green power

Distributed Generation benefits

Distributed Generation: What Are the Benefits?

Increased efficiency. Reduced rates. Improved reliability. Diminished emissions. If all of that sounds good to you, then you ought to know about the benefits of distributed generation.

A few weeks back, we covered microgrids and why they’re important in the context of the larger, main grid. As you might recall, microgrids are defined not by their size, but rather by their function—crucially, their ability to break off from the main grid and operate autonomously. Got it? Well, if that makes sense, think of distributed generation as a network of systems just like that.

That’s oversimplifying it a little, but the overall concept holds true. Distributed generation is when electricity comes from many small energy sources. Generally, these sources are local and renewable. They’re all connected to the larger grid but can also function separately.

If all this sounds unfamiliar, that’s because it’s not the “normal” way of doing things. But it does have its advantages.

Distributed generationThe traditional model

In the traditional transmission and distribution (T&D) grid, large sources provide power to huge numbers of residential, commercial, and industrial customers. Some of those customers live close to the centralized power plants. Other live far away—sometimes very, very far.

In contrast, a distributed generation (DG) system has smaller, decentralized sources that generate electricity much closer to the people who use it. There are lots of producers, and even though they produce less individually, they’re all connected to the grid. Together, they can be quite effective.

Several technologies form the backbone of a DG system. Some of the most prominent are solar, wind, and hydro. Another is cogeneration, which is the production of electricity from what is essentially the leftover energy from other forms of generation. Yet another is an energy storage system, which stays connected to the grid and holds energy until it’s needed.

So what are the benefits of distributed generation? In 2007, the U.S. Department of Energy released a report outlining some of DG’s advantages. Here’s what they came up with (h/t Energy.gov):

  • Increased electric system reliability
  • An emergency supply of power
  • Reduction of peak power requirements
  • Offsets to investments in generation, transmission, or distribution facilities that would otherwise be recovered through rates
  • Provision of ancillary services, including reactive power
  • Improvements in power quality
  • Reductions in land-use effects and rights-of-way acquisition costs
  • Reduction in vulnerability to terrorism and improvements in infrastructure resilience

Those are all really important concepts, but let’s focus on that first one.

Distributed generationIncreased reliability, better performance

One way to think about the benefits of distributed energy is to visualize your cell phone’s network. Imagine for a moment that your carrier had only a few towers in just a few spots around the country. The towers would be massive and powerful, but you wouldn’t have the same reliability and coverage that you have now. The reasons should be obvious. With a network of smaller, more evenly placed towers, cell-phone carriers are able to provide the best service possible to their customers.

Distributed generation is no different. When centralized power plants transmit energy over long distances, some of that energy is lost. With distributed generation, the generators are closer to those who use the energy. Thus there’s less waste. Increased efficiency. In the old model, a loss in service at any point of the grid means everyone suffers. In the new model, that’s less likely to happen.

DG can also serve as a backup to the grid, acting as an emergency source for public services in the case of a natural disaster. Here in North Alabama, that kind of service could be invaluable after a tornado. And by producing energy locally, DG systems can reduce demand at peak times in specific areas and alleviate congestion on the main grid.

Finally, because distributed energy tends to come from renewable sources, it’s good for the environment. Using more renewables means lowering emissions. And lowering emissions makes the world a more enjoyable place for all of us.

How to Go Solar in North Alabama

Be like her. Go solar!

Ever thought about going solar at your home or business? I often walk outside on a really sunny day and think to myself, “Man, I wish I had solar panels installed already.” So here’s the thing: It really isn’t that hard and the economics are better than they’ve ever been before. Today, let’s learn how to go solar in North Alabama.

In this post we’ll explain all the steps you need to take to install solar at home or where you work. Even though your contractor will probably be the one completing some of these items, it’s always good to know what should be happening.

This post may be a little lengthy but we wanted to make sure you have all the information you would need to make solar a success at your home or business.

The Process

  1. Determine property feasibility
  2. Determine your objectives
  3. Confirm utility participation in Green Power Providers
  4. Understand pricing
  5. Determine how to pay for your system
  6. Get analysis from Energy Alabama
  7. Submit Customer Reservation Request (CRR) to TVA
  8. Submit Participation Agreement Request (PAR) to TVA
  9. Get your application(s) approved by TVA and your local utility company
  10. Buy and install your solar power system
  11. Complete system tests and submit results to TVA
  12. Get money!

