Concerned Citizen

Greener State Only Leaves You With Less Green. Here's Why.

Greener State Only Leaves You With Less Green. Here’s Why.

Greener State is a new program from Alabama Power that claims to give utility customers the chance to cover up to 100 percent of their energy usage with renewable sources. Which sounds great in theory because, after all, who doesn’t like renewable energy? In practice, though, Greener State isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be.

TL;DR – Alabama Power, and really all utilities, should stop charging their customers a premium for the privilege to buy renewable energy. Renewable energy is already the cheapest power to procure. Instead, they should focus on expanding access to renewable energy sources – for everybody. Alabama Power should make it easier for people to use renewable sources, not charge them extra.

The Skinny on RECs

Renewable Energy is great! Let’s expand access to it, instead of charging a premium.

Now, let’s back up. According to Greenerstate.com, the Greener State program allows Alabama Power customers to “greenify” their energy consumption with something called Renewable Energy Certificates. They’re called RECs for short, and the idea is that you can buy enough of them to cover all of your energy usage.

If you do that, you will have (in effect) used 100 percent renewable energy without buying and installing an expensive solar setup at your home. Meanwhile, you’ll be helping Alabama Power invest in wind, solar and biomass sources. The program doesn’t cost a whole lot, and you’re even taking care of the environment at the same time.

What’s not to like? More from Greenerstate.com:

RECs are the strongest driver of renewable energy development, and give you the ability to support renewables without the heavy cost of owning personal systems. You can certify that your electric usage is covered by renewable energy, but not spend tens of thousands on a solar panel system.

Since 2014 Alabamians have covered 3,267,000 kWh of their homes’ usage with renewable energy through our REC program. Now you can be a part of the movement with Greener State. This market force leads to more demand and accelerates the growth of renewable energy. RECs are a win-win-win.

A Win-Win?

First of all, a solar panel system for your home doesn’t cost tens of thousands of dollars. But let’s leave that for another time. Instead, let’s focus on that last part. For Alabama Power, Greener State definitely is a win-win. For customers, it’s really not.

To understand why, let’s take another look at the Greener State website. An article titled “The Future of Renewables in Alabama is Bright… Literally” notes that in December 2017, Alabama Power will begin receiving energy from a 72-megawatt solar plant in Lafayette, Alabama. And that’s not all. Not nearly. The same article mentions 14 hydroelectric facilities, a couple of wind projects and even some biomass energy – all of which Alabama Power supports.

Here’s the thing. If I’m a paying customer of Alabama Power, shouldn’t my money already support renewable energy? I mean, since Alabama Power is so invested in renewables, it just makes sense.

Well, Alabama Power never explains that part. Not at all.

Greener State: Really Just Leaving You with Less Green

Who doesn’t love solar? What we need is MOAR renewables! (Not a premium for the privilege.)

So, what’s the alternative? Here at Energy Alabama, we believe that renewable energy is the best and most cost-effective energy available. So, yes, utility companies should be investing in it. Heavily.

But while Alabama Power’s marketing is slick, Greener State just doesn’t add up. To be clear, investing in renewables is unquestionably a good thing. But in its current form, Greener State merely serves as an example of how Alabama Power values one form of green over another.

Instead of charging a premium to “support” renewable energy that is already in place, why not just continue investing in renewables while expanding access for all? In the long run, that’s the best and most cost-effective solution for Alabama Power and its customers.

And in the long run, that would be the real win-win for everybody.

Can electric cars save utilities

Can Electric Cars Save Utilities?

Over the past decade, we as a society have become much more energy efficient; we have energy efficient light bulbs, our appliances require less watts, and we can even install solar panels onto our homes to generate our own energy. Undoubtedly, these are great steps to take if we want to preserve natural resources and save some capital for other expenses like shopping or groceries. But is there a downside to someone?

