Tag Archives: Solar energy

Is Solar Permitting Stacked against the Little Guy?

by James A. Bacon

The Van Kesteren family, owner of  Van Kesteren Farms in Accomack County, wants to build solar panels on 180 acres as a way to supplement the income from its farming operations. But the price tag for connecting to the regional grid is posing a major barrier.

The estimate for connecting to the Eastern Shore electric grid has increased from $3-4 million in March 2017 to $26.5 million today, according to an article in Energy News Network. The article focuses mainly on the Van Kesteren family’s thwarted ambitions, as made clear by the sub-head: “An Eastern Shore farming family is frustrated that its solar project is at the mercy of the local utility and grid operator.”

But the story illustrates a broader story regarding a critical and often overlooked aspect of solar-power economics: how some proposed locations for solar farms can be rendered uncompetitive by high interconnection costs. Continue reading

What? More Solar Means More NOx? No One Saw that Coming!

Duke Energy solar farm

by James A. Bacon

The surge in solar power production in North Carolina has caused an increase in nitrogen oxide (NOx), a serious air pollutant, North Carolina’s Duke Energy has concluded. Without changes to state regulatory policy, according to a report by North State Journal, carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions also could increase.

These counter-intuitive findings stem from the fact that solar power is an intermittent source of power, which must be offset by on-again, off-again generation from fossil fuel sources, primarily natural gas. The on-and-off cycling of power stations leads to inefficient combustion and higher NOx emissions. The effect on CO2 emissions is less clear, although utility officials raised the prospect of a “slight increase” in CO2 at the plant level under certain conditions.

I have no idea if Duke’s conclusions will stand up to close scrutiny. For sure, they will be attacked by those who are committed to intermittent renewable energy sources at any cost. But the debate in North Carolina is highly relevant to Virginia. North Carolina has the largest installed base of solar power of any state outside of California. But Virginia is adding solar capacity rapidly, and the Northam administration has set a goal of attaining a zero-carbon electric grid by 2050.

Let me be very clear. I am not advocating a dial-back in Virginia’s commitment to solar. But I do say, if we are going to aggressively expand our reliance upon an intermittent energy source, we need to know what we’re getting into. Continue reading

Hurricanes, Solar Panels and Grid Resilience

by James A. Bacon

According to what the nation’s ruling elites tell us is the climate-change consensus, a warming climate increases the frequency and intensity of hurricanes. “Because global warming is intensifying, scientists expect the number of extreme storms to continue rising,” writes David Leonhardt, a New York Times opinion columnist.

One would think, then, that this insight would inform the remedies proposed for climate change, such as re-engineering the nation’s electric grid to rely almost exclusively upon wind and solar power. If the frequency and intensity of hurricanes is increasing, it would be appropriate to ask here in Virginia, what standards do we have in place for the construction of wind turbines and solar panels to ensure that they can withstand hurricane-force winds?

North Carolina had a recent opportunity to observe the interaction of hurricanes and solar panels. Hurricane Dorian pummeled the Tarheel state last month, striking solar a solar farm in Currituck County with wind speeds near 60 miles per hour. The solar arrays are supposed to withstand wind speeds of up to 120 miles per hour. How did they hold up? Continue reading

Down to the Nitty Gritty on Solar Farm Development

by James A. Bacon

If Virginians want more renewable energy, they need to solve a number of practical problems. One of those is how to decommission old solar panels and wind turbines. When their useful lives have expired, we can’t just let these devices litter the landscape and collect rust. In particular the question of what happens to old solar panels, which contain high levels of heavy metals like cadmium, is one that has concerned many residents of rural counties where solar farms have been proposed.

SolUnesco, a Reston-based developer of solar farms, has given considerable thought to how to plan for the end of utility-scale solar projects. As Lea Maamari and Melody S. Gee write in a company blog post, “finding a good balance of shared benefits, costs, and risks is in the best interest of all stakeholders.” Continue reading

Solar Developer Pulls Culpeper Application

Cricket Solar, developer of a proposed 1,600-acre solar farm in Culpeper County, has yanked its application in the face of extensive local opposition to the project, reports the Culpeper Star-Exponent.

“On behalf of Cricket Solar LLC, I am writing to formally withdraw Cricket’s Conditional Use Permit application,” wrote attorney Ann Neil Cosby in a letter to Culpeper County’s planning director. “Cricket has been working diligently over the last few months redesigning the project boundaries to protect wetlands, improve efficiencies, and respond to community concerns related to the project.”

A local group, Citizens for Responsible Solar (CSR), had called for the project to be delayed to address neighbors’ concerns about natural and historic resources in the area. Cricket gave no indication of if or when it might re-file.

