If landowners get annual payments for wind turbines, why not transmission lines?

(Midwest Energy News, October 23, 2103)—For the large metal tower constructed on his land, one farmer will receive annual payments for as long as it stands.

His neighbor, however, whose land is divided by a string of vertical structures, gets a more modest one-time payment.

As a historic transmission build-out continues across the region, landowners are increasingly questioning the fairness of rewarding wind project participants more than those who allow transmission lines to cut across their property.

Frank James, staff director for Dakota Rural Action, says it’s an increasingly common complaint from South Dakota farmers.

“You know what they’re getting paid for those turbines, and it’s pretty good,” James said. “You’re going to get a transmission line that serves those wind turbines and you don’t feel like you’re getting paid as [well].”

The comments were made Monday at the Great Plains Transmission Summit in St. Paul, where the topic of alternative landowner compensation models surfaced during several panel sessions. Continue reading “If landowners get annual payments for wind turbines, why not transmission lines?”

Is burning garbage green? In Sweden, there’s little debate

(Photo by Dan Haugen / Midwest Energy News)

Göran Skoglund, press officer for Öresundskraft, peering into the incinerator at the Filborna waste-to-energy plant in Helsingborg, Sweden. (Photo by Dan Haugen / Midwest Energy News)

Editor’s note: Dan Haugen traveled to Scandinavia this month as part of the Heinrich Böll Foundation’s Climate Media Fellowship program.

(Midwest Energy News, October 17, 2013)—HELSINGBORG, SWEDEN—The view from the control room of the Filborna waste-to-energy plant is a dizzying one.

In a cavern ten stories below the glass-bottomed observation deck, a sea of stringy, gray and brown trash is in a state of constant settling as garbage trucks dump fresh loads into the massive pit.

A pair of giant orange cranes take turns scooping and scattering the debris, mixing it to an even moisture content before feeding it onto a slow moving metal grate that will carry it into an incinerator.

It looks like dirty business, but in Sweden this is viewed as one of the country’s great green achievements.

While waste-to-energy incinerators remain a controversial topic among U.S. environmentalists, there’s been little such debate in Sweden as the country increased its waste burning capacity over the past decade.

“I have not heard any complaints, I don’t think — ever,” said Björn Palm, head of the energy technology department at Stockholm’s KTH Royal Institute of Technology. Continue reading “Is burning garbage green? In Sweden, there’s little debate”

As Midwest cities mull congestion pricing, Swedish drivers are already sold

Dire predictions about Stockholm's congestion-pricing plan failed to materialize, as traffic started flowing more smoothly the day it was implemented. (Photo by Derek Yu via Creative Commons)

Dire predictions about Stockholm’s congestion-pricing plan failed to materialize. (Photo by Derek Yu via Creative Commons)

Editor’s note: Dan Haugen traveled to Scandinavia this month as part of the Heinrich Böll Foundation’s Climate Media Fellowship program.

STOCKHOLM, SWEDEN—As a city of islands, Stockholm was in a unique position, geographically speaking, to implement congestion pricing for motorists. Just 18 crossings exist where cars and trucks can enter or exit the inner city.

When it comes to politics, though, the city had no special advantage.

In fact, public reaction to the proposal was very, well, American.

Opinion polling taken in the months before it was implemented in January 2006 showed 80 percent opposed the congestion pricing plan. The disaster scenarios predicted in the media involved everything from license plate thefts to bankrupt retailers. Companies would flee the city to spare their employees and customers from paying the fees. Authorities would use the payment system to spy on motorists, tracking their every turn.

“It was like the Obamacare in politics in Stockholm,” said Gunnar Söderholm, director of the city’s environmental and health administration, who was tasked by the mayor with implementing the program.

A conservative party leader told the press that Söderholm would be the first to lose his job if there were a change in majority. It was “political suicide,” he recalled.

What happened next may have saved Söderholm’s career: The system worked, and people liked it.

“All the catastrophes you could think of were predicted, and nothing of that happened,” Söderholm said.

Overnight, every fourth car disappeared from the city. Transit ridership spiked, and travel times plummeted.

“People saw the benefits. They actually saw them overnight,” he said. The air was more pleasant to breath. Crossing the street was less stressful. Buses ran on time and were even forced to idle to avoid getting ahead of schedule.

Newspaper editors who had previously slammed the concept changed their tone after one day.

“They said: this actually works. This is actually a different city — and it was. It was free flow in all streets, all day long,” Söderholm said. “Nobody had experienced that since we had horses on the streets.”

Traffic levels remain low

Stockholm has a goal of being fossil-fuel-free by 2050. Already a leader in district heating and renewable energy, addressing transportation is seen by some as the city’s biggest climate challenge.

After a half-year congestion pricing trial in 2006, voters narrowly passed a referendum to re-instate congestion pricing permanently starting the following January. Public opinion polling now shows about 70 percent of people support the traffic fees.

One explanation for the turnaround in public support, according to Söderholm, is that the system technically works very well and hasn’t been a hassle to use. Instead of pulling over at a toll booth, drivers get a single monthly bill at home based on data from license plate cameras set up at the 18 entry points. They pay about $3 for entering the city during peak hours, around $2 for semi-peak hours and around $1.50 during the middle of the day. Most people pay less than $15 per month.

