Portugal just ran its entire grid for 107 straight hours on 100% renewables. That’s four and a half days. The country now gets about 48% of its energy from green power.
Catherine Wolfram at UC Berkeley posted about their paper looking at costs of distributed energy systems in Kenya and concluding that these were too expensive for households compared to connecting to the grid. However, the paper came under immediate criticism.
Here’s my thoughts based on her representation of the paper’s findings, some of which are mirrored by other commentators:
First, the paper talks about costs on one side, but doesn’t put them in perspective to the alternatives. The post lists the cost of the individual systems, but not the expected connection costs to the grid.
Further the paper takes a static look at current costs and doesn’t account for the differential trends in the sets of costs for an home-based system versus connecting to the grid. The latter costs can be expected to be steady or even rising, while it’s well known that both solar and storage costs have fallen rapidly.
Different scales of “grid” also are important. For example, solar projects show scale economies up to about 3 MW but then modular construction flattens the per kW cost. A village microgrid separate from a national central grid may be quite cost competitive.
Finally, the paper appears to lump large hydro in with other utility-scale renewables. The environmental (and economic development) record for large-scale hydro projects in the developing world is dubious at best. There is evidence of significant methane emissions from tropical reservoirs. Habitat is destroyed and poorly designed projects don’t deliver expected benefits. Hydro is by far the largest energy supplier on these grids, and they may be little better than coal from an overall environmental perspective.
This New Yorker article, “Power to the People,” is one of the first mainstream press articles discussing how the energy utility landscape is being transformed. (This was sent to me by one of my non-energy clients.) It prompted one thought: the “death spiral” only occurs if we hold on to the traditional model of utility investment and regulation. Allowing utility shareholders to participate in the transformation through their unregulated holding companies can mitigate much of the potential for a death spiral.
Severin Borenstein at UC Energy Institute blogs about the push for distributed solar, perhaps at the expense of other cost-effective renewables development. My somewhat contrary comment on that is here: https://energyathaas.wordpress.com/2015/05/04/is-the-future-of-electricity-generation-really-distributed/#comment-8092
Renewable energy technologies have made outstanding progress in the last decade. The cost of solar panels has plummeted. Wind turbines have become massively more efficient. In many places some forms of renewable energy are cost competitive. And yet…just as these exciting changes are taking place, the renewables movement seems to be shifting its focus to something that has little or no connection to the fundamental environmental goals: distributed generation, particularly at the residential level. In practice, this means rooftop solar PV.
Instead of seeking the most affordable way to scale up renewables, the loudest voices (though possibly not most of the voices) in the renewables movement are talking about “personal power”, “home energy independence”, “empowering the consumer”, and rejecting “government-created monopolies”. In the not so distant future, residential PV may be augmented with onsite storage (as suggested by Tesla’s announcement this week of its Powerwall home battery system).
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After calling a halt to the deeper exploration of an electric publicly-owned utility, the city has turned to an easier mountain to climb in community choice energy aggregation (now remonikered to CCE). The original POU study briefly looked at the CCE option and moved past (and in my opinion used too generic of an approach to assess the POU path with some incorrect assumptions and didn’t consider the rapidly changing electricity market). Several direct access providers have approached the city and interested parties about helping implement a CCE. The citizen’s committee will look at whether a CCE opens up new value for the city and its citizens, and whether to go it alone or to join another CCE. Marin Clear Energy and Sonoma Clean Power both have participation rates over 90%. I will be sitting on that committee as an appointee via the Coalition for Local Power. (I also sit on the Utilities Rates Advisory Committee which has an appointee.)
Perhaps one of the most attractive features is that Davis can gain control of the energy efficiency funds available from the public good charge by preparing a plan specific to the city. Fortunately, the framework for that plan is already underway with a prompt from the Georgetown University Energy Prize.