Thursday, June 30, 2016

Tribes & Renewables Part IV: Barriers to Tribal Renewable Development and Ownership

By Andrea Lang, Policy Analyst

In Part III of this blog series on tribes and renewable energy resources, I explored the convoluted process for obtaining the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ approval before American Indian tribes can develop renewable energy on tribal land. Even if that process were remedied, tribes still face numerous other barriers to enjoying the full benefits that renewable development on tribal land would afford. According to a Sandia National Laboratory survey of tribal and federal Indian energy experts, lack of financing or funding and lack of customers are two of the most significant barriers to renewable energy development on tribal land. This fourth post in the Tribes and Renewables series briefly explains each of these barriers and suggestions for overcoming them.

Lack of Financing or Funding

One of the major barriers to tribal renewable energy development is lack of access to funding or financing. Even without the financing difficulties raised by the need for Bureau of Indian Affairs approval, tribes face considerable and inequitable barriers to financing their projects. Many renewable energy project owners are able to offset some of their tax liability by qualifying for the federal production tax credit or the investment tax credit, making the energy more valuable to them. However, since tribal governments have no tax liability, the credits do not provide any benefit to tribes directly. Tribes can attempt to find a third-party tax investor willing to finance their project in exchange for the tax credits, but it requires giving that investor ownership of the project for a time. This adds an extra step to the process and robs the tribe of the ability to fully own renewable energy projects, which is inequitable and raises concerns among some tribes with regard to sovereignty. Regardless, the federal government is currently phasing out the renewable tax credits over the next five years.

However, even if tribes could use the benefit of tax credits to save money and make renewable projects more financially beneficial, it would not solve the problem of being able to finance tribal renewable projects. Fortunately, the federal government is trying to overcome this particular barrier. Last March, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced a $9 million dollar investment in Native American “clean energy and energy efficiency programs,” including 12 solar photovoltaic projects, one wind energy project, and one tidal energy project. While this program will likely lead to additional renewable energy development on some tribal lands, such direct funding from the federal government should only be part of the solution.

Lack of Customers

The Sandia National Laboratories survey also found that a perceived lack of customers hinders tribal development of renewable energy resources. Prospective Native American renewable project developers could build projects to provide power to tribal residents, helping the tribe become more self-sufficient and reducing its need to purchase power from elsewhere. But the fact that the survey identified lack of customers as a significant barrier to development suggests that tribes are looking to also sell their electricity elsewhere.

The best way to ensure adequate demand for the output of renewable projects is to ensure that state renewable portfolio standards (RPSs) are sufficiently strong to create a market for renewable energy. RPSs are state mandates to obtain a certain amount of electricity from renewable resources. In states with high RPSs, utilities will be looking to buy more renewable electricity to meet their requirement, creating more customers for tribes. This is one of many reasons states should consider enacting ambitious RPSs. 

As I’ve explained in the last few posts in this series, there are certainly some barriers to tribal development of renewable resources, but there are also lots of reasons for hope. Plenty of policy options are available to overcome these barriers, and the fact that the Government Accountability Office and the Sandia National Laboratories are looking into the reasons for underdevelopment of tribal renewable resources is promising. The next post in this series will begin looking at a completely different aspect of tribes and renewables: how to develop renewable energy projects on non-indian land without destroying tribal cultural resources.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Wind Farms and Advancements in Turbine Technology

By Sage Ertman, Policy Intern

Based on recent data collected by NCSL, legislatures in 29 states have adopted Renewable Portfolio Standards (regulation mandating increased production of energy from renewable sources); and another eight states have at least set goals (instead of mandates). The growing recognition of climate change and its devastating effects on our planet has spawned a global movement to combat it. The technologies that have allowed us to harvest energy from renewable sources continue to expand and develop as more people see the value of investing in a sustainable future. Huge leaps have been made across the board in finding increasingly efficient means to harvest this energy at even greater capacities. Wind energy technology, for example, is starting to see some major upgrades.

Wind energy is the fastest-growing source of electricity in the world. The entire globe’s installed capacity for wind power was 35,467 megawatts (MW) in 2013, while the United States alone achieved a capacity of almost 75 gigawatts (GW), or 75,000 MW, by the end of 2015. As costs go down and efficiency increases (and also hopefully because people realize how important it is for our environment and our future), investment in renewable energy will continue to climb. In fact, Deepwater Wind recently broke ground on the US’s first offshore wind project near Block Island, off the coast of Rhode Island. The project is expected to create 300 construction jobs, and when complete, it will boast five turbines that will produce 30 MW of power. Though this is a relatively small project, the Block Island Wind Farm will not only provide electricity to all the homes and businesses on the island, but will also generate additional power that can be fed back to the mainland grid via an undersea transmission line. The hope is that this project will spark some momentum to take advantage of offshore wind development. A 2010 study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) estimated that the total potential for offshore wind development within 50 miles of shore is more than 4,150 GW, while the total potential for onshore wind development was estimated to be 11,000 GW. To put that into perspective, the total installed wind capacity across the entire US as of 2015 was only about 74 GW.

