Georgia Is the Latest State to Procure Dirt-Cheap Solar Power

By: Stephen Lacey


Photo Credit: Solar Growth in Georgia/shutterstock

In Obama’s America, according to conservatives, utilities are forced to consume expensive green energy mandated by the government.

In an ideal conservative America, however, utilities would procure the cheapest and most reliable resource to deliver value to consumers.

Those worlds have officially collided.

One year ago, Tea Party members in Georgia joined forces with environmental advocates to force the state’s utility, Georgia Power, to competitively procure more solar power. Upset about a lack of consumer choice and the $1.5 billion in cost overruns from the Vogtle nuclear power plant, the groups convinced regulators to expand Georgia Power’s solar target by an additional 525 megawatts.

The results of competitive bidding through the utility-scale portion of that program are now coming in. And they once again show that solar — maligned by many national Republicans, but often embraced locally by conservatives — is a very cost-competitive technology.

After a second round of bidding from developers seeking to build hundreds of megawatts’ worth of solar plants in the state, Georgia Power reported that the average price of electricity came in at 6.5 cents per kilowatt-hour. That’s 2 cents cheaper than last year’s bids.

In a filing with the Georgia Public Service Commission this week asking for approval of the projects, the utility lauded the prices as proof that solar can “provide competitive pricing when challenged to do so.”

The projects, which were procured through two programs set up by Georgia Power, range from 101 megawatts to 30 megawatts in capacity. In total, Georgia Power is seeking approval for ten new solar power plants worth a total of 515 megawatts of capacity, planned for build-out in 2015 and 2016.

Georgia Power reported 5,100 megawatts’ worth of bids from 56 different companies.

“While the primary evaluation criterion was economic benefits to customers, as required by the RFP, the evaluation also included non-price factors such as projects with a meaningful economic impact on the Georgia economy, the inclusion of RECs from the facility, financial strength and experience of the developer and interconnection due diligence,” wrote the utility in its filing.

The power-purchase agreements (PPAs) for each winning project were not revealed — only the average of 6.5 cents per kilowatt-hour.

These competitive prices for large-scale solar projects are not unique to Georgia. In Texas, Austin Energy recently signed a PPA for 150 megawatts of solar for 5 cents per kilowatt-hour; in Colorado, Xcel Energy said it can buy electricity from 170 megawatts of solar plants for less than buying from natural gas plants; and in Utah, Rocky Mountain Power also signed deals for 80 megawatts of solar for less than gas.

“This is the first time that we’ve seen, purely on a price basis, that the solar projects made the cut — without considering carbon costs or the need to comply with a renewable energy standard — strictly on an economic basis,” said David Eves, CEO of an Xcel subsidiary, in an interview with the Denver Business Journal last year.

There is also a distributed system component of Georgia’s large solar program, which offers a 13-cent-per-kilowatt feed-in tariff for residential and commercial projects up to 1 megawatt in size. However, that program is not seeing the same level of activity as the utility-scale — partly because of its size, and partly because of incentive levels.

Some of the 11 megawatts devoted to projects of 100 kilowatts or less were rolled over into a 2014 solicitation because of limited activity. There were 45 megawatts bid on the commercial side last year, but 12 megawatts were folded into this year’s targets. Some solar companies believe the tariff is too low for residential and commercial installations, and also worry that incentives for smaller systems could soon change again.

Although there is still a contentious ongoing debate in Georgia about how to compensate distributed solar, this latest solicitation shows that the utility-scale solar market is moving ahead cost-competitively.

Georgia Power called the low pricing proof of “the robust nature of the marketplace.”

Turns out, President Obama and the Tea Party do agree on something: solar power can actually compete in a competitive market today.


Boulder Valley School District Shines in Solar-Powered Learning

Imagine a gymnasium filled with children eagerly raising their hands during a school-wide event celebrating new solar panels. That was the reality last month, with a giant room full of kids who were excited to answer the question, “How is electricity at your school produced?” We’re proud that in many of the schools in Boulder Valley School District (BVSD), with our annual 300-plus days of Colorado sunshine, the answer to that question is an enthusiastic “SOLAR POWER!”

