Monthly Archives: November 2014

Stacking up the Solar Energy Credits in Massachusetts

Massachusetts may not be the first place you think about when it comes to solar power, but due to a series of government incentives it can be a very profitable place to build a residential solar power system.

graph of Massachusetts electric rates since 2001As I discussed in Solar About to Go Mainstream,  one of the principal factors in deciding to build solar facilities is the cost of the regular power from the utility company. Because of the island’s dependence on oil for power generation, Hawaii has the nation’s highest electric rates and has been a leader in residential solar power. In Massachusetts, the electric rates are skyrocketing. One of their utility companies, National Grid, has raised winter residential rates this month to 24.2 cents per kilowatt hour. That’s over twice the national average.

Western Massachusetts Electric Company has asked for a rate increase of 29%.

California’s solar growth can be attributed to the state’s aggressive Renewable Portfolio Standard requiring 33% of power from renewable sources by 2020. As discussed in California Solar Power and the “Duck Curve” 30 states have adopted Renewable Portfolio Standards. The Renewable Portfolio Standard in Massachusetts is 9% this year and scheduled to increase by 1% per year. Massachusetts also has a solar “carve out” designed to support up to 1,600 megawatts of solar power in the state by 2020. That’s equivalent to 320,000 homes at 5 kilowatts per house. The state is already almost halfway there. Graph of Installed solar capacity in Massachusetts

Connecting a residential solar power system to the grid allows power to flow both ways. At night, when the sun isn’t shining, the homeowner draws power from the grid. During the day, if the amount of solar power generated exceeds what is being used in the house, the power flows out into the electric system, feeding the needs of the neighbors. map of states with net metering policiesUtility billing practices that give the homeowner credit for the excess power generated and fed into the grid are called “Net Metering Policies.” Currently 43 states have mandatory net metering policies and three states have voluntary net metering.

So faced with high and rising electric bills and living in a “solar friendly” state, what can a homeowner in Massachusetts do?

One option is called a “solar lease.” If your house has a south-facing roof and little shade, companies like Solar City will install solar panels on your roof for free. Then they will sell you the power generated at a rate lower than the utility company locked in for the next 20 years. Solar City handles all of the permits, installation and maintenance. Under the lease agreement, Solar City owns the panels on your roof and you get the power at a discount.

But I’ll show you a better way.

The average home in Massachusetts uses 627 kilowatt hours of electricity per month. Installing a 5,000 watt solar system will produce 2/3 of that amount on average. If you’re efficient, that might be enough, but for our example, let’s be generous and figure a 7,500 watt system to provide for all of your needs.
Average cost of residential solar systems 2014
According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, the latest average cost for a residential rooftop power system is $3.74 per watt. A 7,500 watt system would cost about $28,000. That sounds like a lot, and it is.

Now let’s consider the credits. For starters, there’s a 30% federal Residential Renewable Tax Credit. So take off $8,400 to bring the price down to $19,600. Then the state of Massachusetts offers a base incentive of 25 cents per watt for the first 5,000 watts which comes to $1,250. If your household income is less than 120% of the median household income, Massachusetts kicks in another 40 cents per watt or another $2,000. Subtracting the $3,250 from the state brings the system cost down to $16,350. That’s still a large chunk.

Once the system is up and running, however, you’ll save about 625 kilowatt hours per month that would otherwise be paid to the power company. At 24.2 cents per kilowatt hour, those savings amount to $151 per month or $1,812 per year. With that, the system will pay for itself in 9 years.

But there’s more. Your system generates an estimated 7,500 kilowatt hours per year. Each 1,000 kilowatt hours earns you one Solar Renewable Energy Credit (SREC). These are separate from the power you already used in your home. Let’s round that down to 7 SRECs. These SRECs can be sold at auction and the utility companies are required to buy them to meet the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard. At the latest auction, Massachusetts SRECs sold for $274 each. Your 7 SRECs would be worth $1,918.

