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Priceless Energy Services for Neighborhood Resilience After a Pacific Northwest Earthquake: Micro-grids, Distributed Solar and Batteries

Abstract

The expected high-magnitude earthquake in the Pacific Northwest will black out the regional electric grid for months. Neighborhood based micro-grids – with solar plus battery technology designed to survive and operate after an earthquake – could provide priceless energy services until the grid can be repaired.

 Every Northwest neighborhood should have a resilient, electric-energy micro-grid no more than a ten minute walk away. The recovery period after an earthquake will be easier and safer if residents are able to recharge cell phones and computers and access internet-based communications. Micro-grids may also be able to power some super-efficient lighting, refrigeration for medicines, and energy for other needs.

 Regional leaders should establish the conditions necessary for the rapid growth of resilient neighborhood micro-grids using solar and battery technology. These conditions should include suitable economic incentives tailored to variation in regional energy prices, standardized engineering design, and neighborhood organizing and training to enable residents to plug in and communicate.

Introduction   A large magnitude earthquake off the Pacific Northwest coast will knock out regional electric grids and natural gas service for months, affecting millions of people from British Columbia to Northern California. The extended lack of energy services will severely complicate an already daunting recovery period.

Earthquake preparedness in the PNW is a top-of-mind consideration for leaders in governments, utilities, neighborhood associations and companies, and for many citizens. Among many leadership examples, Governor Brown plans to appoint Oregon’s first State Resilience Officer to “direct safety preparations across the state as focus renews on the likelihood of a catastrophic quake.”[1]

Recent advances in solar energy and battery technology and economics have created the opportunity to build disaster-resilient local energy systems. Also known as micro-grids, these energy systems can operate in an emergency after the grid goes down.

A US DOE SunShot project in San Francisco is working to build such systems into mission critical urban infrastructure facilities. Disaster recovery can be enhanced if fire, police and city government communication centers, 911 call centers, hospitals, emergency shelters, community centers and others have resilient energy services.

In the residential sector, several companies, including SolarCity, SunRun and others, are offering solar energy systems combined with batteries and advanced inverters. In the California market these residential micro-grids are explicitly sold as energy resilience investments. However, residential systems are fairly small, private and unavailable to the general public following a major earthquake.

Commercial building owners are adopting solar energy and battery systems where they can be cost-effective. California’s relatively high energy rates and economic incentives make it possible to for business owners to profitably invest in these systems. Across the country businesses are also buying the technology. As an example, Whole Foods recently announced deals with Solar City and NRG to install solar systems on 184 of their stores, starting in the Northeast.[2]

This post is focused not on critical facilities, nor on home-based solar investments, but on the neighborhoods where people live, where they will experience the post-earthquake disaster recovery period. Neighborhood-based commercial buildings, shops and public buildings can include disaster-resilient solar plus battery micro-grids that can provide vital energy services, close to home for many people, during an extended grid outage.

In the post-earthquake recovery period these neighborhood-based energy services can recharge cell phones, cameras and computers, enable Internet access, operate some refrigeration, power lights at night and maybe even recharge electric vehicle batteries.

Headwinds Energy rates in the PNW remain among the lowest in the nation. The region has a strong preference for “least-cost” energy supplies. Remote utility-scale solar plants produce energy more economically than distributed commercial size systems that are built into the urban fabric. This causes distributed solar to be less attractive if considered only as an energy resource.

Tailwinds Recent and upcoming energy policy advances can support this neighborhood energy resilience strategy. Last year the federal Investment Tax Credit was extended. Last month Oregon increased the Renewable Portfolio Standard to 50%, and permitted utilities to recover costs of battery installations. Washington State is considering a revenue neutral carbon tax. These policy initiatives should increase demand for solar energy.

Collaborative planning and regional thinking   Also countering the headwinds is the regional preference for collaborative, multi-stakeholder problem solving. In late 2015 a meeting in Portland brought stakeholders together for an initial discussion of energy resilience and solar micro-grids. The meeting included electric utility, government, NGO, academic and private sector business representatives.[3] “The group … (recommended a) … long term campaign to include industry stakeholders to address financial, regulatory and technical issues.”

Regional, state and local leaders and federal disaster recovery officials ought to expand this discussion. The situation is ripe for a high-level collaborative process among key stakeholders, to create the policy, technical, business and economic conditions necessary for post-earthquake neighborhood energy resilience.

