute for Local Self-Reliance website at http://www.ilsr.org/ilsrs-energy-work-16-slides/

Find out why and how ILSR has been helping communities maximize the value of their local energy resources for nearly 40 years: ILSR’s Remarkable Energy Self-Reliant States and Communities program View more presentations from John Farrell Continue reading

Article filed under Energy, Energy Self-Reliant States | Written by John Farrell | No Comments | Updated on Aug 3, 2011

Distributed solar has a speed edge

The content that follows was originally published on the Institute for Local Self-Reliance website at http://www.ilsr.org/distributed-solar-has-speed-edge/

Distributed solar has an edge in the speed with which it will respond to financial incentives, he says. The private sector will begin to install solar panels in response to a feed-in tariff much more quickly than developers of large solar projects can negotiate power-purchase agreements with utilities and win regulatory approval from the government.

J.R. DeShazo, director of UCLA’s Luskin Center for Innovation

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solar save MN schools millions
Article, Resource filed under Energy, Energy Self-Reliant States | Written by John Farrell | No Comments | Updated on Jul 26, 2011

Solar in Minnesota: Great Promise

The content that follows was originally published on the Institute for Local Self-Reliance website at http://www.ilsr.org/solar-minnesota-great-promise/

Back in April 2011, ILSR Senior Researcher John Farrell gave this presentation on the potential for solar power in Minnesota to a group of solar businesses and advocates. Solar in Minnesota: Great Potential View more presentations from John Farrell. Continue reading

Article filed under Energy, Energy Self-Reliant States | Written by John Farrell | No Comments | Updated on Jul 25, 2011

Lost in Transmission

The content that follows was originally published on the Institute for Local Self-Reliance website at http://www.ilsr.org/lost-transmission/

Update 7/26: One commenter asserts that the loss figures offered by the original author may be relevant in India, but do not reflect the U.S. grid, where losses total around 7%.  EIA data seems to reflect this [xls].

Can transmission losses completely offset economies of scale for solar power plants?  An article in Renewable Energy World argues against the building of multi-megawatt (MW) solar PV instead of on-site or local PV systems.  In particular, the author writes:

The biggest problem with the multi-MW solar PV plant is that it loses 12-15 percent of expensive power as it passes through a series of power transformers. PV solar inverters generate power at 400 [Volts] three-phase. In large plants, this power is first boosted to 66 [kilovolts] or more with several power transformers and then stepped down to 400V with another string of transformers to suit consumer requirements. In addition, there is a further transmission loss of 5-7 percent in the power grid. Why suffer an avoidable 20 percent loss of expensive solar power?

…There is thus no ‘scale advantage’ in large PV solar plants. In reality, all multi-MW plants are basically clusters of several 500-kW plants since solar inverter capacities are limited to about 500 kW and no more. Why not have one hundred 500 kW plants instead of one giant 50 MW plant?

With 20% of the power from a large-scale solar plant lost in transformers and power lines, it could seriously alter our previous analysis of solar economies of scale.  Here are the original charts, with the first chart shows our original analysis of solar economies of scale, with strong savings for scale for new projects (as reported by the Clean Coalition):

The next chart shows the economies of scale in the German rooftop PV market, as reflected in their feed-in tariff rates.  The percentages show the price in each size tranche relative to the price for the smallest rooftop PV systems.  Once again, there are significant savings for scale, especially when going from a project 100-1000 kW to one that is 1 megawatt or larger (15 percent).

But if there is a 20% power loss for the voltage stepping and transmission for larger solar projects, then when it comes to delivered power, small projects may perform better.  Let’s assume that projects 1 MW and larger require the voltage step and transmission (and incur the losses), whereas smaller plants do not.  The following two charts illustrate the difference.

The first chart takes the Clean Coalition (green line) data from the Solar PV Economies of Scale chart and calculates the levelized cost of the power from each size power plant based on the sunshine in southern California.  For the largest size solar power plants, the cost is adjusted for the losses due to transmission and transformer stepping.

As we can see in the first chart, the losses from transmission wipe out most economies of scale for large-scale solar, making 1 MW and larger solar PV plants equivalent to on-site solar power from a 25 kW solar PV array.

We can similarly examine the effect in the German case.  Here the government sets the price paid for solar by size class, and since it’s based on output at the power plant, large-scale plants that have transmission losses get paid for their entire power output, regardless of how much usable power reaches customers.  The following chart shows what German customers effectively pay for solar, assuming that 1 MW and larger facilities all experience the 20% transmission losses explained earlier.

 

As we can see in the chart, the cost of transmission can wipe out the economies of scale in installed costs, making large-scale solar comparable to solar PV of 30-100 kW, but without the same transformer and transmission losses. 

It may be true that the installed costs of solar PV continue to fall as projects get larger, but it’s clear that relying on the price of solar at the power plant does not accurately reflect the cost to the grid or ratepayers. For some size of larger power plants (1 MW? 5 MW?), the lost power from stepping up and down voltage through transformers and from transmission may largely offset the economies of scale from building a larger power plant.

Rather, mid-sized solar (or specifically, projects that can connect directly into the distribution system without changing the voltage) may deliver the best cost per kilowatt-hour.

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Article filed under Energy, Energy Self-Reliant States | Written by John Farrell | No Comments | Updated on Jul 21, 2011

Overcoming the Roadblocks: Democratizing the Electricity System

The content that follows was originally published on the Institute for Local Self-Reliance website at http://www.ilsr.org/overcoming-roadblocks-democratizing-electricity-system/

A serialized version of our new report, Democratizing the Electricity System, Part 5 of 5. Click here for: Part 1 (The Electric System: Inflection Point) Part 2 (The Economics of Distributed Generation) Part 3 (The Political and Technical Advantages of Distributed Generation) Part 4 (Regulatory Roadblocks to Democratizing the Electricity System) Download the report. The… Continue reading