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Energy Efficiency in the Pacific Northwest Is Here to Stay

— December 7, 2015

Seven years ago, I helped author a Climate Solutions report, Carbon Free Prosperity, which analyzed the potential for Oregon and Washington to reach a goal of 74%-78% carbon-free electricity by 2025. In 2008, this target was considered aggressive, but achievable, due to the extensive hydroelectric resources already in place in the two states. This target requires considerable energy efficiency measures to be in place and new policy support to spur the uptake of new wind power, solar PV, biomass, and even wave, tidal, and concentrating solar power. The plan was coordinated with the Northwest Power & Conservation Council (NPCC), a regional planning powerhouse that is arguably one of the most influential entities in the region. At the end of 2015, new policies and regulations are now in the works to surpass the original goal—bringing the region closer to 90% carbon-free electricity by 2030—and energy efficiency remains the driving force. And while maybe not as headline-driven as companies like SolarCity, Tesla, Nest, other Bay Area-type companies, or General Electric, a steady cadre of Northwest energy efficiency and energy solution providers have weathered the considerable ups and downs of the hard-to-predict energy market.

In the Carbon Free Prosperity report, the successful recruitment and presence of leading companies such as Vestas (North American Headquarters), Iberdrola, SolarWorld, Solaicx, XsunX, Sanyo, and other big names across the clean energy sector were touted. But it remains the case that events and policy matter. Following the national trend, a lack of certainty around key national incentives (and rapid cost declines in solar PV in particular), many of these companies face a highly challenging marketplace, with operations in the Pacific Northwest reigned back considerably in the past 5 years, including several that never fully got off the ground. This was also the case for companies down south, in Silicon Valley, and across the country.

In the Northwest, it is often said that if you shake a tree, an energy efficiency expert falls out. The region is home to several leading national companies such as CLEAResult, Ecova, and more (often formed through the acquisition of local firms such as PECI, Fluid Market Strategies, Quantec, and others). Many of these companies, in addition to some smaller, residential weatherization-focused counterparts, experienced similar boom and bust as their electricity-generation counterparts following the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act, which provided depending somewhere between $20 and $40 billion for energy efficiency. What remains today is a highly experienced network of negawatt providers, supplanted by a regional emphasis on energy efficiency and regional entities such as the Bonneville Power Administration and the NPCC. These two powerhouses essentially enshrine energy efficiency as the leading source of new energy procurement. Both should enable the long-term success of the Pacific Northwest’s energy service companies, as well as the possibility of greater than 78% of Oregon and Washington’s power coming from carbon-free sources.

 

Oregon State Energy Policy Leadership Back on Display

— November 30, 2015

Oregon has a long history of innovative firsts across the social, political, and business spectrum with regard to energy. Below are some notable examples of Oregon energy state policy leadership:

  • In 1919, Oregon became the first state to initiate a gas tax, and the rest of the country followed its example in repairing roads. Now rolling out a trial pay-as-you-drive tax called OReGO, the state is incentivizing its citizens to drive less. In 2011, per capita use of gasoline in Oregon fell to its lowest level since 1962.
  • Oregon was the first West Coast state to pilot a floating offshore wind farm in Coos Bay.
  • The state is home to Shepherds Flat, one of the largest wind farms in the world at 845 MW. Shepherds Flat has more than 300 2.5 MW General Electric (GE) wind turbines.
  • Portland was the first U.S. city to adopt a climate change plan, called the Global Warming Reduction Strategy. In 2010, Oregon hit its 2010 emissions target.
  • In 2007, the state legislature passed numerous pieces of clean-energy legislation in electricity, biofuels, and other sectors that led to the arrival of Vestas, Iberdrola, SolarWorld, and other industry leaders.
  • Oregon’s only coal plant, Boardman, is expected to be converted to biomass by 2020.

However, since the financial crisis and amid challenging market conditions both locally and globally, there have been lulls in legislation and activity that previously gave Oregon its credibility in the energy sector.

There are two new initiatives facing voters in the coming ballot cycle. Initiative Petition 63 aims to increase the state’s renewable portfolio standard from 25% by 2025 to 50% by 2040, which would make it one of the top five most aggressive among U.S. states and territories. The initiative would also ban coal electricity imports, which, when combined with the planned phaseout of coal generation in the state, would make the state coal-free by 2030. Initiative Petition 64 is similar, but it also ties these results to executive compensation, which is the first approach that I have seen tied to energy policy, anywhere.

Initiative Petition 64

Dexter Blog Quote

 (Source: Oregon Initiative Petition 64)

To be sure, many other aggressive state-level efforts have seen strong innovation on the policy front and have enjoyed various levels of success. One differentiating factor that makes Oregon particularly unique on the local implementation front, however, is the massive hydroelectric system in the Columbia River Gorge. This system provides about half of the state’s power (and does so cheaply), and has been somewhat of a barrier to the larger uptake of non-hydro renewables at the residential, commercial, and industrial levels.

Voters have consistently voted with their dollars, and Oregon is home to one of the highest percentages of green power program subscribers—where customers pay approximately 10% more on their electric bills in order to support renewable energy projects in the state. Similarly, polls associated with these new ballot initiatives found that 71% of Oregonians supported the bills, and that 58% said they supported the proposal even if it would increase their energy bill. This flies in the face of conventional wisdom that voters are unwilling to put their money where their mouth is, and is instead representative of most of the state’s population. The positive economic impacts of wind and biomass power in rural areas has led to progressive energy legislation being passed.

