New Survey Results: Alabama Voters Want Energy Freedom in a BIG Way

In Alabama, we are all about freedom and market choices, and that’s as true of our energy use as anything else.

Alabama Wants Renewable Energy Choices

Recent results from a survey of 600 likely Alabama voters show that Alabamians want freedom of choice, a competitive marketplace, and the right and opportunity to choose where their energy comes from – and the right to produce their own electricity if they want.

That means more energy providers and more renewable energy sources – which is exactly what Alabamians are asking for: 81% support the development of clean energy like solar and wind. 79% say it’s important to them to have the choice to buy power from a company that uses more renewable energy sources such as wind and solar.

An even higher total of 83% agree that increasing our use of renewable energy sources in Alabama, such as wind and solar, will create jobs and encourage economic development throughout the state.

More choices, more renewable energy AND more jobs and a stronger economy? It’s a no brainer!

What About Our Utilities?

Specifically, Alabamians want to see more development from their public utilities. A whopping 90% of respondents think we should accelerate the growth of clean energy so that we can produce more of our own electricity in Alabama and rely less on importing from other states and countries. 87% think the public electric utilities should lead the way in developing renewable energy options for customers. Unfortunately, most Alabama utilities have been doing the exact opposite.

A big motivator for this stance appears to be a desire for Alabama to be independent. 90% support the acceleration of the growth of clean energy so that we can produce more of our own electricity in Alabama and rely less on importing from other states and countries.

The Politics of Renewable Energy in Alabama

Clean energy is good politics, too. Alabama voters across the political spectrum say it is important that a candidate share their opinion on energy issues. And as we’ve seen in these results, a significant majority across party lines support the development of clean energy in the state.

Alabamians know that more renewable energy = more jobs, stronger economy, more choices, and a more competitive energy market.

There is a lot more to these survey results, like what Alabama voters think of the solar tax (spoiler alert: they don’t like it). Read more and see the data for yourself.

 

Header image source: Unsplash

Distributed Generation benefits

Distributed Generation: What Are the 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.

The 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.

Increased 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.

Microgrids: What are they anyway?

What are Microgrids?

The first thing you need to know about microgrids is that they’re not so micro at all.

Or at least they don’t have to be.

As microgrids have become more widespread in the United States and around the world in recent years, you might have started to think about what they mean to you. But if you’ve ever tried to take a deep dive into the topic, you might have discovered that a single definition of the term is difficult to find.

To wit, there’s this, from CIGRÉ (h/t Microgrids at Berkeley Lab):

Microgrids are electricity distribution systems containing loads and distributed energy resources, (such as distributed generators, storage devices, or controllable loads) that can be operated in a controlled, coordinated way either while connected to the main power network or while islanded.

And this, from the U.S. Dept. of Energy’s Microgrid Exchange Group:

A microgrid is a group of interconnected loads and distributed energy resources within clearly defined electrical boundaries that acts as a single controllable entity with respect to the grid. A microgrid can connect and disconnect from the grid to enable it to operate in both grid-connected or island-mode.

And, much more succinctly, this from Energy.gov: “A microgrid is a local energy grid with control capability, which means it can disconnect from the traditional grid and operate autonomously.”

Renewables such as wind power can be one of the sources for microgrids.

If you’re new to the topic and were reading all of that closely, there’s a decent chance you got bogged down in all the technical talk about distribution systems and interconnected loads. Don’t worry about it—that’s aimed more at specialists.

On the other hand, what you probably understood better were the island metaphors. And that’s critical, because while the term microgrid lead you to believe it’s all about size, the key here is actually autonomy. The Microgrid Institute, which begins its definition by calling a microgrid “a small energy system,” follows that up with this: “Microgrids are defined by their function, not their size.”

So what is that function? Essentially, a microgrid serves as an independent backup to the main grid, or macrogrid, by using the various resources (and they’re sometimes widely varying) at its disposal. That’s all it is. To put it another way, a microgrid generally works within the larger grid, but it can also disconnect and work autonomously as a locally controlled alternative.

