Monday, July 31, 2006

Net Metering - How Con Ed will PAY YOU to Go Solar

Before we dive into how you can get power companies like Con Ed to PAY YOU for going solar, let’s establish a few things.

When you install solar panels on your roof, you can produce electricity to power your home anytime the sun is out – even when it’s cloudy. You just won’t produce as much electricity as you would if it was sunny. But what if you have 5 cloudy days in a row? What if you have 10 rainy days in a row? What about the electricity you need at night when the sun’s not shining?

In order to solve such conundrums, it used to be the case that you needed a battery bank - a series of deep cycle car batteries that could store extra electricity for a rainy day (or night). That way, when your solar panels were producing electricity, you could use whatever juice you needed, and whatever was left over would go into the piggy bank.

Sounds good, right?

The problem is that a battery bank can add $7,000 onto the cost of your system, which isn’t going to encourage anybody to go solar. So then somebody thought, “Instead of storing extra power in expensive batteries, what if we could just store it in the power lines? You could connect the panels directly to the utility meter, that way any extra power you produced could be fed into the grid, and whatever power you needed on nights and rainy days could be pulled from the grid. You wouldn’t need batteries.”


Now, what happens if you’re actually producing more electricity than you’re using? That would mean you’d be giving power to Con Ed.

You’re thinking, “I’m not giving those #*#&%ers a nickel!”

You’re exactly right, my friend. This is when Con Ed buys electricity from you.

The concept is called Net Metering – it means that you use whatever electricity you’re producing, but anything extra goes into the grid. And by law, anything extra that goes into the grid, power companies like Con Ed must buy from you at the same rate that you would otherwise buy it from them.

I’m serious… it’s required by law in 40 states… look it up.

Here’s the cool part: When you have a chance, go outside and look at your electric meter. You’ll see that there’s a turning dial that’s counting the number of kilowatt-hours you’re consuming. If you decide to go solar and net meter, you can go look at your meter on a hot sunny day and find that your meter is actually spinning backwards. At the end of the year, if your meter is lower than when it started, Con Ed will mail you a check.

So why would Con Ed agree to do this?

As I mentioned in my last post, power companies like Con Ed need more creative ways to meet their peak demands and avoid the risk of blackouts. Coincidentally, these peak demands (people turning on their air conditioners) happen to coincide with solar panels reaching their peak production (hot sunny days). It’s a match made in heaven.

But Con Ed will only go along with this as long as it’s helping them, and not costing them too much money. In New York State, the law mandates that you can only net meter solar energy systems of up to 10 kilowatts in size (For a reference, an average house would need a system of about 8 kw to meet all of its energy needs). The law also states that power companies will only accept applications for net metering until 0.1 % of peak demand levels are met.

By comparison, New Jersey allows up to 2,000 kw systems to net meter, with no percentage cap (Yeah, New Jersey’s plans are a lot better than ours)

California really has the best incentives in the country, but since my long lost brother Solar Dweller on the west coast has Cali covered, I’m just going to focus on the East Coast.

The industry folks don’t hoot and holler too much about the 0.1% cap in New York – it’s bigger than you think. The 10 kw capacity is what really gets them riled up. It means that larger buildings can’t net meter, since they need hundreds, sometimes thousands of kilowatts to meet their energy needs.

You’d think that the blackout in Queens would be enough for the state to realize the benefits of larger buildings net metering, and easing the loads on the power lines. But those power companies can get greedy.

The New York Solar Energy Industry Association is pushing hard to get net metering expanded to 2,000 kw, but we’ll have to see what happens.

Don’t Take My Word For It

“Don’t Take My Word For It” is a feature I’m going to include at the end of every post. It’s a link to a credible, scholarly source, for those of you looking for more info.

Take a look at the New York Solar Energy Industry Association (NYSEIA) position on Net Metering

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

NYC Blackout 101: Distributed Generation

All of you folks in Queens probably got here by googling "solar energy" after the power finally came back on yesterday. You're thinking, "There's gotta be a better way,"

Well, there is. Solar energy in New York City would have prevented the blackout. Here's why:

The reason you didn’t have electricity for the last two weeks is that most power utilities, including Con Ed, operate through Centralized Generation. Whenever you have electricity being generated through one centralized power plant, the grid is always going to be susceptible to failures. All it takes is one power line going down, and all of a sudden twenty thousand people can be caught without electricity.