Bacon’s bottom line: The delay-delay strategy has defeated a major solar farm project, at least for now. Now that CSR has scored a big victory, it is logical to ask whether the group will now rest on its laurels, content that it has protected its own back yard, or seek to build a crusade. Indications from its website are that the organization does plan to oppose other projects. Continue reading

Delay-and-Block for Pipelines… and Solar?

Last December the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond found that the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail is part of the National Park System, which blocks federal agencies from authorizing a pipeline crossing. Depending upon U.S. Supreme Court action, the ruling in the Cowpasture River Preservation Association v. U.S. Forest Service case could well doom the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which crosses the trail in order to connect Midwest shale gas with Southeastern markets.

Noah Sachs, an environmental law professor at the University of Richmond, asks a provocative question: “Did the Fourth Circuit really turn the Appalachian Trail into a ‘Great Wall’ that blocks all energy transport from the Midwest to the East Coast, as many energy industry analysts have suggested?”

In an essay in The American Prospect, Sachs argues that Cowpasture doesn’t preclude all crossings of the Appalachian Trail, so the “great wall” analogy may not be apt. But here’s a passage that I found profoundly disturbing:

The real significance of the Cowpasture case is that it uses the Appalachian Trail crossing as a legal hook to delay and block the pipeline and raise its costs. There’s nothing wrong with delay-and-block tactics. It’s a strategy that environmentalists have been using since the 1960s. And as the climate crisis heats up, it’s a virtuous one.

Continue reading

Bacon Bits: Mostly Good News for a Change

Energy efficiency done right. After investing $2 million over three years to update the energy and water infrastructure of Clark Hall, the University of Virginia calculates that it is saving $75o,ooo a year in electricity bills and $22,000 in water bills — a payback in less than three years. The university replaced 5,000 interior and exterior fixtures with LEDs, put into place an electronically controlled HVAC system, and installed low-flow toilets and faucet aerators, among other changes. Since 2010, Office of Sustainability projects have avoided $35 million in energy fees, reports the Cavalier Daily. Building automation kills two birds with one stone: It dampens runaway higher-ed costs, and it reduces energy consumption.

Wytheville as winner. The Brookings Institution has highlighted Wytheville, population 8,000, as a successful example of community development in a rural town. Step one: Invest in downtown place-making through streetscape renovations, improved sidewalks, lighting, and crosswalks. Step two: Create a self-sustaining entrepreneurial ecosystem. With a grant from the Virginia Department of Housing and Urban Development, Downtown Wytheville launched a competition to recruit local businesses and build partnerships with property owners. Inducements such as reduced rent, mentorships, and $75,000 in prize money were used to recruit the businesses downtown. As a result Wytheville has two (not one, but two) breweries, a Vietnamese bakery, and an art school id didn’t have before. In 2018, downtown received $800,000 in public investment and $5.7 in private investment. Continue reading

Reliability, Clean Energy, and an Aging Grid

Concerns about the reliability of the U.S. electricity supply has popped into the news headlines recently. The problem isn’t terrorists or cyber-attacks, it’s the inability of electric grid to handle routine challenges. Earlier this month, a transformer fire in Manhattan knocked out electric power to about 73,000 customers. On the West Coast, PG&E is spending $2.3 billion to fix a backlog of deficiencies in its transmission and distribution system that contributed to the record outbreak of wild fires in California last year. Meanwhile, the company has announced its intention to preemptively turn off power on vulnerable circuits to limit wildfire risk.

The American Society of Civil Engineers gave U.S. energy infrastructure a D+ grade in its 2017 infrastructure report card. States the 2017 Infrastructure Report Card:

Most electric transmission and distribution lines were constructed in the 1950s and 1960s with a 50-year life expectancy, and the more than 640,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines in the lower 48 states’ power grids are at full capacity. … Without greater attention to aging equipment, capacity bottlenecks, and increased demand, as well as increasing storm and climate impacts, Americans will likely experience longer and more frequent power interruptions.

Continue reading

The Latest Front in Virginia’s Energy Wars: Rural Electric Co-Ops

One in six Virginians get their electricity from a rural electric cooperative. In theory, because co-ops are owned by their electrical customers, the interests of owners and customers and owners are aligned — in contrast to Virginia’s investor-owned utilities, Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power Co., in which the interests of stockholders and customers often come into conflict. But in the real world, the agency problem intervenes: The electric co-ops are run by professional managers, and a question arises as to whether entrenched management is putting its own interests ahead of the owner-customers they serve.

The policies of Virginia’s electric co-ops has been the source of considerable consternation among environmentalists. As noted last month by Ivy Main, a Sierra Club of Virginia blogger and contributor to the Virginia Mercury, “While a few co-ops have adopted innovative customer-friendly programs, most actively resist change.”

