Solar power shines when most needed

Distributed solar is good for the environment because the electricity produced is clean. It also is likely to come just when it is needed. Let’s make sure we have the policies in place to encourage more solar.

By David Osterberg and Nathaniel Baer

The hot sun we experienced this August not only caused the local electric grid to experience high use, but it also powered solar systems distributed around Eastern Iowa.

The middle of a hot summer day is a time when almost any U.S. electric utility expects to see highest demands during the year. Aug. 11 was going to be one of those days in Eastern Iowa. Peak demands of high electricity use translate to high costs.

So, a day in advance, MidAmerican Energy asked the University of Iowa’s Facilities Management team to cut back the university’s electric load from 12:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Aug. 11, 2016.

The university has an arrangement with the electric utility to decrease its electric load by cutting back on air conditioning and other usage, when called upon, in exchange for a reduced electric rate. The goal is to reduce costs for all utility customers by encouraging some customers to reduce their electricity use at the highest and most expensive times.

This type of arrangement is a win-win not only for UI and MidAmerican, but also other MidAmerican customers. Utilities often make these arrangements available to large customers as well as residential customers with air conditioning.

The university has two small solar energy systems that produce electricity. The data for one of them, a 38-kilowatt solar array, showed energy production varying during the morning of Aug. 11 (below). During the utility’s predicted peak period of energy use, the solar array’s production rose quickly and continued to be strong for the remaining period.

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Similarly, the solar arrays at Johnson County’s Secondary Roads and SEATS campus began producing much higher levels of solar energy shortly after the 12:30 p.m. high-use period started. These panels also continued with strong production through 5 p.m., when the period ended. (below)

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The hot sun caused the MidAmerican system to experience a peak day but also powered distributed solar systems in the area to help meet those higher energy needs.

Distributed solar is good for the environment because the electricity produced is clean. It also is likely to come just when it is needed. Let’s make sure we have the policies in place to encourage more solar.

2016-osterberg_5464David Osterberg is an energy and environment researcher at the Iowa Policy Project. dosterberg@iowapolicyproject.org

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANathaniel Baer is the energy program director at the Iowa Environmental Council. baer@iaenvironment.org.

 

A version of this column ran in the Sept. 6 Cedar Rapids Gazette.

Spreading a friend’s message

“At 93 I am nearing the end of my life on this planet. As a parting message, I want to encourage you in the strongest terms to use your influence to make distributed solar energy a major source of electricity. … Please use your influence.” — Don Laughlin, in his letter to Warren Buffett

I visited an old friend, Don Laughlin, in a nursing home before he died. A stroke had paralyzed half of his body but certainly had not affected his mind. Even with his impending death he was looking toward the future as he spoke with Nathan Shepherd of IPP and me.

Our conversation was about renewable energy, which he had promoted for decades. He told us that one of his many unfinished projects was a letter to Warren Buffett, the owner of MidAmerican Energy, to ask him to be more supportive of rooftop solar power. Nathan suggested to Don that he dictate a letter and that we would send it to the billionaire. And we did.

160810-CLIP-dmr-openletterBut we realized that with probably hundreds of letters every day, Warren Buffett might never hear of Don’s letter. We spoke with the Des Moines Register’s opinion editor, who loved the idea of publishing Don’s letter as an open letter to Buffett. So, two days after we spoke to Don, a third of the Register’s op-ed page was Don’s letter, an introduction by Nathan and me, and a huge picture of solar panels. (Click on image.)

Within several days, Don Laughlin would be gone at the age of 93.

At a celebration of Don’s life at Scattergood School near West Branch August 27, my neighbor Deborah Dakin suggested that while she was sure Don was happy to do one last act to encourage solar power and reduce the effect of climate change, more could be done.

Basic RGBShe suggested that everyone who reads this write to Warren Buffett to ask him to pull his company back from efforts to reduce the return to homeowners from their own rooftop solar. That is because MidAmerican is trying to kill net metering, the ability of a homeowner or business to receive retail rates for any excess electricity they generate beyond their own usage.

Your letter would honor Don Laughlin’s last public activity, and, if it succeeds, each of us will be doing our part to stave off the worse and worst effects of climate change.

IPP-osterberg-75David Osterberg, Co-Founder and Environmental Researcher, IPP

dosterberg@iowapolicyproject.org

Investor-owned utilities must deal with climate change

Climate change is a reality and the investor-owned utility companies must adjust their business model to contend with it.

Editor’s Note: This post is excerpted from a statement by David Osterberg, founder of the Iowa Policy Project, to the Iowa Utilities Board, February 25, 2014, in docket NOI-2014-0001
Full statement submitted to IUB is here

The Iowa Utilities Board must recognize that this docket has implications for confronting climate change. To look narrowly and make a decision based only on what is best for the stockholders of Alliant or MidAmerican Energy would be the wrong choice. Climate change is a reality and the investor-owned utility companies must adjust their business model to contend with it. The question for the Board should be, “How does the state of Iowa procure more distributed electric generation installed in a way that gives the utilities a way to be part of the solution?”

First, there is no scientific debate about whether the climate is changing and whether humans are the main cause. In October 2013, 155 science and research staff at 36 Iowa colleges and universities signed a statement on the reality of climate change. As one of the signers I would like to submit the first paragraph and the last sentence of that statement:

“Our state has long held a proud tradition of helping to ‘feed the world.’ Our ability to do so is now increasingly threatened by rising greenhouse gas emissions and resulting climate change. Our climate has disrupted agricultural production profoundly during the past two years and is projected to become even more harmful in the coming decades as our climate continues to warm and change.”

Rather than being a vague threat lurking somewhere on the horizon, scientists from around the globe confidently stated in the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report that temperatures and rainfall patterns are shifting due to additions humans have made to the atmosphere by burning coal and oil. We who work in this area are alarmed at the lack of action to reduce the pollutants that are the root of this problem.

Children born today will spend their lives under climates that are different from those any generation of Americans has experienced. The same will be true for their children, and their grandchildren. Agriculture, the lifeblood of Iowa, is being threatened with more frequent droughts and floods. Switching to modern renewable power sources and becoming more efficient in how we use energy cannot roll back the clock, but it can help make these climate changes less extreme.

I applaud the Board for looking deeply into distributed electric generation such as wind and solar power. It is the solution to the biggest environmental problem in modern times.

IPP-osterberg-75David Osterberg is the founding director of the Iowa Policy Project, and a Professor in the Department of Occupational and Environmental Health in the University of Iowa College of Public Health.

More information:

Information on January 2014 Notice of Inquiry by Iowa Utilities Board

Previous IPP publications:

IUB Inquiry is Opportunity to Find Acts in Cap-and-Trade Debate — July 2009
News release
IUB Notice of Inquiry

Proposals in Congress Do Provide Relief to Consumers — June 2009
Backgrounder
News release

Electric Rate Reform Could Spur Energy Savings, Help Low-Income IowansJune 2009
Full report
Executive summary

News release