As mentioned in a previous blog, the utility death spiral is a reality that could be all too imminent. Hawaii and some parts of Europe are already seeing the foreboding signs of a utility crisis. A result of declining prices and rising costs, utility companies are left desperate for new load growth. Utilities have been threatened by numerous factors like LED bulbs, on-site solar, and energy efficient appliances, which cause significant declines in utility sales. If revenue falls too quickly, then utilities become liable to start in free-fall, much like what happened in Germany where utilities lost half a trillion euros in their markets. Innovation and progressive change are good, but pace is pertinent in their execution. 

Another haunting reality for utilities is the void of commonly found, high-demand appliances in consumer facilities. Decades have passed since the refrigerator or heating and A/C units, all of which require considerable amounts of energy to operate, have been taken into our homes and commercial facilities. When these appliances were first introduced, utilities saw a major increase of demand. But that was long ago, and we have since become a much more energy efficient society, especially with largely encouraged renewable energy sectors.

However, quick innovation can involve shifts in losses and benefits from one industry to another. So if the electric car companies can take business away from the gigantic petroleum energy by releasing more electric cars (EV’s), then everybody wins. Well, everybody except the petroleum industry, but that’s another discussion.

Can a Shift to Electric Cars Save Utilities?

The answer to this question is a bit complicated. The Energy Information Administration (EIA) states that transportation energy is the second largest consumer of energy in the U.S, right behind electric power generation. However, a predictable 93% of that power comes from petroleum products. A recent post by the Edison Electric Institute (EEI) claims that EV’s could provide the load growth that utility companies so desperately need. EEI published a post on Transportation Electrification back in 2014. This post details how EV’s could benefit all parties involved, society included, if we moved from petroleum powered vehicles to battery powered ones.

Between 2007 and 2013, retail sales of electricity in the United States across all sectors dropped 2%. In addition, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave America’s energy infrastructure a D+ grade in their 2013 report card and estimated a 3.6 trillion dollar investment needed by 2020.

–Transportation Electrification, EEI

However, there are some foreseeable problems with a large scale shift to EV’s. One being that peak demand times could be significantly increased by people charging their EV’s. From what we notice today, EV owners typically charge their vehicles when they get home from work. Makes sense, right? You get home, plug in your car, and go inside to watch football and chill out for a while. The only issue with that is that utilities already see peak load times around these hours, so adding even more demand during these times could prove costly and difficult for utilities to handle. Some utilities, including Alabama Power, are hoping to fight this by offering qualifying EV owners rate incentives if they charge their vehicles in off-peak hours, which, if done correctly, could actually benefit grid stability and efficiency.

“Alabama Power offers an optional rate rider for customers with a Plug-in electric vehicle (PEV). The rate rider allows customers to charge their electric vehicle at a discounted rate during off-peak hours of 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. To qualify for eligibility, a customer must own a PEV that is manufactured primarily for use on public streets, roads, and highways. Electric scooters, electric bicycles, golf carts, and motorized electric wheelchairs are not included.”

California’s Shift

EEI claims that a large scale electric transportation shift would benefit the electric vehicle industry, the consumer, the environment, and especially utilities who need to see a significant rise in load growth. As we know, electric vehicles have significantly lower carbon emissions that damage the atmosphere, save the consumer money on gas, and would cause a considerable rise in electric demand for utility companies.

California is already making notable efforts in regards to filling it’s streets with electric vehicles. The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) received several proposals from different companies who wish to accomplish different goals in expanding their fleets to exclusively EV’s and installing thousands of new EV charging stations. The proposals are filed under California’s Zero-Emission Vehicle Program that plans to propagate a utility infrastructure to support 1 million Ev’s by 2020. The state hit 250,000 in late 2016.

The proposals approximate to 1 billion dollars in funding. If granted, tens of thousands of charging stations would be installed in California airports, ports, warehouses, and residencies. The Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) is seeking $253 million for three efforts: “expanding electrification for fleets with medium- and heavy-duty vehicles, responding to consumer demand for fast-charging stations, and exploring new uses for vehicle electrification through five, one-year projects.”