By “actively resisting change,” Main refers to their reluctance to embrace the environmentalists’ clean energy agenda. Coal accounts for 75% of energy generated by electric cooperatives nationwide, compared to less than 28% for all utilities nationally. “Worse,” she writes, “failing to see the promise of distributed generation, most co-ops have locked themselves into long-term supply contracts that give them little room for self-generation with solar and wind. … In fact, stuck with the dirty black stuff, rural electric cooperatives are much more likely than investor-owned utilities to support coal and oppose climate regulations.” Continue reading

Does Facebook Solar Pay Its Own Way?

Dominion Energy has announced the construction of six new solar farms — three in Virginia and three in North Carolina – to offset the electricity demand of Facebook data centers in the two states. The 590 megawatts of new renewable energy generation will be enough to power 147,000 homes at peak output.

The partnership will support Dominion’s goal of having 3,000 megawatts of new solar and wind energy in operation or under development by 2022 and Facebook’s goal of supporting its  global operations with 100% renewable energy by the end of 2020. (See the press release here.)

In the abstract, I’m all in favor of generating electricity with clean, renewable energy sources like solar. But I’m still trying to understand the implications of the solar rush for grid stability and ratepayers. Continue reading

Bacon Bits: Centrists, Solar, and CNU

A force for centrism and pragmatism. While Virginia increasingly emulates the hyper-polarized politics of Washington, D.C., a new group has entered the fray. Unite Virginia, an arm of Unite America, held  a “Unity breakfast” yesterday in Richmond to honor four Republican and Democratic legislators for their bipartisanship. Unite America, launched in 2013, says it is building a movement to “elect common-sense, independent candidates” to serve people, not party bosses or special interests, reports The Virginia Mercury. The organization will make endorsements and contribute to Virginia General Assembly campaigns this year.

Giant solar project approved in Charles City County. sPower’s proposed solar mega-project in Spotsylvania County remains mired in controversy, but the solar developer has had better luck in Charles City County. The Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to approve a special-use permit for the $415 million project. The solar farm will be built on 1,400 acres. Utah-based sPower will put an additional 800 acres at the site into conservation. The permit requires that the solar farm install a 100- to 300-foot vegetated barrier around the perimeter, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Continue reading

Conservation Vs. Solar in Powhatan County

Conservation easements don’t just block projects like pipelines, highways and electric transmission lines. As demonstrated in Powhatan County Monday, they can block solar farms as well.

Faced with skepticism from the Powhatan County Board of Supervisors, Cartersville Solar LLC has withdrawn a proposal to build a solar farm on a 3,000-acre tract of property, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

The proposal had encountered opposition from Powhatan residents. Citizens commenting at public hearings cited negative ecological impact on protected wetlands — the only remaining wildlife corridor connecting the James and Appomattox rivers — and on rare and endangered species.

Cartersville Solar had acquired 2,998 acres near the intersection of Cartersville and Duke roads for the purpose of building a solar farm. (The RTD article does not say how much power it would generate.) In November, the Powhatan County Planning Commission voted to recommend denial of the project on the grounds that the proposed use is not consistent with the 2010 Long-Range Comprehensive Plan. Part of the project would fall into an area designed Priority Conservation Area and Protected Land. Continue reading

Bacon Bits: Incompetence and Failure Everywhere You Look

Where are the social justice warriors? SJWs are super sensitive to subtle signs of “institutional racism.” Perhaps they should focus on the widespread incompetence in Virginia’s local foster care systems. For instance: A Virginian-Pilot investigation has found “a pattern of mismanagement, retribution and poor performance” in Norfolk’s foster care program. “Employees say they saw the foster care program go from bad to worse. It started with  children languishing in foster care for years, with little done to get them adopted. In more recent years, case workers say they’ve been pressured to get kids off the foster care rolls by any means necessary, even if that sometimes meant putting the children in harm’s way.” Sometimes foster children have been placed in situations where they have been assaulted and sexually molested. These children are disproportionately African-American. Why hasn’t this failed system become a cause celebre of the Left? Could it be that it doesn’t fit The Narrative?

Metro free falling. Ridership on the Washington Metro system continues its steady decline, sinking to fewer than 600,000 average weekday trips for the first since since 2000, according to the Washington Post. Ridership peaked in 2008 at 750,000 weekday trips. The passenger rail system, plagued by safety and maintenance issues, has been engaged in a SafeTrack rebuilding program that may account for some of the loss. But the system suffers chronic problems, such as too few trains, too many service disruptions, and the emergence of ride-hailing alternatives such as Uber and Lyft.

Why so few starter homes? Why are home builders constructing so few starter homes (defined as those selling for $200,000 or less)?  Continue reading

Sow the Wind and Reap the Whirlwind

Environmentalists have created a monster. They have engendered a climate of hysteria by hyping risks for everything from global warming to coal ash, water quality to environmental racism. They have mastered the art of throwing every conceivable objection against the wall to see what sticks. They have perfected the strategy of question, question, delay, delay, obstruct, obstruct, sue, sue. Now, in the Spotsylvania County controversy over a solar farm, their tactics are biting them in the hindquarters.