Determine Feasibility

This is pretty simple. Ask yourself these four questions. If the answers are yes to all of them, you’re probably a good candidate for solar in North Alabama.

1. Is the property free and clear of trees and other items that would obstruct the sun?

2. Does the property have a south-facing roof space or open area(s) where a solar system could be installed on the ground?

3. Does the property have a relatively new roof that is expected to last for at least another 25-30 years?

4. Do I expect to own the property for at least another 8 years?

Determine Objectives

If your property is feasible, now you need to figure out what exactly you want to do. Your objectives will be limited by your property, your personal desires, and your budget. The two biggest things you need to determine are:

  1. Do you want to go off the grid or connect to the grid?
  2. Either way, how far do you want to go? Do you want to take your whole home off the grid or just a small room for emergency backup? Do you want to offset 50% of your usage or maybe all of it?

Here are some things to consider to help you make your decision.

  1. Do you have lots of roof space or open area? If you’re trying to go completely off the grid or offset all your usage, you’ll probably need a decent amount of space to go solar.
  2. Have you already invested in energy conservation and efficiency? Solar is much cheaper than it used to be but nothing can compete with just using less energy. Also, the more efficient you are, the less solar you need to buy. Most homes can’t go completely off the grid or offset 100% of their usage without reducing their usage first.

Green Power Providers

If you’re trying to go solar in North Alabama on a home AND you want to connect to the grid, you’ll need to participate in the Green Power Providers program from the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). This program gives structure to how you connect to the grid and sell your electricity.

More on that later. For now, you’ll need to confirm that your local power company participates in the program.

If they don’t participate, it isn’t the end of the world! Perhaps they’ve never had anyone ask. We’ve seen utilities join the program just because someone asked them to. Ask to speak the to the general manager and respectfully ask them about participating in the program.

Before you do this, you’ll want to continue the process so you can talk more intelligently to them about exactly what you want to do on your home such as how your return on investment is affected by their lack of participation and the local economic impact of your solar installation.

Understanding Pricing

There are a lot of moving parts to understand. Let’s break them down.

Residential solar in North Alabama is selling for about $3.00 per watt before tax incentives. For example, the average home in North Alabama installs 5 kilowatts (kW) of grid-connected solar. This would cost about $15,000 before tax incentives.

A homeowner can expect a 30% federal tax credit if you have the taxable income to take the credit against. If you’re able to use the 30% federal tax credit, this would bring the total cost down to $10,500.

We recommend that you consult a tax professional before making this decision.

Additional incentives, such as accelerated depreciation, are available to businesses and can shave 2-3 years off the payback time. Also, businesses can expect lower costs per watt since they typically install larger systems and can take advantage of an economy of scale that homes cannot.

Now on to budgeting!Going solar in North Alabama

As you’ve seen, solar in North Alabama does cost a good bit of money, and you may not have that kind of cash sitting around. Today we’ll talk about financing home systems. (Financing business systems and innovative financing mechanisms will be the subject of future posts.)

Basically you have two and a half options to pay for home solar in North Alabama.

  1. Pay cash.
  2. Use traditional financing. This can take many forms, but the idea is the same. The cheapest form of financing is likely to be a home equity loan, but you can also get unsecured loans for the system. But if you do this, you’ll still likely need to put some money down.

Well, there is one more option… But that’s another post for another day. Long story short, you CAN add it to your mortgage at the time of purchase of a new, or a new to you, home. On 30 year mortgages, this is cash flow positive… you make money starting in month one! We’ll explain more later.

Last note on budgeting: If you decide to go with battery storage, even for a small system, you should know what kind of pricing to expect. Most battery storage systems add about 60-70% additional cost. So if your solar system is expected to cost $10,000 and you want to add battery backup, you should expect to add $6000-7000 to the total project cost.

This extra cost isn’t without benefit though. With an extra investment you’ll be able to completely disconnect from the grid and rely wholly on yourself. Of course battery technology continues to fall in price. Dramatically. This will only become a better and better decision over time.

Getting a Preliminary Analysis

So you know that your property is feasible, and you know what you want to do and have a good idea of how to fund the project. Now it’s time to really get started. And here’s where we come in.

