by Julia Pyper
May 26, 2017

Michael Picker, president of the California Public Utilities Commission, made an appeal to California customers on Thursday, asking them to help lower electricity use statewide by 3,500 megawatts on August 21, when a full solar eclipse will cause solar PV generation to plummet between 9 a.m. and 12 p.m.

“When the sun goes away, so does the energy that powers our renewable solar panels. If millions of Californians turn off appliances and power strips to unplug from the grid during the eclipse, we can let our hard-working sun take a break,” Picker said in a statement.

“We don’t have to rely on expensive and inefficient natural gas peaking power plants, we can have cleaner air, we can keep our system reliable, and we can send a message to the rest of the country that we can do all of that without being forced to rely on fossil fuels as the only foundation of our electricity,” he said.

The CPUC suggested that residents unplug home electronics and other devices, switch to efficient LED light bulbs, and use their appliances during off-peak hours.

California has nearly 10,000 megawatts of commercially operational grid-connected solar PV operated by investor-owned utilities. Initial estimates from CAISO show that the eclipse will trigger a 6,000-megawatt shortfall on the system; however, the sudden drop-off in generation and the fast ramp-up is actually the most challenging aspect, according to the grid operator. A spokesperson told me that CAISO is primarily focused on procuring natural gas and hydropower to make up for the solar shortfall and isn’t counting on customers to change their behavior in order to weather the eclipse.

California vs. New York

Speaking of California, how does it compare to New York when it comes to integrating higher levels of renewable energy, and planning for increased penetration of distributed energy resources? A new white paper by the Center for Sustainable Energy and UC Berkeley Energy & Resources Group compares the policy and market dynamics in each state -- with a focus on California’s distributed resource planning (DRP) proceeding and New York’s Reforming the Energy Vision (REV) process.

“In their DRP proceeding, California’s regulators focus heavily on the technical implications of DER deployment, while New York’s regulators, through REV, are undertaking a broader initiative that more directly incorporates the overall market structure and utilizes the policy context for encouraging more renewables in the state’s energy system,” the paper states.

“One possible explanation is that while California and New York say that they have similar percentages of renewables in their electricity mix, California’s policies focus on non-hydro renewables, while New York relies heavily on hydropower,” the authors write. “With a lower relative percentage of solar penetration, New York may have more opportunity to consider holistic market improvements, while it makes more sense for California’s efforts to focus on grid impacts from high-penetration DERs.”

All 50 states vs. each other

There are several familiar names at the top of the 2017 U.S. Clean Tech Leadership Index, which ranks the cleantech activities of all 50 states on everything from electric-vehicle adoption and renewable energy deployment, to state policies and investment activity. California and Massachusetts once again top the rankings conducted by Clean Edge. And the remaining top five states are unchanged from last year, with Vermont, Oregon and New York once again finishing third through fifth, respectively.

However, this year’s index does welcome one newcomer to the top 10 list: Minnesota. The Land of 10,000 Lakes bumped Illinois off the list to claim the ninth spot. According to Clean Edge, Minnesota excelled in the transportation subcategory. “Minnesota also had a strong [venture capital] year in 2016, as the state brought in more than $57 million in clean energy venture dollars last year alone,” the index report states. “Additionally, the University of Minnesota has become home to a top-ranked green Master’s program, and the state gets credit for a clean tech incubator (the Twin Cities’ Clean Energy Accelerator) for the first time.”

The report doesn’t specifically make mention of Minnesota’s burgeoning solar market, but the state’s ambitious community solar program is worth noting too. In the first quarter of 2017, Minnesota brought on-line 45 megawatts (DC) of community solar, according to GTM Research. That growth builds on 48 megawatts (DC) of new community solar capacity added in the fourth quarter of 2016, up from a virtually nonexistent community solar market in the preceding months.

When it comes specifically to cleantech policies, California, Massachusetts and New York claim the top spots. The index offers a detailed list of each type of policy each state offers, broken down into two categories: regulations and mandates, and incentives. The charts below show results for states ranked 1 through 25.

