Electric America

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The Nuts and Bolts of Kauai Solar and Battery Storage

The Kauai Island Utility Cooperative (KIUC) is a small utility. It provides electricity to about 33,000 homes and businesses on Kauai and has about 25,000 active members. Energy cooperatives are organizations that provide power to their customers, who own a share of the cooperative as  members and ratepayers. The organization is run as a nonprofit, and in the case of KIUC, owns the power plants, and the transmission and distribution infrastructure to bring the electricity to the customer.

Rural electric cooperatives serve 75% of the geographic U.S., but only 12% of the population because there are fewer people to serve per mile of transmission line in rural areas. Cooperatives were founded as a way to electrify parts of the country where investor-owned power companies didn't want to go because it was less lucrative.  Because member-owned cooperatives have no shareholders, the cooperatives serve only their members (the electricity customers) and their employees. 

The cooperative model, especially in rural area or islands, has produced amazing developments in the power sector, and innovation that some for-profit companies have not been able to achieve.

In March of this year, KIUC and Tesla completed a solar and battery storage facility in Lihue, Kauai on a former sugar plantation

 It is a 13 MW solar farm ( 2600 times the capacity of the average 5kW PV system found on an American rooftop), with an accompanying 52Mwh worth of battery storage, making the installation one of the biggest battery energy storage facilities in the country, behind utility scale battery deployment in Southern California. There are 272 Tesla Powerpacks set up next to 55,000 solar panels  According to KIUC, there are many sunny days when 90 percent or more of day time electricity demand is met by the island’s solar farms. The batteries can power 4500 homes for four hours, or about 18% of the island’s homes. 

On islands it is often easier to make the financials work for new, creative power solutions because they typically face a high price of electricity to start.

This is also part of the reason that Block Island Wind Farm came to be, which is the only operational offshore wind farm in the United States, which serves Block Island and its cooperative power company (Block Island Power Company). Prior to receiving power from the wind farm, Block island was also dependent on diesel fuel, importing nearly 1 million gallons of diesel every year.

Kauai is still dependent on oil for a large part of its power supply. About 60% of the electricity on the island comes from oil power plants, and the other 40% from renewable energy sources, including solar+battery, hydropower and biomass. The solar and battery storage facility displaces 1.6 million gallons of diesel per year, enough to fill a Tacoma truck 76,000 times.

Hawaii has a state goal to be powered by 100% renewable energy sources by 2045.

 

7 Days in a Green Home - Top Takeaways from My Stay in One of the Greenest Homes in the Country

When I was offered the opportunity to exhibit my photography at the sustainability/tech conference, VERGE 2017, I reached out to the west coast climate network for a place to stay. Sven Thesen returned my call with an offer for a bed and a warm meal. I spent an entire week living as the family lives in “Project Green Home,” a LEED platinum, net zero energy, passive house.  This all electric home uses approximately 80% less energy and water than the typical U.S. house. It was not only fun to stay in, but was actually more comfortable, luxurious, and fruitful than any other place I have stayed.

 This LEED platinum, net zero energy, passive house uses approximately 80% less energy and water than conventional American homes, savings on bills and impact on the planet. More detail on the Palo Alto home on the   Project Green Home   website.

This LEED platinum, net zero energy, passive house uses approximately 80% less energy and water than conventional American homes, savings on bills and impact on the planet. More detail on the Palo Alto home on the Project Green Home website.

How do they do it?

The family has set up a structure to create a closed loop system within their home, and does what it can to reduce waste wherever possible. The Thesens recapture and reuse water, food, and energy, and it was inspiring to see how they benefit from their well-designed, environmental, and economic home. It is a beautiful house designed with lots of windows and sky lights for natural light, extensive garden space, rooftop solar, and three electric vehicle charging stations. There is even a tree trunk that serves as a feature column in the living room.

The thing that was so wonderful about staying with the family was that they don’t make you feel bad about how you live, or even expect you to join, but I did take note of some amazing features and reaped the benefits. 

