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"First they ignore you, then they ridicule you,

then they fight you, then you win."

-- Mohandas Gandhi

WI PSC Sides with Power Company Against Innovation While a German Town Takes Matters into Its Own Hands

November 20, 2014

The contrast between this week’s decision by the Wisconsin PSC to support Wisconsin Energy’s assault on its solar generating customers and the remarkable progress being made in Wildpoldsried, Bavaria couldn’t be clearer.

Here’s a link to Greentech Media’s report on the WI PSC decision.

The Wisconsin Public Service Commission recently voted 2-1 to allow We Energies to increase fixed charges on all residential bills, decreasing the financial benefit for customers who use less energy. The PSC also granted the utility permission to pay less for the power generated by customers with rooftop solar.

But the story doesn’t end there. Cleantech advocates are now preparing to bring suit against the two commissioners who voted in favor of the changes, and they are confident the decision will be overturned.

Last week’s vote increases monthly fixed charges for We Energies customers from roughly $9 to $16, making them among the highest in the country. The variable rate will be reduced from $0.139 per kilowatt-hour to $0.1349 per kilowatt-hour.

The approved change in net metering will switch the program from annual netting to monthly netting, and reduce the price credited for excess generation from the current 14 cents per kilowatt-hour to 3 cents per kilowatt-hour.

All customers with solar systems on their property will also have to pay We Energies $3.80 per kilowatt per month. The average solar system size in Wisconsin is 4 kilowatts, bringing average annual fees to $182 per year.

Meanwhile, in Bavaria:

The story began in 1997, when Wildpoldsried mayor Arno Zengerle and the city council decided they wanted to revitalize the community and encourage growth without incurring debt. The town adopted the Innovative Leadership Plan, WIR-2020, to reinvent Wildpoldsried based on renewable energy, green building, and water resource protection. As part of the plan the town set a goal of producing 100 percent of its electricity from renewable energy by 2020.

Things happened much faster than planned — 17 years later, the town now has five biogas plants, almost 5 MW of solar PV, 11 wind turbines with a total capacity of more than 12 MW, a biomass district heating network, three small hydro power plants, and 2,100 square meters of solar thermal systems. While the first two wind turbines were partly financed by a small grant from the state of Bavaria, local residents — many of them dairy farmers — have financed all following turbines. Those turbines, which generated over 17,000 MWh of electricity in 2013, have a payback of 10 years, and then generate 80 percent of the earnings of the dairy farms.

All public buildings, 120 private residences, and 4 companies are connected to the district heating system. The biomass for the system is all sourced from waste wood from local forests and generates 8.2 MMBtu of heat each year. The majority of the PV systems in the town are on private residences — about 200 homes now have rooftop solar. Nine municipal buildings including the primary school, recycling facility, and sports center also have PV systems. The electricity generated from the solar, wind, and biomass is sold to AÜW under a fixed-price 20-year power purchase agreement (PPA).

Wildpoldsried invested in microgrid control technologies that allowed small scale renewable producers to capture the full value of their product, instead of feeding it into the grid where power companies and speculators skimmed off the real value.

The key to the smart grid is a self-organizing automation system called SOEASY, which balances supply and demand to keep the grid stable. It is IRENE’s brain, so to speak. SOEASY considers weather, electricity prices, power quality, and other factors when deciding whether to send electricity into the grid or to storage. It’s actually more complex than the name makes it sound. SOEASY contains five different software modules — the personal energy agent, balance master, area administrator, network transport agent, and energy police.

  • Personal energy agent: Every “prosumer” in the town has a personal energy agent. This small device allows the energy producer to dictate how much power he or she wants to sell, at what time, and at what minimum price, in 15-minute intervals. It is, in some sense, a distributed energy resource marketplace on the scale of one town embedded in a far larger grid.
  • Balance master: The balance master is installed at AÜW and decides which personal energy agent offers it will accept to cover demand in the grid. It can plan adjustments up to a day in advance, and takes into account different parameters such as weather changes.
  • Area administrator: The area administrator helps AÜW maintain network stability if too much energy is being fed into the grid. The area administrator can modify the input from different sources via commands to their personal energy agents, can send energy to storage, or can adjust the voltage through the variable transformer.
  • Network transport agent: The network transport agent (NTA) collects data from the energy producers, consumers, and the grid, and supplies it to the area administrator, which intervenes if maximum voltage is exceeded, and to the balance master, which decides what power can be accepted without overloading the grid.
  • Energy Police: The energy police makes sure that all energy producers supply the power promised by their personal energy agents, and that no power is illegally siphoned off.

