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John Farrell's Posts

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'Solar home rule' could power the D.C. economy

For many years the citizens of Washington, D.C., struggled for the basic right to elect their own leaders. In 2011, they should use their political home rule to maximize the economic benefits of local renewable energy with "electricity home rule." Currently, residents and businesses in D.C. spend over $1.5 billion dollars a year on electricity. According to a study of D.C.'s energy dollars by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR), 90 percent of that amount (largely unchanged since the 1979 study) -- $1.4 billion -- leaves the city. With rooftop solar power, D.C. residents could keep more of those electricity …

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Mapping Solar PV CLEAN Contracts in the U.S.

The price of solar is dropping fast, opening new opportunities for community-scale renewable energy across the country.  But despite the improving economics and tremendously sunnier skies, the United States lags far behind Germany in installing new solar power. The biggest difference is policy. The U.S. has two major federal incentives (a 30% tax credit and accelerated depreciation) for solar power, and a few state programs for solar power. Germany and most other developed countries use a feed-in tariff for renewable energy, a policy responsible for three-quarters of the world’s solar power capacity. What might happen if the U.S. adopted Germany’s …

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Why we should democratize the electricity system — part one

A serialized version of ILSR's new report, "Democratizing the Electricity System," part one of five. The 20th century of electricity generation was characterized by ever larger and more distant central power plants.  But a 21st century technological dynamic offers the possibility of a dramatically different electricity future: millions of widely dispersed renewable energy plants and storage systems tied into a smart grid.  It’s a more democratic and participatory paradigm, with homes and businesses and communities becoming energy producers as well as consumers actively involved in designing the rules for the new electricity system. Several decades ago, several people – Amory …

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Solar PV makes most sense at modest size

Is bigger better when building solar PV power plants? When looking at historic data in the U.S., no. But when considering other sources, perhaps. Ultimately, "community scale" solar is likely to provide the best combination of affordability, speed, and opportunity for local economic benefit. There are two good sources of solar installed cost in the U.S. market -- the California Solar Initiative (CSI) dataset [PDF], which spans from 2006 to 2011, and the Lawrence Berkeley Labs' 2010 report, "Tracking the Sun III." The following chart illustrates the cost per watt to install solar PV projects, based on a range of …

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Gas is greener? Smearing renewables over land use exposes ignorance of fossil fuel lovers

Oregon's solar highway. Photo: Oregon Department of TransportationA recent column in the New York Times suggested that land use is the greatest environmental problem facing new renewable energy.  While getting the facts terribly wrong, it opens a door to talk about the advantages of distributed generation rather than large, central-station power generation.  A prime example is a unique proposal by Republic Solar Highways to put solar PV on highway right-of-way in California. Robert Bryce’s column (the Gas is Greener) suggests that wind and solar have a large land footprint compared to gas and nuclear power, and therefore the latter are …

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Solving wind power's variability with more wind power

This post originally appeared on Energy Self-Reliant States, a resource of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance's New Rules Project. One solution to the variability of wind power is more wind. The output from a single wind turbine can vary widely over a short period of time, as wind goes from gusty to calm. The adjacent graphic (from this report [PDF]) illustrates how a single turbine in Texas provided varying power output over a single day, varying from under 20 percent of capacity to near 100 percent! But the same report also illustrated the smoothing effect when the output from these …

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Utilities cash in when you go solar

I recently got a copy of a utility bill for a Minnesota business that has a 40 kilowatt (kW) solar PV array. I wanted to learn how quickly they'd pay off their array with the electricity savings. I was shocked. Payback time was 30 years. Even if the business owner had received a generous $2.00 per Watt rebate on top of federal tax incentives, it would still take 22 years to recoup the investment. It all came down to the way utilities account for solar power under "net metering" rules. A quick tutorial. Net metering essentially lets a utility customer …

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Concentrated solar power plants are all wet

Concentrating solar has promised big additions to renewable energy production with the additional benefit of energy storage -- saving sun power for nighttime -- but there's a catch. Most of the new power plants are big water users despite being planned for desert locations. With solar photovoltaic (PV) prices dropping so rapidly, does concentrating solar still make sense? Concentrating solar thermal power uses big mirrors to focus sunlight and make electricity. Think kids with magnifying glasses, but making power instead of frying ants. The focused sunlight makes heat, the heat makes steam, and the steam powers a turbine to make …

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Local clean energy a high priority for Canadian provinces

Ontario’s “buy local” energy policy has the promise of 43,000 local jobs from 5,000 MW of new renewable energy.   Now Nova Scotia is showing a strong interest in boosting the economic returns of its clean energy program. The maritime province is completing rulemaking for a provincial goal of 40% renewable power by 2020 that includes a 100 megawatt (MW) set-aside for community-owned distributed generation projects. The policy promises to increase the economic activity from its renewable energy goal by $50 to $240 million. Under the Community Feed-in Tariff (ComFIT), the community-owned projects will receive 20-year contracts for power at …

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Local ownership means local love for wind power

This post originally appeared on Energy Self-Reliant States, a resource of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance's New Rules Project. A new article in the journal Energy Policy supports the notion that local ownership is key to overcoming local resistance to renewable energy.  The article summarizes a survey conducted of two towns in Germany, both with local wind projects, but only one that was locally owned.  The results are summarized in this chart: Guess which town has the locally owned project?  If you guessed Zschadraß, you win.  With local ownership of the wind project, 45% of residents had a positive view toward …

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