The volume of cars entering the city has rebounded a bit since 2006, but it’s remained about 20 percent lower than pre-congestion pricing levels. And that’s despite being one of the fastest-growing cities in Europe.

“We have had almost continuously stable traffic despite that fact that we now have 100,000 more people in the city and 200,000 more people in the region,” Söderholm said. “The traffic is decreasing and the population is increasing.”

Public transit use is near an all-time high almost every day, he said, and the number of “clean cars” — electric or alternative fuel vehicles exempt from the congestion fees — has continued to climb as well.

Will traffic return?

Söderholm’s assessment of the program’s success is backed up by 2011 study by a group of Swedish researchers published in Transport Policy (and covered here by The Atlantic Cities).

Some economists predict that congestion pricing becomes less effective over time as drivers get used to the charges and are lured back into their cars by additional road space. So far, there’s no evidence of that happening in Stockholm.

“All told, the findings of this report suggest that Stockholm’s system might provide a blueprint for those American cities who do ultimately push for congestion pricing,” writes The Atlantic Cities’ Eric Jaffe.

Minneapolis-St. Paul is one of five U.S. regions awarded federal funding in 2007 to experiment with congestion pricing projects. Carpool lanes on two Twin Cities freeways now double as rush-hour toll roads for single-occupant vehicles.

Congestion pricing has also been a subject of debate in Chicago, where a combination of road tolls and parking fees have been debated. The reception so far has been described as “chilly.”

The question is: if American commuters ever see a full-scale implementation, will they warm to congestion pricing the way Stockholmers have?

Originally published October 15, 2013 at 06:00AM at Midwest Energy News http://www.midwestenergynews.com/2013/10/15/as-midwest-cities-mull-congestion-pricing-swedish-drivers-are-already-sold/

Once dismissed as ‘sewing circle,’ Swedish co-op creates a stake for women in wind industry

Unable to afford a share of a community wind farm, Wanja Wallamyr started a co-op for women only. (Photo by Dan Haugen / Midwest Energy News)

Unable to afford a share of a community wind farm, Wanja Wallemyr started a co-op for women only. (Photo by Dan Haugen / Midwest Energy News)

Editor’s note: Dan Haugen is traveling in Scandinavia this month as part of the Heinrich Böll Foundation’s Climate Media Fellowship program.

FALKÖPING, SWEDEN—When Wanja Wallemyr learned a community wind project would be built a few kilometers from her family farm, she knew she wanted to be a part of it.

Only problem: she couldn’t afford the 1 million Swedish Krona (roughly $154,000) minimum investment on her own.

That was in 2007, just as the farmer and rural activist was also preparing to attend a regional conference on creating economic opportunities for women.

With both issues on her mind, she came up with a single solution: Wallemyr would start an all-women wind energy cooperative.

It turned into a two-week sprint. She had just 14 days to commit to joining the wind project or not. Starting with other women at the conference, Wallemyr found nine others to join her in forming Qvinnovindar.

In an industry whose leadership still skews heavily towards men, it’s very likely Qvinnovindar is the only company of its kind anywhere in the world.

Last week, the company received a regional cooperative of the year award, and it’s been nominated for a similar prize at the national level.

An ‘old boys’ club’ mentality

The name combines the Swedish words for wind and women. The group bought a share of the three-turbine project near Wallemyr’s farm in 2007. Since then they’ve grown to 80 members and invested more than 10 million Krona ($1.5 million) in other projects, including a portion of a five-turbine installation built on Wallemyr’s farm.

Qvinnovindar members individually invested anywhere from 500 to 300,000 Krona ($77-$46,000) each, giving them an equal vote in how the company is run, regardless of the amount they put in. Members come from diverse lines of work: a farmer, a florist, a dentist, a bookkeeper, a consultant and a retail clerk, among other professions.

Initially, the women were mocked by other project investors as “the sewing circle” or “Tupperware party,” as if buying wind turbines was merely an excuse to socialize.

It caused a minor stir in town when they ran a newspaper ad before their second project soliciting new investor members, but women only.

“That was a bit controversial,” says Wanja’s daughter, Sara Wallemyr, who fielded some calls from men who wanted to know why they couldn’t join.

“I told them I could help them create a cooperative for men. That is not a problem,” said Sara Wallemyr, who now works in sales for Eolus Vind.

Both Wallemyrs say they’re often the only women in the room during meetings about wind projects, and that’s not uncommon for women working in the U.S. wind industry either.

The best estimate is that women make up about 20 to 25 percent of the U.S. wind industry’s workforce, according to Kristen Graf, executive director of Women of Wind Energy.

“The kicker is that it’s not spread evenly across all roles and positions. The vast majority of that is in admin and HR,” said Graf.

Women of Wind Energy was started in 2005 by a group of women frustrated by the lack of females attending conferences and other industry events. Today it counts 3,000 members and local chapters in more than 30 cities. The organization helps recruit women to the industry and provide career development for those already working with wind power.

Shanelle Montana, a legislative and regulatory affairs associate with EDF Renewable Energy, said several companies’ Midwest offices have a higher percentage of women.

“Like a lot of industries, the energy industry has sort of that old boys’ club mentality,” Montana said. “That’s changing, and I think it’s changing a little bit faster in renewables.”

‘She’s not afraid of the power’

For Wanja Wallemyr, Qvinnovindar is about empowering women, and also boosting the rural economy and displacing nuclear power with cleaner energy.

