Platte River Power Authority recently got the results of a study it commissioned on the relative costs of transitioning to net-zero carbon generation by 2030. The study found that the northern Colorado generation and transmission utility can deliver a net-zero carbon generation portfolio for a cost premium of only 8 percent over the lifetime of the planning horizon (2018–2050).
A story in RMI Outlet, the Rocky Mountain Institute blog, noted that researchers used relatively conservative assumptions for solar and wind costs, and did not consider demand-side efforts in their calculations. This is significant not only because the estimated difference in cost is so small, but also because it indicates the actual cost premium may be even lower than 8 percent.
History of commitment PRPA and its municipal utility owners—Estes Park, Fort Collins, Longmont and Loveland—have a long-standing commitment to clean energy and efficiency. The G&T contracts for approximately 198 megawatts of carbon-free resources from wind, hydropower and solar assets. In fall 2016, PRPA diversified its power production portfolio further by adding 30 MW of solar power at Rawhide Flats Solar.
Calculating total cost Technology company Siemens performed the study that is unique in showing a low cost for net-zero generation that incorporates transmission costs and balancing charges as well as fuel costs. RMI calls it proof that a net-zero path can achieve cost parity against coal even in coal country and that renewables can compete anywhere.
WAPA celebrates PRPA and its members for their initiative and for showing that public power utilities can lead the way to a low-carbon future.
Transformation could be the most overused word in the electric utility industry these days. Big data, energy storage, the internet of things and electric vehicles are just a few of the technologies we are being told will change the way we do business forever.
But what utility professionals see on the ground may be quite different, both from what we hear and from what other utilities are dealing with. The trends that are actually affecting your utility depend on what part of the country you serve, what your customer base looks like and whether you are an investor-owned or public power utility.
To get a sense of where the utility industry is headed, the online magazine Utility Dive recently identified 10 trends that seem destined to shape our near future:
10. Coal power in decline – Since 2009, 25 gigawatts (GW) of coal capacity has retired in the U.S., and another 25 GW of retirements are planned by 2022. However, the Environmental Protection Agency still expects coal to be a major fuel source for electricity generation through 2030.
9. Natural gas is growing fast– As market conditions and regulations push older coal generators into retirement, utilities are increasingly looking to gas plants to add reliable capacity quickly. Analysts still expect it to grow steadily over the coming decade and then switch to retirement between 2020 and 2030, a trend that could come sooner if natural gas prices rise from their historic lows.
8. Renewables reaching grid parity – Once dismissed as too expensive to be competitive, wind and solar—especially utility-scale—are reaching grid parity and often pricing out more traditional generation resources. In fact, the Department of Energy estimates that wind could be the nation’s single greatest source of energy by 2050, comprising up to 35 percent of the fuel mix.
7. Utilities face growing load defection – With the rapid proliferation of rooftop solar, some customers are bypassing their local utility for their electricity needs, especially in a few markets such as Hawaii and California. Customers combining load management strategies with rooftop solar installations could purchase less power from their utility, and may even cut the cord altogether.
6. Utilities getting in on the solar game – A number of utilities are responding to load defection and consumer demand for clean energy by expanding into the solar industry, both in the utility-scale and rooftop markets. Community shared solar, which allows customers without suitable rooftops for solar to buy a few modules on a larger array, grew exponentially between 2014 and 2016.
5. Debates over rate design reforms and value of distributed energy resources (DERs) are heating up – Altering rate designs to properly value distributed resources is a trend that has largely grown out of retail net metering. This pays utility customers with solar the retail rate for the electricity they send back to the grid.
4. Utilities are modernizing the grid – Adding new utility-scale and distributed renewable capacity has increased the need for utilities to upgrade and modernize their transmission and distribution grids. Many of the regulatory initiatives underway to help determine the value of DERs also order their state’s utilities to prepare their distribution grids for increased penetrations of distributed resources.
3. Utilities buying into storage – Few technologies hold as much promise as energy storage for utilities looking to optimize their distribution grids and integrate more renewables. While the price for battery storage is still too high to make projects economical in regions with relatively inexpensive electricity, costs are coming down quickly.
2. Utilities becoming more customer-centric – Power companies used to think of their consumers simply as ratepayers, or even just “load,” but new home energy technologies and shifting customer expectations are pushing them to focus on individual consumers. Increasingly, utilities are seeing it in their best interests to market themselves to customers as “trusted energy advisors” of sorts.
1. Utility business models are changing – The common thread running through these trends is that they all are changing the way electric utilities have traditionally done business. Where utilities were once regulated monopolies, the growth of distributed resources is forcing them to rethink their business models. California and New York have captured most of the headlines for redefining the utilities’ role on the distribution grid, but other states have initiated their own dockets to transform business models.