Vehicle Electrification and Alabama

Alabama faces one big problem with the electrification of its transportation industry: charging. Alabama is all but void of any charging facilities that EV’s so desperately need. If utilities are truly depending on EV’s for the load growth that they need, then charging station projects would have to come soon.

Additionally, Alabama needs to take a hard look at its policy in the transportation policy to encourage growth in electric transportation. These changes could be everything from building codes at the local level that require installation of chargers for large destinations to the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) using Volkswagen settlement money to build the infrastructure for heavy duty trucks.

As you can see from California’s example, where energy efficiency and renewables have stunted electric demand growth, utilities are making aggressive moves to electrify transportation. Regulators are working with electric utilities to build the shared infrastructure while keep the market open to private sector innovations. We hope Alabama will follow suit.

Energy Alabama Signs On to Comments Opposing TVA’s NEPA Rule Changes

Energy Alabama, and a host of energy and conservation groups, signed on to comments prepared by the Southern Environmental Law Center opposing changes to TVA’s implementing regulations for the National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”).

Energy Alabama is extremely concerned that TVA’s proposed changes undermine transparency, stifle public involvement in TVA’s decisions, and bestow upon TVA almost boundless discretion to decide whether and how it must review the effects of its activities on the people and environment throughout its seven-state service territory, which includes nearly all of Tennessee, and portions of Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Virginia.

To view the full comments, please visit: https://alcse.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/2017-09-06-Comment-on-TVA-Proposed-NEPA-Rule.pdf

What is a Value-of-Solar Tariff?

A value-of-solar tariff, or VOST, is a rate design policy that gives customers with solar panels credit for the electricity they generate at a specific price. The credit is then applied to the customer’s utility bill. A VOST usually clarifies how much energy is sold from the customer to utility company and from the utility company to customer; it also determines at what rate the energy is valued. Value-of-solar tariffs are generally viewed as unfair and for two main reasons: the value of the tariff is lower than market rate in most areas and the benefits of VOSTs aren’t broadly advertised. But VOSTs don’t HAVE to be unfair.

As of right now, there aren’t many markets that have fair compensation for solar in the form of VOSTs. The two main places that are under the current implementation of value-of-solar tariffs, Minnesota and Austin, Texas, purchase all of their energy at the utility’s retail rate and pay out a separate VOS rate in dollars per kilowatt hour. In Minnesota, the VOST rate is about $0.145 per kilowatt-hour which is above the residential retail electricity rate of $0.115 per kilowatt-hour. This rate means that for every kilowatt-hour a solar user produces, the user doesn’t have to pay for a kilowatt-hour and they save a little on the electricity they don’t produce but still use. Why would a state or utility pay higher than retail? Because through a VOST process, IF the total value of solar energy is taken into account, there may be cases where it is in fact worth more than retail.  This type of VOST is very customer friendly to encourage the residents of Minnesota to begin producing solar energy themselves; unfortunately, outside of Austin, Texas, the same cannot be said for other states. One of the reasons for less than market rate compensation is the cost of providing the VOST in the first place or other services that utilities must provide for you to sell to them.

What is the unseen value of a VOST?

An end financial value of a VOST is made up of many subparts. For example, some value components include: avoided cost (money saved by the utility from not having to buy additional fuel for the power plant), environmental (the value of reducing harm to the environment and its subsequent cleanup), and transmission system impact (less strain on power lines due to generation being located closer to where it is being used), among others.

For a user to successfully produce and sell back solar energy to a utility company, they have to use the grid. Even if a customer produces the same amount of energy as they use, there are still costs to selling the energy back and for energy used from the grid when solar is not producing. When paying out for solar, utilities have to consider the cost of business (grid maintenance, labor, parts, etc.), which takes a portion out of the amount the customer receives. The need utilities to receive compensation for their services in a VOST to maintain the grid cannot be overlooked.

The second reason value-of-solar tariffs can get a bad reputation is customer lack of knowledge about its benefits. Utilities can better understand customer load, timing, and volume because a VOST separates electricity generated by the consumer from electricity consumed. This is valuable information that utilities can use to better predict when peak times might occur and how much electricity they’re actually using. However, customers may not understand all the variables that make up a VOST or why they are there.