If you’re in North Alabama, we can provide a free preliminary analysis for you. The point of this analysis is to let you know exactly how much energy you can produce on your property, how much it is expected to cost based on current market pricing, and an estimated return on investment.

Is Solar Right for You?

Schedule Your Analysis

After the Preliminary Analysis – Dealing with TVA

Once you’ve seen the results and are happy, you’re ready to move on. The next step is reserving your spot in TVA’s Green Power Providers (or convincing your local utility to join if they’re not already participating). Concurrent with that you’ll begin working on the engineering drawings of your system.

*Note: If you are installing an off-grid or behind-the-meter system, you do not need TVA’s approval. You are only required to get their approval when energy will be sent to the grid.

First you’ll file what is called a capacity reservation request (CRR) with TVA. This essentially reserves your spot in line while your application is reviewed and your engineering drawings are finished. We should note that while this reserves a spot in line, there really isn’t a line. At least right now… CRRs are usually approved in just a few business days.

We can help you find a company to build your solar power system drawings, or you can work with a North American Board of Certified Energy Professionals (NABCEP) company on your own. You’ll need a NABCEP professional in order to connect to the grid. At this point in the process you should expect to pay a professional. Engineering drawings typically cost between 10-15% of your total project cost. If your project is expected to cost $15,000, you should expect drawings to cost $1,500 to $2,250.Going solar in North Alabama

Once your CRR is approved by TVA, they will send you a contract called a Participation Agreement Request (PAR). This contract details the terms of what TVA will pay you for the electricity you generate. PARs are usually approved quickly as well but you should expect about one to two weeks depending on their workload.

As of June 15, 2016, TVA pays retail rate for 20 years. Currently, retail rate for much of North Alabama is about $.10/kWh. If in 5 years the retail rate you pay is $.12/kWh, TVA will then be paying you $.12/kWh. This will go on for the 20 year length of the contract.

TVA gives a great rundown of how their portion of the process works.

Once you fill out and sign the PAR, it goes to the local power company (someone like Huntsville Utilities, Joe Wheeler EMC, or Athens Utilities) to be approved. After the local power company approves the application, TVA will review and approve the application.

During the CRR and PAR process, someone can act on your behalf, such as the solar company you are working with. Of course you are kept in the loop, but you don’t have to get involved in every small item unless you really want to. This helps keep the project moving.

Ready to Install

When TVA notifies you that the PAR has been approved, you are able to purchase and install your system. You have 180 days from the date of notification to finish the installation of your system.

TVA requires a NABCEP certified installer and a licensed electrician to complete the install. Even if it weren’t required, you want it! That’s the only way to know you have a company that knows what they’re doing.

Note: Some municipalities, like Huntsville, may require you to pull a building permit. Make sure to check with your local government prior to beginning construction!

The solar company you are working with will also receive the PAR approval notification. Upon completion of the installation, the local power company will test the system to make sure it is operating safely. The local power company will notify TVA when the testing has been satisfactorily completed.

Almost done… Receiving your credits

Well, the hard work is done, but you still have one more major item to complete. Every local power company is different, but most will credit the amount of your generation on your bill.

You will have two meters. One for consumption (your existing meter) and one for generation. If you consume 1000 kWh in a month and produce 800 kWh of solar that month, you will owe the utility company for 200 kWh of energy. If you produce 1000 kWh and consume 800 kWh, they will owe you for 200 kWh of energy.Going solar in North Alabama

Some utilities will credit your bill and carry over your credit whereas some will pay you out monthly or regularly. You’ll need to verify this with your local power company.

The key point here is to verify that you are receiving your credits and that they are accurate. Almost all solar systems also come with remote monitoring, not to mention you have a second meter. Remember, many local power companies have not dealt with very many solar projects, and as such, may not have all their internal processes in place. It is your responsibility for making sure you are appropriately credited!

All done! Enjoy your clean, renewable solar energy system! 🙂

Have more questions? Feel free to contact me via email at dtait@alcse.org

biofuels

Pros and Cons of Bioenergy

A while back I shared with you a primer on the world’s oldest source of energy – bioenergy. Today, I want to look a little deeper at the pros and cons of bioenergy.