It is likely that your utility has had to think about at least a few of these issues and may be grappling with more of them before long. Energy Services is here to help our customers manage these challenges and more. Contact your Energy Services representative to discuss how to turn transformation into your greatest opportunity.
A utility that prides itself on a diverse power supply will soon be removing one particular resource from its portfolio for good. Silicon Valley Power (SVP), the municipal electric utility serving Santa Clara, California, will become coal-free after Dec. 31, 2017, when it ends electricity imports from the San Juan Generating Station.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission issued its final approval of the move on Dec. 30, 2015. Cleaner energy from renewable and natural gas resources will replace the power from the New Mexico coal-fired power plant for 53,000 Santa Clara customers. The confluence of many different policies and pressures led to this decision, observed Larry Owens, SVP manager of customer services. “But mostly, it is because our customers want us to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions,” he said.
Changing times, concerns The commitment to affordable, reliable electricity made coal power a sensible choice in 1980, when SVP partnered with Modesto Irrigation District and Redding Electric Utility to form the M-S-R Public Power Agency. The joint power authority purchased an interest in the San Juan Generating Station in 1983 to supplement seasonal hydroelectric generation and reduce the need to buy expensive and often cost-volatile short-term power.
Over the years, however, concerns grew about the effect of carbon emissions on the environment, and in 2006, California passed the Global Warming Solutions Act, Assembly Bill (AB) 32. In keeping with its history of environmental responsibility, Santa Clara launched its own strategy to fight climate change, starting with an inventory of all community emissions. Cataloging the city’s sources of emissions gave Santa Clara a good baseline to work with and aligned with the reporting requirements that preceded the carbon cap-and-trade market AB 32 established, starting in 2013, noted Owens.
One thing the inventory revealed was that although coal-fired power provided just 10 percent of SVP’s electricity, it accounted for 50 percent of the utility’s carbon emissions. Cleaning up those emissions and complying with other new environmental regulations covering all emissions promised to increase the costs and liabilities associated with the plant.
SVP, through M-S-R Public Power Agency, began confidential negotiations in 2011 to pull Santa Clara out of the San Juan contract, and started to examine alternatives to coal-powered resources. “Replacing 10 percent of our generation to get rid of 50 percent of our emissions just made good sense,” said Owens.
Many parts to lower emissions puzzle Making the decision was the only easy part, though. SVP was still a part owner in the plant and was still paying on the bond that financed that purchase. The utility could have sold its interest to another power provider, but that would just be passing the climate-change buck, Owens explained. “When the opportunity came up to affect a true reduction in emissions by working toward the closure of two of the four units, we got behind it immediately,” he said.
Accomplishing that goal involved working with multitude of partners and interests, not only several utilities besides M-S-R, but also coal producers, the local economy, regional, state and federal agencies, environmental groups and other vested interests. “It was a lot of hard work,” Owens recalled. “All of the parties in that complicated effort deserve recognition for honoring everyone’s interest and still attaining the goal.”
Replacing 51 megawatts (MW) of electricity from the San Juan plant has proven to be as much an opportunity for SVP as a challenge. The utility became a major partner in the Lodi Energy Center (LEC), a state-of-the-art natural gas plant, and has received electricity from it since 2012. The combined-cycle LEC incorporates cutting-edge, “fast-start” technology to reach full load in 30 minutes. The ability to quickly ramp up reduces startup emissions and makes the system complementary to intermittent renewable resources.
Small hydropower plants present yet another opportunity for SVP to acquire new renewables. “We have two new facilities on deck ready to produce 32 MW,” Owens said. “Some of the hydropower we have picked up in the past few years was from expiring contracts with PG&E, but we are starting to see more projects that add capacity to existing facilities.”
Keeping customers satisfied Ending its exports of coal-generated electricity in 2018 will reduce the carbon footprint of SVP’s generation by 50 percent, two years ahead of the 2020 deadline in Santa Clara’s Climate Action Plan. That won’t be the end of the utility’s efforts to maintain a sustainable and affordable power supply.
Part of the motivation is staying ahead of state and federal environmental and renewable mandates, but most of it comes from the customer. “For one thing, our service territory includes some of the world’s high-tech giants,” Owens said. “Many of those large commercial customers have advanced their own sustainability initiatives and they expect their utility to keep up.”
For Silicon Valley Power, it all comes down to meeting and exceeding its customers’ expectations. “I can’t overstate how big a part our customers’ interests played in driving toward a coal-free portfolio,” Owens stated.