Army goes solar at Minnesota training site

(Midwest Energy News, November 17, 2011)—One of the Midwest’s largest — and tallest — pole-mounted solar installations is being completed this week at a Minnesota military site.

More than 370 solar panels shade, but don’t obstruct, the grounds of the Arden Hills Army Training Site, just north of St. Paul. The 89-kilowatt system will supply an estimated 15 percent of the facility’s power needs.

The solar installation is part of an ambitious, nationwide investment in clean energy by the Army, which announced a goal last fall of achieving ‘net-zero’ energy use by 2030.

The panels were installed atop 31 utility poles, each one standing between nine and 11 feet tall and holding a dozen panels. Most pole-mounted solar systems are only about six feet off the ground, but this installation was taller in order to meet the military’s requirements that the panels not obstruct sight lines or get in the way of military vehicles.

“They want to be able to see everything underneath all of the arrays,” said Michael Allen, co-founder of All Energy Solar, the Prescott, Wisconsin, company that designed and built the solar system.

The array is the largest installed in Minnesota in 2011, and Allen believes it’s one of the largest pole-mounted systems in the Midwest. The raised systems are more expensive, so they’re typically only used where there’s insufficient roof or ground space. The Army hasn’t released a cost figure for the Arden Hills project.

A recent report by The Pew Charitable Trusts, “From Barracks to the Battlefield: Clean Energy Innovation and America’s Armed Forces,” (pdf) highlights a surge in energy investments by the military. U.S. Department of Defense spending on energy-efficiency and renewable energy projects grew from $400 million in 2006 to $1.2 billion in 2009.

What’s Best Buy doing at a utility conference?

(Midwest Energy News, November 14, 2011)—The national association for utility regulators is holding its annual meeting this week in St. Louis, where members are hearing sessions on everything from fuel hedges and pipeline safety to smart grids and cyber security.

Perhaps the most surprising speaker: Kris Bowring, a senior business team leader for Best Buy.

What is someone from an electronics retailer doing addressing a gathering of public utility commissioners?

Bowring spoke Sunday on a panel billed: “Empowering the Consumer: What Does It Mean? How Do You Achieve It?” Those are questions Best Buy has put a lot of thought and research into as it prepares to enter the home energy market.

Best Buy rolled out new home energy departments this month in three test stores in Chicago, Houston and San Francisco. They feature gadgets and systems to help customers monitor and fine tune their home energy use, such as smart thermostats or apps that can control lights, locks and appliances.

“We’ve asked a lot of questions about energy efficiency and what consumers want, how they want it, and what’s confusing about it,” Bowring said in an interview last week. Continue reading “What’s Best Buy doing at a utility conference?”

A bright idea from Milwaukee

(Midwest Energy News, November 7, 2011)—A mobile app that helps people perform their own home lighting audits is the winner of a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency “Apps for the Environment” challenge.

Light Bulb Finder was created by a Milwaukee, Wisc., app developer called Eco Hatchery. Co-founders Adam Borut and Andrea Nylund learned they won the challenge last week, and on Tuesday they’ll be in Washington, D.C., to accept the recognition.

Borut and Nylund started out in 2007 making home energy-saving kits that came with an online tool for tracking projects. As mobile phones grew in popularity, they realized that “mobile phones are really the perfect platform for people to do their own home lighting audits,” Borut said in an interview.

The app was released for iPhone and Android in late 2010. It lets people walk around their home and use icons to identify the type of bulb currently used in each light fixture. After entering a zip code and the estimated daily hours of use for each bulb, the app suggests more efficient replacement bulbs, as well as a detailed projection of savings, in dollars and carbon emissions. Continue reading “A bright idea from Milwaukee”

Self-serve kiosks provide automated dry cleaning

(Finance & Commerce, November 7, 2011)—You swipe a credit card at a vending machine-sized kiosk. A clothing rack whirls around inside until your shirt or blouse appears. A robotic arm plucks it from the rack by the hanger and passes it to a glass enclosure in front of you. You pop open a door, grab your receipt and your freshly cleaned garments, and away you go.

Is this the future of dry cleaning?