Whether it’s because of an emergency, or because of its remote location, a community might need autonomy with its energy supply at certain times. And a microgrid, which is by definition locally controlled, provides that independence.

Microgrids are defined by what they do, not by their size.

Consider, for example, the potential benefits a microgrid can provide for a place like Alabama, which experiences severe weather regularly. In 2011, after a historic round of powerful tornadoes, some parts of the state went without electricity for a week or more. In a situation like that, a microgrid can break off from the main grid and provide an invaluable service to a community. Not only would Alabamians have electricity, but so would emergency-response workers.

“The key to understanding the importance of microgrids was driven home for us here in Alabama after the April 2011 tornadoes” says Daniel Tait, CEO of Energy Alabama. “Modern life is built on energy. Without its uninterrupted supply, especially for long periods of time, things begin to break down. Flexibility and resiliency is the name of the game.”

But that’s not all microgrids can do for a community. According to Berkeley Lab, microgrids can improve efficiency, relieve grid congestion, and provide a more reliable supply of energy, all at reduced cost to consumers. And according to Energy.gov, they can also cut costs, build energy independence and offer more flexibility. Those first two are ideas that everyone can get excited about, and more flexibility means potentially using renewable sources like solar and wind, in addition to whatever powers the macrogrid.

The remote Isle of Eigg derives most of its electricity from a microgrid.

So what does a microgrid-powered community look like? The answer, it turns out, is as varied as all those definitions from before. There’s Mesa Del Sol, a mixed commercial-residential development in New Mexico that harnesses solar power from a photovoltaic system mounted to a parking-lot canopy. Then there’s the Fort Collins Zero Energy District (AKA FortZED) in Colorado, a project aimed at creating as much energy locally as the area uses.

And there’s the remote Isle of Eigg in Scotland’s Inner Hebrides, which demonstrates the concept of islanding in literal fashion. Previously dependent on diesel generators, the 90 residents of the Isle constructed a microgrid that blends various renewables into a community-wide system. Completed in 2008, the microgrid uses hydro, wind, and photovoltaics to produce a reliable electrical supply 24 hours a day.

All of those projects are localized, and the Isle of Eigg is obviously smaller than the others. But the idea here is big, and with all the benefits microgrids can bring to a community, you might see one in your area sooner than you think.

The American Wind Powered Car

Robert Yost of American Wind was one of the guest speakers at the Sustainable Energy themed Sip & Hatch back in June. Even in just the five minutes he had to describe what his technology does you could “get it”, but what’s not to get?!

 

Granted I’m not a physics major or an engineer, so I’m sure I don’t get it all, but I could still understand the basic premise.

 

Back in 2011 when North Alabama was ravaged by tornadoes and we all spent upwards of a week without power, Yost’s wife sat watching the blades on a fan turn from nothing more than the power of the breeze. “Why can’t we harness that power?” she asked her engineer husband, and his response was greater than she ever expected. He set out to make it happen.

 

The wind turbine that Yost has designed is a fraction of the size of the smallest wind turbines currently on the market, yet it creates more energy. Because of the reduced size it can be used in many more functions and it is safer than a standard wind turbine, with no risk to birds. The reduced size alone creates a number of new opportunities for travel, camping, and military use.

 

The wind turbine that Yost has designed doesn’t look much like the typical windmills or wind turbines. In fact, it looks much more like a jet engine turbine, and that’s because that’s what the design is patterned after. Working similar to an airplane wing or jet turbine, the wind on the backside of the turbine is moving at a much faster speed than the wind on the front side. This pushes the turbine to spin at a faster rate and keeps it spinning.
Some of the current opportunities that Yost is exploring include:

Using the wind to power a car – Yost has plans to use four of his small turbines on top of his hybrid car, increasing the power to the battery and decreasing the time between needed gas refueling or electric charges. Later in the fall he expects to begin a cross-country tour with his car, but before then he may break the World Record for the longest drive without needing to stop for fuel or recharge.