Many groups outside of Oregon will be watching closely to see if these initiatives pass, and this underscores not only the importance of policy to keep the state on the front lines of statewide energy policy, but also its potential for the rest of the United States.

 

Negawatt Leadership in the Pacific Northwest

— November 24, 2015

In the Northwest, one of the most important and influential energy stakeholders is the Northwest Power Conservation Council (NWPCC). The 1980 Northwest Power Act authorized Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington to develop a regional power plan and fish and wildlife program to balance the Northwest’s environment and energy needs. The heart of the NWPCC’s mission is to preserve the benefits of the Columbia River—which is home to more than 40% of total U.S. hydroelectricity—for future generations. The NWPCC develops a plan, updated every 5 years, to ensure the region’s power supply and to acquire cost-effective energy efficiency. The process relies on broad public participation to inform the plan and build consensus on its recommendations. While not statutorily obligated to comply directly with the plan, utilities generally follow its spirit, which is often in the public’s interest financially and is also a key enabler for utilities to meet their renewable portfolio targets.

Excerpts from the Plan

It is frequently pointed out that energy efficiency is almost always the lowest cost option for procuring new power, and the NWPCC upholds this with the release of each power plan. Take, for example, the following two excerpts from the most recently released Draft Seventh Power Plan. The first highlights exactly how cost-effective energy efficiency is in the Northwest and emphasizes why the region has flourishing energy efficiency solutions providers:

 “In more than 90 percent of future conditions, cost-effective efficiency met all electricity load growth through 2035. It’s not only the single largest contributor to meeting the region’s future electricity needs, it’s also the single largest source of new winter peaking capacity.”

The second excerpt illustrates the powerful combination of natural gas displacing coal and energy efficiency:

“A key question for the plan was how the region could lower power system carbon dioxide emissions and at what costs. The Council’s modeling found that without additional carbon control policies, carbon dioxide emissions from the Northwest power system are forecast to decrease from about 55 million metric tons in 2015 to around 34 million metric tons in 2035, the result of retiring the Centralia, Boardman, and North Valmy coal plants by 2026; using existing natural gas-fired generation to replace them; and developing about 4,500 average megawatts of energy efficiency by 2035, which should meet all forecast load growth over that time frame.”

The following chart is from the Draft Seventh Power Plan showing new resource development for Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Montana.

Seventh Power Plan Resource Portfolio

Dexter Blog(Source: Northwest Power & Conservation Council)

The 5-year plan is not a cure-all, and is not even technically enforceable, but it does highlight the unique attributes of the Pacific Northwest, not only from a natural resource perspective, but also from a cultural perspective. Though maybe not as flashy as its regional counterparts in California, the network of negawatt providers in the region (ranging from the NWPCC down to the actual implementers) have done a remarkable job at realizing the potential of energy efficiency today and at embedding these solutions into the future.

 

Nefarious Solar Applications

— October 14, 2015

Beyond generating clean power, solar PV’s unique attributes as a distributed technology result in a variety of applications outside of the major markets of residential, commercial, and utility-scale power plants. Applications include solar lanterns for remote communities in Sub-Saharan Africa and remote microgrids in India; additional applications include powering satellites, the International Space Station, and Mars rovers. Solar can even be applied to fashionable widgets—fans, cellphone chargers, backpacks, and the like.

But what about the nefarious or even sinister opportunities enabled by solar PV? The following are a list of applications that could fall under that list:

  • Solar Bitcoin harvesting: With rough estimates at 1 GWh per day, several articles and videos have been posted recently about using solar PV for powering the mining of the Bitcoin. A so-called cryptocurrency created in 2009, Bitcoin allows users to pay for goods and services anonymously. This can range from pizza (not so nefarious) to drugs—and increasingly, weapons and ransom. For now, at least, bitharvesters have a strong incentive to utilize renewables, albeit on a micro scale, for the same reason that data centers do: power consumption is one of the main costs, and reliability is particularly important.
  • Solar cannabis: With Colorado, Oregon, and Washington legalizing (and heavily taxing) marijuana for recreational use, entrepreneurs—ranging from DIYers to large-scale agribusinesses—are looking to reduce the large amount of electricity consumed by grow rooms. Breakthroughs in LED pricing have made a major impact on the bottom line—not only for lighting common areas, but also for grow rooms. Grow rooms require lights, heaters, fans, and other appliances that consume large amounts of electricity. A 2012 peer-reviewed study found wide variations in marijuana plant production, and estimated that the large energy requirements of these facilities had lighting levels similar to those of hospital operating rooms (which use electricity at 60 times the rate of a modern home). With many U.S. states moving toward legalization in the future, grow operations will be able to transfer to outdoor facilities and reduce indoor energy demand.
  • Solar drones: Since the solar-powered plane Solar Impulse completed its crossing of the Pacific, more attention has been paid toward how solar powers unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). For example, in 2010, Boeing won an $89 million contract to build the SolarEagle unmanned reconnaissance aircraft, designed to fly continuously for 5 years at 65,000 feet. (Boeing had previously built Phantom Eye, a hydrogen powered aircraft that could stay aloft at 65,000 feet for four days.) Airbus has built a competing solar drone, Zephyr, which can carry a 1,000 pound payload. (Facebook and Google have recently launched solar drones themselves, designed for beaming the Internet to remote regions of the world, but fall into the not-so-nefarious category.)

The continued cost reductions of solar make once cost-prohibitive applications more realistic—regardless of their potentially illicit uses.

 

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