Taking a look across the pond, DONG Energy is planning the world’s largest offshore wind project in the North Sea off the east coast of the United Kingdom. For this project, to be commissioned in 2020, DONG plans to install 170 turbines for a total capacity of 1.2 GW. That is nearly twice the size of the next largest offshore wind farm and will provide enough electricity to power over one million homes in the UK. There is also potential to expand the project and install up to 3 GW of capacity.

The offshore turbines used in the DONG project will be mounted to the seabed. These types of turbines require relatively shallow depths to develop; however, that means depth constraints allow us to access only a very small portion of our offshore wind capacity. Floating wind turbines, on the other hand, have the advantage of not being restricted by depth requirements, allowing greater access to valuable and more consistent offshore wind resources. They also allow the turbines to sit much farther offshore which minimizes visual pollution of the coastal skyline. For these reasons, Statoil, a leading Norwegian energy company, has plans to install the world’s first floating wind farm 15 miles off the Scottish coast later this year. Five wind turbines will be built, each with a 6 MW capacity, for a total capacity of 30 MW. The turbines will be stabilized by large steel tubes filled with ballast, which will be tethered, rather than affixed, to the seabed by long cables. Though the power produced by the project will be nominal, the excitement comes from taking steps to blaze a path for others to follow.

In addition to advancements in offshore wind farming, we have seen some major leaps in rotor blade technology as well. In 2015, the Fukushima Offshore Wind Consortium unveiled the world’s largest offshore floating wind turbine 12 miles off the coast of Fukushima. Though it is also larger than any fixed offshore wind turbine. Part of the Fukushima FORWARD project, this 7 MW turbine is one of three turbines destined for this location. A 2 MW turbine was installed in 2013, and a final 5 MW turbine is scheduled to be installed this summer. The largest turbine has 80-meter blades with a total rotor diameter of 164 meters (nearly the length of two football fields). While larger turbines allow for more energy production, the additional size and weight make reliability a real concern.  That is why a new project emerging from Denmark, spearheaded by LM Wind Power and Adwen, has the wind community anxiously waiting. The two companies have teamed up to produce the world’s largest rotor blade (video here), measuring 88.4 meters. The blade is specially designed for new 8 MW turbines that Adwen hopes to have in production by 2018.

However, Adwen’s accomplishment will likely soon be overshadowed by a project underway in the US. With funding from the US Department of Energy, researchers from Sandia National Laboratories are working to develop a revolutionary new wind turbine that will put the Fukushima and Denmark turbines to shame. For the new design, each blade will stretch a whopping 200 meters (this time longer than two football fields). That is roughly 2.5 times as long as the blades used in either the Fukushima or Denmark projects described above. This means the diameter of the rotor span, including the hub, will exceed 400 meters (roughly 4.5 football fields). Standing next to such a behemoth would certainly be awe-inspiring. This massive turbine is projected to yield a capacity of 50 MW, utterly blowing away the competition (pun intended). But that isn’t all they have planned.
Sandia Lab's new blade design

In a Sandia Labs News Release, Todd Griffith, the project’s lead blade designer and technical lead for Sandia’s Offshore Wind Energy Program, recently touched on some design problems the team had to overcome: “Conventional upwind blades are expensive to manufacture, deploy and maintain beyond 10-15 MW. They must be stiff, to avoid fatigue and eliminate the risk of tower strikes in strong gusts. Those stiff blades are heavy, and their mass, which is directly related to cost, becomes even more problematic at the extreme scale due to gravity loads and other changes.” The Sandia team solved this problem by using segmented blades, so that “at dangerous wind speeds, the blades are stowed and aligned with the wind direction, reducing the risk of damage.” This new design uses downwind blades, as opposed to traditional upwind blades, “bio-inspired” by the way palm trees move in storms. The offshore turbines must be able to withstand hurricane winds at speeds over 200mph. Though the project is still only in its design phase, this incredible innovation provides a glimpse into just one project seeking to blaze a path for others to follow.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Marching to a Renewable Future

By David Heberling, Policy Intern

Recently, a firestorm of enthusiasm for solar roadways swept across social media. I’m sure many have seen the videos and fundraising campaigns to bring this technology to reality. Luckily, this technology, and other similar seemingly ahead-of-their-time innovations, may actually be taking off. Missouri is hoping to install a length of solar roadway by the end of the year. While solar power has become a staple of the renewable portfolio, a large innovation in kinetic energy is poised to launch a similarly bold and futuristic technology that might actually experience real world implementation on a large scale in the not-too-distant future.

Technology Developing in Leaps and Bounds

You may already be familiar with some kinetic generation devices. Common examples of this type of technology include hand crank radios and flashlights that are commonly included in disaster survival kits. Modern gym equipment can also have some of this kinetic capture technology embedded into the machines. Inventors have taken a simple concept that has been used for years and transformed it into systems that have real potential to generate electricity on a large scale.

As we continue to increase the amount of technology we use in our day-to-day lives, electricity demand will continue to grow. Indeed, the U.S. Energy Information Administration projects that U.S. electricity consumption could grow by 48% by 2040. Engineers are constantly looking for innovative new ways to generate electricity from renewable sources. One of the most promising sources of renewable energy may be right under our feet (and not in a liquid dinosaur kind of way).

