Pushing green energy ceilings — wind and solar hitting new highs

The sun is setting in the Coachella Valley as I type this, but somewhere on the other side of the world, I feel certain, it is shining and possibly there’s a solar panel there converting the sunlight to electricity and reducing the carbon emissions that fossil fuel power would have generated.

The spread of solar around the world is part of the story contained in figures from the European Photovoltaic Industry Association.  As of 2012, the world had a bit more than 101 gigawatts of PV running around, producing the same amount of power as 16 coal or nuclear plants of 1 gigawatt each, while reducing carbon emissions by 53 million tons.

Of those 101 GW, just shy of 30 GW were installed last year, about the same as 2011, the EPIA said. What’s more important, the geographic spread of PV installations is expanding.

Thirteen gigawatts of solar are now outside Europe, compared to 8 GW in 2011, the EPIA reported. Germany is still the world leader, with 7.6 GW, while China has 3-5-4.5 GW and the U.S. has 3.2 GW. Another report from Greentech Media projects growing solar markets, about 3 GW, in Africa and Middle East in the next two years.

Meanwhile, wind energy is also hitting new highs in terms of how much power it supplies in different states, according to Pete Danko writing on the Earth Techling website.

From midnight Monday to midnight Tuesday, three wind farms in eastern Washington pumped out 16,593 megawatt-hours of power, or about 23.5 percent of the power Puget Sound Energy needed for its 1.1 million customers. Danko writes:

While wind power rises and falls with the varying wind speed – obviously – Puget Sound said its three wind farms are providing at least some power two-thirds of the time and on average are supplying about 10 percent of the power its customers use.

Texas is also breaking records on wind production. The state leads the nation in wind installations over al,l and at 7:08 p.m. on Feb. 9, those turbines were spinning away, producing 9,481 megawatts of power, 10 percent over the previous record of 8,667 MW.

The Feb. 9 high mark represents 28 percent of the load on the state’s power system.

Meanwhile in Colorado, Xcel Energy reported that wind power accounted for 16 percent of the 35.9 million megawatt hours of electricity it sold in 2012.

The missing link to drive those numbers even higher is, of course, storage. California may be taking a step toward new green energy ceilings to break with a recent decision from the state’s Public Utilities Commission ordering Southern California Edison to add 50 MW of grid storage over the next eight years.

Writing about the order on Greentech Media, Jeff St. John notes it’s a relatively small amount of storage, but provides a signal that the state is serious about integrating wind and solar power onto the grid by the 2020 deadline for reaching the state’s renewable energy goal of 33 percent.

In the context of total energy production, in the U.S. or worldwide, all these new benchmarks may be relatively small, but they reflect a vision and momentum that will continue to push renewable energy ceilings higher and higher.


Smart meter update: The PG&E opt-out plan

In what may likely be seen as a precedent-setting decision, the California Public Utilities Commission last week issued a ruling on Pacific Gas & Electric’s smart meter opt-out plan.

In a nut shell, PG&E customers who don’t want a wireless meter will have two options. If they already have a new meter installed, they will be able to request that wireless functions be turned off. If they have delayed smart meter installation, they will now have to have a new meter installed, also with no wireless functions.

The PUC chose the wireless-off option because it is the least expensive of the alternatives available for customers who didn’t want the wireless meters.  According to a rundown of the decision on GreenTech Media, turning off the wireless will only cost PG&E about $402 per meter versus $613 per meter for meters that are hardwired.

The other key provisions of the ruling come on cost to customers and the new pricing plans and consumer information that were billed as the main benefits of the wireless meters.

Going wireless will cost customers $90 upfront plus $15 per month. That’s considerably less than the fees PG&E originally proposed — either $270 upfront and $14 per month or $135 upfront and $20 per month.

Low-income or elderly customers who are on special rate plans would have the upfront fee waived and pay only $5 per month for a wireless-off meter.

Without the wireless functions, PG&E won’t be able to track hourly electric use of some customers, which in turn means it may not be able to charge them time-of-use rates and other pricing options aimed at reducing power use at peak times. 

To provide the utility with some flexibility here, the ruling says by Jan. 1, 2014, PG&E will have to have meters that allow it to collect at least some of that hourly use data manually — so it looks like some meter readers will have to stay on the job.

PG&E has estimated that 148,500 customers will ask for the opt-out. But the GreenTech Media report noted that an opt-out plan in Maine, with upfront fees of $20-$40 and monthly charges of $10-$12.50, drew 10 percent fewer customers than had been expected. 

The PUC has yet to rule on opt-out plans for Southern California Edison or San Diego Gas & Electric, but this ruling might be a template for them.

The PG&E ruling still has to go through a public comment period, ending Dec. 12.  To submit a comment, you can contact the Public Advisor’s office.

A final vote on the opt-out plan is tentatively scheduled for the commission’s Jan. 12 meeting.