Neighborhood micro-grids will only be useful after an earthquake if they are explicitly designed, operated and maintained to support the resilience function. Regional engineering standards should address seismic survivability, post-earthquake neighborhood power access, and integration with the electric grid to provide maximum non-emergency grid services, among many other issues.

Micro-grid systems on neighborhood buildings will only be built if the regulatory and economic incentives are aligned. The resilience design envisioned here is an add-on to a typical system, which increases its cost. Therefore it is important for policy makers to assure that resilience functionality is addressed with suitable incentives to enable widespread adoption.

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For further discussion, contact:

Chris Robertson

503-381-7812

cnrobertson@comcast.net

 

[1] Oregonian, January 23, 2016. The legislature recently declined to confirm Governor Brown’s initial appointment.

[2] “SolarCity and NRG announce separate plans for solar on Whole Foods Market stores,” Tom Kenning, PVTech, March 8, 2016 http://www.pv-tech.org/news/solarcity-and-nrg-announce-separate-plans-for-solar-on-whole-foods-market-s

[3] Disaster-Resilient Solar PV, Solar Oregon, December 2015 http://solaroregon.org/disaster-resilient-solar-pv/

 

Two Cheers for Portland’s Draft Climate Action Plan

Portland’s leadership in climate and energy strategy is impressively displayed in its draft Climate Action Plan, now available for public comment. The draft can be accessed at www.portlandoregon.gov/bps/climate where one can read specific chapters or download the full draft plan. Comments may be submitted to climate@portlandoregon.gov by April 10, 2015.

The draft plan is a readable and detailed road map for many climate actions that can be taken in Portland. Among its useful recommendations is a discussion about adopting local carbon taxes if State and Federal governments fail to act on them. However, several useful innovations in climate strategy are strikingly absent. This post discusses two examples.

  • The Draft Plan assumes continuing the out-of-date, high-cost and inefficient market structure for the Oregon solar energy industry, which produces low levels of additional solar capacity and might be called “the past writ small”. Instead, it should advocate a modern market structure for the solar industry, which could stimulate lots of solar development.
  • The Draft Plan discusses Portland’s compost programs, but does not consider how other biocarbon strategies could help the city meet its goals. The Northwest Biocarbon Initiative could provide useful additional opportunities to sequester carbon in the City’s Plan.

Including these innovations could further reduce greenhouse gas emissions, reduce the cost of energy services for consumers, stimulate employment, business and economic development, increase connections between urban Portland and Oregon’s rural agricultural communities, and increase tax revenues.

Solar Energy Policy and Market Structure

Solar energy policy opportunities are poorly conceived in the draft plan. The underlying policy is assumed to be much like policy in the past, except that a small amount of community solar would be enabled by state legislation. This is too pessimistic by far.

Instead, solar policy should be re-imagined to transition into a modern market-based structure.  The redesigned policy should support extensive growth in distributed generation as well as utility scale solar energy power plants.

If Oregon implemented such a modern market structure, over the next 15 years solar energy could produce up to 20% of total Oregon electricity, save energy consumers more than $2 billion on the cost of the electric utility system, improve the business performance of the regional utilities, and reduce GHG emissions from the electric system by more that 100 million tons.

A modern market structure should include a German style Feed-in-Tariff for DG solar, a reverse auction mechanism to build utility-scale power plants, a Solar Renewable Energy Standard that specifies the amount of the solar resource to be built each year, and revisions to Oregon’s utility regulatory regime to enable utilities to enthusiastically lead the solar transition. (See “Solar Plan for Oregon” for how to accomplish these changes, at www.chrisrobertsonassociates.com )

An important additional benefit of a more robust solar strategy is that DG solar can be designed to enable energy production in the aftermath of a major earthquake when the electric grid is expected to be unavailable for weeks or months. The inverter specifications and other design considerations to enable this should be a very high priority for Pacific Northwest communities. Distributed energy services in the post-earthquake recovery will be priceless.

Biocarbon

Well over a year ago Climate Solutions sponsored a conference in Seattle on the many types of biocarbon strategies, including composting, that can be used to sequester carbon in soil. Portland’s composting program is extensively discussed in the Draft Plan, but other biocarbon strategies are not included. (For background on biocarbon see http://climatesolutions.org/programs/nbi )

The Draft Plan makes assumptions about the carbon impact of food production without consideration of the biocarbon impacts of various agricultural practices. One key example is the Draft Plan’s discussion of greenhouse gasses associated with beef production.