Here are my favorite parts of the green home:

1.     Hot Water that You Don’t Have to Wait For

You know that moment when you turn the shower on and get bored waiting for it to heat up? Maybe you grab a glass of water, start your nightly stretching routine, or plug in your phone, all while the water is running, wasting water cleaned to drinking water quality. No one wants to step in before it’s steaming, which is why I was so impressed with the design at Project Green Home.  Next to every water system there is a small white button you press before you need the water. Water (heated by an electric heat pump) is kept hot in the insulated pipe loop. Pressing the button triggers the pump to circulate hot water to that specific area of the home. Give it 2 minutes and you’re good to go. You turn the handle and by the time you step in you feel steaming, luscious flowing water that you’re actually using and enjoying. No more cold quick showers, or buckets of water wasted.

2.     An On-site Pump and Platform Where You Can Fuel Up (Literally and Spiritually)

I was searching around the exterior of the house for a place to do yoga. After a lap through the vegetated back yard and garden, I noticed that there was a hard flat surface in the front yard that meets every yoga need. It met my goal of being outside, and had enough room to lay out my mat and move around. What was it you ask? It was the stone fuel pad alongside the electric vehicle charging station, aka their driveway. There is no way in hell I would ever sprawl out to do yoga on the concrete of a gas station, but an EV charging station at my home? That’s a different story.  It dually serves as a place for the car to be parked and plugged in, and a lovely (and oil free) landing spot for a meditation session when the car is out being driven. It was clean with no sign of any oil or leaking fuel (because the car doesn’t use oil or gasoline – it’s electric!). The flat stone is perfect against your feet during a tree pose or a good downward dog. Sven’s wife has not been to a gas station in 8 years.. I repeat, 8 years. A spot for filling your car and your soul- what more could you ask for from your home?

3.     Luxury Shower- Water Pressure that you Crave

When I hopped in the low-flow shower, I had no idea what I was in for. I had experienced the moment of exhaustion when you’ve been traveling in a different time zone and just need a shower, but decided to sleep and get to it in the morning. Little did I know I had put off what would be one of the best shower experiences of my life.  The water was steaming (see bullet one), and equally important, the pressure was amazing.

Many water efficient technologies have struggled to meet the luxury standards that Americans are accustomed to, and if you’re like me, have come to crave. The idea had disseminated that sometimes you just need more water to get the performance. This shower dispels that notion.  The showerhead provides a flow less than 1.5 gallons/minute (gpm), compared to typical showers that stream over 2 gallons per minute, using 30 gallons in a 15 minute shower. This design saves water while maintaining water pressure. And I never put off a shower again.

4.     Fresh eggs, whenever you want them (on demand eggs)

The beauty of having hens is that you can stroll out to the backyard to collect breakfast. There were always eggs in the house fresh out of the oven (quite literally), and great for morning omelets. Healthy, cheap, and always available.  

 The chickens come to the door to say good morning.

The chickens come to the door to say good morning.

5.     Wine, Homemade Goodies, Handwritten Notes- The Fruits of Providing Free Car Fuel

Nearly every time I returned to the home there was a different electric vehicle fueling up at the curbside charging station, one installed on public property, and permitted by the city of Palo Alto.  The Thesen family provides electricity to the community for free. They consider the additional electricity cost a minimal expense and well worth the value of normalizing curbside electric vehicle charging. Their generosity is often repaid via a stream of bottles of wine, notes and other goodies.  Neighbors and community members leave gifts on their curb or doorstep, grateful for their leadership, and to have a nearby fueling station (in this case providing free fuel). Neighbors could buy an electric vehicle and not install a station. The public charging station helps people overcome initial concerns about range and fueling, encouraging the growth of the electric vehicle market.

 

There are countless examples of awesome design and good living- if you want to see them all, stop by the home for a look around! The next tour is on Sunday October 8th, 1-3pm in celebration of the North American Passive House Network Conference.  Contact Sven at sven@projectgreenhome.org to join.

Learn more about how the Thesen's installed the EV charging station and the cost of electricity to fuel the public here. 

To read about the domestic hot water design and system, go to www.gohotwater.com

Demand Demand Demand- How the Power of the Purse Drives Green Technology

I walked on the site of Duke Energy Renewables’ largest solar farm, capable of powering about 17,000 U.S. homes in rural Conetoe, North Carolina. It was tucked behind a small plot of RV homes, and was surrounded by agricultural land. The solar field was in an area of small towns and large farm plots.

