A different approach to renewable energy generation

An investor-owned power utility in the northwestern USA state of Idaho (population 1.6 million – South East Queensland has 3.3 million) could add 461 megawatts of solar-generating capacity to its system by 2016. If all of those plants are built, Idaho Power would have a total of 1,253 megawatts of new green power on its grid, said Brad Bowlin, an Idaho Power spokesman. Last year, Idaho’s peak load was 3,407 megawatts in July, which would make green power 37 percent of its system.And that’s not counting the 1,700 megawatts Idaho Power can produce at its hydroelectric dams.

First Wind, a Boston energy company recently purchased by a bigger solar firm, has signed contracts to sell power from five solar-generation projects in Idaho. Pictured here is the company’s first solar project in Warren, Mass. [link to original article. Photo by First Wind]

Developers have signed contracts to sell electricity to Idaho Power from the 16 projects in Idaho and Oregon under a federal law that requires the utility to buy power to encourage small and alternative energy producers at the same rate it would cost the utility if it had to build its own, new natural gas plant.  That is, instead of getting a subsidy, the renewable energy projects are seen as helping to avoid the construction of new gas-fired power stations, or to put it another way, they are forced to compete on price with a notional new gas-fired power plant.

This results in the renewable energy companies being paid for the electricity at what is called the “avoided cost” rate. Even with the low cost of natural gas, solar-panel prices have dropped so much that developers can make money by earning the avoided-cost rate, even while paying to connect to Idaho Power’s grid and paying the utility the cost of providing backup power sources when the sun goes behind clouds. They also can make the projects work without counting on the sale of renewable energy credits.

Why can’t this work in Australia?  Are we lacking in imagination?  Are we being told lies about the competitiveness of renewable energy generation?  Is there a concerted attempt at State and Federal levels to look after friends with fossil-fuel fired generation plants?  Is it because too many of our governments own electricity generation or power distribution assets?

What about coal-fired power plants in Idaho?  Well, Idaho Power, the utility that has signed up for the solar powered electricity, owns two coal-fired power plants in Wyoming and Nevada in partnership with other utilities, but it is phasing out the coal plants gradually, so as not to risk the stability of its system and to avoid extra costs to its ratepayers.

Source:  Barker, R. (2014). Idaho Power: Ready to become a green giant? Idaho Statesman November 19, 2014Idahostatesman.com. Retrieved November 20, 2014, from http://www.idahostatesman.com/2014/11/19/3494880_idaho-power-ready-to-become-a.html?sp=/99/1687/&rh=1  Click on the link for the whole article.

3 thoughts on “A different approach to renewable energy generation

    • Yes Mike, I have read it. And quite a bit of stuff like it. I’m not going to present a detailed argument here about how valid each of her “pitfalls” are – though I do think that some of them are valid and most have some possible validity – though there are flaws in her arguments. I’m much more interested in the alternatives to coal and oil. Now.

      You use solar panels. You will use solar panels when you move to Tasmania, and I assume that you won’t take your current set of panels with you and that you won’t buy second hand panels there. Correct me if I am wrong, but I think you’ll buy new panels. Shouldn’t other people buy solar panels for the same reason that you will?

      I use solar panels. Almost all of my friends use solar panels. If something better comes along from the point of view of sustainabiity including EROEI then I will probably switch to it, and I think most of my friends will too.

      What to you suggest people do to supply their electricity needs during the next, say 4 decades? Use coal based electricity? Use solar panels? Burn biomass? Or what?

      Personally I’m going to be using solar panels, and I’m going to keep on advocating that people switch from coal based electricity to solar or wind, until something more long-term sustainable becomes available. I’m going to do that for several reasons.

      One, I don’t see an alternative. And this is important because of reason two.

      Two – and this is my biggest reason – people need to get on board with moving away from high GHG emission fuels and particularly to break the back of the fossil fuel industry and in particular to break the control they have over our governments. And they need to be able to feel that they have started to do something significant. Right now the most available thing that represents a significant change and commitment seems to be renewable energy in the form of solar. Once they are on board then they are going to be that much more ready to look around at the situation, more ready to take in other information, more ready to take other steps. Do you have another way of fostering the beginning of large-scale moves away from the matrix, away from consumerism driven growth-based economics? Or would you have them just keep on with business as usual, listening to people tell them that all the alternatives aren’t really alternatives at all?

      Three, I believe that there may well be evolution of renewable energy technologies that can be brought about if enough money and effort is directed at it (no, I’m not one of the techno-fix crowd, I’m just saying I see a vague possibility of a softer landing).

      Four, quite a few of Gail Tvberg’s pitfalls are linked to the idea that the alternatives to oil/coal are expensive (did you notice too that she mostly talks about oil, not coal, and that solar power – the subject of the blog post you commented on – doesn’t replace oil). The big news is that solar power is becoming very very much cheaper.

      Five, and this relates to the blog post too, GT sees subsidies of alternative energy sources as a pitfall, yet the initiative described in the above post involves “avoided cost” pricing of solar supplied to the grid (with compensation for the cost of other power generation to even out the solar inputs). No subsidies.

      I could go on, but that should be enough to give an idea of my thinking.

      If we are going to have any chance of coming out of this mess at all well, then as many people have possible have to be a thinking, investing, committed part of the journey. They won’t get to that position by reading GT’s negativity about the current range of alternatives. We have to have a positive motivation to strive for a set of continually evolving outcomes, modifying them as the opportunity presents and as the general population’s level of understanding of the issues and commitment to change increases.

      • Basically, we are in one hell of a predicament……. indeed, I will buy brand new panels in Tasmania, but for purely selfish reasons, and because I still can. Don’t you think though that once the oil and coal inustries go down the gurggler (and I think it has already started…) the panel manufacturers are going to be in deep trouble too?

        Oil and coal are utterly dependent on each other; can’t make steel without coal, and can’t mine coal without oil! And we can’t make solar panels without BOTH…

        You, and I, and your friends, may end up in solar powered houses, but a lot of people will be left stranded because they either will not have the money, or will not have seen it coming or believed it was coming…

        GT’s take on subsidies etc is almost certainly from an American POV where things are quite different to here. I too found her assertions towards expensive fossil fuels at a time they are so cheap perplexing, but let’s not forget that at current low prices they are all going broke… and may even stop producing altogether, they can only bleed red ink for so long… Also, I don’t see why you see a need for evolution in renewables… they’re pretty good already, they just don’t generate the surplus energy required to run complexity. Renewables could howver run a simple civilisation, which is where we have to head for in my opinion.

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