Other takeaways from the report include:

  • In 2016, five states upped their renewable portfolio standard targets to 25 percent or more; a sixth (Michigan) extended its RPS to 15 percent; and a seventh (Ohio) reinstituted its RPS after having frozen it two years earlier. Five states (California, Hawaii, New York, Oregon, and Vermont) now have targets of 50 percent or greater.
  • Seventeen states now receive 10 percent or more of their electricity from non-hydro utility-scale renewables (wind, solar, and/or geothermal), up from 14 states in last year’s Index and up more than fivefold since 2010 (when just three states reached the 10 percent threshold).
  • Three states (Iowa, South Dakota and Kansas) now generate 30 percent or more of their electrons from utility-scale wind, solar, and/or geothermal (all wind energy in those leading states) and another three states exceed 20 percent (Oklahoma, California and North Dakota).

The report noted that policy changes at the federal level have so far done little to shift local policy planning. A recent Reuters survey of 32 utilities with operations in the 26 states that sued to block President Obama’s Clean Power Plan found that the majority of these companies had no plans to change their shift away from coal. Twenty of the utilities contacted said Trump’s order “would have no impact on their investment plans; five said they were reviewing the implications of the order; six gave no response…and just one said it would prolong the life of some of its older coal-fired power units,” according to Reuters.

Ohio suspends a nuclear subsidy bill

Last week, the chairman of the Ohio House Public Utilities Committee suspended additional hearings on proposed legislation (House Bill 178) that would allow FirstEnergy to collect an additional $300 million per year to subsidize the company's Perry and Davis-Besse nuclear power plants. The bill would have created zero emissions credits (ZECs) to compensate for the carbon-free power the nuclear plants generate. FirstEnergy’s roughly 2 million customers would pay for the ZECs through increases on their monthly bills for up to 16 years. The Ohio Consumers' Counsel claims the bill would end up costing customers an additional $912 for electricity over that period.

William Seitz, a Cincinnati Republican who chairs the Ohio House committee, said that after 10 hours of hearing testimony HB 178 had yet to win much support, The Plain Dealer reports. "I am not sensing a keen desire on the part of the House members to vote on this and doubt that we will have more hearings in the near future unless something cataclysmic should happen,” he said.

So while the bill has been tabled for now, it’s possible Ohio lawmakers take up HB 178 again if FirstEnergy is forced shutter its nuclear plants and that’s deemed to be “cataclysmic.”

Seitz's decision, announced on May 17, came a day before FirstEnergy CEO Chuck Jones was scheduled to appear before the Ohio Senate Public Utilities Committee. The company was reportedly surprised that further House hearings had been canceled.

FirstEnergy and other utilities that own large nuclear and coal plants have been struggling to shore up their baseload resources for the past few years, facing heightened competition from natural-gas turbine plants and, to some extent, renewables. The issue is especially pronounced in deregulated electricity markets like Ohio’s where customers can choose their energy provider. Independent power producers, the Ohio Manufacturers' Association, the state’s AARP chapter and others came out strongly against HB 178, calling it a handout to a single company and a subversion of Ohio’s deregulated market.

The legislature’s decision not to pursue the ZEC proposal -- at least not unless “something cataclysmic should happen” -- comes as the Department of Energy is exploring how to aid baseload power plants from a federal perspective, starting with a 60-day study. FirstEnergy’s Jones said he has been in touch with the DOE. Renewable energy groups, meanwhile, have asked to submit input on the DOE report through a public comment process, but their request was denied.

Iowa gets a new wind-friendly governor

As the American Wind Energy Association held its annual Windpower conference and exhibition this week in California, Iowa -- a leading wind energy state -- swore in Kim Reynolds as its new governor. In her prepared remarks, Gov. Reynolds promised that wind would continue to lead the way in the Hawkeye State. Wind power currently supports 9,000 jobs in Iowa, and farmers in Iowa hosting wind turbines earn $25 million a year in land lease payments.

“For years, our fields have fed the world. Now, they energize it. They produce products that fuel cars and they host wind turbines that power our communities and businesses. And yet, those fields are filled with untapped potential,” she said. “Our energy plan will help us continue to lead the way in wind energy and renewable fuels.”