Navigant Research Blog

New Transmission Replaces Retiring Coal Plants

— December 23, 2014

In my drive across the country last summer, two unexpected features of the landscape stood out.  First, driving across Nevada and Utah, the silhouette of coal power plants frequently loomed on the horizon.  Second, the sweeping vistas almost anyplace across the western half of the United States now almost always include electric transmission towers and power lines. The recent U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Clean Power Plan (CPP) will certainly change that landscape, as aging coal generation plants are retired and dismantled. Driving between Green River and Provo, Utah, I passed through a beautiful canyon and within a few hundred yards of the Price Canyon coal-fired plant, which is scheduled for retirement due to age, EPA compliance regulations, and a constrained location.

If the EPA plan is implemented as currently written, there will be an increase in transmission planning and spending as the transmission grid is reconfigured to address coal generation plant retirements and new transmission capacity is required to deliver wind and solar resources to utilities in other parts of the country.

Out of the West

In previous Navigant Research blogs, I have discussed the development of a north-south transmission highway between the northern Midwest wind farms and the population centers in Nebraska, Kansas, and Texas.  However, coal plant retirements across the lower Midwest, East Coast, and southeastern U.S. will have a serious impact on electric reliability across those regions, according to the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC). Forward-thinking electric transmission companies are anticipating this and are now building new west-to-east transmission to deliver wind power from the High Plains to population centers in the Midwest and Southeast that will be hit hard by the retirements.

In November, the Rock Island Clean Line LLC filed petitions with the Iowa Utilities Board to obtain new electric transmission line franchises.  Rock Island plans to construct, maintain, and operate an electric transmission line across 16 Iowa counties.  The project is an approximately 500-mile overhead, high-voltage direct current (DC) transmission line that will deliver 3,500 MW of wind energy generation from northwest Iowa to cities in Illinois and other eastern states.

When you look at the distribution of existing coal-fired generation plans across the United States, it’s easy to imagine where additional new transmission lines will be needed. The map below shows the distribution of the coal generation fleet across the United States.

Coal Power Plant Locations and Size, United States: September 2014

(Source: Energy Velocity Maps)

Perhaps another transmission superhighway, using ultra-high-voltage alternating current and high-voltage DC transmission lines to move energy from the High Plains to the Midwest and Southeast, will take shape in the coming years.

 

An Open Cuba Is Poised for a Green Future

— December 23, 2014

The news that the United States will extend normal diplomatic relations with Cuba can be viewed as the last act of the Cold War.  With the promise of cooperation on both sides, U.S. businesses will view the island nation as a new market for consumer and industrial goods as well as infrastructure spending.  Fortunately, Cuba has the potential to develop into an energy efficient country – if it can act deliberately.

Cuba opened its first 2.6 MW solar farm in 2013, with plans to develop six more, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.  Cuba also has plans to develop wind projects totaling 280 MW.  Today, 4.3% of its power comes from renewable resources.  Still, Cuba relies heavily on imported oil from a precarious source, Venezuela, which supplies two-thirds of Cuba’s petroleum. According to some reports, Venezuela was poised for oil price increases before the global drop.  Now Cuba may want to buy oil from other sources in the region at low prices, disincentivizing clean energy investment in the near term. At the same time, Cuba will have access to new low-carbon sources, following its own Article 81 in its Law 33, or general environmental policy, that encourages renewable resources that have minimal impact on the environment.

Building Boom

Cuba is also a member of the Organization of American States, which just announced support for the COP20 lowered emissions goals for all countries. With an awareness of climate change impacts and adaptation choices, it is bound to be torn between the cheap oil and development funds it now has access to and the regulations and low-carbon goals it supports.

Navigant Research’s report, Global Building Stock Database, forecast a flat growth rate for Cuba’s commercial and residential space, but that will surely change.  With more tourists and new commercial prospects flooding into the country, the demand for first-world quality residential and commercial space will rise.  The energy intensity of that space will likely be greater than the current building stock, resulting in an acceleration of energy demand.  There are a few strategies that can be employed that will help tamper the accelerated demand for power.

One landmark goal would be to make all new development net zero energy.  As described in Navigant Research’s report, Zero Energy Buildings, net zero implies that a building produces as much energy as it uses over the course of a year.  A strong government like Cuba could initiate strict building codes, following similar goals instituted in  California, as there is a legacy of energy efficiency policy implementation in the country. In 2005, Castro called for a “revolución energética,” resulting in the replacement of all incandescent light bulbs to CFLs and the replacement of over 2.5 million refrigerators.  Given the available solar resource and some wind resource, new hotels and business districts can leave room for installing renewables. Again, there is a precedent here. Over 2,300 schools have been equipped with solar since 2001, and the energy revolution provided some financing for residential PV.  Building codes can also require the most efficient building possible.

Lovely Decay

A major challenge, however, will be in retrofitting the existing building stock.  Renowned for its decaying beauty, the frozen-in-time architecture of Havana is a challenge for energy efficiency retrofits.  Maintenance and upgrades have been minimal over the past half-century, and the island’s humidity and heat are intense.  It’s hard to envision the building envelope being retrofitted to a highly efficient level. However, the appliances within them could be ungraded easily as part of the revolución energética.

