Utah Solar Farm Has Potential

Dixie Solar Farm

I read last January this interesting story in the Deseret News about a Dixie solar farm. It is not quite ready for the masses but should appeal to early adopters and the environmentally sensitive. With the tax credits and the future cost of electricity sure to rise I would be tempted to buy into a similar project if it was offered locally.

More Power To You

The city of St. George Energy Services Department and Dixie Escalante Electric have built a large solar photo-voltaic facility, allowing residents to purchase solar power to supplement the energy supplied by more conventional means. This takes advantage of the 310 days a year of sunlight, increases the use of renewable sources, provides local power, and increases sustainability and energy security for the growing community.

Own Your Own Power Plant

Residents of St. George can now invest their money locally, lower their carbon footprint, and control a portion of their power supply. They can purchase a whole or half SunSmart solar unit of 1 kilowatt installed solar PV capacity and own it for 19 years. Thereafter the panels will be replaced or repaired with the purchaser having the choice to pay the cost. The economies of scale make SunSmart an affordable, maintenance-free way to take advantage of solar power. The power generated by the SunSmart solar farm will be sent to one of the city’s substations and then the power is transported throughout the community via existing distribution circuits.

SunSmart solar panels using existing distribution systems

SunSmart solar panels using existing distribution systems

Solar Credits

Those that own one of the 466 black and gray solar panel units pay no more fees after the initial $6,000 and receive a credit on their monthly power bill. One St. George resident reported in December last year a solar credit of $3.90. A small amount but as electric rates increase in the future, the value of the energy credit will also increase. Each unit is priced to cover the cost of the equipment and installation. The city is not making any money off of this project; all of the savings go to the purchaser. By having a solar farm of this size the purchaser benefits from the economies of scale. Residents have a limit of four units or eight half units that they can buy. One unit will generate about 140 kWh per month and has a guaranteed minimum output of 800 kW hours a year. When I checked today the solar farm had produced 466 kW hours of power. Not bad for the dead of winter. Check to see how much power was produced today.

Sunsmart solar panels

Sunsmart solar panels

Tax Credits

There is a one-time Utah income tax credit of 25% of the purchase price up to $2,000 but no Federal tax credit. The person receiving the tax credit must live in St. George and they must also be receiving the credit of energy. The city worked with the state legislature to make it possible for homeowners to receive state tax credits for renewable energy investment not on the homeowner’s own property. St. George is the only city that currently offers a program that takes advantage of this tax credit for an off-site system. In a refreshing move by the city, it has not forced anyone to pay for the project if they did not want to be a part of it.

Environmental Impact

Every kilowatt hour of solar electricity produced offsets 1.8 grams of nitrous oxides, 0.9 grams of sulfur dioxide, and 986 grams of carbon dioxide, if the kWh was produced at an average Utah coal-fired plant. The offset in carbon dioxide is equivalent to driving 2.2 fewer miles.

The Guv’nor Likes Solar

At the SunSmart solar facility opening ceremony Governor Huntsman cranks out the puns with the words charge and potential:

Utah is poised to lead the charge in energy efficiency, renewable and alternative energy development with new and innovative technologies. Projects like St. George’s SunSmart are the perfect example of our state’s great potential being put into action.

During the late 20th century, Utah had already begun its journey on renewable energy with the development of hydroelectric plants in canyons adjacent to population centers. At present, renewable resources account for about 923 gigawatts of electric generation capacity in the state. This includes solar, wind, biomass, geothermal, and hydro production. The state has supported the growth of renewable energy by funding such projects including the installation of solar panels on the visitor’s center at Goblin Valley State Park, the headquarters for the Utah Department of Natural Resources, and Yuba State Park. The state continues to encourage renewable energy through direct purchase, policy, and incentives.

I agree with the Governor. We have the land, the entrepreneurs, the technology, and plenty of sunlight. With the current move to solar Utah’s star is indeed shining.
Rickety signature.

Electricity Generation and the Obama-Biden Plan

Energy and the Environment

Electricity generation is generally not one’s first priority when it comes to reading. However, I admit that I found it interesting when perusing Change.gov to find, among many, these three energy/environmental goals:

  • Ensure 10 percent of our electricity comes from renewable sources by 2012, and 25 percent by 2025.
  • Develop and deploy clean coal technology.
  • Implement an economy-wide cap-and-trade program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050.

The first consideration is to ask what large energy sources are you going to replace? Nuclear (19.4%) and hydroelectric (6.0%) are more desirable than coal (48.5%) and natural gas (21.4%). It would appear that coal would be the main target to be replaced. In the chart below is a breakout of energy sources for the generation of electricity, measured in Gigawatt hours. A Gigawatt hour is a unit of electrical energy equal to one billion watt hours or one thousand megawatt hours. In 2007 the United States generated 4,166,507 Gigawatts of electricity which is enough power to light almost 8 billion 60 watt bulbs for a year.