“I say no to nuclear and yes to wind power,” says Wallemyr.

On a recent afternoon, a misty fog obscured the view of the uranium-rich mountains and plateaus lining the horizon in this fertile farming area in south-central Sweden.

Wallemyr worries that continued use of nuclear power will increase pressure to mine uranium in the region, which could spoil their views and pollute their groundwater.

“If they mine these mountains, we’ll have no mountains,” says Wallemyr.

Like other Swedes, her views on nuclear power are also colored by the Chernobyl disaster, which sent a radioactive cloud over the country, poisoning farm land and increasing cancer risks.

Sweden shut down three of its ten nuclear reactors in 2006 due to safety concerns, and the questions of whether to continue operating or building new reactors is controversial.

Wallemyr says women and young people generally oppose nuclear power, and that it’s mostly older men who continue to support the industry.

“Women think more of the children’s future,” she says.

The impact she’s hoping to make is global in scope. The cooperative’s investments have been relatively small so far, but they’re looking to expand in wind and other green energy.

She also hopes to inspire women around the world to follow in Qvinnovindar’s path. After talking at conferences around Europe, she’s been contacted by women in Spain, Mexico and Turkey.

Frans Wallemyr, translating for his mother, summarized her words: “She wants to be part of making the world a better place. She’s not afraid of the power.”

Originally published October 11, 2013 at 06:00AM at Midwest Energy News http://www.midwestenergynews.com/2013/10/11/once-dismissed-as-sewing-circle-swedish-co-op-creates-a-stake-for-women-in-wind-industry/

How Denmark turned an efficiency obligation into opportunity

Power lines in Copenhagen, Denmark. (Photo by David Dai via Creative Commons)

Power lines in Copenhagen, Denmark. (Photo by David Dai via Creative Commons)

Editor’s note: Dan Haugen is traveling in Scandinavia this month as part of the Heinrich Böll Foundation‘s Climate Media Fellowship program.

COPENHAGEN—In the U.S., there’s rising anxiety and speculation about how flat or falling electricity demand could affect utilities’ long-term business models.

Here in Denmark, though, electric companies have long operated in a slow- or no-growth market, and they continue to invest in further lowering customers’ energy use.

The Danish efficiency scheme has become the model for a new European Union efficiency law currently being implemented, and it could offer ideas and inspiration for U.S. policymakers, too, as they attempt to design incentives that can convince electric utilities to take a lead role in helping customers use less of the very product they sell.

Denmark has steadily invested in energy conservation ever since the 1970s energy crisis, when an Arab oil embargo caused fuel shortages and skyrocketing prices. As President Reagan was pulling solar panels off the White House roof, Denmark continued to spend money improving its building and power plant efficiency.

The country’s conservation commitment recently increased with a 2012 agreement that’s expected to cut energy use 12 percent by 2020 compared to 2006.

The pact has also generated demand for energy efficiency services, prompting several utilities to launch new businesses to capitalize on the opportunity.

“A lot of the companies now as see this as a potential to increase their market in advising on energy savings,” says Tina Sommer Kristensen, administrator for Denmark’s Department of Buildings and Energy Efficiency.

A collaborative process

Like much of Denmark’s regulation, the efficiency policy is the result of a consensus negotiation process, in this case between the Danish Climate, Energy and Buildings Ministry and the trade associations for approximately 450 energy distribution companies, including oil, electricity, natural gas and district heating.

The agreement is an update of a pact originally signed in 2006 and updated again in 2009. It sets a total, nationwide annual savings goal of nearly 3,000 gigawatt hours for 2013 and 2014, and a target of nearly 3,400 gigawatt hours for 2015 — a 75 percent increase compared to the previous three-year agreement.

Each sector — oil, electricity, natural gas and district heating — is assigned a specific share, roughly proportional to their market share. It’s up to the trade associations for each sector to then delegate responsibility for those obligations to its member companies, typically also based roughly on market share.

Companies can claim credit for energy savings that they themselves helped realized, either by providing technical advice or financial support. The utility’s involvement needs to be documented before an energy savings project begins. They may also partner with energy savings companies and others to help find opportunities.

The Ministry is indifferent about whether an individual company fails to hit its target for the year, so long as the sector as a whole meets its energy savings obligation. Utilities are allowed to buy, sell or share savings certificates with each other when one company exceeds their own requirements for the year.

Since 2007, companies covered under the agreements have surpassed the nationwide energy savings goals in every year.

Utilities embrace the changes

Sommer Kristensen said in the beginning there was some reluctance among some energy companies, but most have since come around to embrace the scheme, for several reasons.

One, the arrangement is cost-neutral for the utilities. Whatever a company spends to meet their obligation, they can pass along the full cost to customers in the form of a tariff on the following year’s energy bills.

Secondly, the system is highly flexible. The Ministry doesn’t care how sectors meet the targets, just that they do. There are no requirements to achieve a certain amount of savings from residential or low-income customers, for example. There’s even no requirement to achieve savings from your own customers or own sector.

Kamilla Thingvad, senior consultant for the Danish Energy Association, said that flexibility has driven companies to find the best, most cost-effective savings, no matter where they exist.

“It also takes away this [idea] that you have to reduce what you’re selling,” says Thingvad, whose organization represents the country’s electric companies.

