We spent the past couple days at the North Country Clean Energy Conference sponsored by ANCA. It was a great opportunity to learn a lot about a wide variety of approaches to energy conservation, generation and regulation. We came away amazed by the creativity and innovation that is happening in the energy sector.
Here are a variety of things we learned at the conference.
Public Projects Everywhere
Many municipalities have implemented or are in the planning stages for clean energy projects, typically putting in solar cells to generate electricity (known as photovoltaics or PV systems) or biomass systems for heating. There was a presentation by Fred Monroe about their positive experience with PV in Chestertown. Fred noted that even though some of their PV systems are installed at the side of the school playing fields, the panels don’t break when hit with a baseball or soccer ball. It’s good to note they are pretty rugged. Another presentation showed how a number of towns along the St. Lawrence River (Ogdensburg, Clayton, Gouvenour and others) have collaborated on a single contract to procure and install PV systems at 15 to 25% savings. The Thousand Islands Central School also participated. The projects are pitched to residents as a way to save money and stabilize energy costs. The green benefits are a plus but not the motivator.
Biomass energy is widely accepted as an important way of reducing fossil fuel use. There were a number of projects described, the largest of which is the major ReEnergy conversion of a coal-fired power plant to biomass fuels at Ft. Drum. You can argue about whether using biomass to generate electricity is wise as a general policy due to efficiency issues, but this reuse of an existing facility seems poised for success. The plant went operational just over a month ago and has been harvesting wood since February. The key point is that ReEnergy’s commitment to sustainable harvesting of biomass is real and serious. For example, they are buying state-of-the-art logging equipment and leasing it to some of their loggers supplying the plant so that they can do low impact collection in the forest. They are also in the midst of planting thousands of acres of shrub willow, which can be harvested sustainably every three years. This facility is able to generate enough electricity to meet the needs of 55,000 homes. It will be an important part of the Army’s commitment to move to more renewable energy sources.
There was also a very impressive presentation on the North Country School’s use of wood for heating using a variety of different technologies and fuel types from cord wood to pellets to chips. They are currently saving over $50,000 a year in fuel costs. They are also doing other things to reduce energy use such as switching to LED lighting, green roofs and some PV systems.
The success of biomass in larger, institutional applications has not been matched by success in the residential arena. There are many concerns about the viability of home biomass including issues of safe storage of pellets and emissions profiles. Overall, there remains significant prejudice against heating with wood in the general public, some of which derives from old wood furnaces that do belch smoke and particulates and would create a public health problem if used even more widely. But the new biomass furnaces are very different and the technology is able to lower emissions levels below heating oil. More education on why the new technologies are clean, safe and carbon neutral is still needed. It was suggested that NYSERDA set aside a percentage of all grant funds for outreach and education.
Looking at the longer-term effects of major use of biomass, we see nothing but benefit to the North Country. Developing a new and growing market for wood from our private forests is necessary to counter the steady decline in demand for wood for pulp mills as paper use tapers off – biomass energy will keep our logging industry viable. The low-grade wood that feeds a pulp mill is equally suitable to feeding a pellet plant. Biomass collection can also be a cost-effective adjunct to existing harvesting for saw logs, using tops and branches. Sustainable harvesting of low quality trees from a forest can improve the value of the forest over time, reversing the decades of “high grading” that has occurred in many of our norther forests.
Solar: Do I Have a Deal For You
There are lots of companies out there that want to bring you no-money-down deals for converting to PV or biomass. The idea is called operational financing. The company essentially funds the capital cost of the system using the savings from the project. Usually the company buys the equipment and then enters in an agreement with you to sell you the power or the heat they generate at a reduced price over what you are paying now. But the majority of the savings go to pay back the install cost. For schools and municipalities, the company can take benefit of the tax incentives that non-profits cannot use, further increasing the attractiveness of the deal for all. It appears that more companies are entering this green energy financing in our region.
The State is setting up a billion dollar “green bank” to provide wholesale funds to companies that would set up individual deals with businesses, municipalities and maybe even home owners. If you have the capital to invest on your own in these green technologies, then your savings will be bigger and start accruing immediately. But if you don’t, the operational financing approach allows you to make the conversion, go green, and get some savings. For many, a stable, known cost of energy is a benefit even if it doesn’t represent huge savings off today’s prices.
Community Net Metering Is a Game Changer
There was a lot of talk at the conference about a regulatory change in the works that is called Community Net Metering. The current situation for someone that installs a PV system is that the electricity produced is fed back into the grid through your own electric meter. The energy you produce is netted out against what you use, watt for watt, hence the term net metering. In this way you can actually reduce your electric bill to zero (but not below) if you have a large solar array. But the panels need to be near your meter.
Community net metering (also called Virtual Net Metering) allows the solar panels to be remote from your meter, tied into the grid at a different location through a different meter, and yet have the electricity generated net out against what is billed through your own meter. The purpose of such a set up is to establish a community power production facility and allocate the energy produced to various subscribers and have them get the same benefits as if the energy production was co-located at their personal location. This program is funded by on charge on everyone’s electric bill, so this is a way to allow everyone to benefit, even a house in the woods.
The immediate implementation would be community solar farms where a large number of solar panels are located at one place and individual home owners or businesses can subscribe to the service. This would allow buildings that are not favorable for placement of solar panels to benefit from a conversion to solar energy. A prime opportunity is set up one of these solar farms on closed town land fills. You can’t build on these landfills but you can put solar panels on them (since the panels are designed to go on roofs, they can easily be sited on a capped land fill without having to penetrate the earth). It is estimated that only about a quarter of all homes in the US are suitable for placement of solar panels. So this kind of community set up could unlock a whole new round adoption of PV technology.