After a nine-hour meeting at which more than 100 people spoke, reports the Virginia Mercury, the Spotsylvania Board of Supervisors delayed yesterday a decision on whether a 500-megawatt solar facility will be built in the western part of the county.

A large majority of the hundreds of people packing the Spotsylvania County auditorium opposed the sPower project, which would be the largest east of the Rocky Mountains and would almost double the amount of solar energy Virginia is currently producing. The concerns expressed seem utterly without merit, as far as I can tell. Yet hundreds of Spotsylvania citizens have convinced themselves that the 6,000-acre solar farm with 1.8 million solar panels would pose a hazard to their community. Continue reading

The Uncertain Economics of Offshore Wind

Source: “Lazard’s Levelized Cost of Energy Analysis.” Click graphic for more legible image.

As Virginia hurtles towards a renewable energy future with lots of solar and wind power, ratepayers and taxpayers should acquaint themselves with the complexities of Levelized Cost of Energy (LCOE) analysis. LCOE incorporates the costs associated with electricity generation — up-front capital costs, fuel costs, ongoing operations and maintenance costs — to compare the economic viability of conventional and renewable energy sources with very different characteristics.

In almost anybody’s analysis, the cost of utility-scale solar power in Virginia is highly favorable. The up-front capital costs are modest, fuel costs are zero, and ongoing operations and maintenance costs low. A heavy reliance on solar, an intermittent energy source that varies with the level of sunlight, does raise issues of system reliability. But as an energy source, it’s the cheapest around. However, the same cannot be said of smaller-scale solar projects or wind power.

The Lazard Levelized Cost of Energy Analysis is widely regarded as one of the most authoritative comparisons of LCOE. The chart above shows Lazard’s calculation of LCOE for the major categories of conventional and renewable energy. Utility-scale solar is the least expensive. Community solar and commercial & industrial rooftop solar are considerably more expensive but potentially competitive, and residential rooftop are not remotely competitive on cost. Nearly all of Virginia’s solar is utility-scale. Although environmentalist and activist groups are fighting for more community and residential solar, those categories are likely to remain marginal contributors to Virginia’s energy mix — options for those whose environmental consciences weigh heavier than their pocketbooks.

Wind power is a trickier issue. Lazard shows the LCOE ranging from $30 to $60 per megawatt/hour (or 3 to 6 cents per kilowatt/hour). Even the higher-cost wind is cheaper than all conventional sources excepting combined-cycle natural gas (large gas plants that burn gas with jet-like turbines and recycle the waste heat to run steam generators).

However, LCOE analysis depends upon various assumptions that may or may not pan out. Lazard’s “wind” numbers are based primarily upon the cost of generating wind on land, not establishing an offshore wind sector on the Atlantic Coast from scratch. The only thing we know for certain is that early adopters of offshore wind, who build before a supporting infrastructure is fully established, will pay more.

Another critical question is how many years wind turbines last before they must be retired. Coal, gas, and nuclear power sources are assumed to last 30 to 40 years, although some have lasted longer. The National Energy Energy Laboratory, accused by some of having a fossil fuel bias, says solar has a 25-year to 40-year economic life, but wind turbines only a 20-year life. I don’t know what life span Lazard assumes for wind, but I did find a LCOE analysis for wind power in Iceland that assumes a 25-year life.

Writing in the Center of the American Experiment, Isaac Orr notes, however, that 14 turbines in an industrial wind facility in Kewaunee County, Wisconsin, “has been decommissioned after just 20 years of service because the turbines are no longer cost effective to maintain and operate” — confirming the NREL assessment.

If the NREL numbers are accurate, the implications for Virginia’s energy future are significant. The Grid Modernization and Security Act of 2018 enshrined the goal of increased wind power as in the “public interest.” The State Corporation Commission has protested the cost of electricity generated from two proposed experimental wind turbines would be astonishingly high but approved the project anyway because the General Assembly, without conducting any of its own analysis, had declared it to be necessary.

The two experimental turbines are mere prelude to development of a much larger, 2-gigawatt offshore wind farm at cost of billions of dollars. Thanks to economies of scale in erecting offshore turbines, the levelized cost of the larger wind project will be a fraction of that of the experimental project. But if the 20-year life span of the Wisconsin turbines is any guide, wind turbines may not last as long as assumed, and may cost more. Moreover, we still don’t have any data on how well wind turbines will hold up in East Coast conditions — especially when buffeted by hurricane winds and waves.

Complicating the analysis, a kilowatt of electricity generated by a conventional fuel source upon command is worth more for maintaining grid reliability than a kilowatt generated by a renewable energy source delivered only when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing.

Not that it matters. In its wisdom, the General Assembly has mandated wind generation with no clear idea of what it will cost.