When you consider the $1,812 per year in savings from your electric bill and $1,918 in Solar Renewable Energy Credits, the system pays for itself in less than 4 ½ years, and thereafter you not only have free electricity, but the system pays you. Even if you have to take out a home equity loan to pay the upfront costs, unless you plan on moving in the next 5 years, it’s a deal too good to pass up.

Disclaimer: this is not investment advice. The values here are for illustration only and your results will vary. This is not an endorsement of Solar City or any other solar supplier or installer. Electric rates and the value of Solar Renewable Energy Credits may go up or down. The 30% Residential Renewable Tax Credit is scheduled to be reduced to 10% after 2016 and may be changed at any time by an act of Congress. Do your own research before investing.

Supercomputing Power in Gaming Graphics Accelerators

Today’s video games use computing power that was achieved only by supercomputers just a few years ago and the makers of computer graphics cards have risen to the challenge. Screen resolution continues to climb and the visual effects get bigger and better.

Nvidia Tesla graphics card
AMD’s Radeon series and Nvidia’s GeForce series graphics accelerators achieve the effects by dividing the computations between hundreds, or even thousands of GPUs or Graphics Processing Units.

Nvidia’s graphics chips also process the physics equations involved in explosions, shock waves and ricochets.

While the performance of the main processors in computers continues to improve, the speed of the GPUs is now several times faster. As a result, when the US government decided to build the world’s fastest supercomputer, they recently chose a design that incorporates thousands of Nvidia GPUs.

The Department of Energy just signed a deal with IBM and Nvidia to build two supercomputers for the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory featuring thousands of IBM servers and even more Nvidia graphics accelerators based on the Tesla platform pictured above. The total value of the deal is with $325 million, far above the average video gamer’s budget. Nvidia further accelerates the processing by stacking the RAM memory on the GPUs. The new supercomputer named “Summit” at Oak Ridge will be capable of 150 to 300 petaflops (quadrillion floating point calculations per second).

The cutting-edge same technology is not only available to video game players, but it may be coming to an automobile near you. Nvidia has partnered with automakers worldwide including Audi, Honda, Tesla and Volkswagen for infotainment systems, navigation and collision avoidance systems.

House Approves the Keystone Pipeline, Senate Vote Next

While oil production has been booming in Texas and North Dakota in the US, a smaller boom has been going on in the oil sands of Alberta, Canada.

Alberta has 168 billion barrels of proven petroleum reserves locked up in thick, tarry sand deposits known as the Athabasca oil sands. The oil formation is the world’s third largest. These deposits are either strip-mined when close to the surface, or steam is injected into the ground, causing the thick bitumen to flow to parallel wells. The extraction is not cheap or easy, but has been increasing.

One pipeline company, TransCanada, proposed the Keystone XL pipeline in September, 2008 to carry up to 830,000 barrels per day from Alberta to the Texas gulf. In 2010, Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer negotiated a deal to reserve 100,000 barrels per day for crude from Montana and North Dakota, leaving 730,000 barrels per day of capacity left for Canadian oil.
US oil imports from Canada and Saudi Arabia since 2000
Although the Keystone XL pipeline has become a political issue, the delay in building the pipeline has not prevented the development of the Alberta oil sands or kept the oil from crossing the border. When the pipeline was proposed, US oil imports from Canada were running about 2.5 million barrels per day. Now, those imports are running about 3.25 million barrels per day, 750,000 barrels per day higher. A product in demand tends to find its way to market one way or another.

Some of that Canadian oil has been carried by rail. Canadian oil exports by rail have risen tenfold from 16,000 barrels per day in the first quarter of 2012 to 165,000 barrels per day in the first quarter of 2014. Some 50,000 more rail tank cars are on order and expected to be manufactured over the next two years. 100 tank cars stretches about one mile; 50,000 tank cars joined end-to end would stretch 500 miles. Many of the cars on order are of the “coiled and insulated” type designed specifically to carry heavy, thick Alberta bitumen. Once they reach their destination, steam is injected into the coils to warm the bitumen enough that it can flow easily and drain from the rail car. In conventional rail tank cars, the bitumen needs to be diluted about 30% with a lighter, thinner petroleum product called a diluent. The diluent is also used in pipelines to help the thick, gooey stuff flow.