A regional electric distributor, for example, could meet its obligation by helping to change out inefficient light bulbs in another part of the country. Or it could meet the obligation by helping their own customers insulate their homes and businesses, lowering their heating bills instead of their electricity consumption.

In practice, though, most companies have focused on finding savings in their own territory and sector, because that is where their expertise lies, Sommer Kristensen says.

Another factor that’s helped reduce some of the potential tension between energy conservation and electricity sales is the structure of Denmark’s utility industry. Electric distribution companies operate separately from generation companies. Customers also have their choice of retail companies, which buy power from producers and pay distributors to get it to customers.

This “liberalized” or deregulated structure means the distribution companies covered under the agreement aren’t directly affected by falling demand for generation. Most distribution companies are either municipally or customer-owned and considered common good companies rather than profit-driven.

New business opportunities

In addition, most distribution companies have formed sister companies that focus on providing energy savings services, which directly benefit from the conservation targets.

An electricity distributor will typically partner with energy savings companies as well as builders, installers and others to identify projects for the utility to participate in.

In 2006, the first year of the original agreement, all of the savings were achieved through contracts with distributors’ own “sister companies” that provide energy savings services. The money spent by distribution companies on efficiency was fully reimbursed by customers and went to pay energy services companies that were often affiliated with the distributor.

The agreements include rules to encourage competition, however, and so as more companies and consultants have entered the field, the share of energy savings work going to distributors’ own sister companies had fallen to around a third of the total spending in 2012.

“There’s been quite a change in how savings are made,” says Thingvad.

As the competition to provide retail services increases, companies are also beginning to package energy efficiency in retail service pitches to prospective customers. A company might approach a large electricity customer and offer rebates or other financing for equipment upgrades if the customer switches to their retail service.

Companies are expected to meet the targets for the lowest possible cost. Utilities annually report their spending to the Ministry, which makes the data public so that customers can compare their utility with others. “That’s a pretty strong driver to keep the costs low,” Thingvad says.

While electric companies have embraced the new system, there’s been less enthusiasm from the district heating sector, Sommer Kristensen says. These heating companies tend to be very small and local in scope. They’ve seen less incentive to pursue efficiency projects beyond their territory because they can’t bundle them with other services.

In general, though, both the government and energy companies view the agreement as a success. Thingvad says companies don’t see efficiency as a conflict.

“It’s part of their identity,” Thingvad said. “The distributors see it as a way to fulfill an obligation to society, and also part of the green transition of the energy system. You have to put in more renewables, but you also have to reduce consumption to make ends meet.”

Dan Haugen is traveling in Scandinavia this month as part of the Heinrich Böll Foundation‘s Climate Media Fellowship program.

Originally published October 08, 2013 at 06:00AM at Midwest Energy News http://www.midwestenergynews.com/2013/10/08/how-denmark-turned-an-efficiency-obligation-into-opportunity/

Do efficiency standards create manufacturing jobs?

High-efficiency water heaters are manufactured at a factory in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo via GE)

High-efficiency water heaters are manufactured at a factory in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo via GE)

The 2009 federal stimulus program put thousands of contractors and tradespeople to work weatherizing low-income homes and retrofitting government buildings.

A new report by a Wisconsin nonprofit suggests such investments in energy efficiency may also play a role in growing manufacturing jobs, too.

The Energy Center of Wisconsin (ECW) study was able to trace a direct link between six utility conservation programs and 46 manufacturers in the Great Lakes region.

“The finding that, at a minimum, dozens of manufacturing operations in the Great Lakes Region benefit from the small group of utility programs we examined suggests that the economic effects are widespread and could be substantial,” the report says.

The companies supplying products to utility-sponsored efficiency projects ranged from insulation manufacturers to makers of high-tech lighting and controls.

“I think that this is the tip of the iceberg,” the report’s author, Joe Kramer, said of the 46 regional manufacturers that he was able to identify.

The ECW is a member of RE-AMP, which also publishes Midwest Energy News.

Numbers difficult to pin down

Kramer, a senior project manager at the ECW, had hoped to survey several conservation program administrators about their contractors and suppliers, and then interview those companies about the products they use before ultimately identifying where those materials and equipment were made.

Getting program administrators to disclose information about who they work with turned out to be more challenging than expected, so he instead relied on limited information from six utilities’ commercial retrofit programs in Illinois and Michigan.

The utilities included ComEd, Consumers Energy, DTE Energy, NICOR Gas, North Shore Gas and Peoples Gas.

The manufacturers that benefited from those utility’s programs stretched from Minneapolis to Philadelphia. They include two insulation makers, 16 HVAC and control businesses, and 28 companies that make lighting and controls.

“This is a really, really conservative list,” Kramer said. “The problem is we can’t say what proportion or percentage this might be of the overall manufacturers involved.”

The study also wasn’t able to quantify how many sales manufacturers received as a result of utility-sponsored conservation programs.

Answering that question will require more cooperation from utility program administrators, who were reluctant to reveal their supply chain, and reasonably so, Kramer said. Many utilities hire other organizations to manage their efficiency programs, and these managers may have felt they needed permission to share that information.

Others may have simply been too busy to compile the information, or skeptical about sharing it with competitors, Kramer said.

Made in the U.S.A.

A 2012 report from the Center for American Progress said more than 89 percent of materials used by the federal Weatherization Assistance Program are made in the United States, including 98 percent of vinyl windows, 94 percent of furnaces, and 90 percent of spray foam insulation.