This is real investment in the future, and it increases the reliability of the increasingly unstable centralized grid with which the local microgrids must still interact.  Keep in mind that this is a town of 2600 people.  They generate $7 million dollars a year selling their electricity.

WV politicians looking to revitalize the economies of WV’s small towns need to wake up and take a good look at what the people of Wildpoldsried have done for themselves.

Good Overview of Denmark’s Renewable Energy Situation, and Comparison with Germany

November 17, 2014

Here is a link to an interesting overview of Denmark’s renewable energy plans.  The comparison with Germany is somewhat unfair, because Denmark also has coal-fired electrical generation, and the Germans have a definite plan to phase our their coal plants.  I also find the title of the story, “Brave little Denmark leads war against coal” to be condescending and, well, belittling.

The story pulls together a number of threads from my series on my recent trip to Denmark, and fills in a little more history.

The title page of the article has a great picture of a very common sight in the Danish countryside.

The yellow crop in the foreground is rape, which the Europeans use for ethanol production.  Note also that these are not monster wind turbines, but smaller ones probably financed by and serving local farms or a rural village.

Anya Schoolman on Decentralized Power

November 17, 2014

Anya Schoolman is the genius behind the Community Power Network which has built solar generation in communities in the District of Columbia and three states, including two community solar co-ops (so far) in WV.  Anya is also one of the leading experts in the world on building community-based solar power generation.

Here on The Power Line, I have been posting a little bit (here and here) about the takeover of Pepco, the retail utility in DC, by nuclear giant Exelon.  Exelon, with its numerous nuclear plants, which are often forced to take negative prices for electricity when renewable resources flood the grid, has led the battle against decentralized power wherever it rears its head.

Here is a link to Anya Schoolman’s testimony in the DC PSC Exelon/Pepco merger case.  The testimony looks long, at 455 pages, but most of that is appendixes, which you can skip.  Anya’s testimony is only 64 double spaced pages long.

Her testimony includes a history of DC Sun (well worth reading in itself), an account of how local utilities have to change to effectively handle new high penetrations of decentralized power and how obsolete holding companies like Exelon are desperately trying to hold onto their control of the grid.

Anya’s testimony is well worth the read.  You will get an education from one of the most knowledgeable experts on decentralized power and one of the most effective community organizers in the US.  Anya is a treasure and a teacher to us all.


DoE Loan Program Turning Profit

November 13, 2014

Remember all the Republican propaganda about the collapse of Solyndra?  Remember all the blame that was heaped on the Obama Administration by Fox News for the Department of Energy renewable power loan program that was created by a Republican majority Congress and the Cheney administration?

Well, guess what?  The program is a big success.  Here’s how a new NPR report describes the program now:

Overall, the agency has loaned $34.2 billion to a variety of businesses, under a program designed to speed up development of clean-energy technology. Companies have defaulted on $780 million of that — a loss rate of 2.28 percent. The agency also has collected $810 million in interest payments, putting the program $30 million in the black.

When Congress created the loan program under the Energy Policy Act of 2005, it was never designed to be a moneymaker. In fact, Congress imagined there would be losses and set aside $10 billion to cover them.

Looks like Solyndra was just a minor blip and the Obama Administration has again rescued a floundering Cheney project.

