Is your city on the right energy path? Tips from GE, Xcel and Bill Gates

Fri, 2016-03-04 06:00 -- Kevin Ebi

In developed nations, aggressive conservation programs have kept overall energy use relatively constant despite more people using more devices. After peaking at the turn of the century, the average American’s energy use is at the lowest since the early 1980s.

But how much more power can cities squeeze out of conservation? And what can we do about the fact so much of our energy production results in greenhouse gases? (Nearly 40% of America’s power still comes from burning coal.)

So I wanted to share these three possible answers. First, Bill Gates says governments must lead the way to a better energy future. Step one is to make sure that the path is not blocked by obsolete regulations. Second, GE says cities should switch to renewable sources and offers powerful evidence. Third, Xcel Energy is helping some of its towns and cities set up community renewables, aka solar gardens. Kevin Ebi

Over just the past 100 years, we’ve added nearly 6 billion people to the world population. By this time next decade, we’ll have added a billion more. And every one of them needs energy.

In his annual letter, Philanthropist Bill Gates wrote that if he could have any super power, it would be to create more energy. The foundation helps the world’s poorest people, developing strategies to educate the young, improve health and feed the hungry. There’s no question energy makes all of that easier. (More than a billion people, mostly in Africa, still don’t have it.)

Gates says government — and that means cities and utilities — will have to lead the way. Getting smart about energy production is a must.

Make sure your regulations are not in your way
But many cities will first have to work with their state, provincial or national government to modify old-fashioned regulations that hinder the move to renewable energy.

For instance, the American South seems like a good place for solar power. It’s closer to the equator and sunny more often than not. Yet many northern states are getting more of their power from the sun. According to the latest statistics from the U.S. Energy Information Association, New Jersey gets twice as much power from the sun as Florida and four times as much as Georgia. Even tiny Rhode Island generates twice as much solar power as South Carolina.

Several southern states make it difficult for consumers to take solar power into their own hands. One is North Carolina, where Greensborough’s Faith Community Church says the sun’s power is a gift from God. It may have to go to court to use that gift.

The problem is the way the church wants to acquire the solar panels. An environmental advocacy group is ready to install the panels for the church; the church would pay for them by paying for the power. It’s similar to the way cities finance some large capital projects, but the state law says that makes the group an illegal utility.

Utilities have legitimate concerns. They have to have infrastructure to supply the church with power whenever it needs it, but if the panels work well, they would no longer be paid for maintaining it.

Many other states, provinces and countries have similar regulations. If your city is in one of those jurisdictions, you owe it to yourself to notify your policy makers about your preferences.

Don’t overlook the most popular biggest new sources of power
Of all the new power generation that came online in the U.S. last year, more than two-thirds of the new capacity comes from solar or wind farms, according to Council Lead Partner General Electric.

And there will be even more this year. GE is behind Deepwater Wind, America’s first offshore wind farm. Five turbines — each twice the height of the Statue of Liberty — will supply power for 17,000 homes when they go online later this year.

America has lagged Europe in offshore wind farms, but the potential is huge. The U.S. Energy Department estimates offshore wind farms could eventually generate 4,000 gigawatts of power — four times the current output of all other forms of energy production in the country.

This first step will make a difference, both for the environment and for people served by the wind farm. GE says the reduction in carbon emissions is like taking 150,000 cars off the road. And people served by the new wind farm could see their power bills drop by 40%.

Are you talking with your local utility about tapping into clean power?

Consider a community-scale approach
As you are looking for clean power sources, don’t think that you have to resort to giant wind or solar farms. More and more cities are turning to community-scale solar instead.

In states like Wisconsin and Minnesota, solar gardens are popping up. They work a lot like community gardens for vegetables. Community members get together to share the cost of the solar panels, the power they produce and the savings they generate.

In some cases, investors are helping to front the cost of the panels. In others, utilities are building the solar gardens. That's the case for Xcel Energy, which plans to build 3 megawatts of solar gardens in Wisconsin and 287 megawatts in Minnesota. It's doing that in part because of state-set targets for renewable energy.

But it’s also doing that because of demand.

“Regardless of the mandate, we’d offer some kind of community solar gardens, because our customers want it,” said Lee Gabler, senior director of customer strategy and solutions for Xcel Energy, told the La Crosse Tribune. “Customers are looking for different options. We want to provide those options.”

Have you asked your local utility to help you pilot community renewables for your city?

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