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March 24, 2013

Upfront: Not so crazy after all these years...
What's so funny 'bout peace, love and renewable energy?

Organic energy?
Posted: Friday, March 22, 2013 9:00 am | Updated: 2:49 pm, Fri Mar 22, 2013.
by Peter Seidman | 0 comments
The concept of producing the bulk of our electric energy from renewable sources is following a trajectory similar to the push that promoted organic farming.
Early in the organic food movement, skeptics looked on the idea as a fad, a crazy and impractical scheme pushed by hippies and back-to-the-land fanatics who lived on the fringe of society. But now, a label on a food product that includes an organic seal of approval means something to consumers—and to the bottom line of companies in the food industry. The acceptance of the organic concept has even led to companies making claims that stretch credulity regarding the organic content of their products. And that happens only when the public comes to accept and desire the advantages of a product.
Observers of this phenomenon see a similar arc in the environmental movement. When mainstream society was viewing proponents of organic farming and organic food as fanatics, environmentalists were also put in the "crazy corner," characterized as fringe dwellers. The 1960s: It was a time of enlightenment; it was a time of dismissal.
But now, the society that previously rejected the importance of a clean, chemical-free food world, within reasonable limits, has come to embrace the importance of protecting environmental resources. Although some conservative politicians claim climate change is a hoax perpetrated by a United Nations conspiracy to eliminate sovereignty in the United States, most mainstream politicians now agree that climate change is a scientific fact. And, in a big leap forward, they also agree that climate change is the result of decisions societies have made that affect the global environment.
But the facts remain daunting: Energy consumption has been a major cause of climate change, and that causative factor continues. Despite the lobbying effort by the coal industry, the gas industry and petrochemical producers, at least some forward-thinking politicians are embracing the concept that the United States can join other countries in producing abundant renewable energy, enough to supplant the bulk of fossil fuels.
The overarching concept holds that protecting the environment may just be the wisest thing humans can accomplish in the 21st century, despite the monetary costs associated with moving to renewable energy. The questions proponents ask are pointed: How much is battling climate change worth? As much as a mega-hotel on the seashore about to be inundated? As much as an island in the Pacific disappearing under the waves? As much as the waterfronts in San Rafael and Mill Valley?
One method to determine whether the renewable energy industry is indeed moving toward a sustainable future of its own is to gauge how many companies are working in the renewable vineyards and looking at their level of success. Despite the bell-clanging from conservatives about the collapse of Solyndra, many companies are working in the renewable energy world with the thought that it represents a growth industry.
The number of companies that have submitted proposals to the Marin Energy Authority for renewable energy projects that can supply Marin Clean Energy is a local example of a phenomenon that stretches far beyond the boundaries of Marin and the United States.
The Marin Energy Authority is the joint powers agency that administers Marin Clean Energy, the state's first successfully operating public-power model to throw the switch under a California law that allows cities and counties to buy power from wherever they want. The Marin Energy Authority set as a principal goal promoting renewable and clean energy, a goal it has met.
The energy authority uses what it calls an annual Open Season Procurement Process, which essentially is a request to energy companies to propose renewable projects. The renewable power can come from already operating renewable projects or from new projects that add to the renewable-energy supply that flows on to the energy grid. The procurement process allows the Marin Energy Authority to bring projects online to replace projects at the end of a contract term and to add to the energy agency's generation portfolio to cover new customers, which will happen this summer when Richmond residents get the opportunity to join Marin Clean Energy.
Currently, MCE has contracts with 10 suppliers for 15 projects, which include 52 megawatts of solar generation and 8 megawatts of landfill gas—enough clean energy to supply about 22,500 homes per year, according to MCE.
Power from MCE currently flows to about 92,000 hookups, a number that will expand when Richmond comes online. About 70 percent of MCE customers are residential. The current load that flows to all customers now is about 200 megawatts, according to Dawn Weisz, MCE executive officer.
"We were looking for 41 [additional] megawatts" in the procurement process, says Weisz. The response to the request for proposals far exceeded MCE's expectations. The amount of electric energy generation the 52 projects propose ranges in size from 2 megawatts to 80 megawatts of solar photovoltaic, wind, geothermal and biogas generation capacity, with a total amount between 672 and 752 megawatts of generation capacity.
That kind of successful response is not unusual these days. "Every time we do a solicitation, we have had a response that is at least five times greater than the amount of power we were looking for," says Weisz. "In this case, it is more than that."
About 72 percent of these are new projects. They would add to the renewable energy grid rather than take existing renewable generation and shuttle it to MCE. "It's really exciting," says Weisz. The responses show that the renewable energy marketplace is strong in California. MCE has a policy to procure energy from projects that are as close as possible to Marin and Northern California—local generation has been a goal since the start.
