Innovation

Renewables Start to Outpace Fossil Fuels on Europe’s Grid

By 2030, Wood Mackenzie expects wind, solar and batteries to dominate Europe’s grid mix. But it may be happening even sooner.

In the first half of 2020, renewables (defined as solar, wind, hydro and biomass) beat out fossil fuels on the European grid for the first time. They didn’t just beat out coal — they beat out all fossil fuels put together.

This week on The Energy Gang, we’ll look at what the milestone means.

Then, 30 major companies have come together in a new joint lobbying organization to flex their united power for clean energy. Will it make renewables a bigger political force? And what will they be fighting for?

Finally, your view of Texas is probably out of date. We look at the dawn of Big Solar in Texas and peek at the ERCOT interconnection queue: it’s almost all green.    

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Duke and PV Developers Strike Grid Agreement, Clearing Path for Hundreds of Megawatts

Duke Energy submitted a settlement with large solar developers including Cypress Creek Renewables and Strata Solar to North Carolina regulators on Thursday that aims to resolve longstanding interconnection issues in the utility’s territory.

The agreement should resolve issues for more than 100 disputed projects in the Carolinas, said spokesperson Randy Wheeless, clearing the way for up to 800 megawatts of solar projects to move forward in coming years. The proposed changes will require approval from regulators in both North and South Carolina as well as the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Duke originally submitted its proposal to update interconnection procedures in the two states in May. In recent years, a glut of solar has clogged Duke’s queue, and the utility was unable to process projects in a timely manner.

North Carolina is among the few states that have seen significant solar development tied to the federal Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act, which incentivizes energy production by requiring utilities to buy from “qualifying facilities” developed by third parties. From 2014 to the end of March 2020, third-party installers had added 2.4 gigawatts of new large-scale solar capacity in Duke territory, with many installations around 5 megawatts in size. Utilities often view PURPA as a challenge because it dictates how they are required to buy power, while it’s become an essential tool for developers in some states.

“The contentiousness of PURPA has been a sore spot for utilities and developers for a long time,” said Colin Smith, a senior solar analyst at Wood Mackenzie. “They ultimately have to come to some sort of middle ground.”

Duke had nearly 5 gigawatts of solar capacity in its interconnection queue in 2019, according to a May filing with regulators, but not all will be built. To get in-limbo projects connected to the grid, the utility will submit hundreds of megawatts’ worth of projects to a “cluster study” where their potential grid impacts will be assessed simultaneously rather than on a one-by-one basis, with hopes that that approach will speed up the process.

Unlike the cluster study National Grid undertook recently in Massachusetts to assess distributed solar projects, the Duke agreement won support from several of the region’s largest developers. California also uses clusters to assess some interconnection requests.

“It took a lot of hard work, creativity and good faith,” said Steve Levitas, a senior vice president at North Carolina-headquartered Pine Gate Renewables, in a statement about reaching the deal.

Strata Solar CEO Markus Wilhelm said the company “look[s] forward to partnering with Duke to transform North Carolina’s electric power supply.” Cypress Creek Renewables, the other leading developer in the state according to data from Wood Mackenzie, did not respond to request for comment on the deal, but it did sign the agreement filed with regulators. Duke asked commissioners to respond to the request by October 15. 

The settlement comes soon after a FERC ruling on PURPA that is expected to give utilities more control over rates paid to qualifying facilities, a decision that is likely to make the law less valuable for developers and perhaps limit its use.

In September, Duke filed its most recent integrated resource plan with regulators. It included six potential pathways to the utility’s pledged goal of net-zero carbon by midcentury, but all of the scenarios proposed include more renewables. Solar additions could range from about 8.7 gigawatts by 2035 up to 16.4 gigawatts by that year if the utility adds no new gas generation.

The recent IRP, in tandem with this agreement with developers, will have a “fairly significant” impact on solar in the Carolinas, said Smith, indicating that developers and the utility are open to working together to achieve renewables goals.

This story has been updated with comment from Strata Solar. 

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How to Accelerate the Electrification of Buildings in the Midwest

Laura Sherman is president of the Michigan Energy Innovation Business Council.