We got out of the Ford truck close to 11 am, and it was stifling. The area was bug ridden, and the humidity and sheer heat made it almost unbearable to be in the field.

The George Washington University (GW) is powered by 50% solar, and as a GW alumni and Fellow with the university, Duke Energy Renewables agreed to show me where their energy comes from, along with a couple other farms in the area.

This one I visited was an 80 MW site with over 400,000 solar panels covering 800 acres. From every viewpoint, I saw solar.  I climbed a hill, looking down try to maneuver through the ant mounds. I looked up and was overwhelmed with solar. I saw nothing but panels and there was no end in sight.

The farm was developed through what's called a power purchase agreement (PPA), where energy consumers (companies, utilities etc.) buy a certain amount of power at a set price for a long period of time, usually 15-25 years. The companies Corning and Lockheed Martin created the PPA to serve their North Carolina and Maryland operations, respectively.

I was standing on the largest solar farm in Duke Energy Renewables’ portfolio.

It consisted of rows and rows of large solar panels. It also had an enclosed, air conditioned monitoring room where the solar radiance and number of MW produced were displayed on screens. And as with any power plant, there was also a transmission station on the site.

Later in the afternoon I traveled about 30 minutes up the road to a smaller farm, one of three solar farms that GW, GW Hospital and American University developed in North Carolina to serve their energy needs. Together it’s called The Capital Solar Partnership. The three institutions decided that they wanted to be powered by clean energy, and found a power provider to build solar farms within their energy market, PJM Interconnection, and to sell them the power.

Each institution established a PPA with Duke Energy Renewables. In the long run, the institutions save on their energy costs, as the market price per kwh of electricity rises. It’s a way of securing clean power now and energy security in the long term.

This is an especially popular model for institutions and big companies with high energy costs, long term need, and some capital to spend. The developer, for example, Duke Energy Renewables, just needs someone to say, “yes, we will pay for power from this solar farm for the next X years,” and then can securely invest in building the new infrastructure.

As I hopped around from site to site backed by private institutions and companies, something became so clear to me: it’s all about demand. The solar farms would not have been built if these institutions and companies did not have the interest in it, for whatever reason. Maybe it is part of the sustainability goals of the organizations, or a priority of the shareholders, but for one reason or another, they wanted to invest in clean energy to power their organizations.

I thought back to other scenarios when demand made all the difference.

In 2016, I toured Sims Recycling Facility in Brooklyn, NY that processes New York City’s recyclables.

The manager explained to me that right now they have one Chinese buyer that agreed to purchase dirty plastic bags, used by consumers to carry take-out and hair products from CVS and then thrown away.

 The moment that the one Chinese buyer decides that it is cheaper or preferable to buy clean plastic bags, or manufacture elsewhere, and no longer needs those dirty plastic bags they are no longer recyclable in the city.

They have nowhere else to go. No one wants them. And therefore they go to the landfill.

Recycling is not enabled by the technology at the facility, the collection process or consumer behavior, so much as the demand for the material to be used again.

We cannot count on a couple big companies to do the right thing. Or one Chinese buyer to take all of our garbage. We need to be demanding good processes- clean energy, goods that are common enough or malleable enough to have second uses.  We are the demand. When we as individuals band together to each demand something good (a better box, less plastic, fewer receipts, cleaner power), we all win.

So be demanding.   

The (Electric Vehicle) Elephant in the Room

t’s a beautiful spring day, and I stroll with friends along a city block in DC. We pass a garage with a sign outside showing the classic plug-in symbol indicating it has charging stations where electric vehicles can juice up. 

My friend turns to me and says excitedly “ Look Mol, a place to plug in your car- it’s for electric vehicles!” She’s so happy to see something I’m interested in, and a sign of environmental progress.

“Yes... and charge it with what power?” I return.

A blank, confused face stares back at me.

“Electricity…”

It’s true-beautiful, flowing electrons power the vehicles, and leave no tail pipe emissions. But charging your car with electricity doesn’t imply it’s clean electricity, and doesn’t guarantee it is better for the environment.

The Unseen Fuel

More than likely you’re powering your car with a fossil fuel, just not direct oil. There is no longer a small machine within it burning oil, producing the energy needed to drive. With electric vehicles we get power from far away power plants, and it flows through transmission lines into power sockets and into our vehicles. 