We were delighted to showcase our solar program during the 2014 Green Strides Best Practices Tour which visited BVSD Sept 17. Approximately 8 percent of our district-wide energy needs are met by solar, with panels on 28 of our 55 schools. By taking advantage of community partnerships, grants and bond money, we’ve been able to install solar power in schools across the district.

The growing dome greenhouse at Columbine Elementary. (Photo credit: Boulder Valley School District)


The Renew Our Schools Program, for example, helped support the installation of solar panels at Arapahoe Ridge High School and kick-started the creation of a Green Team, who we heard from on the first stop of the tour. This team led efforts to green the school, including competing in BVSD’s Energy Challenge, an effort to conserve energy through behavioral change among building occupants. While the solar panels help raise awareness about alternative energy and give students data to manipulate, student-led conservation measures, such as educating the school community about ways to save energy, auditing the school’s usage and taking follow up action on the findings, lead to even greater energy savings.

Additionally, a bond program in 2006 funded the solar panels and other green features at LEED Platinum Casey Middle School, which was also part of the tour. The solar panels double as cover for bike parking, offering shade and weather protection to the many students who bike to school year-round as part of the Alternative Transportation Program. Teachers at Casey incorporate live data from the Green Touch Screen and hosted Energy Days in which students learned about solar energy and baked cookies using a solar oven, among other interactive lessons. The sun not only provides clean electricity, but floods the school with natural daylight by design, so students and staff can be at their most productive.

During the tour’s stop at Columbine Elementary, before visiting the community supported gardens and growing dome greenhouse, we headed to the rooftop to see the roughly 100kW photovoltaic system. The system is part of a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) BVSD signed with Solar City in June 2011. The 14 schools in the agreement have large-scale systems that provide an additional 1.4 MW of solar power for the district and 15 to 30 percent of each school’s electricity. All the schools in the PPA have websites showing live data from the solar panels and real-time energy consumption. These schools are using materials provided by the National Energy Education Development Project and Solar  City for lessons about renewable energy and efficiency, providing standards-based real life examples of sustainability, math and science.

Especially thanks to our Sustainability Management System, the District has saved hundreds of thousands of dollars and has significantly reduced our environmental footprint. However, we see the real value from our sustainability efforts in educating our students and using these opportunities to prepare our students to be engaged environmental stewards and successful, life-long learners.

Dr. Ghita Carroll is Sustainability Coordinator at the Boulder Valley School District.


Wind Energy Expansion in Iowa

by Reid Chandler


DES MOINES, Iowa – Driving across the state of Iowa, there’s always been on sight you could count on seeing an abundance of: cornfields. But over the years, wind turbines have slowly become part of that trademark Iowa landscape, too,  and Friday, Governor Terry Branstad announced we’ll be seeing a lot more of them.

$280 million’s worth of them, to be exact. MidAmerican Energy is set to develop one new wind farm site in Adams County and expand a second site in O’Brien County in 2015. This comes after a $1.9 billion project announced in 2013.

“Iowa has attracted major tech companies, such as Google, Microsoft and Facebook, because of our low energy prices and commitment to renewable energy,” Gov. Branstad said. “MidAmerican Energy’s newest wind project will help the state meet the demand for renewable energy that is attracting major companies and high-quality jobs to Iowa.”

If approved, the company’s proposed project would bring up to 67 new wind turbines to the state, the blades of which would be manufactured at a Siemens facility in Fort Madison. At completion, the project would add up to 162 megawatts of wind generation to the state, bringing the total to 3,500 megawatts.

“That can power about a million homes,” said Bill Ferhman, president and CEO of MidAmerican Energy.

MidAmerican Energy is currently working with county officials and landowners to secure development rights for these proposed sites. In addition to these new proposals, current wind projects by the company are underway in Grundy, Madison, O’Brien and Webster counties.