The need for diluent has created a series of “parallel pipelines.” The US ships the diluent north in one pipeline. Canada mixes it with their thick bitumen and pipes it back south.

Because the delays in approving the Keystone XL have exposed a critical dependency on the US for Canadian oil exports, Canadians are preparing to take control of their own exports by shipping oil to their own east or west coasts. TransCanada has recently proposed the Energy East pipeline to carry up to 1.1 million barrels per day from Alberta to St. John, New Brunswick, where the oil can be loaded on tankers and shipped to India. Canada’s National Energy Board has also approved a 525,000 barrel per day pipeline proposed by competitor Enbridge to carry crude from Alberta to Kitimat, British Columbia for export to east Asia. And Kinder Morgan has proposed to build a parallel pipeline to their Trans Mountain pipeline to Vancouver to nearly triple the capacity from 300,000 barrels per day to 890,000 barrels per day. All four proposed pipelines face opposition but one or more of them is likely to be built. There’s a lot of money behind them and money talks in Washington, Ottawa and Victoria.

In Washington, the House has once again voted to approve the Keystone pipeline. In the Senate, Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu (D) is facing a runoff election on December 6th. Chances that she will keep her seat look slim, but as chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, she expects to finally get the Senate to vote on the Keystone issue which was first approved by the House in July 2011. If passed, it’s unclear if the President will sign the legislation.

At the moment, there seems to be plenty of oil to go around in the world, and the price has dropped by over 30% since June, down to about $75 per barrel. Canadian oil sands are among the world’s most expensive to produce. At this price, Canadian production might take a bit of a breather. The Keystone XL, even if approved next week, won’t be in operation until 2016. The Trans Mountain expansion won’t be in operation until at least late 2017. Enbridge’s Northern Gateway won’t be in operation until at least 2018. TransCanada is also hoping for a 2018 start of operation for the Energy East pipeline to New Brunswick. Numerous court challenges are likely to delay each of these projects. But chances are, by the time one or more of the pipelines get built, oil prices will have risen again and Canadian oil production will have a ready market.

California solar power and the “duck curve”

Last week as I wrote in Solar about to go mainstream,  I told you about one state where solar has already gone mainstream with over 10% of homes already having solar panels on their roofs. That state, Hawaii, not only has abundant sunshine, it also has the highest regular electric rates in the country. This week the discussion moves to the continental United States and the one state with more solar power facilities than all the others put together, California.

Map of states with a renewable portfolio standardCalifornia, Hawaii, 35 other states and the District of Columbia have created Renewable Portfolio Standards specifying a minimum level of renewable fuel sources for their electric utilities. In seven of the states the Renewable Portfolio Standards are voluntary, rendering them merely symbolic.

In 30 states, however, the standards are mandatory. The Illinois standard, adopted in 2007 is for 25% of electricity from renewable sources by 2025, sometimes known as a 25 x 25 standard. In Michigan, the standard is 10% from renewable sources by 2015. California has probably the nation’s most aggressive Renewable Portfolio Standard requiring 20% of all electric power from renewable sources in 2010 and 33% in 2020.

Cummulative California Photovoltaic Installed Capacity
Solar power installations in California more than doubled last year.

Of course, solar cells can only generate power when the sun shines. There’s little power in the early morning hours or late afternoon, and none at all after the sun goes down. Coal burning power plants typically have capacity factors greater than 80%, with only short shutdowns for maintenance. Wind turbines have capacity factors of about 40% depending on location. Solar cells are rated for direct sunlight on a clear day at noon and generate less all other times of the day, when it’s cloudy or even when the panels are dusty. A capacity factor of only 12% to 13% is typical.