 

Don’t be misled, the car will still be a hybrid. It isn’t a perpetual motion machine. But the MPGs on this hybrid will exceed anything seen on a current gas/electric hybrid, creating a car that will rarely need refueling. Yost says that for the car to be completely wind-powered batteries would need to become super-efficient in comparison to those that currently exist. Wind can’t cover 100% of power needs of a car, especially when the car is sitting in traffic and not moving. Therefore, a hybrid is necessary.

 

American Wind - Wind-powered car
Wind-powered energy for travel needs – Yost has created a stand-alone version of his wind turbine that can be used for travel needs such as camping and hiking. This turbine can be put on a stand or hung from a tree where it will spin in the wind collecting energy to power small appliances while hiking and camping. This version may also have applications for military and other uses. Eventually, a number of these turbines could even be used to power an entire building.

 

Wind turbines for the military – Speaking of military use. The military currently sends out wind turbine kits to their people in the field along with lightweight foldable solar panels. The problem is that the current wind turbines are very large often creating a target for the opposing military to aim at. The turbines from American Wind are a fraction of the size and could replace the existing wind turbines providing power and increased safety for our military.

 

Wind to offset HVAC power – Yost is in talks with HVAC manufacturers to add his small turbines to the top of HVAC units. These turbines would work off the output from the HVAC unit itself (that air that is blown out of the top and sides of the units) creating power to offset the high cost of heating and cooling a home.

 

The potential uses for micro-wind turbines are endless, from wind turbine fields, to offsetting power, to combined uses with other energy sources for homes, hotels, and vehicles, as well as camping and military. Yost has already received one patent for his creation and is waiting on a second one. I imagine that will not be the last one he receives, just as I’m sure that the applications he’s already considered will not be the end of the many uses for his design.

 

Robert Yost reminds us that wind is not the end-all power source. He says that wind and sun, and wind and other power sources work in unison. We have the greatest efficiency when we combine multiple sources. In the case of a car it may be wind and gas, in the case of homes it may be wind and sun.

 

Of course there are detractors, there are those who say “but won’t it create a wind wall?” or “How can a wind turbine push a car against the wind faster than the wind is blowing?” To those Robert points out that it’s already been proven. You can read about it here. He points out that it’s about more than just one simple physics equation, it is multiple equations and it’s about approaching one thing from multiple angles.

 

Can American Wind break physics
In his lab I saw where Yost and his staff are testing whether they can “break physics.” They currently have a small USB fan propelling one their turbines. Within the next few weeks they plan to plug the USB fan directly into the turbine to see if they can power the fan with power from the turbine that the fan is creating power for. Wrap your head around that! They are skeptical that it will work, but looking forward to find out. I don’t know about you but I’m excited to see if it works! Will this be the next big thing? I don’t know but it sure is interesting to watch!

Student-Made Windmill Blade Outdoes Manufacturer

Student-Made Windmill Blade Outdoes Manufacturer

Students throughout northern Alabama competed in the inaugural Switch Blade Competition on Thursday at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.

Each team was required to redesign the blades of a windmill to adjust to the low power wind conditions of Alabama. Senior systems engineer Bill Pannell, from the Aviation and Missile Research Development and Engineering Center, came up with the idea while experimenting with a windmill used for military operations in Afghanistan.

Students from Alabama A&M University, Columbia High School, Hartselle High School and the University of Alabama in Huntsville received a $500 stipend to fund their project.

The Switch Blade Competition is a great example of how we’re trying to make the quest to 100 percent clean energy in Huntsville fun,” said Daniel Tait, chief executive officer, Alabama Center for Sustainable Energy. “Students get to engage with some of the toughest problems we need to address as a community while gaining hands-on experience with real equipment being used by the U.S. Army.

To continue reading the full article, please visit: http://www.theredstonerocket.com/around_town/article_fc3f015a-ee7a-11e4-bdaa-bf693a6fea58.html

Congratulations to the UAH Green Wind Power Available at Low Speed, or GWPALS, team! They were the winners of this first inaugural Switch Blade contest.