The Energy Center survey identified a total of 82 manufacturing locations that produced materials or equipment for the utility programs. About 56 percent were located in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania or Wisconsin. The rest were elsewhere in the United States or out of the country.

All 13 of the manufacturers associated with DTE Energy’s commercial retrofit were based in Michigan, which has a state policy encouraging utilities to buy Michigan-made.

While beyond the scope of the ECW study, Kramer speculated that one explanation for why HVAC, lighting, and related controls were sourced from Great Lakes states is that they involve higher-tech, higher-skill manufacturing that is more viable in the region, which also has several large, well-established companies in those sectors.

Insulation, meanwhile, is a lower-value product that takes up a lot of space, making it less economical to ship from long distances, he said.

The ECW report, “Utility Energy Efficiency Programs and Manufacturing Facilities: Connections in the Great Lakes Region,” can be downloaded here.

Originally published September 30, 2013 at 06:00AM at Midwest Energy News http://www.midwestenergynews.com/2013/09/30/do-efficiency-standards-create-manufacturing-jobs/

Wisconsin passive house at center of co-op solar dispute

During the summer, this Wisconsin home produces more energy than it consumes. (Photo courtesy TE Studio)

The owner of this Wisconsin home says his co-op is underpaying him for energy he produces during peak summer hours. (Photo courtesy TE Studio)

Gary Konkol’s home annually produces more energy than it consumes, but his energy bill is about to go up.

Konkol is one of just eleven customers of Wisconsin’s St. Croix Electric Cooperative who own solar electric panels on their home.

A new policy that took effect in May means those homeowners will see much lower payments for the extra electricity they generate on sunny days.

For Konkol and the others, that means waiting several more years to break even on their investments — if they break even at all.

The utility, which serves about 10,000 customers in western Wisconsin, says it’s only protecting other ratepayers from subsidizing a select few.

“Unfortunately, the terms of service and [solar] rate issue has become a few members’ personal interests versus all the other cooperative members’ interests,” said Mark Pendergast, President and CEO of St. Croix Electric Cooperative, in an email to Midwest Energy News.

But solar advocates say the cooperative’s new policy doesn’t recognize the true value of customer-generated solar power.

“It isn’t fair,” Konkol said. “I would argue it’s the other way around; that we’re subsidizing the cooperative.”

The Passive House in the Woods

In 2010, Konkol built what may be the most energy efficient home in the Midwest. St. Croix Electric Cooperative actually sponsored the construction, waiving a standard $2,000 new hook-up fee for the passive house, which attracted local and national media coverage.

The 2,000-square-foot, two-story walkout just outside of Hudson, Wisconsin, features thick insulation, high-performance windows and no furnace whatsoever. A single solar thermal panel and a 4.52 kW photovoltaic system produce all the energy the home needs — and then some.

Under the policy in place at the time Konkol built the home, that extra electricity flows back onto the grid, where it helps run his neighbors’ lights, televisions, and air conditioners. In return, the coop has reimbursed him for that power at the retail rate, the same rate he pays the utility for electricity. Depending on the time of year, it’s about 10 or 11 cents per kWh.

The concept is known as net metering, in which customers’ meters or bills run forward or backward depending on the electricity they use and produce. The past three years, Konkol has earned a credit on his bill during the summer months that paid for his wintertime usage, leaving just a $25 fixed monthly base charge.

That monthly base charge, which will increase to about $28 in January, doesn’t cover the cost of providing the service, which is closer to $40 on average, Pendergast said.

“If a member is not paying for any energy purchases, the other cooperative members must make up the revenue shortfall,” he wrote.

To address that problem, the cooperative’s board in May announced the utility will no longer pay solar owners the retail rate. Instead, it will buy customers’ surplus generation at what’s known as “avoided cost,” a rate based on what it would cost the utility to buy or produce an equivalent amount of electricity on its own.

That rate: between 2.75 and 3.75 cents per kWh.

With no grandfather clause in place, customers who bought systems based on the projected payback time could be waiting three to four times longer to break even.

Dispute over ‘value of solar’

Konkol’s original net-metering arrangement with the utility was “verbal and implied,” he said. No contract was signed. Even so, Konkol said the cooperative’s board of directors is acting unethically by not grandfathering in existing customers, as other Wisconsin utilities have done when changing their reimbursement policies.

Pendergast denied the existence of an implied guarantee and said because no contracts were in place the board decided to apply the new rules to all current and future installations.

Konkol also argues that the avoided-cost rate ignores the premium solar power deserves for generating power when it’s needed most. The avoided-cost rate is based on a 24-hour average, including overnight when electricity prices drop to low demand. The surplus power Konkol’s panels produce is delivered during sunny summer afternoons, when prices are high.

But the cooperative doesn’t have the data to back that up, according to Pendergast. He said the utility doesn’t meter customers’ energy production on an hourly basis, so it can’t say whether or not a customer is using all of their solar power in any given hour.

“Their energy production in excess of their purchases for a billing period may be on weekends when wholesale power rates are low, or in late morning hours,” Pendergast wrote. “On a hot, cloudy day, they aren’t producing a kWh.”

Solar policy expert John Farrell, a senior researcher at the Institute for Local Self Reliance in Minneapolis, said solar power does tend to have additional value over a generic power source such as coal, and the avoided-cost rate doesn’t recognize that value. (In Minnesota, regulators recently started a process to develop a “value of solar” rate that considers solar’s premium.)

