A serialized version of our new report, Democratizing the Electricity System, Part 4 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) Download the report. Regulatory Roadblocks / The Political System Despite technology’s march toward… Continue reading
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A serialized version of our new report, Democratizing the Electricity System, Part 3 of 5. Click here for: Part 1 (The Electric System: Inflection Point) Part 2 (The Economics of Distributed Generation) Download the report. The Political and Technical Advantages of Distributed Generation While technology has helped change the economics of electricity production (in favor… Continue reading
A serialized version of our new report, Democratizing the Electricity System, Part 2 of 5. Click here for Part 1 or here to download the report. The falling cost of distributed renewable generation has been one of the key drivers of the transformation of the U.S. electric grid. The following chart illustrates the cost of… Continue reading
Rural areas aren’t just for energy export.
The points in this great presentation are echoed in a recent Böll Foundation report called Harvesting Clean Energy on Ontario Farms, which notes that some farmers in northern Germany make $2.5 million in a good year growing wheat. They make $15 million harvesting the wind.
A serialized version of our new report, Democratizing the Electricity System, Part 1 of 5 The 20th century of electricity generation was characterized by ever larger and more distant central power plants. But a 21st century technological dynamic offers the possibility of a dramatically different electricity future: millions of widely dispersed renewable energy plants and… Continue reading
A 3-day wind and solar forecast for Germany from the energy forecaster Enercast:
The forecast allows grid operators to plan ahead for the wind and solar capacity available at a given hour, making it easier to balance load.
A column in the New York Times yesterday suggested that land use is the greatest environmental problem facing new renewable energy. While getting the facts terribly wrong, it opens a door to talk about the advantages of distributed generation such as a unique proposal by Republic Solar Highways to put solar PV on highway right-of-way in California.
Robert Bryce’s column (the Gas is Greener) suggests that wind and solar have a large land footprint compared to gas and nuclear power, and therefore the latter are wiser environmental choices. Of course, Bryce hasn’t read about the Germans, who have installed 10,000 megawatts of solar PV in the past two years, over 80 percent on rooftops. Bryce’s concern for California meeting its 33% renewable energy standard by 2020 (the land use!) crumbles under the German’s torrid pace of rooftop solar development: if the same distributed solar PV program were done in California, the state could meet its RPS five years early without using a single acre of undeveloped land.
Bryce deserves a raspberry for his witless comment about wind farms, as well. Before claiming that wind uses 128 acres per megawatts, he may have wanted to look at an actual wind power project. Over 99 percent of a wind farm is simply the gaps between turbines to prevent interference (“wake turbulence”). In fact, 80 percent of U.S. wind farms use less than an acre per megawatt, one reason that many farmers and ranchers are delighted to host revenue-generating turbines.
Despite its factual foibles, Bryce’s column underscores the fundamental problem with the renewable energy movement. Too many people assume that wind can only be developed in 800 megawatt farms and solar power plants can only be built on hundreds of virgin desert, both linked into high-voltage transmission lines. The Germans put the lie to this assumption with their solar program and wind power development. And innovations in the U.S. also provide compelling counter-examples.
Republic Solar Highways, for example, has proposed a 15 megawatt solar PV project along the right-of-way on U.S. Highway 101 in California. The plan would provide power for 3,000 homes and use land that currently gets an occasional mowing from the Department of Transportation, but is otherwise unused. The idea has a lot of merit, as we explored in our 2010 report Energy Self-Reliant States:
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.
There are environmental drawbacks to some centralized solar and wind projects and their attendant new transmission lines, but Bryce vastly overstates their land use requirements, and glosses over the additional land natural gas and nuclear grind up for mining and extraction. Cost-effective distributed wind and solar power can be built in large numbers without using much undeveloped land, obviating the land use complaint.
P.S. And distributed wind and solar don’t melt down, either.
Photo credit: Flickr user OregonDOT
The solution to the variability of wind power is more wind.