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Building electrification is a potential game-changer for energy efficiency, demand management, distributed energy and other advanced energy industries, as well as for the broader task of reducing emissions.

The goal of electrifying heating and other systems in all buildings might seem very far off but, like many other developments in clean energy, a great deal of progress has been made only recently. Already, more than 40 percent of new U.S. homes are built with air-source heat pumps instead of fossil-fuel-burning systems.

The next hurdle is to start electrifying buildings in parts of the country where it’s been difficult to eliminate fossil-fuel-burning building systems. In regions with mild winters, the math has worked out in favor of going electric for some time. But in the Midwest, with the harshest winters in the lower 48, it has been cheaper to stick with natural gas as a heating source.

In Michigan, just over 10 percent of home heating is done using electric sources, compared to Florida, where over 90 percent is electric. But even in colder climates, the outlook is starting to change.

Net-zero energy in below-zero winters

There are already electrification successes racking up in our home state of Michigan.

The Detroit headquarters of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 58 underwent a massive retrofit a few years ago to become the state’s first net-zero-energy building. The 33,000-square-foot building now sports solar panels that drive mechanical heat pumps, which work in tandem with a closed-loop ground heat exchange system to provide all-electric heating and cooling. Previously, natural gas accounted for about 65 percent of the building’s $65,000 annual energy costs. Those annual energy costs have now been cut to almost zero.

This project sends a message that building electrification can be achieved in places where it previously has not had much of a presence. While a cold climate is a challenge for electrification, the need to reduce the energy burden in economically disadvantaged communities across the Midwest creates momentum for a new approach to how buildings consume energy.

Walker-Miller Energy Services, a Detroit-based provider of energy waste reduction services (and a member of our organization, the Michigan Energy Innovation Business Council), has begun work on an ambitious project to convert their new headquarters to be zero net energy, including an all-electric heating system. The effort is part of the company’s larger goal to bring energy efficiency to Detroit, a city where high energy bills and high use of fossil fuels for heating is a significant challenge.

Efficiency retrofits, including those that promote electrification, are part of the difficult task of rebuilding neighborhoods and communities.

For example, the development partnership FEHAJ (For Every Home a Job) is looking into converting several rowhouses it owns in southwest Detroit to net-zero energy by installing solar panels, electric water heaters and passive geothermal cooling, among other systems. The project is designed to reduce the exorbitantly high utility bills that weigh on the tenants of the rowhouses.

Low-income households already tend to spend much more of their income on energy costs relative to higher-income households. Since electrification helps alleviate this energy burden, retrofitting can be a tool for economic development and poverty reduction.

What policymakers and regulators can do

Projects like these are becoming more feasible as the economics of electrification continue to improve.

A 2018 Rocky Mountain Institute study modeled the costs of electric space and water heating to those of natural-gas-fueled space and water heating, using assumptions based on four different cities, Houston, Oakland, Providence and Chicago, two of which are cold-winter cities. In all four, for new-construction homes, installing a standard heat pump was cheaper than going with natural gas and a new air conditioning system on a 15-year net present value basis.

Retrofitting existing buildings with electric systems is, of course, a much bigger challenge. But changes to regulations can help retrofit projects get over the initial capital cost outlay.

Here are four areas where regulations and policy could make a difference in Michigan. Other states can emulate these steps, as well.

  1. The virtual power plant business model

Virtual power plant projects have been operating in places like California and New England for some time, but such projects have been scarce in many parts of the country, including the Midwest.

In Michigan, the Public Service Commission is currently deep into its MI Power Grid initiative, which is investigating new regulatory models that can help enable the growth of distributed energy like rooftop solar and battery storage.

While still in their early stages, those regulatory changes stand to boost the potential value of building electrification. Buildings with all-electric systems can be aggregated together to work as a massive demand response resource, which, especially when working in concert with rooftop solar and storage, can replace peaking power plants, enhance grid reliability and resiliency to avoid blackouts and provide other services for the electric grid.

These services represent potential revenue streams that can attract financing for electrification projects.

  1. Energy-efficiency incentives

Next, regulators and lawmakers need to address policy roadblocks that could hold many consumers back from making the switch to electric systems.