The conflict between this small cooperative and a dozen members is “a microcosm of a huge war being waged between utilities and customer-generators of power over the utility’s future financial livelihood,” Farrell said. Customers are finding less expensive ways to get energy, and utilities are responding by adding fees, raising rates, and hiking fixed charges.

“They just don’t know how to deal with it,” said a frustrated Konkol. “The way we produce electricity is changing, and the old model doesn’t work.”

Originally published September 26, 2013 at 06:00AM at Midwest Energy News http://www.midwestenergynews.com/2013/09/26/wisconsin-passive-house-at-center-of-co-op-solar-net-metering-dispute/

In Minnesota, looking for lessons from Goodhue wind fight

(Photo by Nic McPhee via Creative Commons)

(Photo by Nic McPhee via Creative Commons)

The developers of an embattled wind project in southeastern Minnesota finally pulled the plug this week, telling the state on Tuesday they would no longer be pursuing the controversial project.

The 78-megawatt, $179 million project was initially proposed in 2009 by a subsidiary of T. Boone Pickens’ Mesa Power Group and, after a string of setbacks, was sold last year to New Era Wind.

A group of citizens fought the project from the beginning on every front. Early testimony focused primarily on health and financial fears, with residents raising concerns about spoiled views, property values, and so-called wind turbine syndrome.

Ultimately it was flaws in the developers’ wildlife impact studies and protection plans that did in the project. Minnesota regulators rejected the developers’ eagle protection plan in February 2012 after objections were raised by opponents and the state Department of Natural Resources.

As the messy, four-year dispute comes to a close, we spoke with two people close to the controversy as well as an expert on the wind industry for their perspective on what, if any, legacy or lessons the case leaves behind.

County attorney: Clarity needed on setbacks

Steve Betcher spent months helping to draft, then defend, Goodhue County’s wind turbine setback rules, which would have banned turbines from being installed within about a half mile of any neighboring home.

The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission ultimately disregarded the county rules in favor of a roughly quarter-mile setback based on state noise standards. State law says the PUC can ignore county setback rules if it finds good cause to do so.

“They do not follow a set of standards that are uniform. They use a case-by-case analysis, which makes it very difficult for anyone in the public to know what rules are going to be applied,” Betcher said.

Betcher said the controversial case revealed a flawed and unpredictable process for permitting wind farms in the state — one that he hopes regulators will be motivated to fix in its wake.

“It just went on too long because there was no step-by-step process,” he said.

Betcher said the public doesn’t have enough opportunity to review or comment on large wind farms early on in the process. He also said the state’s noise-based setbacks are inadequate because they don’t account for low-frequency noise.

While there’s no conclusive evidence to support the claims, some researchers suspect low-frequency noise — deep vibrations that are inaudible to the human ear — could be the cause of health symptoms reported by some neighbors of wind farms.

Minnesota needs a more specific noise regulation for wind farms, Betcher said. “I’d like it to be relevant to the kind of noise we’re talking about from a wind generator: low-frequency noise.”

The utilities commission should come up with rules, he said, that consider infrasound and also provide more details on how sound is measured. For example, should levels be taken indoors or outdoors, at ground level or at tower height?

He admits the challenges, though.

“The low-frequency noise issue has only been evolving in the last five years or so, so some of the equipment to measure it hasn’t been available,” Betcher said, “and the regulatory bodies worldwide haven’t universally accepted that as a concern.”

Activist: More projects deserve scrutiny

Marie McNamara has spent much of the last four years fighting to stop the wind project.

“It took a long time for anyone to listen,” said McNamara, who co-founded Goodhue Wind Truth with her husband, Bruce.

McNamara said she thinks she and her fellow opponents helped put important issues in the public eye. Now that the Goodhue County project has been defeated, she hopes other wind projects in the state see similar opposition.

“Many more of the projects in Minnesota should be under more scrutiny,” McNamara said. “I don’t think you’re going to put that in your article. There are other [wind] projects in Minnesota that need more scrutiny.”

Which projects? “All you’ve got to do is start looking through the dockets like we do. Do the work,” she said.

On whether the efforts of Goodhue Wind Truth will have a lasting impact on wind development in the state, McNamara said she hopes so.

“I hope in 20 years there’s not inefficient, poorly sited, environmentally impacting projects that are running around under the heading of renewable and sustainable,” she said.

McNamara criticized the use of desktop studies, rather than field counts, to assess the risk to birds and bats, and she criticized the Minnesota Department of Commerce for not playing a more aggressive watchdog role.

“There weren’t requirements for accuracy. If there’s no accountability, what do you get? You get a big problem,” she said.

Wind advocate: An anomaly, not an omen

Joe Sullivan, regional policy manager for Wind on the Wires, says the Goodhue County controversy may cause developers to redouble their community outreach efforts, but it doesn’t represent a sea change in the way the industry does business.

“When the community is not happy, this is what can happen. That’s the takeaway,” Sullivan said. “But [wind developers] already knew that lesson.”

Wind on the Wires is a non-profit group that advocates for the wind industry, particularly on transmission issues. It’s also a member of RE-AMP, which publishes Midwest Energy News.

Sullivan couldn’t say whether the developers erred in their early outreach efforts, as opponents have alleged. The organization doesn’t typically comment on specific projects, nor was it directly involved in the process.