Distributed Generation (DG) means that power supplies are decentralized, and generated on a smaller scale in numerous locations. DG makes the grid more reliable by easing the burden of transmission and distribution. Power lines won't be as likely to fail because they won't be carrying such heavy loads, and if a power line does fail, it will only affect a small area.

Solar energy is a prime example of DG. Buildings produce their own electricity on site, cutting down on the amount of power that needs to be transported from distant power sources. New York City gets more than enough sunlight to meet its energy needs, and solar modules even produce electricity when the weather is cloudy.

This 210 kilowatt solar array on top of the Stillwell Ave Subway Station produces 250,000 kilowatt hours per year

The concept of Distributed Generation is gathering momentum, and changing the ways cities and utilities are thinking about power. Most power companies realize they got burned by the blackout in 2003, and they’d love to not have to worry about something like that happening again.

Believe it or not, the blackout in 2003 wasn’t caused by a lack of power – the grid was actually operating at a surplus. The blackout happened because one power line failed, and it caused a chain reaction all over the northeast. If electricity across the country had been more distributed and less centralized, that probably wouldn’t have happened.

New York City is what’s called a load pocket – it means that the level of power consumption is too high for electricity to be pumped in from outside the city. The power lines wouldn’t be able to handle it. As a result, regulations mandate that 80 % of New York City’s energy supply must be generated within the city. In order to meet this figure, and avoid all the problems associated with central generation, a lot of power companies, like Con Ed, are starting to turn towards different forms of DG.

Unfortunately, they're using dirty forms of DG, called “peakers.” These are generators in different substations around the city that get turned on during peak demand hours (hence the name). On hot summer days, when utilities need to meet the demand of 8 million New Yorkers turning on their air conditioners, these gas-guzzling peakers burn up fossil fuels and spew carbon dioxide into the air at three times the rate of normal power plants.

Solar energy is a cleaner example of Distributed Generation. Con Ed could invest its resources into setting up small, solar powered sub stations on rooftops all over the city, and New York wouldn't have to worry about another blackout for thirty years. A scientist at the Florida Solar Energy Center calculated that NYC would have needed 500 megawatts of distributed solar energy to have avoided the 2003 blackout.
The cost of bringing this much solar power to NYC - $3 billion
The cost of the 2003 blackout in tax dollars - $8 billion
... and all of you folks in Queens would have had power the last two weeks.

And imagine the environmental benefits. Instead of using peakers, New York City could meet its peak loads with 100 % clean, renewable, solar energy, burning zero fossil fuels, emitting zero green house gases, and producing zero air pollution.

Want to know something else? Every year, 7 % of all generated electricity is lost through transmission and distribution in the grid. In New York City, that’s almost $2.5 million dollars per year. Distributed Generation would fix that, too.

But, hey, who needs to start putting up solar panels? The power's back, so the problem is fixed… right?
We're not going to have any more blackouts...
Forget that it’s not even August…

Don’t Take My Word For It

“Don’t Take My Word For It” is a feature I’m going to include at the end of every post. It’s a link to a credible, scholarly source, for those of you looking for more info.

Rethinking the Grid: Distributed Generation and Urban Development by Jeff Perlman

Jeff Perlman is the President and Founder of Bright Power, a New York based company dealing with energy efficiency and renewable energy. This is an article he wrote last year about Distributed Generation. It’s a great read for those of you looking to learn more.

Coming Soon...

Global Warming, Renewable Energy, Climate Change... You want to keep up, but it's all a bit daunting. Especially all the environmental types that overwhelm you with their figures and terminologies.
Well despair not. This is going to be a happy place, where you can read all about what's going on, what should be going on, and things you can talk about that will make you sound smart. I just gotta get the hang of this whole blog thing first, but stay tuned...