solar power

Power costs are stable.  Gas prices decreased markedly in 2014 Oil futures are low compared to 2013 and earlier.  .  Production is constant.  Low energy likely is fueling an economic expansion.  Gas economy in vehicles is at an all-time high.  Fuel efficiency lowers GHGs and cuts oil imports.  America is less reliant on foreign oil.  We have more money in our pockets.  Utility power costs and vehicle costs are lower.  Generator operations are lower.  Life is great.  Or is it?


Well, that depends on who you talk to.  Politicians in states with in oil and gas based economies are scrambling to deal with large deficits in their budgets.  The railroads are not happy over the Keystone pipeline vote.  Green energy manufacturer are unhappy.  Environmentalists are unhappy.    Heck even the Koch brothers are probably not completely happy


The first issue is methane gas.  Pipelines and fracking operations lose about 6% of the gas. A Washington Post article estimates 8 million metric tons of methane is lost each year.  That is where we are trying to capture and transport it.  The Bakken fields lack pipelines for gas, so much if it may be flared.  The amount of fracking will continue (Florida Power and Light has said it will get into the business – but outside of Florida), so more exploration will likely lead to more methane escaping.  Why do we care?  Methane is 22 to 80 times the greenhouse gas that carbon dioxide it (depending on who you talk to).  It accounts for 9% of GHG emission in the US – a third of that from the oil and gas industry.  That gas is concentrated in the western US which makes them ripe for regulation.


Enter cap and trade.  The cap and trade “industry” has been opposed by the oil and gas industry for years.  However there are a number of groups –from Indian tribes to NextEra Energy are posed to benefit from cap and trade (C&T) rules.   They have reduced their carbon footprint enough that they can sell carbon credits.  It is doubtful that this Congress with pass C&T legislation, but much of the regulatory focus could be shifted if C&T was in place.  C&T could accelerate green energy efforts.


Green energy folks want continued subsides or policies that encourage increased green power supplies, improve technology and reduce prices – all at the same time.  Rolling out a major change in the energy picture is a huge investment that will not gain traction without policies to encourage it   At least for now, green energy creates more jobs per KW-hr than conventional oil and gas, primarily in research and development and product manufacturing.  Sewing up the patents would portend positively for America in the 21st century, much as sewing up the car, gas engine, and nuclear patents did for the 20th century.  He who owns the technology should benefit.  Unfortunately that isn’t the Koch brothers who are unhappy with green energy but are happy that lower oil prices might decrease the competition in the future when oil prices inevitably rise.  But America would be better off in a non-oil based economy in 50 years if we developed an energy policy to address these issues with a long-term view.


However, that would take a lot of business and political leadership to overcome some of those who do not want change.  These are people who have more money than the Concord coach makers who could not fight the technology change to automobiles in the early 20th century.  It also takes a vision of what America should look like in 50 years. We might be short on those visionaries.  And how will utilities be a part of it.


Local utilities are among the largest power users in their communities.  This is why power companies make agreements with utilities at reduced cost if the utilities will install backup power supplies.  The peak power generation capacity as well as backup capacity is at the local utilities and other large users.  Power companies can delegate this capital cost to large users without the investment concerns.  It works for both parties.  In addition, power companies spend effort to be more efficient with current power supplies, because recovering the costs for new, large plants is difficult, and in ways, cost prohibitive.  Hence small increment options are attractive, especially when they are within high demand areas (distributed power).  The use of localized wind, solar and on-site energy options like biogas are cost effective investments if sites can be found.  That is where the utilities come in.  Many utilities have sites.  Large water utilities may have large reservoirs and tank sites that might be conducive to wind or solar arrays.  Wind potential exists where there are thermal gradients or topography like mountains.  Plant sites with many buildings and impervious areas could also be candidates for solar arrays and mini-wind turbines.  Wastewater plants are gold mines for digester gas that is usually of high enough quantity to drive turbines directly.  So utilities offer potential to increase distributed power supplies, but many water/wastewater utilities lack the expertise to develop and maintain these new options, and the greatest benefit is really to power companies that may be willing to provide as much money in “rent” to the utilities as they can save.   Power entities obviously have the expertise and embedded experience to run distributed options optimally.  So why don’t we do this?

I would speculate several reasons.  First, the water/wastewater utilities have not really considered the option, and if they do there is the fear of having other folks on secure treatment sites.  That can be overcome.  The power entities have not really looked at this either.  The focus in the power industry is to move from oil-based fuels to natural gas to accumulate carbon credit futures, the potential for lower operating costs and better efficiency of current facilities to reduce the need for capital investments.  Power entities operate in a tight margin just like water/wastewater utilities do so saving where you can is a benefit.  There are limited dollars to invest on both sectors and political and/or public service commission issues to overcome to invest in distributed power options at water/wastewater facilities. 