In general, though, the wind industry doesn’t view the Goodhue opposition as an omen of things to come, he said, and neither do they consider the case a sign of broader problems with the way projects are developed in the state.

“Goodhue is a very unique situation. It’s a very unique set of circumstances. That’s the way that many people in the industry look at it,” Sullivan said. “It’s an anomaly.”

Sullivan said Minnesota has a very clear regulatory process for wind projects, and that — despite what opponents claim — it hasn’t fundamentally changed in the wake of the Goodhue case.

“It is by no means just checking off the boxes. It is a thorough process, and there is a thorough review,” Sullivan said.

Another thing that hasn’t changed, according to Sullivan, is developers’ appetite to do projects in the state.

“The industry is not turning away,” said Sullivan, citing 400 megawatts worth of projects slated to be built in Minnesota over the next year. “That’s hundreds of millions of dollars of development that’s been made post-Goodhue.”

Originally published September 20, 2013 at 06:00AM at Midwest Energy News http://www.midwestenergynews.com/2013/09/20/in-minnesota-looking-for-lessons-from-goodhue-wind-fight/

Research seeks best bang-for-buck on bus efficiency

One of Metro Transit's advanced "super hybrid" buses. (Photo courtesy Metro Transit)

One of Metro Transit’s advanced “super hybrid” buses. (Photo courtesy Metro Transit)

While hybrid drivetrains have led to significant fuel economy gains for cars, it’s not necessarily the same equation for a city bus.

A typical bus gets only between four and six miles per gallon. About half of that fuel is never used to put the bus in motion.

Instead, that energy is gobbled up powering other equipment, namely systems to cool the engine and keep a window-lined interior the size of a small studio apartment at a comfortable temperature.

A year ago, two of the world’s most advanced “super hybrid” transit buses hit the road in the Twin Cities, and have beaten conventional buses on fuel economy by about 35 percent. But little is understood about how and where those benefits accrue. How much savings, for example, is due to the advanced engines versus battery-powered cooling fans?

The answers to such questions could help transit agencies identify the most cost-effective upgrades for their fleets.

‘Where all the energy goes’

University of Minnesota engineering professor David Kittelson is hoping a two-year research project will yield new insights.

Kittelson is working with Metro Transit, which serves the Minneapolis-St. Paul region, to map the energy consumption of various conventional, hybrid and advanced hybrid buses in order to see precisely where savings are achieved.

“Our project really is to see where all the energy goes in propelling a bus,” Kittelson said.

One hypothesis: bus manufacturers could achieve significant fuel savings at a much lower cost than full hybrids by powering cooling fans, air conditioning, and other accessories with separate batteries.

Kittelson has concluded that running those systems off electric batteries has potential to improve fuel economy up to 15 percent at a cost of around $20,000 per bus. Advanced hybrids might achieve double the efficiency but at ten times the cost, he said.

The comparisons become more complicated when traffic, weather, and other factors are considered. On a route with heavy start-stop traffic, a hybrid might far outperform a conventional bus with electric accessories, for example, while the gap between the two buses might narrow on routes with higher speeds and less congestion.

Kittelson’s goal: to come up with a model that will let transit authorities compare all of these variables.

“At the end of the day, they’ll have much better tools for making purchase and deployment decisions,” Kittelson said.

Different types of hybrids

Metro Transit purchased its advanced hybrid buses last year with a $1.2 million federal grant that covered 80 percent of the cost. The buses were manufactured by New Flyer with components from BAE, Thermo King and Cummins.

The buses are considered series hybrids, in which the diesel engine charges an electric motor, which drives the transmission. Most hybrid buses are parallel hybrids, in which the diesel engine and electric motor are both attached to the drivetrain.

Kittelson’s project will compare the energy use of conventional buses, as well as both types of hybrids. Multiple buses have been equipped with instruments that will measure fuel use, along with variables such as speed, weather, and passenger load.

The research team is developing a website where they hope to be able to livestream data from the buses as they perform their normal routes. The tools they come up with will be publicly available for any transit organizations to use.

If every bus purchased can’t be an all-equipped, top-of-the-line fuel saver, which upgrades offer the most value?

“We’ll learn which ones are giving us benefits,” said Chuck Wurzinger, Metro Transit’s assistant director for bus maintenance.

They’re also looking forward to information about which types of buses are best suited for different types of routes.

The future is electric

Wurzinger predicts all-electric bus fleets in the future, but until then, transit agencies still have a variety of bus types to deploy and a variety of fuel-saving technologies to choose from when buying new buses.

One where the jury is still out at Metro Transit is electric air conditioning. Air conditioning is one of the big draws on bus engines that lowers fuel economy. Powering AC from a separate battery improves performance, but how much and at what cost?

“The potential gains are lower in our climate with an electrified air conditioning system than they might be in other transit properties,” Wurzinger said. “From our point of view in the Midwest, I don’t know that we’d ever recover the cost.”

Climate is one example why the most efficient bus is likely to vary depending on the specific use.

“We’re looking at coming up with modeling and design tools to help companies like Metro Transit optimally schedule their buses to the right routes,” Kittelson said, “and when it comes time to buying new buses, they’ll have the tools to be able to select appropriate accessories to give them the most cost-effective combination.”

The research project started in January and is expected to be completed by the end of 2014.