The output from a single wind turbine can vary widely over a short period of time, as wind goes from gusty to calm. The adjacent graphic (from this report) illustrates how a single turbine in Texas provided varying power output over a single day, varying from under 20 percent of capacity to near 100 percent!
But the same report also illustrated the smoothing effect when the output from these five wind sites was averaged. The following chart shows (in dark orange), the smoothing effect of output when the wind output was averaged over five sites.
The impact is significant, and the optimized system varies from 15 to 50 percent of capacity, compared to individual turbine variability that’s twice as large. Over a longer period (a year), the optimized (combined) system provides significantly more reliable power to the electric grid. It reduces periods of zero output to a few hours per year, effectively zero probability.
Combining the output of the five sites also increases the probability that the output will be at least 5% or 10% of total capacity of the wind turbines.
Other studies have reinforced these findings. For example, a report by Cristina Archer and Mark Jacobson in 2007 found that dispersing wind at 19 sites over an area the size of Texas increased the level of guaranteed output by 4 times.
Wind power could not be the sole source of electricity for the grid without massive overbuilding of capacity, but its variability is an argument for more dispersed wind, rather than less of it.
The use of tax credits as the primary federal incentive for renewable energy has often stymied cities, counties, and cooperatives from constructing and owning their own wind farm. But the temporary cash grant in lieu of the tax credit (expiring this December) has opened the door for one South Dakota cooperative and over 600 local investors:
The Crow Lake Wind Project, built by electric cooperative Basin Electric subsidiary PrairieWinds SD 1, Inc., is located just east of Chamberlain, S.D. With 150 MW of the project’s 162 MW owned by Basin Electric subsidiary PrairieWinds SD1, Inc., the facility has taken over the title of being the largest wind project in the U.S. owned solely by a cooperative, according to Basin Electric. [emphasis added]
The project is also distinguished for having local investors in addition to ownership by the local cooperative:
The entire project consists of 108 GE 1.5-MW turbines, 100 of which are owned and operated by PrairieWinds. A group of local community investors called the South Dakota Wind Partners owns seven of the turbines, and one turbine has been sold to the Mitchell Technical Institute (MTI), to be used as part of the school’s wind turbine technology program, which launched in 2009. PrairieWinds, which constructed the seven turbines now owned by the South Dakota Wind Partners, will also operate them. [emphasis added]
The key to success was the limited-time opportunity for the cooperative to access the federal incentive for wind power:
The opportunity became viable following passage of 2009’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which created a tax grant option allowing small investors to access government incentives and tax benefits, making public wind ownership possible. Creating the Wind Partners for that purpose were Basin Electric member East River Electric Power Cooperative, the South Dakota Farm Bureau Federation, the South Dakota Farmers Union and the South Dakota Corn Utilization Council…
“This development model created opportunity for small local investors to have direct local ownership in wind energy and access the tax benefits previously reserved for large equity investors,” said Jeff Nelson, general manager at East River Electric. “It offers a model for others to participate in community-based wind projects.”
The South Dakota Wind Partners consist of over 600 South Dakota investors, some who host the project’s 7 turbines and many who do not. Investors bought shares in increments of $15,000 (combinations of debt and equity). Brian Minish, who manages the project for the South Dakota Wind Partners, hopes to see future opportunities for this kind of development. “There’s a lot of political benefit in letting local people become investors in the project,” Minish said in an interview this afternoon, “local ownership can help reduce opposition to wind power projects.”
Photo credit: Flickr user tinney
A new article in the journal Energy Policy supports the notion that local ownership is key to overcoming local resistance to renewable energy. The article summarizes a survey conducted of two towns in Germany, both with local wind projects, but only one that was locally owned. The results are summarized in this chart:
Guess which town has the locally owned project?
If you guessed Zschadraß, you win. With local ownership of the wind project, 45% of residents had a positive view toward more wind energy. In the town with an absentee-owned project (Nossen), only 16% of residents had a positive view of expanding wind power; a majority had a negative view.
Ownership matters, and U.S. renewable energy policy typically makes local ownership more difficult.