For example, through their utilities, consumers frequently can get rebates to upgrade their gas-burning furnaces to more efficient models. But that assistance typically is not available for less conventional, but potentially more beneficial, upgrades like converting from a gas-burning furnace to an electric air-source heat pump.

Some of these hurdles are in place simply due to inertia from the way people have heated their homes for over a century.

  1. Building codes

In 2021 Michigan has important decisions to make about residential building codes. State regulators must update the energy conservation code that applies to new buildings and sets standards for lighting, mechanical systems, the building envelope that separates conditioned air from the outside, and more.

There are different uniform codes to choose from, and some do more to ease the transition to electrification than others. The 2021 version of the International Energy Conservation Code, as voted on by members representing local governments, requires electric circuits to be present so appliances can be converted to electric equipment if desired.

This standard is a simple change that could pay off for many years to come. It would ensure that new residential building stock is not locked into less efficient ways to heat, cool space and run appliances, and removes a potential hurdle to the electrification transition. But the 2018 version of the IECC, which the state could also adopt as the updated residential code, lacks this standard and does not support a wide range of advanced energy technologies. 

Michigan needs to choose wisely for the state’s next update.

  1. Baby steps toward electrification

Finally, the Midwest can get a quick jolt toward electrification if it first deals with the type of home heating where the economics are unambiguously in favor of electrification: propane.

Propane is used for residential heating in Michigan, as well as the Midwest in general, more than in any other region of the U.S. At over 367 million gallons used annually, Michigan is the top state for propane use in the residential sector, followed by Minnesota and Wisconsin, according to the Michigan Propane Gas Association.

While replacing high-efficiency natural-gas furnaces with heat pumps in existing buildings may not always be economic right now, propane tends to be costlier than electric. The same goes for oil heating. The Rocky Mountain Institute has described propane and oil as the “low-hanging fruit” of the switch to electricity.

It is important for consumers to understand that heating bill savings can make the switch from propane to electrification worth the upfront costs for many Michigan households. Indeed, those savings can be a basis for financing such retrofits.

It doesn’t need to be all or nothing. A shift from fossil fuels to electricity for just one of a building’s systems or even just part of a system is a step closer to electrification.

None of this will be an overnight change — far from it — but gradually, with the right policies in place, electrified buildings will be an essential component of the movement toward efficient energy use, increasing renewable energy and the grid of the future, including here in the Midwest.

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Kia Wants to Replace Public Transportation With Micro-EV’s

Kia Motors is considering the future of public transportation by pushing for micro electric vehicles that can help people move around cities. The cars have a short range of 71km and a top speed of 45km/h. The company plans to begin in Europe and move to other parts of theRead More →

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Innovation

Relectrify is Uses Old Car Batteries to Provide Grid Storage

Relectrify, an Australian based company, has developed a way to recycle used electric car batteries to be used for battery storage. Traditionally, batteries are viewed as being only as strong as their weakest cell. Relectrifiy is able to control each cell in a battery to get the most out ofRead More →

Footprint is On a Mission to End Plastic Waste

The company Footprint is on a mission to end single-use plastics. Packaging in grocery stores and restaurants accounts for a large percentage of plastics that end up polluting our environment and oceans. Footprint produces packaging for a wide variety of items in grocery stores and cafes that are plastic freeRead More →

ESS inc Raises $30 Million to Expand Battery Storage Manufacturing

A battery technology company has developed a way to store energy in a new way that is portable and absent of highly used lithium-ion or any harmful chemicals for that matter. The technology by ESS inc is an iron-based flow battery that provides over 20,000 cycles of power and isRead More →

The Environmental Remediation Market Expected to Grow in the Coming Years

A new MarketWatch report suggests that the Environmental Remediation Market is expected to grow to $164 Billion by 2026. In 2019, the industry brought in over $98.5 billion with an anticipated 7.5% Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) for the coming years. Environmental Remediation is seeing this rise alongside the increaseRead More →

Ubiquitos Energy has Developed Transparent Solar Glass

Ubitquitos Energy has developed a new solar glass that is implementable on every building in the world. This is not the first solar glass to be brought to market but is the first to be fully transparent and look like regular window glass. The technology works by using an organicRead More →