Originally published September 16, 2013 at 06:00AM at Midwest Energy News http://www.midwestenergynews.com/2013/09/16/research-seeks-best-bang-for-buck-on-bus-efficiency/

Minnesota startup lowers lighting bill for indoor farming

Dave Roeser’s orbiting gardens save energy by keeping the tops of plants closer to a small number of lights. (Photo courtesy Garden Fresh Farms)

Dave Roeser’s orbiting gardens save energy by keeping the tops of plants closer to a small number of lights. (Photo courtesy Garden Fresh Farms)

Skyscraper farming has been a thing of futurists’ fascination in recent years.

As the world becomes more urban and crowded and a host of environmental challenges put more pressure on existing crop land, it’s intuitive that indoor farming might someday play a bigger role in feeding city populations.

On the ground, though, energy demands and real-estate realities have been consistent barriers.

A Minnesota start-up company is sprouting past these obstacles, though, with a compact, energy-efficient design it thinks could be a new model for urban farming.

Garden Fresh Farms is a finalist in the Minnesota Cup, an annual entrepreneurial competition that will announce its 2013 winner at an event Wednesday.

The circle of light

Dave Roeser and his wife, D.J., co-founded the company in 2010 in a suburban warehouse that was left vacant after he sold two small businesses.

Since last year, the couple, along with their biologist son, Bryan Roeser, have been growing basil, lettuce and other leafy veggies in an indoor aquaponics system that also annually produces tens of thousands of trout and tilapia for fish markets.

Aquaponics is an ancient farming method in which plants and fish are raised in a symbiotic environment. Fish waste contains ammonia, which is broken down by bacteria into nitrates, which is consumed as fertilizer by the plants, which cleans the water for the fish — all in one closed-loop system.

Garden Fresh Farms’ innovation: the orbiting garden, a system of hollow, steamroller-sized cylinders with an axle of light down the center that gives basil and other plants precisely the right amount of growing light while wasting precious few lumens.

“With lighting, every foot that you drop you lose 75 percent of the value of the light,” says Roeser. In other words, the farther the light source from the plants, the more intense it needs to be in order for enough photons to reach the plants.

“What we do is put the light within inches of the top canopy of the product that’s growing, no matter what stage of development it’s in,” says Roeser. “If it’s a two-inch seedling or a 16-inch, almost fully grown basil plant, the lightbulb is going to be just a couple inches from the top. What that means is we use a lot less light because we’re not losing it because of distance.”

Garden Fresh Farms has also developed a vertical, light-efficient system for growing lettuce, oregano, watercress and other greens. Its “lettuce factory” and the orbiting basil garden both allow for highly compact farming — in a one-acre building it can grow as many plants as a 100-acre outdoor farm, Roeser says.

That’s important because urban real estate is generally much more expensive than agricultural land. That’s one of the reasons Roeser sees skyscraper farming as less feasible, along with the added energy requirements for transporting equipment and materials up and down within a building.

“The skyscraper thing is kind of fun. It gets people thinking,” he says. “We saw that it didn’t make economic sense. It was way too much energy growing that way.”

Instead, this company’s model focuses on converting large, flat vacant buildings into urban farms. Garden Fresh Farms’ first location in Maplewood doesn’t compete for space with office or retail in denser, downtown areas, but the inner-ring St. Paul suburb is also close enough to customers to cut down on transportation costs.

‘Pennies per plant’

The bill for lighting its indoor farm is sizable, but it uses far less fuel for transportation, especially compared to what gets imported over winter. Its crops are hand harvested. There’s no running of tractors or other large farm equipment, and there’s no chemical fertilizer, many of which are made from petroleum products.

Roeser says the energy cost at its Maplewood farm is less than a nickel per plant. “If you look at that total transportation cost, pennies per plant is really cheap.”

Roeser sees potential to lower the farm’s energy footprint further by switching from metal halide lighting to LEDs. Currently available LEDs don’t spread light as well as other bulbs, meaning they’d need more fixtures, making them cost-prohibitive, he says. But they’re working with the University of Minnesota and an LED manufacturer on a research project to try to solve that problem.

Garden Fresh Farms’ plants actually get some of their light from the sun, but indirectly. The building’s rooftop features 44 solar panels made by Minnesota-based tenKsolar that produce an average of 12,500 kWh of electricity per year.

Garden Fresh Farms has been able to match the price of organic competitors from Mexico or California. So far it’s supplied CSAs, restaurants and dining halls with its greens. The company has sold its fish whole and direct to customers, who come with buckets on periodic fish market days.

Garden Fresh Farms is expanding with the first of what Roeser hopes will be many investor-owned farms using its equipment. The second location is being built in St. Paul in close proximity to food distributors. Investors hope they will be able to harvest one day and have their product in stores and restaurants the next day.

Roeser has ambition to continue that franchise-like growth, in which investors buy the equipment and name from Garden Fresh Farms, and perhaps also hire it to run the farm as well. He sees potential to be a national or even global brand for fresh greens.

“What we see is that we’re almost like what McDonalds was in 1955,” says Roeser.

The company is one of six finalists for the Minnesota Cup award, which comes with a $40,000 grand prize. It already won the energy and clean tech division.

Originally published September 11, 2013 at 06:00AM at Midwest Energy News http://www.midwestenergynews.com/2013/09/11/minnesota-startup-lowers-lighting-bill-for-indoor-farming/