But the idea could apply to other forms of alternative power generation too. If you were the operator of a hydro facility such as the one in Wadams or St. Regis Falls, you could use this community net metering to directly sell your power to nearby customers rather than just wholesaling your power to the grid. Towns in Europe buy a large wind turbine and allocate its power to individual homes in a similar fashion.
The community net metering approach is fully operational in Vermont and Massachusetts and more restrictive versions of it are in use in a few other states. The bill (S.4722-2013) before the NY State Senate to enable this is modeled after the one in Massachusetts. There are many details to work out but there is hope that this can be approved before the end of the year. Betty Little, our Senator, is the sponsor of the bill and needs to get email supporting S.4722: firstname.lastname@example.org
New York State Strongly Committed to Clean Energy
NYSERDA, the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, is funding all kinds of research and development in clean energy, especially solar. They are funding utility-scale solar generation projects of multiple millions of kilowatt hours as part of the effort to increase the amount of energy produced from renewables in the State. The old Benson mines site in Clifton-Fine could be a great site for such a utility-scale solar array.
The State clearly has more policy changes planned in the energy arena. There is a strong commitment to moving to more distributed power production both to lessen the need for further investment in long-distance transmission but also to improve reliability. It feels like the 1970’s when we started to dismantle the old, centralized telco systems in favor of distributed systems oriented toward high-speed data. We will see the energy industry move away from centralized, large-scale generation to a more diverse approach that features many distributed generation approaches. Policy needs to be set so that the existing large players don’t impede progress toward a more flexible and reliable approach. Distributed power production makes a great deal of sense.
The Zero Waste Stream Company. Casella May be in Our Future
Some of the presentations drove home the idea that moving to clean energy has positive business benefits. You save money, improve your image, and possibly participate in new market opportunities. There was a great presentation by Casella, the waste management company headquartered in Rutland VT and operating for our region out of Plattsburgh.
Because of their large-scale investment in single stream recycling or what they call zero sort, recycling levels at their customers go up typically by 25%. They really accept almost everything and make it as easy as possible. But their commitment to sustainability is company-wide. For example, they are converting their truck fleet to compressed natural gas (CNG), which is a huge improvement over the diesel engines in terms of cost, emission, sound levels. They are also collecting the methane generated at the 7 land fills they operate and using it to generate electricity or heat a nearby building. Next, they want to use it to power their CNG truck fleet. Capturing this methane not only displaces other fossil fuel use but it also prevents this very powerful green house gas from entering the atmosphere.
New Micro-Hydro Technologies Coming
There were presentations about a couple of new micro-hydro technologies that can generate steady streams of electricity in smaller stream situations. One was called Hydrocoil. It is a turbine designed to fit inside a 6 inch or 12 inch pipe and generate 1.5 to 2 kW. It has many applications. You can put it directly in a stream or feed it with a pipe on land. But you could also use it in the pipes draining water out of a water tower or in a large building. Imagine all the potential energy that could be tapped with a simple, flexible, plug and play technology such as this. This company is still trying to get financing so that they can scale up for production. They are located in Potsdam and expect to actually manufacture in the north country.
Do you have an old, unused, spring house on your land? Or a small brook? There was another, much smaller scale, micro-hydro system presented that would be suited to these situations. It was incredible simple. The presentation on it is found here. Look at the one called “Big Energy from Small Systems”. We have seen something like this before, called the Stream Engine, from Canada, but this is from Morrisville State College, part of the SUNY system.
Biodigesters in Dairy Land
Although we didn’t spend a lot of time in sessions on the topic of biodigesters we did learn that the main application here is likely to be on dairy farms for processing cow manure. These systems can generate power that is fed right back into the dairy operations, reducing the waste problem and lowering energy costs. With the growth in dairy farms, there should be a good market for this technology.
Electric Vehicles have a Big Future
There were hints that electric vehicles (EVs) will be part of our green energy future in the North County. Although general purpose use of them is still not viable, there are situations where they make sense even now. North Country school converted a big dump truck to a smaller electric vehicle that the use on campus to transport trash and other materials on the campus. The mainstream EVs like the Chevy Volt, the Nissan LEAF, and the Mitsubishi i-iEV have a range of at least 60 miles now and are suitable for many people’s daily commute. If you have solar panels generating your electricity and you use it to charge your EV battery every night, then you can include the gas you didn’t use in your calculations on payback for the solar system. Gas is a lot more expensive than electricity (you almost certainly spend more per year on gas than you do on electricity) and hence using your PV to charge your EV instead of just offsetting your electricity bill represents a much higher value application. It can cut the payback period for your panels in half.
Over time batteries will improve further and the range of these EVs will increase somewhat. If we have a large number of EVs someday (20 years from now) their batteries could become an important part of the way the distributed grid operates. Turns out that a fully charged EV battery could power your house for a number of hours. No need to spend on a backup generator any longer. The grid could use all these batteries for load leveling, charging them up when it has extra capacity and drawing on them to meet peak needs. All this would have to be managed by very sophisticated software that took into account individual preferences and constraints, but it could be done. Next year’s Clean Energy Conference will feature an entire track on transportation and how we move off fossil fuels there.
Thank you to ANCA and conference director Dan Mason (yes he’s Dave’s brother) for helping us all move closer to a green economy.