Israeli Firm Says It Can Keep Solar Power Plants Running At Night

Ari Rabinovitch, Reuters

Reuters / Amir Cohen

Germany’s President Christian Wulff, right, and Avi Brenmiller wear protection glasses during a visit to Brenmiller’s Siemens’ solar receiver production plant in Beit Shemesh.

An Israeli solar power company, Brenmiller Energy, says it has developed a new, more efficient way to store heat from the sun that could give a boost to the thermal solar power industry by enabling plants to run at full capacity night and day.

By next year company founder Avi Brenmiller said he will have a 1.5 megawatt (MW), 15-acre (6-hectare) site in the Negev desert connected to Israel’s national grid, and a number of 10 to 20-MW pilots abroad are expected to follow, which will produce electricity at a price which competes with power from fossil-fuelled plants.

“A couple of years from now, not later than that, we will be putting full-size commercial plants to work. Because the basic technology we use here is a bankable technology … I’m sure that banks will not hesitate to finance such projects,” he said.

Many have tried to find ways to keep solar thermal power generators running after dark, but current solutions have shortcomings and have not always proven cost-effective.

The direct generation of electricity by photovoltaic (PV) solar panels is a far more common way to convert solar energy than by using solar heat to fuel thermal power plants, which take up more space and are not suitable for small-scale applications such as residential homes.

But a row of parabolic mirrors now tracks the sun at Brenmiller’s research site in the searing Negev desert, concentrating the rays to generate the steam needed to drive a turbine for producing electricity.

Brenmiller gives a presentation on 24/7 solar technology as part of the the MIT Forum at the Recanati Business School.

It is a technique that has been used for years but in addition to immediately generating steam some of the solar heat is also conducted by a fluid into a novel storage system buried beneath the mirrors which operates at 550 degrees Celsius.

This store can then be tapped at night or on cloudy days to keep the steam supply to the turbines flowing night and day, said Avi Brenmiller, chief executive of Brenmiller Energy.

The innovation is in the cement-like medium that stores the heat, a technology that Brenmiller says is more efficient than other systems on the market, such as those using molten salt, which has severe price and operational drawbacks.

“We will have this technology at conventional fuel prices with the same availability around the clock. I think that’s the major breakthrough here,” he said from the control room of the project, which he called a working proof of concept.

Brenmiller was a co-founder and chief executive of Solel Solar, a producer of concentrated solar power fields which was bought by Siemens in 2009 for $418 million but subsequently closed by the German group last year.

He has already poured $20 million of his own money into the latest venture over the past two years.

Brenmiller’s technology is an alternative to traditional photovoltaic solar power technology.

Grid Parity

Energy storage can be a key to bridging the gap between energy supply and demand across the globe, the International Energy Agency said in a report earlier this year.

The primary hurdle is reaching “grid parity”, or the point at which electricity generated from renewable energy sources costs the same as electricity produced by fossil-fuelled power plants. That is when, experts believe, environmentally friendly energy conversion can take off.

Grid parity has been achieved in some places with PV panels but while direct electrical energy storage is possible with batteries, they are still relatively expensive, use potentially toxic materials and cannot be applied on a large scale.

Meanwhile some thermal concentrated solar power (CSP) plants have introduced molten salt storage facilities that store excess heat for use in the night, like Torresol Energy’s Gemasolar plant in Spain, but while it works it cannot match the cost of burning fossil fuels and depends on subsidies.

There are also technical drawbacks to using molten salt. The salt stores the high temperatures in liquid form, but if the heat drops below about 220 degrees Celsius, it will freeze, potentially ruining parts of the system.

This is not an issue for Brenmiller, he said, as he uses a solid cement-like storage medium in a structure which is buried about two meters below the mirrors.

He would not give any details on the storage medium’s composition but said the system was similar to storage facilities under development called thermocline systems, which enable the heat to be conducted in, stored and conducted out again in a single tank, which is less costly than having to use two tanks to separate the hot and cold conducting fluids.