But a longer-term view is needed.  While fossil fuels have worked for us for the last 100 years, the supply is finite.  We are finding that all that fracking might not give us 200 years, but more like 20-40 years of fuel.  We have not solved the vehicle fuel issue and fossil fuels appear to be the best solution for vehicles for the foreseeable future which means they will compete directly with power demands.  Natural gas can be used for vehicles fairly easily as evidenced by the many transit and local government fleets that have already converted to CNG. 

The long-term future demands a more sustainable green power solution.  We can get to full renewable power in the next 100 years, but the low hanging fruit need to be implemented early on so that the optimization of the equipment and figuring out the variables that impact efficiency can be better understood than they are now.  For example, Leadville, CO has a solar array, but the foot of snow that was on it last September didn’t allow it to work very well.  And solar arrays do use water to clean the panels.  Dirty panels are nowhere near as efficient as clean ones.  We need to understand these variables.

Area that are self sufficient with respect to power will benefit as the 21st century moves forward.  There are opportunities that have largely been ignored with respect to renewable power at water and wastewater facilities, and with wastewater plants there is a renewable fuel that is created constantly.  Wastewater plants are also perfect places to receive sludge, grease, septage, etc which increase the gas productions.  There are examples of this concept at work, but so far the effort is generally led by the wastewater utilities.  An example is East Bay Municipal Utility District (Oakland, CA) which produces 120% of its power needs at its wastewater plant, so sells the excess power back to the power company.  There are many large wastewater plants that use digester gas to create power on-site to heat digesters or operate equipment.  Others burn sludge in on-site incinerators to produce power.  But so far the utilities are only reducing their cost as opposed to increasing total renewable power supplies.  A project is needed to understand the dynamics further.  If you are interested, email me as I have several parties wishing to participate in such a venture. 

In June, President Obama made a speech about the increase in renewable power that the United States had created in the last 4 years, and announced goals to double this amount in the next four.  Virtually all of this power was solar and wind power.  Little mention was made of hydroelectric or onsite sources.  But the latter have been around much longer than the former sources and there may be options to increase their contributions under the right circumstances. 


Hydroelectric power has been in use in the US for over 100 years.  By the 1930s, 40 percent of the nation’s power came from hydroelectric dams, including some fantastic accomplishments of the time like the Hoover Dam.  Today we have over 100,000 dams in the US, most of which provide power.  Today hydroelectric is only 6 percent of our total.   The reluctance to continue with hydroelectric power involved fisheries, land acquisition costs and legal issues.  Some hydropower options are excellent.  Hurting fisheries (which disrupt local economies dependent on those fisheries) may not be, and therein lies part of the dilemma.


But water and wastewater utilities are actively looking for means to reduce power costs.  Depending on the utility, pumping water can account for 80-90 percent of total power consumption, especially with high service pumps on water systems that require high pressures.  More efficient pumps is one obvious answer, but of fairly limited use unless your pumps are really old.  Variable speed drives can increase efficiency, and the cost is dropping.  But note that with all that high pressure, how do utilities recapture the energy?  We often don’t and the question is whether there is a means to do so that can benefit up.  The first step is looking at plant hydraulics.  Is there a way to recapture energy in the form a pressure.  For example of reverse osmosis systems, we can install a turbine to recapture the pressure on the concentrate side.  They are not very efficient at present, but the potential is there.  On long gravity pipe runs for water supply, a means to recapture pressure might also be available. 


Of course on-site generation of power is a potential solution. Water and sewer utilities have land, and on the wastewater side, methane, so producing power is possible.  This solution, however, may not be embraced by power utilities due to the potential revenue reduction potential and loss of embedded reserve capacity at water and wastewater plants.  As the water facility takes on on-site generation, their load profile may shift significantly placing them in under a different rate structure. This may greatly reduce the benefit to the facility.  There are, however, approaches to permit win-win solutions. The goal is to put willing power and water utilities together to permit local generation that will benefit both power and water utility systems to encourage public – private partnerships.  A medium to large wastewater plant can generate at least a third of its power needs.  Some even more if they take in grease, oils and other substances that should not be put into the sewer system.  The potential there is significant.  EBMUD has a plant that is a net seller of power.  We should look for opportunities.  But don’t forget, water utilities can create hydropower without impacting fish populations. We just need to seek out the right opportunities.

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