California ISO Solar Power Duck GraphModels of the effects of future solar power generation in California have resulted in the California “duck graph.”

Solar power reduces the amount that needs to be generated from other sources during the day, but drops off rapidly after 4 pm and does nothing to help meet peak power requirements between 6 and 10 pm. As more solar power is installed, the belly of the duck gets deeper and the utility must bring up other sources of power quicker after 4 pm. Coal power plants can’t start and stop quickly and nuclear power is steady all day long. Winds tend to pick up in the hours around dusk and dawn as the temperatures change, but wind is unpredictable. That leaves natural gas (and hydro power to some extent) to make the quick transition.

Aerial photo of Ivanpah thermal solar power facilityOne potential solution is thermal solar power. California built the world’s largest thermal solar power generating facility in the Mojave Desert last year. Thousands of mirrors reflect sunlight to water tanks at the top of tall towers, turning the water to steam which drives turbines to generate electricity. One of the advantages is that the steam stays hot for hours after the sun goes down and the facility continues to generate power into the evening hours.

However, more facilities like the one pictured above at Ivanpah, California are unlikely to be built for several reasons:

  1. The facility is killing approximately 2,000 birds per month, heating them to 800 degrees as the fly through the air.
  2. Pilots flying overhead are complaining about the blinding glare.
  3. The cost of regular silicon solar cells continues to come down. While thermal solar was expected to be cheaper than regular solar panels when it was built, that is no longer the case.
  4. The project is only generating ¼ of the amount of power that was expected. The project investors, including Google, who got a $1.6 billion federal loan to build the facility are now asking for $539 million federal grant to help pay off the loan.

Solar vs grid power costRemember this graph from last week?

The price of large utility-scale solar power facilities has come down much faster than smaller residential rooftop setups. The major difference is the cost of inverters which turn the direct-current from the solar panels into alternating current and synchronize it to the grid. For a residential system, these electronics can be more expensive than the silicon panels themselves. The inverters are a much smaller portion of the cost for large systems. As a result, most solar power installations in the US last year were utility-scale systems.

Solar power installed in 2013 by state

Many environmentalists talk about the “distributed generation” of rooftop solar systems and the end of the grid as we know it. With a distributed generation model, the grid becomes less and less important as power is generated in the same neighborhood (or even the same building) as it is needed. But even as solar power escalates around the country, the reality is very different. Three out of four homes are not well suited for solar, either due to roof geometry, shade, or other issues. And solar power installations are increasingly large-scale facilities far from populated areas where land is cheap, feeding directly into the grid. Wind power too, is mostly located in rural areas, thousands of feet from the nearest home. We will need the current electrical grid for a long time to come. In fact, due to the variability of renewable power sources like wind and solar, the grid will need to be even more robust than it is today.

Solar about to go mainstream

If you are like most Americans, your experience with solar power has been pretty limited. You may own a solar-powered calculator. You may have noticed the solar panel powering the flashing road construction message sign. You’ve probably seen a house with solar panels on the roof, but you don’t know anyone who lives there. That is about to change.

Solar power provides only one third of one percent of all the electricity in the United States, yet last year the Edison Electrical Institute called distributed generation an “existential threat.” By that they mean that rooftop solar panels threaten the very existence of electrical utilities as we know them today.

Think about mobile telephones and telephone utilities. When Motorola developed the first cellular telephone system, AT&T hesitated. Who would need to be able to carry a telephone so that they could be reached wherever they were? Perhaps a few doctors and CEOs would. McKinsey & Company noted that the handsets were heavy, batteries didn’t last long, coverage was patchy, and the cost per minute was exorbitant. It predicted that in 20 years the total market size would be about 900,000 units, and advised AT&T to pull out. Yet people by the millions got mobile phones in addition to their wired phones. And eventually the mobile phones got so reliable they began cancelling their home phone service. Your phone company is no longer a monopoly with captive customers who must buy their service.