The Draft Plan apparently assumes the carbon impacts of “beef” are due to industrial beef production, based on row crop grains and confined animal feeding operations.  Industrial beef production produces large greenhouse gas emissions, along with many other negative effects, and appropriately should be avoided.

However, this picture omits an important form of beef production that sequesters carbon in soils.  Beef raised on pasture using the holistic management practices developed by Alan Savery can sequester large amounts of biocarbon in the soil, improve land, increase humus, reduce flooding, reduce exposure to drought, increase revenues for farmers, increase employment on the farm, and reduce other forms of pollution associated with beef production.  These effects have been extensively documented.

The effects on carbon sequestration are potentially large. If a significant fraction of US agricultural lands were to be converted to holistic management strategy then those lands could annually sequester as much GHG emissions as the US presently emits from fossil fuel combustion.

The City’s draft plan should rethink its solar strategy and expand its biocarbon perspective. New markets, businesses, and employment can be created, while strengthening the connections between urban and rural communities.

Solar Plan for Oregon

Solar energy can be used to substantially reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, while also reducing the cost of Oregon’s electric utility system and producing other benefits. 

To meet Oregon’s commitments to reduce GHG emissions we need to burn less coal and natural gas to produce electricity. The state’s electric utility system needs to be about 80% based on renewable energy.  This electric utility “de-carbonization” will require substantial investments in new zero-carbon energy technology.

 This Solar Plan for Oregon is a scenario[1] in which 20 percent of Oregon electricity would eventually be produced by solar energy. We would invest about $10 billion in solar photovoltaic (PV) generation capacity over the period 2015-2030. Half would be built on buildings as distributed PV (DPV) and half on land as utility-scale power plants (UPV).  

The Solar Plan for Oregon would reduce the cost of the electric utility system in Oregon by about $2 billion in 2012 dollars. Greenhouse gas emissions would be reduced by 108 million tons over the life of the solar installations.  Other pollution caused by fossil fuel power plants would also be reduced.  The cost of this carbon and other pollution reduction is negative – it is better than free.

A large-scale solar program can produce these and other net economic benefits for Oregon. The role of regulators and policy makers can then become that of allocating benefits among utility customers and shareholders, rather than allocating costs.

Download the new Solar Plan for Oregon at our Publications page.


[1] The term “scenario” describes a planning model used to evaluate a possible future state of the electric system.  It is driven by many assumptions,  is not a hard and fast proposal, nor is it optimized for many variables. If you, or your organization, have an interest in helping to frame, evaluate and potentially support the continuing development of this scenario, please contact Chris Robertson.

How to Reduce Northwest Data Center Climate Impacts at a Profit

Oregon and Pacific Northwest energy and climate issues were highlighted in three recent  news stories.

  1. Google announced expansion of their large data center complex in The Dalles, Oregon, which will double the energy used at that facility.
  2. Oregon’s Global Warming Commission confirmed that Oregon won’t meet its greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction goals using existing measures.
  3. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change called on world leaders to accelerate efforts to reduce the GHG pollution that drives global climate change.

In addition to Google, other big Oregon and Northwest climate footprints include data center owners Apple, Facebook, Yahoo, Amazon, Intel and others. Each consumes substantial energy resources. They are responsible for a significant and growing fraction of Northwest GHG pollution.

Here’s how these companies can reverse that trend and profitably accelerate reductions in GHG pollution. The cost of solar energy has fallen to the point where large companies can use their cash and strong balance sheets to build profitable independent solar power plants in rural Oregon, and produce sufficient solar electricity to power their operations.

Each company already has public commitments to climate protection, including energy efficiency and renewable energy investments. None of these companies yet produces enough renewable electricity to fully power their global operations, but they are making progress.

For example, Google and Apple have invested in several large renewable energy power plants, and are competing to see which company can lead. Google has invested about $2 billion, mostly to build large wind energy systems, including Sheppard Flats in Oregon.

Data centers use a lot of electricity. The electric power demand for Google’s data center complex in The Dalles is 37 megawatts (MW). It runs nearly full time at that level, and uses enough electricity over the course of a year to power 27,000 homes.  Its new data center there will likely increase that to about 70 MW, enough for about 50,000 homes. Large data centers now use 2.4 percent of Pacific Northwest regional electricity, about 500 average MW per year, which releases 1.8 million tons of GHG pollution per year.