Pros


  • Bioenergy a reliable source of renewable energy.  We will never have a shortage of waste that can be converted to energy. As long as there is garbage, manure, and crops there will be biomass to create bioenergy.
  • Bioenergy can be stored with little energy loss.
  • As long as there is agriculture there will be a constant energy source.
  • Bioenergy emits little or no greenhouse gas emissions and is carbon neutral. The carbon that is created by biomass is reabsorbed by the next crop of plants.
  • Bioenergy doubles as a waste disposal measure.
  • Bioenergy crops help stabilize soils, improve soil fertility, and reduces erosion.
  • Bioenergy is a source of clean energy, the use of which can result in tax credits from the US government.
  • Bioenergy reduces the need for landfills

 

Cons


  • Using wood from natural forests can lead to deforestation if the forests are not replanted.
  • The cost of harvesting, transporting, and handling biomass can be expensive.
  • Storing and processing of biomass requires large amounts of space.
  • Some fuel sources are seasonal.
  • May compete with food production in specific cases.

As with every energy source there are pros and cons, but as you can see the pros for bioenergy definitely outweigh the cons.  Bioenergy should be included as part of our larger energy picture that includes all types of renewable energy including solar and wind energy.

Bioenergy is best when it is created using waste materials. These are materials that are by-products of agriculture and farming, downed trees, and our garbage and waste that would be left rotting in a landfill. These waste materials can create valuable energy at a relatively low cost, and using these for energy reduces the need for landfills, and helps preserve our surroundings while creating another source of power.

 

 

Sources:

  1. Clean Energy Council 2012, Bioenergy myths and facts, Clean Energy Council, Melbourne.
  2. Australian Institute of Energy 2010, Fact sheet 8: biomass, 2004, Australian Institute of Energy, Surrey Hills, Victoria.

UAH sustainability program brings changes to campus

Since 2013, Haley Hix, Sustainability Coordinator at the University of Alabama-Huntsville, has been hard at work, creating and implementing environmentally conscious projects. Her goal in each new endeavor is two-fold: to educate the Huntsville community about sustainable options and to make the UAH campus more environmentally friendly.

The small town girl from Tennessee has always been keenly aware of her environment.

ALCSE: “Is there something in your life that makes you love sustainability – or be a champion of it?”

HALEY: “I think it probably had a lot to do with growing up, the way I was raised on a farm, and learning to be protectors and promoters of our environment. In my eyes I just saw it as a very sacred thing. I mean it doesn’t belong to us. We’re here to be caretakers of it.”

Her position as Sustainability Coordinator required a little more initiative, but that’s something Haley isn’t lacking.

ALCSE: “So. Tell me how you got this job… because my co-worker.” Uncomfortable pause. “she said that you basically…” More pause. “kind of…”

HALEY: “Created it?” Laughter.

ALCSE:   “Well.” Laughter. “Let’s start with that.”

HALEY: “I started 2013 as an intern here for our energy manager. I was a Power Save Campus Intern. It was a position through the Alliance to Save Energy, which is a national nonprofit that encourages universities to do energy conservation and energy efficiency. I was about two months in when I realized: we don’t have any sustainability projects going on campus. We don’t have a budget for sustainability or any sort of way for students to start sustainability projects.”

 ALCSE: “What were your tasks when you began the internship if there weren’t any projects?”

HALEY: “We would do lighting audits of the buildings, make plans for upgrades for new lighting fixtures. We hosted events where students could come and switch out bulbs for more efficient bulbs in their dorm rooms. We would do energy competitions for the residents halls on campus where they would compete for three weeks in the spring to turn all their lights off and save energy and the winning dorm won a prize.”

ALCSE: “That’s kinda cool.”

HALEY: “We didn’t do any institutional changes. It was more an awareness program. And so I thought we needed to do something a little bit deeper. As a student I wrote a proposal for a campus green fund, researched other universities’ student green funds and put together a proposal for the vice president of finance. I proposed in August of 2013 and we got approval for 20K the first year.

“Then I started doing little projects here and there and I eventually convinced this department that they needed a sustainability coordinator.” Laughter.

ALCSE: “I love that.”

Haley loves her job. She’s implemented a lot of projects in the two short years she’s held the position.

If you’ve been to the Charger Union, or any academic building on the UAH campus, you’ve seen Haley’s first campaign: Hydration Stations.

Fact: Only 1 in 5 plastic water bottles really find their way into recycle bins.

Other projects followed, getting larger and larger in scale. Take for instance, the recent composting project, with four departments and three student groups involved.