Electric utilities are worried that they could be next. The market for voice and data transmission is skyrocketing, but the market for electricity is steady or declining. Electrical generation in US peaked in 2007. In the past 7 years it has not increased. In fact, due to improvements in efficiency, they amount of electricity consumed in the US is down slightly.

Graph of US Solar Electricity Generation since 1985Meanwhile, the amount of electricity generated from wind and solar power has been rising. Solar power generation has been rising exponentially.

The electric utilities have responded by lobbying the state legislatures seeking to tax or limit distributed solar power systems. In response, both environmentalists and conservatives are pushing back. In Arizona, Republican Barry Goldwater, Jr. has started TUSK (Tell Utilities Solar Won’t Be Killed) to fight against grid-connection fees for solar power. In Georgia, Tea Party activists have aligned with environmentalists to form the Green Tea Coalition. The movements are spreading to Florida, North and South Carolina, Wisconsin, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Utah.

In Iowa, Alliant Energy and the Iowa Utility Board took on Eagle Point Solar which had installed solar panels on the roof of a City of Dubuque municipal services building. Under a power purchase agreement, Eagle Point Solar installed the panels on the building and then agreed to sell the power to the City. The Utility Board argued that this arrangement violated Alliant’s monopoly utility status and took the case all the way to the Iowa Supreme Court. The court decided against the utility and in favor of Eagle Point.

One problem for utilities is that once the solar panels are installed, the fuel (sunshine) is free. The main cost is installation, and that installation cost is coming down fast. Solar cells are made out of silicon wafers, similar to computer processor chips. The price of the solar panels has come down 75% in the past 5 years. Other elements of the solar installation (mounting hardware, inverters, labor) have not come down in price so rapidly, but when you spread out the installation cost over the life of the system, the cost is approaching what the consumer would otherwise pay for electricity. Solar Cost vs the Grid

For massive ground-mounted utility scale, the levelized cost of electricity is nearly the same.

As costs come down, solar power installations have risen.

US Photovoltaic Installations since 2000
Solar power facilities are now being built faster in the US than any other fuel source except natural gas.

US Power Plant Capacity Additions first half 2014
For individuals, deciding to go with solar power often boils down to cost. It all depends on how much sun you get, what rebates or incentives are offered by the government, and what the cost of the alternative is. In one state, solar power has been the cheapest source of electricity since 2010. See if you can figure out which one that is.

For three out of four families solar is not an option. They may be renters. They may not have a roof with a large southern exposure. Or that roof may be shaded by trees. If you are lucky enough to own your own building with lots of direct sunlight, consider how much light you actually get.

Map of sunlight in the US
Obviously it helps to live in an area to the south without many cloudy days.
The other factor is the regular retail cost of electricity. This can vary widely depending on where you live.
Map of State Average Electricity Prices
In fact, unless you live in Alaska, the local cost of power is a bigger factor than how much sunlight you get.

If you haven’t yet guessed the state where solar power is cheaper than the local utility company, I’ll give you another clue. This state has no local source of coal, oil or natural gas. All of its energy is imported on ships.

That state is Hawaii. Hawaiian Electric charges residential customers 34.6 cents/kwh on the island of Oahu; on Maui its 37.8 cents/kwh; and on the rest of the islands it’s over 40 cents/kwh. A rooftop solar system can pay for itself in 4 or 5 years. So it’s no surprise that solar power installations in Hawaii grew last year by almost 80%. Ten percent of Hawaiian homes now have rooftop solar power systems providing a statewide average of up to 255 watts per person. During daylight hours on weekends, solar can provide 50% or more of the islands’ needs.

In the continental US, the decision to install a solar system depends much more on tax credits, rebates and other incentives that vary from state to state. As solar installation costs continue to come down, there are some sweet deals to be had in the right location. I’ll discuss what that means for the future in another installment.