British and Dutch engineers have invented a kinetic dance floor that uses the energy expelled by disco dancers to help generate electricity. The benefits of human-generated electricity are two-fold. On the one hand, you are able to recoup energy from a previously un-harvested source. On the other hand, it may help to encourage an ever more complacent populace to become more physically active. While the current technology is making strides to become more competitive and efficient, these researchers have expanded what may at first seem like a kitsch idea into something that may feasibly work on a large scale. 

Recently, this kinetic floor tile technology was installed in a Nigerian soccer stadium to help power the stadium’s lights. Domestically, a high school in Indiana became the first public building to deploy the technology. The potential use for this technology is astounding. Once the cost of the panels comes down and the efficiency of this technology increases, these panels, like the solar roadways projects, could help us turn everyday surfaces into active sources of energy production.

The British startup Pavegen has substantially increased the amount of electricity that the floor panels can generate. Their latest design, the V3, generates 200 times more electricity than their initial panel. They’re also pioneering new ways to integrate the technology into mobile apps and other means of motivating the general populace to get up and walk around more.

It is exciting to see so many engineers developing new, innovative ways to harness energy and motivate physical activity.  These types of inventions may seem lifted from the pages of a sci-fi future, but as inventors deploy more and more experimental technologies, these futuristic concepts may soon become common sources of energy. In a world that can sometimes seem so dark, it is always good to have another reason to keep on dancing—especially if it keeps the lights on.

Friday, June 24, 2016

5 Years After Fukushima, PG&E Plans to Close California’s Last Nuclear Power Plant

By Sage Ertman, Policy Intern
Source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission
With many still reeling in the wake of Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), one of the largest natural gas and electric utilities based out of California, announced it will not be renewing its operating licenses for California’s last two nuclear reactors located at the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant. The current licenses will expire in 2024 and 2025. Here, I will explore the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster as well as PG&E’s reasons for closing the reactors.

Lessons From Fukushima

Back in 2011, a 9.0-magnitude earthquake and resulting tsunami ravaged the Fukushima plant, causing a nuclear meltdown. Following the disaster, because the plant lost electricity (including its back-up power), the pumps responsible for bringing water to the reactors to keep them cool stopped functioning. Though Japanese crews spent weeks trying to keep the reactors’ temperatures down, primarily by injecting seawater, evacuations became more widespread as the extent of the true damage was uncovered. Eventually, workers discovered radioactive water was leaking from the plant. Nearby groundwater having flowed through the flooded basements and tunnels at the plant became radiated before emptying into the ocean at a rate of 400 tons per day. Today, though that number has been reduced significantly, Fukushima is still leaking radioactive water into the ocean. Exactly how wide-spread the latent effects of this disaster are is still unknown.  It didn’t take long before the plants and animals surrounding Fukushima began showing signs of defects. And because people were evacuated so quickly from the lands adjacent to the plant, many family pets and farm animals were left behind.  Some of the locals returned months after the meltdown to find many of these animals dead or dying. This led a number of farmers to return to the “exclusion” zone to open animal sanctuaries for the contaminated animals, most of which the Japanese government planned to slaughter since they could not be sold to market.

The Japanese government puts damage estimates for the Fukushima meltdown at around $300 billion. In early 2014, low levels of radiated water from the plant were even detected off the coast of Canada. Estimates on how long the clean-up is expected to take range anywhere from 40 years to 100 years. Even today, the clean-up crew still faces major problems containing what remains of the plant and its radioactive fuel. One thing we can take away from the Fukushima incident is that the proximity of these plants to the ocean and local ecosystems presents a major threat to public safety and the safety of our environment.

From Nuclear to Renewables

For those concerned that a meltdown like Fukushima could happen in earthquake-prone California, home to the infamous San Andreas Fault, PG&E’s announcement should trigger a sigh of relief. However, though still a major victory for the environment, the decision to close the Diablo Canyon reactors is still a business decision in the end. A number of nuclear operators have begun to shut down reactors as U.S. power prices have dropped with the price of gasoline; in fact, it will actually cost less to close the Diablo Canyon reactors than to keep them open.  Additionally, this will help PG&E comply with California’s ambitious energy policies because it plans to replace the power produced by the two nuclear reactors with investment in a greenhouse-gas-free portfolio of renewables and energy storage. California established its Renewables Portfolio Standard (RPS) program in 2002. The program has been accelerated numerous times, and most recently, a 2015 Senate Bill established, among other requirements, a mandate to obtain 50% of California’s electricity generation from renewable energy sources by 2030.

The Diablo Canyon plant sparked controversy since its inception. After construction began, the Hosgri Fault line was discovered in 1971, just three miles from the plant. Following the Fukushima disaster in 2011, lawmakers called for immediate reviews of the Diablo Canyon plant as well as the San Onofre nuclear plant near San Diego, California. Due to rising expenses, falling power prices, and heated controversy, the San Onofre plant was closed in 2013. And now, California is planning to say goodbye once and for all (in 2025) to its final nuclear plant.