But just because you don’t see fuel, doesn’t mean there isn’t one. You could be powering your  car with coal, natural gas, or nuclear energy (whatever the local power plant uses); on the contrary,  it could be solar, wind,  or geothermal energy.  Just as we don’t know the origins of our petroleum in any given tank (30%  Saudi Arabia, 20% Mexico..), we don’t know exactly where the electricity we draw is coming from at any given moment.

If you’re in California, you may be receiving excess electricity generated by Texan wind farms, or you might be receiving base load power from the natural gas plant 20 miles to the north. The operators pass along the cheapest electricity generated in that moment within the region. If there is high wind or strong sun one day and large plants within the region to capture it, your power may be renewable.  But only 13% of electricity generated in the U.S. is from renewables (9% if you exclude hydropower).

So if you’re not charging your vehicle using your rooftop solar, you’re probably using hydrocarbons. 

In DC, more than likely it’s electricity from coal, or natural gas. In NY, you car is likely running on natural gas or nuclear power.

So let’s clear about the following-

1.     Electric vehicles will increase the demand for electricity and demand more from the country’s infrastructure.

2.      Cars powered by electricity clear the tail pipe clouds, but  are likely still causing pollution and emissions from power plants around the country.

Electric vehicles present an amazing opportunity to make the leap and ultimately drive cars powered by the sun and act as mini storage devices that help to effectively manage the stress on the grid. 

Like all fuels and revolutionary technologies, it has caveats and challenges that arise with deployment. 

Electric vehicles are fundamentally an amazing development. But as it is, electric is not synonymous with sustainable. And only by acknowledging that electric elephant in the room will we get to a place where it is.

What's Going on with Coal?!

Some say it’s down for the count. The current presidential administration stands firmly behind the industry. But all roads point to the neon sign- the coal heyday is behind us.

“From the Ashes,” a film distributed by National Geographic Documentary Films, and produced by Radical Media with support from Bloomberg Philanthropies, premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival Wednesday, April 26, 2017. It turns a spotlight toward the American coal industry and current trends at a time when coal is at the center of a national debate about how to manage America’s industrial decline. The film weaves together the tales of coal miners, community members affected by toxic air and water from coal pollution, and on-the-ground activists. It portrays a comprehensive portrait of the industry’s effect on local economic and environmental conditions.

One of the central questions in the debate is addressed upfront- why the decline? And it was a quick answer- it’s not economical to produce power using coal; natural gas is cheaper.  The greatest “attack” on the coal industry is the natural gas industry. The competition from gas with the advent of hydraulic fracturing (fracking), and increasingly efficient rigs, challenged the coal industry, and moved natural gas to the number one fuel for producing electricity in U.S.  Coupled with increasing awareness of the public health effects, and leadership from government , environmental groups, and even energy companies, the landscape of how electricity is produced in the United States has changed drastically in the last five years. 

Most energy companies have decided that the investment required to update coal plants to meet air quality standards is better spent converting the plants to natural gas power plants. Other coal plants have simply been decommissioned altogether. Natural gas is cheaper, cleaner burning, and on the rise for electricity production.

Coal still provides around 30% of the country’s power, according to 2016 EIA data, behind natural gas at 33%. But if we’re talking about rapid decline, many industries have been hit by competitive technology and mechanization of production. The retail sector has lost 18 times as many jobs as the coal industry since 2001. So why so much attention?

1.     Poignant, Historic American story

Well, for starters, retailers did not work in dangerous, dirty coal mines to electrify the country for a century, and they certainly did not die trying. The social, economic and historical legacy is strong, and the country, and coal companies, owe the miners. Michael Bloomberg has stated the “profits have been privatized and the costs socialized,” in reference to the coal industry. A string of coal giants have declared bankruptcy and have attempted to relieve themselves of their obligations to the workers. The miners are often left without pensions, healthcare, and jobs. And we, as energy consumers are “connected through the plug.”

2.     Coal Central, a Singular Economy

The areas that are most affected by the decline in coal mining and plant shutdowns are concentrated areas of coal and only coal. There is no diversity of industry. Coal companies intentionally became the only game in town. For decades the coal companies convinced miners and local governments that it was best this way, and to be grateful for the jobs and economic activity. Coal was proudly, and intentionally, the only industry. With plant closures and layoffs, the workers are left to face the financial and health challenges of being embedded in the coal economy.