Another reason is how customers receive compensation based on utility-specific benefits and costs of their electricity generation, instead of fixed retail rates that may span many regions. Customers are able to select what VOST is most beneficial to them depending on their energy production and use, as opposed to going with the rate of their region no matter the circumstances.

Value-of-solar tariffs are one of several viable options for solar users to sell back their solar energy, and there are both good (Minnesota and Austin, Texas) and bad (almost everywhere else) ways of providing it to customers. One important aspect that cannot be overlooked is how a VOST is beneficial to the energy system (e.g. the grid) as a whole. With a true integrated value, a VOST can provide the grid with much needed support and gives utilities valuable information; but as it becomes more widespread, concrete worth needs to be given to the value provided from things like environmental and avoided energy costs. VOST has a bright future if implemented correctly, and as more states follow Minnesota’s example, solar will continue to grow more valuable.

The Importance of Reducing Solar Soft Costs

What are solar soft costs? Soft costs are any costs, fees, or taxes that are included with a product after material and labor. While solar energy is worthwhile, thanks to the long term savings and the benefits for the environment, many potential users are hesitant at first due to the initial cost. A significant portion of the heavy sticker price is the “extra” added when taking soft costs into account.

Solar is becoming more prevalent in America, and many users are beginning to see their investment come to fruition. Unfortunately, many potential users are halted before they get started; so let’s look at some of the soft costs and how they could be reduced.

Courtesy of U.S. Department of Energy

As the graph shows, a massive 64% of the cost of solar is due to soft costs. Costs like permitting fees, interconnection labor, installation labor, and installer profit are significant portions of the soft costs, but are also necessary. The solar system needs to be approved by the city (permitting fee), connected to the grid (interconnection labor), installed (installation labor), and the company selling it needs to make some profit to stay open and continue selling their product (installer profit). However, most of the other costs could be trimmed down so there isn’t as much of a cost for each one.

The other portions of soft cost: sales tax, transaction costs, supply chain costs, indirect corporate costs, and customer acquisition, CAN be reduced, sometimes to virtually nothing. Some states actually pay the solar user, through stipends or other incentives, to install rather than charge sales tax; therefore, sales tax could be done away with or reworked so the user gets that cost back. In fact, some states like Florida, do not charge sales tax on renewable energy, effectively eliminating this soft cost.

Transaction costs are costs that come from a third-party lender when the buyer needs a loan and could be reduced to a lower rate. We find that buyers need to be aware of the hidden fees and transactions costs that can quickly add significant cost to their installation. Some transaction costs are unavoidable and more than fair. After all, no one is going to loan you money at 0% interest. That being said, be aware of who is charging what fees and where they’re being charged in the process. Supply chain costs are from the transporting and housing of solar units from the company to the buyer. Better supply chain management and cooperative buying can help reduce this cost.

Lastly, and probably most interestingly, customer acquisition is the cost for the solar installer to reach out and connect its potential customers. This cost is effectively sales and marketing; and while it’s a necessary function, you can immediately see the issue. If hundreds of people contact their local solar installer only to be turned away because of bad site conditions, not being able to finance the system, or any number of reasons, the solar contractor has spent money on a customer that ultimately cannot buy its product. That means this cost must be charged to the next customer who CAN purchase the system. The U.S. Department of Energy and many startups around the country are developing tools explicitly designed to attack this problem. The more information at the fingertips of consumers and contractors helps reduce the amount of time spent on projects that just simply could never be built.

A good way to think of solar installation with lower soft costs is to merely look overseas. Germany is one example of solar installation working without high soft costs and their wide user base is proof it’s effective. By making solar more available (cheaper), Germany has a much bigger user base than the United States and they see more users every year. Although the process of buying solar is different in Germany, they immediately provide savings by getting rid of most soft costs from the start.

Let’s not handicap solar right out of the gate. By working to significantly reduce soft costs, we can make solar more affordable for everyday Alabamians. Quite literally, giving them the power back.