Two local dry-cleaning chains this fall have unveiled the Twin Cities’ first-of-their-kind “dry cleaning ATM” kiosks. White Way Cleaners installed one at a Minneapolis skyway location in September. Last month, Mulberrys Garment Care installed one in the Ridgedale Byerly’s store.

Both companies view the kiosks as a way to extend service into hours and locations that wouldn’t be feasible for staffing with employees. If the machines prove successful, Mulberrys and White Way envision them springing up in skyways, condo and apartment buildings, office towers, gas stations and grocery stores all across town.

“We want to be one of the first to bring dry cleaning into the modern world,” said Dan Miller, Mulberrys’ founder and CEO. He compares the potential impact to what ATMs did for banking or Red Box did for DVD rentals — giving customers a quick, easy, always-open option for dropping off and picking up their dry cleaning. Continue reading “Self-serve kiosks provide automated dry cleaning”

How Germany slashes emissions while growing GDP

(Midwest Energy News, November 7, 2011)—I’m attending the Institute on the Environment’s E3 (Energy, Economy and Environment) conference today at the University of Minnesota (disclosure: as a freelancer I’ve written for the institute’s magazine).

This morning we heard from the German Embassy’s energy and environment counselor, Friedo Sielemann, who talked about how his country became one of the world’s clean-energy success stories.

Germany has reduced greenhouse emissions 24 percent compared to 1990 levels and it now generates more than 20 percent of its electricity from renewables. And it’s achieved that without disrupting its economy, Sieleman said.

“We often hear that if you do this or that for the environment, your economy will suffer,” Sieleman said. Germany, however, has grown its GDP even as energy use and emissions have decreased. “These three are not automatically connected.”

How did it do it? The key was effective policies, particularly its system of feed-in tariffs, Sieleman said. Continue reading “How Germany slashes emissions while growing GDP”

Minnesota city considers new energy financing tool

(Midwest Energy News, November 3, 2011)—A Minnesota city could soon become the first in the state to allow businesses to pay for solar and other renewable energy projects through a surcharge on their property taxes.

Finance & Commerce reports that Edina, a Minneapolis suburb, is scheduled to discuss a Property Assessed Clean Energy, or PACE, financing program at its Nov. 15 city council meeting.

PACE is a funding model in which a local government issues a bond on behalf of a building owner to finance a renewable energy or efficiency project. The bond is sold to a private investor and secured with a special property tax assessment on the building.

“It’s essentially financed by the energy savings,” says Lynn Hinkle, policy director for Minnesota Solar Energy Industries Association, which has led the push for PACE in the state.

PACE financing solves a few problems. It eliminates the upfront expense of energy projects, instead spreading costs out up to 20 years. The special assessment reduces risk to financiers, who have hesitated to fund projects with longer payback times. And because the assessment stays with the property, building owners don’t need to worry about recouping the payback before selling.

The model was developed in 2008 in California and has since been authorized in 27 states. Minnesota passed its law last year along with Michigan and Missouri. Ohio, Illinois and Wisconsin passed laws allowing local government PACE financing in 2009.

Mixed rate impact from MN renewable standard

(Midwest Energy News, November 2, 2011)—In May, we surveyed a handful of electric utilities to ask how complying with Minnesota’s renewable portfolio standard was affecting their costs and rates.

For the most part, what we heard was that these utilities would be adding wind power capacity regardless of Minnesota’s renewable mandate because it’s economical and a good hedge against natural gas price volatility. There were outliers, though, namely Minnkota Power Cooperative, whose aggressive purchase of long-term wind contracts had resulted in a surcharge to customers.

At the time, the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce was lobbying for legislation that would require regular reporting from utilities on how much it was costing their customers to comply with Minnesota’s renewable standard, which calls for 25 percent of electricity to come from renewable sources by 2025. The bill was signed into law later in May with little opposition, because both critics and supporters of the state’s renewable standard believed the data would be in their favor.

We’ve just had a chance to review the first round of reporting generated by that legislation. The reports were due Friday and can be viewed in the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission’s edocket filing system (Search for docket #11-852). Continue reading “Mixed rate impact from MN renewable standard”