3.     All or Nothing, Deep Roots

Similar to a farming town, there is family tradition, pride, community, and an entire social fabric around coal and the electricity it produces.  In the town of Sunbury Pennsylvania, instead of a ball, they drop a light bulb on NYE. To coal miners who have been working in the mines for 30 years, it doesn’t matter that there are 800,000 jobs in the low carbon economy (and growing- solar employment grew by 25% in 2016 and wind by 32%), and far more economic and healthful opportunity. Coal-powered electricity and associated jobs are what they have known, and for good and for bad, everything is wrapped up in it.  The water sources and the air are affected by it. Coal-related health problems are particularly prevalent in those areas. And the cultural symbols and traditions, demographics, daily schedule, and general way of life were built around the coal boom. Roots are hard to pull up when the center of your economic life is also the center of your life.

4.     A Transition is a Transition, and Nobody Likes Change

Despite all the talk, transitions are costly and these communities are not getting the resources they need. There are some amazing organizations that are providing jobs and training to former coal miners. A West Virginia native, Brandon Dennison, is incubating small businesses in the Appalachia region with the Coalfield Development Corporation. President Obama had designated funding for diversification and workforce transition programs through Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization (POWER) Initiative (which Trump's proposed budget would cut). But they are still fundamentally underfunded.

Coal isn’t the first industry to experience a decline, however. In the case of tobacco, the government, using fees levied on tobacco companies, paid tobacco workers as the industry transitioned back to the free market after decades of government quotas. The paper and timber industries have slowed. Technology is replacing jobs in all spheres- on assembly lines, in grocery stores, and in print houses. But the fact that the communities are suffering and it’s a life-altering transition for them warrants, or at least helps to explain, the outcry.

The coal community is an affected and vulnerable population, which is why President Trump focused on garnering a support base there. His promises to “bring back” the coal industry and put coal miners “back to work,” draw attention to a small group of people who were critical to the country’s progress, who have been by and large unsupported during the industry’s decline, and who would like to hold on to what they know for as long as they can.

Moving on from Coal

But the truth of the matter is that coal is a “20th century fuel.” It is no longer financially sensible to produce electricity using coal, with or without increased regulations. Lawsuits using the Clean Air Act have affected what types of coal we get from which mines and which plants remain operable (the most egregious offenders with outdated technology are more easily shutdown). But market forces ultimately have contributed the fuel’s decline. Solar and wind, along with battery technology, are advancing. Electricity demand in the U.S. is relatively stagnant. Natural gas put a pin in it.

When you hear talk about coal, know there are deep rooted economic and environmental forces and legacies at play. Today it’s a small industry, a shell of what it was.  Coal miners need the support of the people who have consumed the power for decades. 

But also recognize the shift away from coal is a shift forward.

There are 20 deaths from coal pollution each day, and fewer coal plants and mines means a more healthy population.  As Mary Anne Hitt, Director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, states “There has not been a more exciting time to watch how electricity is produced in America since the industrial revolution.”  Empathizing and supporting affected communities, diversifying local economies and power supply, and adapting with changing circumstances is how we progress and is how we build a truly Electric America.  

 To support affected populations, visit https://www.crowdrise.com/fromtheashesfilm.

 “From the Ashes,” premieres on National Geographic on June 25th, 2017.

www.fromtheashesfilm.com

Additional Information:

Coal Transition &  Bankruptcies:

http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/nations-largest-coal-mining-company-files-for-bankruptcy-protection 

https://thinkprogress.org/coal-communities-trump-budget-6b74acddaa46

http://www.coalfield-development.org

https://thinkprogress.org/coal-communities-trump-budget-6b74acddaa46

Tobacco Transition

http://info.ncagr.gov/blog/2013/12/31/todays-topic-tobacco-transition-payment-program-coming-to-an-end/

Decline in Jobs & Power Production

https://www.eia.gov/coal/annual/

https://www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.php?id=427&t=3

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/17/opinion/why-dont-all-jobs-matter.html?_r=0

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2017/03/31/8-surprisingly-small-industries-that-employ-more-people-than-coal/?utm_term=.915b3fdc62dc

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