Haley Hix, UAH Sustainability Coordinator heads up Ban the Battle

“That was actually my first project. We did a Ban the Bottle Project to get rid of all the little plastic bottles.”

Rainwater used for garden, recycle

ALCSE: “Which one of these [projects] is your fave? Or, to ask a different way, which one are you most proud of?”

HALEY: “Actually our composting project is really cool. I don’t know if it’s my favorite…but it is neat because it’s solar-powered and rain-water fueled.”

“Mike Marshall and I wrote a proposal for the Green Fund to start a composting project here at the community garden.

“We built – and I mean we literally, physically built – this composting facility with solar panels on top to power the compost tea brew room. Solar panels power the tea brewer for the compost. We have a rainwater catchment system. We use the rainwater to make the compost tea.

“We collect food scraps – this is in process – from the dining facilities on campus.”

ALCSE: “How big is it?”

HALEY: “Half the size of this room…the pile is….about 9×12. Our grounds crew turns it for us.

“We also have a vermiculture system. We take the compost and the worm castings [from the vermiculture system] and we use both of those things to make the compost tea.

ALCSE: “Where do you get that part?”

HALEY: “The castings?’

ALCSE: “Yes.”

HALEY: “We built a vermiculture continuous flow system. We put in red wrigglers and we have this system to catch the castings to use for the composting.”

UAH Compost heap

 

UAH Community Garden

Dr. Leland Cseke & Mike Marshall

ALCSE: “Who did that part?”

HALEY: “That was mainly Mike Marshall. He’s the student who headed the garden.”

ALCSE: “So he had other students help him?”

HALEY: “Yeah. That’s the other thing. We have curriculum designed around it.

ALCSE: “Who wrote the curriculum?”

HALEY: “One of our biology professors, Dr. Leland Cjecka. He’s kind of like the faculty advisor for the garden and he also designed a class around this whole system out here, which is called People Plants and the Environment.”

ALCSE: “Who takes it?

HALEY: “Well anyone can take it really. It’s mainly undergrad biology students. I took it as an undergrad. It was a really cool class.”

ALCSE: “That sounds like a neat program.”

 HALEY: “We use the compost tea on the garden and we use a few pieces of the greenway to test it out because we eventually want to use it to replace all our commercial fertilizers that are used on the entire campus. So that’s the big picture.” Read more about UAH’s Community Garden HERE

As big projects morph into even bigger ones, Haley plans to keep sharing the message. She’s most interested in the third piece of the environmental pie: environmental justice. She’d like to see more minorities in leadership roles and less environmental hazards placed in low-income areas.

And of course – more projects! Stay tuned.

OTHER COOL PROJECTS

Haley Hix

Tubeless Toilet Paper

  • Reduces packing waste by 95%.
  • Ensures complete roll usage.
  • Decreases total waste by 11,900 lbs.

Electricity-powered Heat Machines/Chillers

  • Savings Realized: 5.2 million gallons of water
  • Savings Realized: 350,000 therms of natural gas

Hybrid Utility Vehicles

  • Projected Savings: 700 gallons of gas.
  • Projected Savings: $2,000 in maintenance expenses.

electric vehicles for campus use at UAH

 

Tree campus USA - plannting trees at UAH

Tree Campus USA

  • Offsets greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Adds tree canopy to the UAH campus.
  • Creates aesthetically pleasing space.
  • Provides relaxing environment and reduces stress.
  • Shades buildings for lower energy bills.

Solar-Powered Golf Carts

Solar Golf Carts created in partnership with ALCSE

  • Raises awareness of solar power
  • Allows for maintenance-free transportation on campus
  • Develops partnerships with Hunstville-area business. (link to our story)

solar powered golf cart installation

 

UAH Community Garden

Community Garden

  • Provides fresh fruits and vegetables for campus dining facilities.
  • Connects the university with the larger Huntsville community.
  • Offers hands-on learning experiences for Biology Department.

 


5 AWESOME WAYS TO GET YOUR HANDS DIRTY


FUTURE PROJECTS

  • Gala Fundraising Event
  • Community Partnerships
  • Environmental Justice Programs
  • Campus-wide Solar Project
  • Climate Action Plan
  • Tree Planting Project
  • Fertigation

Want to learn more? You can read about Haley’s projects and lots more here: http://www.uah.edu/sustainability/past-and-current-projects