“In my understanding, there is no other technology like it in the world,” said Amit Mor, chief executive of Israel-based consulting and investment firm Eco Energy and a former energy adviser to the World Bank. “It can be very useful to developing countries and developed countries alike.”

An hour of sun produces enough energy to sustain three hours of equivalent electricity generation, Brenmiller said, and with every 24 hours of storage, 5 percent of the heat is lost.

It costs three times more to build than a conventional PV plant which can achieve grid parity during sunlight hours, but because it produces three times as much energy, the price of electricity is also at grid parity, he said.

In the United States and Israel, he expects electricity produced by the system to cost 12 cents per kilowatt hour, on a par with the average cost of grid electricity.


Push for solar power comes to Chicago’s Southeast Side

By: Michael Puente

(WBEZ/Michael Puente) Luis Rojas is a construction manager with Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago. He’s investing in solar energy.

Not long ago in a small storefront on Baltimore Avenue near the Indiana border a handful of folks got schooled on solar energy.

It was part education, part sales pitch put on by Seth Johnson, policy advocate with the Environmental Law and Policy Center in Chicago.

“Right now, we see a lot of fluctuation with energy prices. They seem every day to go up and down, up and down,” Johnson said at the office of the Southeast Environmental Task Force in Chicago’s Hegewisch neighborhood in late September. “What you do with solar energy is you lock in that price. You make that upfront investment but then you levelize your cost in the long run.”

Johnson’s been making these types of sales pitches throughout the Chicago area since July.

He’s trying to get people to take advantage of incentives offered by the State of Illinois and the City of Chicago before the October 10 deadline.

Peggy Salazar is with the Southeast Side Environmental Task Force, which hosted the informational meeting. Her group is on the front lines of banning companies from storing potentially harmful pet coke nearby.

“We’re the ones that deal with the air emissions from the pet coke being stored. We have the BP refinery that is just across the border,” Salazar said. “But the emissions from the actual refinery don’t stop at the Indiana border, they blow toward us.”

Salazar says eventually they want to attract cleaner energy companies to the Southeast side.

“That’s what we would love to see in this area. So, it’s very important that we work hard to at least help direct people to new, cleaner renewable energy,” Salazar said.

Local resident Maria Gallegos said she was on the fence, but wants to do something to help curb fossil fuels — especially in her own backyard.

“This is an industrial area. Pollution has been a big problem,” Gallegos said.

Gallegos said the main issue with a solar panel system is the cost factor.

“Even though there’s some incentives, right out of the bat it’s pretty expensive,” she said.

Depending on the solar panel system, a customer can expect to shell out $8,000 to $18,000.

And that return of investment in lower ComEd bills may not be realized for at least seven years.

That may be one reason why only about 100 people have signed up to purchase a solar panel system in Greater Chicago since July, according to Johnson.

But Luis Rojas is giving solar energy a try. Rojas is a construction manager with Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago. The 59-year-old lives on Chicago’s Southeast Side on Avenue H.

Rojas said his investment in solar makes sense in the long run.

“I’m really excited about it,” Rojas said. “Lately, I’ve been putting a lot of attention to the efficiency of my house and the footprint that we all leave just by living.”

He’s already installed barrels next to his two-flat to capture rainwater that he uses to water the grass.

Now, after years of considering solar energy, Rojas says it finally makes financial sense.

“Solar PV panels, they were always really expensive to install and the second things was the efficiency rating of them,” Rojas said. “The efficiency looks like it has quadrupled in the last five or six years so I’m in for it.”

A dozen solar panels, each about the size of a flat-screen TV, will be installed on Rojas’ roof in the next few weeks.

The system would normally cost $12,000 but with the state and city incentives, Rojas expects to only pay half that much.

And eventually, it will cut his electricity bill by more than half.

“If you can save money and then at the same time do some good to the environment, well, here’s my two pennies,” Rojas said.