Cuba recently announced 246 projects , worth over $8 billion for technology and industrial jobs, focused on renewable energy development and manufacturing of air conditioners, for instance.  Cuba is now at a crossroads and has the potential to choose the green/clean path forward.

 

Back to the Land, in the City

— December 23, 2014

Urban farming may sound like an oxymoron, but more and more cities are looking at the role of urban food production to reduce the embedded carbon cost of transporting food long distances (food-miles), to improve food education, and to regenerate run-down city areas.

In many cities, of course, there has never been a clear line between the city and country.  A new study, for example, indicates the degree to which urban farming has a significant role in city economies.  According to the report from the International Water Management Institute (IWWI), around 69 million hectares (around 6% of the world’s cropland) are being cultivated within cities.  Furthermore, 456 million hectares (1.1 billion acres), an area roughly the size of the European Union, is under cultivation in close proximity to urban environments.

Urban farming is widely practiced across the world: 87% of cities greater than 50,000 have some irrigated farming and 98% having some rain-fed cropland.  The report suggests that there is significant potential for the local sourcing of food for the growing cities of the developing world, but it also highlights the issues this presents in terms of water and wastewater management.  In particular, a lack of water treatment facilities means that there are significant dangers to human health from cultivation that uses unclean water.

Scaling Up

In Accra, for example, 10% of the city’s wastewater may be used for urban farms without adequate treatment.  Another study has estimated that 85% of cities discharge their wastewater without appropriate treatment.  Strategies to support and expand local food provision for growing cities must, therefore, be closely aligned with improvements to water distribution and water treatment systems. Developing cities need to find ways to integrate existing urban farming sites with their water management and land use policies if they are to retain the benefits of local production.

In the developed cities of North America and other parts of the world, urban farming has been recognized since the 1970s as an important tool to help community regeneration programs in areas like the Bronx in New York.  Now cities are looking to technology to make local production viable at a commercial scale.

To Feed the Center

For example, Lufa Farms is running two rooftop gardens in Montreal using hydroponic technology, which provides nutrients to plants through an integrated water system rather than soil.  They have also been reassessing the sales and distribution issues that are equally important to make urban farming commercially successful.  Other technologies to enable large-scale urban food production include aquaponics, which integrates fish and plant farming, as practiced by Urban Organics in St. Paul, Minnesota. Urban Organics is located in a former brewery and is part of a broader, city-supported urban regeneration program.  In Europe, LokDepot in Basel, Switzerland is the first commercial aquaponics farm.

Any true measure of a city’s total energy consumption, its environmental footprint, or its economic resilience needs to consider the relationship between the urban center and the resources on which it relies.  Food production is one of the most important of those resources.   In different ways the community gardens and high-tech vertical farms of North American and European cities and the farming enclaves of Accra and other cities in Africa and Asia all show how cities need to think more locally about food production.  As droughts and expanding urban populations put pressure on water supplies and food costs, an intelligent approach to food production will become a critical issue for many communities.

 

Commercial Real Estate Holders Realize the Value of Energy Management

— December 23, 2014

Conventional wisdom states that the split incentive of tenant-occupied commercial buildings undercuts the benefits of energy efficiency and smart building development.  Those tides are shifting, though, and major commercial real estate (CRE) firms are doubling down on investment and promoting the value of strategic energy management.  In the last few months, major CRE firms have announced new strategies and corporate perspectives that highlight the promising future for smart commercial buildings.

America Realty Advisors has discussed a new sustainability strategy for its $6 billion commercial real estate portfolio in a recent article in National Real Estate Investor.  The first steps include benchmarking energy and water use and conducting targeted energy audits at under-performing facilities.  CRE firms are seeing that smart, efficient buildings translate to stronger bottom lines.  American Realty Advisors’ managing director Jay Butterfield explained in the article: “We have seen that firms successfully reducing a property’s energy usage by 30% may realize increases of up to 5% in both net operating income and asset value.”

Making a Stand

JLL has also taken its stance on energy efficiency and sustainability to the front lines, promoting its IntelliCommand energy management system as a service offering and taking a stand on climate change.  In a recent editorial supporting the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) Clean Power Plan, JLL’s Dan Probst explained, “Our energy efficiency initiatives have helped our commercial real estate clients reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 12 million metric tons while saving them $2.5 billion in energy costs over the past seven years.”

The benefits of strategic energy management go beyond the CRE giants and their flagship Class A buildings.  Two recent examples demonstrate the economic impacts of energy efficiency upgrades in Class B buildings.  In Houston, a 24-story office building and historic landmark went through significant upgrades in 2011, including the installation of a building energy management system, and Hines (the real estate management company that manages the building) is touting the benefits.  Hines sees this kind of strategic energy management focus helping lower capitalization rate, generate operations and maintenance (O&M) savings, and stay competitive.

Too Big to Ignore

Meanwhile, according to The New York Times, the benefits of energy efficiency in Class B buildings are too big to dismiss.  The energy and sustainability benefits of Class B upgrades in New York are underscored by the added benefit of helping building owners prepare for the energy reductions targets for 2020, under the bundle of laws supporting the PlaNYC climate change agenda.

The mounting risks of climate change, rising demand for sustainable workplaces, and maturing market of smart building technologies are combining to spark momentum in CRE strategic energy management investments.  These CRE early adopters are laying the groundwork for the growing penetration of smart building investments in commercial buildings.

 

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