Blankenship Going Down

November 13, 2014

And -

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, also D-W.Va., said in a statement: “For more than four years, Upper Big Branch families have cried out for justice for their loved ones lost in that horrific tragedy. Today’s indictment of former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship is another step toward justice. But let me be clear: in my view, Don Blankenship, and the mines he once operated, treated miners and their safety with callousness and open disregard. As he goes to trial, he will be treated far fairer and with more dignity than he ever treated the miners he employed. And, frankly, it’s more than he deserves.”
And here’s the press release from US Attorney Booth Goodwin’s office:

November 13, 2014


Donald Blankenship Faces Four Charges Including Conspiracy, Fraud and Making False Statements

CHARLESTON, W.Va. – United States Attorney Booth Goodwin announced that a federal grand jury today returned an indictment charging Donald L. Blankenship, former Chief Executive Officer of Massey Energy Company, with four criminal offenses. The indictment charges Blankenship with conspiracy to violate mandatory federal mine safety and health standards, conspiracy to impede federal mine safety officials, making false statements to the United States Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), and securities fraud.

The indictment alleges that from about January 1, 2008, through about April 9, 2010, Blankenship conspired to commit and cause routine, willful violations of mandatory federal mine safety and health standards at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine, located in Raleigh County, West Virginia. The indictment alleges that during this same period of time, Blankenship was part of a conspiracy to impede and hinder federal mine safety officials from carrying out their duties at Upper Big Branch by providing advance warning of federal mine safety inspection activities, so their underground operations could conceal and cover up safety violations that they routinely committed.

The indictment further alleges that after a major, fatal explosion occurred at Upper Big Branch on April 5, 2010, Blankenship made and caused to be made false statements and representations to the SEC concerning Massey Energy’s safety practices prior to the explosion. Additionally, the indictment alleges that, after this explosion, Blankenship made and caused to be made materially false statements and representations, as well as materially misleading omissions, in connection with the purchase and sale of Massey Energy stock.

The FBI and the United States Department of Labor’s Office of Inspector General are in charge of the investigation. United States Attorney Booth Goodwin, Counsel to the United States Attorney Steven Ruby, and Assistant United States Attorney Gabriele Wohl are handling the prosecution.

The four counts charged carry a maximum combined penalty of 31 years’ imprisonment.

Click here to view a copy of the indictment. An indictment is only an allegation, and the defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.

More Coal Subsidies

November 13, 2014

Do you think that solar and wind generation are only competitive because they are heavily subsidized?  Don’t think the US coal industry is heavily subsidized?

Take a look at this investigative report from Howard Berkes and Ellen Smith.  Here is the heart of their story:

A joint investigation by NPR and Mine Safety and Health News found that thousands of mine operators fail to pay safety penalties, even as they continue to manage dangerous — and sometimes deadly — mining operations. Most unpaid penalties are between two and 10 years overdue; some go back two decades. And federal regulators seem unable or unwilling to make mine owners pay.

Our joint investigation looked at 20 years of federal mine data through the first quarter of 2014, including details about fines, payments, violations and injuries. We used raw Department of Labor data and delinquency records provided by the Mine Safety and Health Administration to calculate the number of injuries and injury rates, and violations and gravity of violations, at mines with delinquent penalties while they were delinquent.

Coal that “keeps your lights on” is subsidized by millions of dollars in unpaid fines that your tax dollars fund, as well as the lives of miners who die needlessly in outlaw mining operations that the US government allows to keep mining coal.  And this subsidy is paid in human lives and injuries, year in and year out.

How can anyone say that WV’s 96% coal-fired electricity is “cheap”?


Brooks McCabe Named WV PSC Commissioner

November 12, 2014

Last Friday, Gov. Tomblin announced that he had chosen former Kanawha County Sen. Brooks McCabe to replace Ryan Palmer on the WV PSC.  The Charleston Gazette’s Ken Ward offered a look at the appointment and a bit of McCabe’s record.

As Ward points out, McCabe has historically supported WV’s almost total dependence on fossil fuels for its electricity, while also muttering about diversifying our generation mix and keeping electricity costs lower.  Unfortunately for Mr. McCabe, these goals are contradictory.  Here is an example of the new commissioner’s confused thinking from a 2011 story in the Beckley Register-Herald:

McCabe sees the nuclear industry shifting gears into smaller facilities that are cheaper, less invasive and more readily able to gain permits.

