Utilities, consumers racing to rack up renewables

Kathleen Davis, Associate Editor

God, it seems, is keen on green power. The Episcopal Church opted to use renewables at its general convention in Denver this summer. That may not seem so significant to an industry a bit more concerned with keeping the lights on than tracking where the juice came from, but 15,000 people attended said conference. And they felt strongly enough to issue a general press release about where–in the wide world of power grids–they plugged in.

What does this mean to you? In a nutshell: renewables are a popular, and growing, trend. They’re hip. They’re happening. They’re P.C. And churches aren’t the only ones religious about greening up the utility industry.

The 411 around the town

The city council of Oakland, Calif., voted to go green just recently, making it one of the largest cities in the country to do so. Even though piping in their power from geothermal resources will up the final bill by nearly $100,000 dollars a year, the city plans to steam ahead and complete a total switch by year’s end.

And the list of municipalities going “green” happy continues to grow. Chicago and area suburbs are banding together to form a power-buying consortium whose major issue is renewables. They have a 20% rule. (The winning power bidder must gather at least 20% of the supplied power from environmentally friendly sources.)

Seattle City Light recently released a request for proposal (RFP) for 100 MWa of green power-enough to keep the lights on for over 80,000 homes. Of course Seattle is the great green flag of renewable power. They have four hydroelectric plants that-besides being entirely lacking in air emissions problems-is utterly concerned about keeping their salmon friends content.

Renewables are, indeed, a growing market. San Jose, Santa Cruz and a number of other Calif. cities have looked into green power. According to research by Frost & Sullivan, the market numbers jumped from $204 million in 1998 to $843.4 million in 1999-quite a growth rate. However, they don’t expect this trend to continue-and Calif. can give you the best reason why.

Dead presidents are a factor

Although Oakland didn’t flinch at added zeros on their ticket, it appears that money does make the world go round-at least when desire for clean energy sources is on the table. They want their green kWh, but they want them at cost.

Deregulation means a focus on the economic side of power-and renewables are not economical. They’re expensive, and while some are willing to shell out the green to get the green, many are cautious. Frost & Sullivan speculates that the renewables market will drop off until 2004 (when the waves of deregulation calm down) and then spike once again.

“Although deregulation and competition have fostered the introduction of renewable energy technologies, the demand for low-cost electricity puts the higher cost of renewable energy at a disadvantage,” said Frost & Sullivan analyst Heidi Anderson.

“Currently, coal and natural gas are cheaper than any form of renewable energy. Education about the environmental and social benefits of renewable power must be integrated with information about pollution and other side effects associated with fossil fuel-based power generation,” she commented.

But when those economics do even out, consumers will return to actively searching out the two major sources of renewable power: wind and solar.

As the wind blows

While hydro and geothermal are gaining ground by hard-earned inches and lots of clawing, the classics remain. If Regis had a $100 question asking the contestant in the hot seat to name a major source of green power, wind would definitely be the first to trip off the tongue. (And, yes, that’s his final answer.)

It’s easy to explain: wind power has been around forever. Windmills have dotted European and American landscapes for centuries. It’s a concept just about everyone understands on a basic level. And it’s visible (as anyone who’s traveled from Mojave to Bakersfield, Calif. can tell you-hill after mountainous hill of eerily spinning windmills).

And company after company is sinking in funds to invest in wind power-and not just companies like Green Mountain, who already focus on renewables.

Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) and SeaWest WindPower Inc. recently signed a pre-development agreement for a 24 MW power source, named the Condon Wind Project, and BPA is considering a 20-year power purchase agreement for the project’s output. The site chosen for Condon is only one of several that SeaWest has been looking into. It seems that Condon is merely the point man in a planned line of wind possibilities.

Wind seems to make just about everyone happy, including politicians. Congressman Greg Walden, a Republican from Oregon, responded to the BPA/SeaWest agreement by stating that it is “more important than ever for us to take advantage of alternative sources of power.”

And, if Al Gore gets his way, it’ll be easier than ever too. Gore has proposed extending the wind production tax credit beyond its end-of-2001 deadline. It’s a policy move fully supported by the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA).

“The amount of wind capacity installed over the past two years is equivalent to the power needs of all the homes in Atlanta, Ga., Hartford, Conn., and Springfield, Mo. combined,” said Randall Swisher, executive director of AWEA.

“Continuing to grow our use of pollution-free wind energy requires steady, long-term tax and investment policies like those in the Vice President’s plan,” he finished.

And it seems the VP isn’t the only one willing to invest in wind energy. TXU and FPL Energy recently announced a major new wind power project-160 MW of generation from 242 wind turbines to power a little less than 30,000 Texas homes.

FPL Energy operates wind farms in five states (they just purchased a 104 MW farm in Minn. in early July), with 974 MW of capacity and a net FPL Energy ownership of 587 MW. They are currently the largest generator of wind power in the U.S. and plan to add from 500 to 1,000 additional MW of wind energy projects to the portfolio by the dawn of 2002.

Utilities both big and small are keeping a wet finger in the wind it would seem. Minneapolis-based Northern States Power Co. (NSP) put out a late June RFP for 80 MW of wind power to complete its commitment to place 425 MW of wind generation resources in service by the end of 2002.

NSP first included wind power in its portfolio in 1986 and today their customers plug into over 400 turbines. Their RFP to add to those numbers is open to all, according to Rick Halet, NSP wind project manager.

“We welcome all wind power developers, regardless of size,” Halet said. “The contract will be awarded to the developer who can capture the wind and generate economical electricity for NSP customers.”

It’s the term “economical” that’s the catch. Although companies like ABB are developing technology (like Windformer) to make wind power just that, it still comes with a higher sticker than your average coal-fired plant. And, if the irate customers in the San Diego area are any indication, concern for the bottom line will continue to pin renewables to the mat for the near future.

Here comes the sun

Solar isn’t in any better position, and, like wind, it takes quite a bit of space for production. Plus, it’s often utilized to bring power to places with no electricity rather than replacing generation deemed environmentally harmful.

The Navajo Tribal Utility Authority is bringing solar into the homes of some tribe members who live in remote areas of the reservation. They will buy 200 photovoltaic systems (for approximately $2 million) and install individual units per residence with the Department of Energy’s Sandia National Laboratories providing technical support.

“The only way for many of these people to have electricity is to provide each household its own photovoltaic unit,” said Jimmie Daniels, National Tribal Utility Authority solar program manager.

And such is the way of solar. A company called Alternate Power Systems has developed a small, portable solar system for homes, medical facilities and relief agencies, specially targeting the more than 2 billion people without power worldwide.

“Even the Antarctic can use solar power on a daily basis,” says Dave Straub, a co-founder of Alternate Power. “There is nowhere on Earth that the sun or its ultra-violet rays do not reach.”

And, if proponents of renewable energy have their way, they’ll be no place on Earth it’s not used-high price tag or no.

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