According to an MCE press release, a preliminary review of the proposed projects "reflects favorable renewable energy prices in line with market expectations." During the evaluation procedure, projects will be assessed based on criteria that include their environmental impacts, local economic benefits, their locations, the qualifications of project teams, permitting considerations and financing plans. MCE will perform assessments and develop detailed evaluations, which will lead to developing power purchase agreements within the next few months.
MCE already has stimulated the renewable energy market by contracting with companies that have produced new renewable generation. A contract with Cottonwood Solar delivers power to the grid from a new 30 megawatt solar project in Kings County and a new 1 megawatt project in Marin. The solar project at the San Rafael Airport also is a new renewable supply. An agreement with Genpower puts renewable power on the grid from a new 2.4 megawatt landfill gas to energy project in Lincoln, California. Power from RE Kansas adds renewable supply from a 20 megawatt solar project in Kings County.
MCE's energy portfolio includes about 27 percent of renewable power generation. Using renewable energy certificates (RECs) brings the MCE total to over 50 percent for its light green product. The MCE deep green product, including renewable energy certificates, is all renewable. The ultimate goal is to provide 100 percent renewable certificates to all MCE customers.
RECs are a strategy to stimulate the renewable market. When a wind farm, for example, produces 1 megawatt-hour of renewable energy, it receives one renewable energy credit, called a bundled REC. The wind farm can sell the energy along with the one REC. The REC proves that the energy was produced from a renewable source. The RECs can be sold along with the energy or decoupled and sold separately as an unbundled REC, which would be a tradable commodity. Once they are bought and put into an agency's renewable portfolio, the RECs are retired and can no longer be bought or sold. MCE renewable credit transfers are administered through Western Renewable Energy Generation Information System, a clearinghouse for renewable energy transactions and tracking. Green-e, a recognized independent nonprofit, certifies the RECs.
The most vociferous critics of renewable energy certificates fall into two general camps: those who fail to understand how RECs stimulate the renewable energy market, despite endless and cogent explanations from experts; and those critics who demagogue and raise RECs as a sword they carry on the way to a crusade against the push to renewable energy. With a religious-like fervor they decry RECs.
Critics also slam MCE as a government ploy to dupe residents, an attack that comes despite the facts: MCE uses no tax money and places no liability on the county and its cities. But these critics aren't satisfied with opting out of MCE and the renewable market it taps. They would like to eliminate the choice for Marin residents, leaving power customers with the investor-owned utility, which critics think is a better deal than MCE, a public utility not beholden to shareholders. And then there's the item these critics often overlook: PG&E uses RECs.
The vigorous renewable energy market and the number of energy companies wanting to produce new renewable projects hint at the renewable energy trajectory. It's not just for kooks anymore.
The state of California has a target to achieve 25 percent renewable generation by 2016. By 2020, the state seeks to achieve 33 percent renewable generation. At the end of 2012, PG&E counted 19 percent of its supply as renewable (including the use of RECs). Edison International's Southern California Edison said it had achieved 19 percent renewable. And Sempra Energy's renewable portfolio reached 20 percent. Those levels don't come close to MCE's 50 percent renewable portfolio for its light green product.
There's no argument that renewable power can cost more than fossil supply. A PG&E spokesman recently said renewable power will add between 1 and 1.5 percent to the investor-owned utility's bills. That's mainly because of costs associated with early contracts coming online. The cost of building renewable projects also figures into early prices for renewable portfolios. But over time, the cost of renewable power is expected to decline, according to a California Pubic Utilities Commission report.
And as the renewable industry matures, new and innovative options emerge, taking the renewable paradigm from the kook in the corner model to the practical and desirable.
Researches from the University of Delaware and Delaware Technical Community College this month submitted a report to the Journal of Power Sources. The report investigates the practicality of producing 90 to 99.9 percent of the power supply for a service area in Delaware.
The researchers posited that the best strategy is extending the source of energy many miles away from the customer base. That means a vast renewable grid, with wind turbines more than 1,000 kilometers away sending energy to supply local customers. Spreading the source means more reliable supply. And using a variety of storage eases the concerns about reliability. They employed hydrogen fuel cells, batteries and tapped electric vehicles that could contribute to the grid when not being driven. "At expected 2030 technology costs, the minimum is 90 percent of hours met entirely by renewable," according to the report. "And 99.9 percent of hours, while not the cost minimum, is lower cost than today's cost of electricity."
The Delaware research is just one strategy now under investigation to develop the possibilities of supplanting all fossil fuel used for electrical energy generation.
There's a new saying in town: "If it comes out of the ground, it's bad."
Contact the writer at peter@pseidman.com