Electricity Generation in the USA by Energy Source.
Source: Energy Information Administration

.

25 Percent from Renewables by 2025

By examining current electricity generation we can determine how feasible the goals are. Let’s look at the first goal in our list. Hydro-electric and other renewables make up 8.5% of the total. A goal of 10% by 2012 would therefore be quite doable. There is nothing like an easy goal attained in the early stages of a project to give one energy to proceed to the next level. To reach a goal of 25% would take some effort. How likely in the current climate are new large hydroelectric projects? Not very encouraging. For example, consider the Glen Canyon Institute that wants to decommission Glen Canyon Dam. What about other renewable sources? Energy Information Administration (EIA) defines “other renewables” as:

Wood, black liquor, other wood waste, biogenic municipal solid waste, landfill gas, sludge waste, agriculture byproducts, other biomass, geothermal, solar thermal, photo-voltaic energy, and wind.

These sources would have to compete with coal. The levelized energy cost (LEC) is a cost of generating energy for a particular system. It is an economic assessment of the cost the energy-generating system including all the costs over its lifetime. Using the LEC, coal is seen as costing one half as much as wind power and a third as much as solar thermal. Photo-voltaics cost four times as much as coal. Clearly, if these goals are met we will be paying much more for our electricity. However, I do believe that advances in technology and economies of scale will close the gap.

Clean Coal Technology

Our second goal aims to improve coal, which is a wise move considering that it is responsible for almost half of electricity generation. It has been estimated that commercial-scale clean-coal power stations (coal-burning power stations with carbon capture and sequestration) cannot be commercially viable and widely adopted before 2020 or 2025. The concept of clean coal is said to be a solution to climate change and global warming by coal industry groups, while environmental groups maintain that it is a public relations tactic that presents coal as having the potential to be an environmentally acceptable option. Greenpeace is a major opponent of the concept because emissions and wastes are not avoided, but are transferred from one waste stream to another.

Whether clean coal technology makes coal more acceptable will remain to be seen. Because powerful environmental groups are opposing its use it seems that there will be as much progress in this arena as there is in building new dams.

Cap-and-Trade Program

The last goal again takes aim mostly at coal. A cap-and-trade program is often seen as a better approach than direct regulation or a carbon tax. For existing industries cap-and-trade can be cheaper because the initial allowances can be issued by taking into account the history of the emissions from that sector. Politically it can also be more appealing. Presumably most of the money is spent on environmental activities. However, there are critics:

The notion that emissions trading is going to make a significant dent in global warming is deeply flawed, they say. Current emissions-trading schemes have proved to be little more than a shell game, allowing polluters in the developed world to shift the burden of making cuts onto factories in the developing world. (“The Carbon Folly“, Newsweek, 2007)

Because 2050 is so far out anything is possible. We may well reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by that year. I would like to see smaller percentage goals for years closer at hand. That way, progress can be tracked and timely adjustments made to reach the goals.

Summary

The energy goals on Change.gov are commendable. I have only covered three of them. However, I would like to see a table with goals for each year, starting in 2009. Each goal would state clearly its objective, along with measurable data, including costs, to track progress. I would like to see nuclear power expanded. I have no objection to wind and solar power generation even though it is much more expensive than coal. I believe the costs of solar will decrease significantly. One goal that is missing is to greatly expand telecommuting where one moves bits and not bodies. And the best goal of all is: “I will be a little less fanatical about global warming this year.” Now that would really clear the air.

External Articles

Exposing the Myth of Clean Coal Power
Nuclear’s Comeback: Still No Energy Panacea
Oil’s Expanding Frontiers

Rickety signature

Americans for American Energy Act

Enrico Fermi Nuclear Power plant, on Lake Erie
Rob Bishop is the representative of the district in which I live. I have reproduced here a simplified list of his energy act, H.R. 6384, which has already been co-sponsored by more than two dozen other lawmakers and runs some 215 pages long. The 12 steps to greater and less rickety energy independence are to:

1. Increase the supply of natural gas.
2. Development of American oil resources.
3. Develop oil shale.
4. Utilize America’s coal supply.
5. Increase the use of nuclear power.
6. Invest in renewable resources.
7. Promote greater energy efficiency and conservation.
8. Increase America’s gasoline refining capacity.
9. Adopt regulatory relief and tax reform.
10. Improve America’s transmission and energy infrastructure systems.
11. Restore our energy workforce.
12. Develop new energy technologies.

I can simplify the list even more. This is what I think we should do in order of priority:

1. Replace oil and natural gas electrical generation with coal.
2. Replace oil furnaces with natural gas. Heavily promote natural gas and electric vehicles.
3. Greatly expand nuclear power generation of electricity.
4. Invest heavily in solar power.

What is your take on all of this? What would be your priorities? Your comments are welcome.