Solar power plants built on land in sunny parts of Oregon produce energy about one fifth of the hours in the year. That means solar power plant capacity needs to be five times larger than a data center’s electric demand in order to produce as much energy as a data center uses annually.

Google’s 70 MW data center complex in The Dalles would require 350 MW of solar power plants to offset its electric use.  Land required for this would be nearly 4 square miles (which is much larger than their rooftops!). To offset the 500 MW used by Northwest data centers about 2,500 MW of solar power would be required. The land needed would equal about 27 square miles, which for comparison is only 1/8 of 1% of Oregon agricultural land. Total solar investment would be about $4.5 billion.

There is a market for the solar electricity these plants would make. Portland General Electric, PacifiCorp and Idaho Power buy solar electricity from independent power plants using standard contracts at regulated prices. Solar power plants would make energy at between 5 and 7 cents per kilowatt-hour and sell it to the electric utilities at about 8 cents per kWh.

This strategy benefits the regional economy, data center owners, rural counties, electric utility customers, and the environment. The solar investments would advance economic development and job growth in rural Oregon, and create a new tax base for Oregon counties. The long-term, predictable-cost solar energy sales to the electric utilities would  help to stabilize long-term electric rates for all Oregon energy consumers.

If the 500 MW electric demand of all large Oregon and Washington data centers were offset by solar energy, then greenhouse gas pollution would be reduced in the Northwest by 1.8 million tons per year, at a profit.

So how about it Apple, Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Intel and Amazon? Bring large-scale solar energy investments to Oregon. Improve the Oregon economy, your bottom lines, and the climate.

Utility-Scale PV Power Plants Are Now Cost-Effective in Oregon

Utility-Scale PV Power Plants Are Now Cost-Effective in Oregon

Large-scale solar power plants are now economic in Oregon. This is one of the surprising findings of the Oregon Solar Energy Industries Association’s recently published “Vision to Integrate Solar in Oregon” (VISOR).  Produced by Chris Robertson & Associates, LLC, with support from the Bonneville Environmental Foundation, the VISOR study can be accessed at our publications page.

The cost of producing solar electricity from large-scale power plants is less than the regulated avoided costs of the two largest electric utilities in the state (Portland General Electric and PacifiCorp).  The Oregon Public Utility Commission regulates their avoided costs, which are published as part of the utility rate schedules.  Power plant owners can get long term contracts to sell solar energy to the utilities at the avoided cost rates.

Solar power plants would be even more profitable to build if plant owners were paid for the non-energy benefits their PV power plants create. Many benefits to the utility system are not now priced, but nevertheless are real.  Here are three (of many) examples.  A fleet of PV power plants would reduce risk of electric price volatility associated with natural gas generation and the region’s hydroelectric system. The three-phase inverters in PV power plants can provide valuable power factor correction services to the power grid. And avoided carbon emissions alone could be worth $20 or more per megawatt-hour, as the following chart illustrates.

The new reality of cost-effective solar energy power plants caught many in the Northwest’s energy policy community by surprise. The influential Northwest Power and Conservation Council’s 2010 regional power plan regarded utility scale PV as not cost-effective by a wide margin; by the end of 2012 their 2010 forecast of PV capital cost was too high by a factor of five.

The conventional wisdom is changing in response to new market research. As this new awareness of PV economics grows, the regions electric power institutions will need to adapt their planning models and management strategy to accommodate a growing solar resource. The new solar economics means that the power system will be challenged to integrate a growing solar resource into the grid.

Welcome to Our Energy/Climate Blog

Commentary on innovations and progress at the intersection of business, climate and energy strategy

Solar Energy Now Cost-Effective In Oregon

Our new report for the Oregon Solar Energy Industries Association, their “Vision to Integrate Solar in Oregon” (VISOR) documents how large-scale solar energy power plants are now cost-effective in Oregon.  The VISOR report can be downloaded here. VISOR 2013_04

This chart illustrates the economic performance of a solar power plant built in Central Oregon and interconnected to PacifiCorp’s transmission and distribution system. The energy would be sold to PacifiCorp via a long-term power purchase agreement (PPA). PPA revenue is based on the utility’s 2012 avoided cost rates as regulated by the Oregon PUC. The levelized $/MWh is shown for the production cost (red bars), PPA revenue (blue bars) and PPA revenue plus the value of avoided carbon emissions (green bars).

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For more on Oregon solar energy strategy please download the VISOR report.

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