A New Proposal Could Heat and Cool Buildings Using Groundwater

In Minneapolis, a new proposal has been introduced for a city project that would include the use of a thermal energy system using an underground aquifer. The project includes a food hall and apartment complex on the edge of the Mississippi river. Minneapolis is known for being one of the coldestRead More →

Researchers at the University of Bath Developed a Solar Desalination System

Researchers have designed a system that can desalinate ocean water. The system uses Ionics to separate salt from water and is powered by solar. Desalination on large scales typically uses a large amount of energy, costs vasts amounts of money, and has unintended environmental impacts. A small-scale system, used strategically,Read More →

Researchers Have Found a Way to Make Graphene Out of Trash

Scientists at Rice University in Houston TX have found a way to create Graphene by using waste. The process, named flash graphene, works by heating carbon-containing materials to 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Heat this intense creates graphene in 10 milliseconds. This graphene can then be used in a wide range ofRead More →

Watergen Can Help with Water Scarcity Around the World

The company Watergen has created a system that creates drinking water from air. The technology extracts humidity from air in a machine resembling an air conditioner. The machine works by drawing in air, filtering it, going through a heat exchanger which extracts the water from air, and finally filtering theRead More →

First All-Electric Commercial Airplane Just Took its First Flight in Canada

The first fully electric flight took off near Vancouver, Canada on December 10th. The flight was piloted by Harbour Air, a company operating in the islands near Vancouver and builder of the new aircraft. The plane is a converted 62 year old DeHavilland Beaver, a small plane that is usedRead More →

Qube is Creating Bricks From Plastic Waste

A new startup, Qube, is setting out to change the way we build our cities on a foundational level. Abhishek Banerjee developed a way to make bricks out of plastic waste. The India based company began when Banerjee toured a traditional brick kiln and was shocked at the level ofRead More →

Inside Bill’s Brain Offers Peek Into the Billionaires Life and Nuclear Energy Dealings

A new Netflix documentary digs into the mind of Bill Gates and offers a glimpse into the way the billionaire and philanthropist thinks about important issues the world faces. Inside Bill’s Brain: Decoding Bill Gates, looks at Gates’ path to where he is and the positive social work he isRead More →

Squid Camouflage is Inspiring Medical Science and Future Synthetic Materials

Researchers at UC Santa Barbara have been studying Squid Camouflage. A new study has demonstrated the ability to understand the mechanism by which squid, and other camouflage sea species, control reflective pigments to change their appearance and visibility. Reflectin, the protein which controls reflective pigments, has long been a mysteryRead More →

Kanye West Announces New Eco Shoe Made with Algae

At the Fast Company Innovation Festival, Kanye West unveiled a new Yeezy shoe prototype made with algae. According to Design Boom, the shoe is made with a combination of petroleum-based ethylene-vinyl acetate and foam produced using algae. This clog is the first release in the company move towards sustainability. WestRead More →

Sundrop Farms is Using Desalinated Water to Irrigate Their Indoor Farms

The Australia company Sundrop Farms has been using seawater to irrigate their indoor farm in Port Augusta, South Australia. The company has developed a system that doesn’t require fossil fuels, groundwater, or soil to grow a variety of produce. The system uses seawater and solar power to achieve the energyRead More →

New Proposal to Refreeze the Arctic Promises Environmental Benefits

A new proposal by a group of scientists and designers offers the ability to refreeze the arctic. The design was named runner up at the ASA International Design Competition.  Faris Rajak Kotahatuhaha designed the submersible vessel that would produce hexagonal icebergs stretching 82 feet wide and 16 feet thick. TheRead More →

EarthSense is Greening the Agriculture Industry With Machine Learning

The Agriculture Technology industry continues to grow in the United States. New technologies are being developed left and right that enable farms to be more efficient and, in turn, more profitable. Many companies are also working to green the ag industry. AI is giving large farms the ability to beRead More →

Vertical Farming Conference June 26th, 2019

Vertical Farming Conference takes place on June 26th, 2019 as part of the two-day Agri-Food Innovation event in Venlo, The Netherlands. Some of the focus topics include Improved resource-use efficiency, food safety, AI, robotics, and sustainable buildings. Leo Marcelis, a thought leader for the vertical farming movement, has been announcedRead More →