“Even with that, I don’t expect to see nuclear power in West Virginia in my lifetime,” the senator said.

“But the reason to eliminate the ban on it is, assuming there is a viable alternative out there, if we are an energy state, we ought to say we’re an energy state and not exclude anyone. In reality, we’re going to be focusing on coal, natural gas, geo-thermal and wind. And a little bit of biomass, maybe. That’s West Virginia’s future, and it primarily, in the near term, is coal and natural gas, and then, over time, it will move over into renewables.” From his own view of the energy situation, McCabe said the nation must devise a means of making the country self-sufficient, sooner rather than later.

“Nuclear will have some part of that equation,” he said.

In formulating his confused ideas about “making the country self-sufficient,”Mr. McCabe apparently missed this information from the US Department of Energy:

Owners and operators of U.S. commercial nuclear power reactors buy uranium in various forms as well as enrichment services from other countries. U.S. nuclear plants purchased 58 million pounds of uranium in 2012 from both domestic and foreign suppliers; 83% of this total was of foreign origin. About 38% of the enriched uranium needed to fabricate fuel for U.S. reactors was supplied by foreign enrichers.

Since 2009, former Sen. McCabe pushed for reducing WV’s restrictions on the construction of nuclear power plants in the state.  These restrictions are often referred to as a “ban” by Mr. McCabe, but they are actually pretty commonsense requirements.  The Martinsburg Journal provided this explanation in a 2009 article:

While not forbidding nuclear power plants, the 1996 law sets several hurdles for one. They include a requirement that the country have a dumping site for radioactive waste that has operated safely and effectively for at least two years.

The US has never had a repository for still highly radioactive “spent” nuclear power plant fuel and is not likely to have one for the foreseeable future.  The current Fukushima disaster (it won’t be over for a few thousand years) included a partial meltdown in a storage pool for waste nuclear fuel rods which were stored on site, as with most US nuclear reactors.  Because there is no permanent, safe repository for radioactive nuclear fuel once it is removed from reactors, nuclear power in the US is still an ongoing experiment.

I attended the 2013 WV Building Conference in Morgantown and listened as then-Sen. McCabe stated from the podium that “the free market” should decide WV’s electrical generation mix.  As with his nuclear power claims, Mr. McCabe appeared to be particularly uninformed about the situation he was describing.  There is no “free market” in electricity in WV.  WV law grants monopoly power to electric utilities regulated by the WV PSC.  The wholesale transactions for regional electricity, as well as transmission management which also imposes costs on WV electric customers, are all controlled by PJM Interconnection’s artificial and bureaucratic “markets” which mainly operate to serve the interests of large, non-WV holding companies.

I am also somewhat concerned that Gov. Tomblin failed to choose another lawyer for the PSC.  The PSC operates primarily in a legal environment.  Any decision that the Commissioners make can be appealed to the WV Supreme Court.  Of course, there is little threat of appeal from citizens or even the PSC’s own Consumer Advocate Division, because they have little or no money to pursue appeals.  Utilities, particularly the two Ohi0-based holding companies that control WV’s electric companies, have lots of money and have no qualms about appealing any PSC decision that hurts their bottom line.

If the WV PSC is going to support innovation and lower utility costs, instead of the interests of utilities and their shareholders, we need commissioners who are skilled lawyers who can write orders that will stand up to utility appeals to the WV Supreme Court.  Mr. Palmer demonstrated this kind of skill and confidence when he took the rare step of filing a dissenting opinion on the FirstEnergy Harrison case.

Mr. McCabe is not a lawyer and will likely defer to the legal opinions offered by PSC Chairman Mike Albert.  Mr. Albert spent decades representing corporate utility holding companies in WV when he was an attorney at Jackson Kelly.  Mr. McCabe simply will not have the skills to develop his own legal analysis independent of Chairman Albert.

I hope I am wrong about Mr. McCabe.  I was wrong about Mr. Palmer when Gov. Manchin appointed him back in 2009.  And the McCabe appointment certainly could have been worse.  There were rumors that the Governor had been considering another Jackson Kelly attorney for the position.


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