Innovation and Renewable Energy

Part of what spurs industries, like solar and wind technology, is innovation - and there has been plenty of innovating ideas to move the solar and wind technologies forward in the United States. From community projects to utility companies and corporate investments, renewable energy (RE) is making some headway in the US.

Building small community wind projects, less than 100MW(MegaWatt), face different issues than larger projects. With small projects, costs on a per-kilowatt-hour go up as the project cost increases. Reaching 80-100MW for a wind project reaches what is known in economics as the economy of scale - when a project can expand enough to amortize the costs - where the cost per unit falls as the energy produced increases.

For South Dakota Wind Partners, LLC, 650 local investors maximized their project by holding costs of building new transmission lines and switchyards down by incorporating their project into a larger plan being built by Basin Electric. Getting the community involved early, generated $17 million in local financial backing. South Dakota Wind Partners also paired up with a Val-Add Service Corp. who developed a business model that allowed people to invest with little money.

South Dakota Wind handled their own negotiations with Basin. The information and knowledge assistance Basin provided made a small project a great fit and a successful integration with a larger project. Additionally, local investors have a stake in the RE game.

In Flagstaff, AZ, the local public utility APS is testing a small renewable power plant by using the rooftops of 200 customer homes, a central 500kW solar station, and the roof of a local elementary school (400kW). The energy collected will go directly into a single distribution feeder called Sandvig 4. With a total of 1.5MW of power Sandvig 4 will recognize over 30 percent of total power from PV solar panels.

APS owns, maintains, and operates the panels. The homeowners receive a lower fixed rate on their power costs for a 20-year easement. APS accepts the upfront costs and long-term power benefits, while the homeowner gets lower, stable electrical rates for 20 years.

The working laboratory will study effects of this type of system on the grid, storage possibilities, variability, and intermittency issues of PV panels along with the costs of providing the power. Utility companies have a lot to learn about solar energy coming from so many customers back to the grid. This looks like a good start.

Google doesn't do little. In 2007 they declared they would be carbon neutral company, they set about making their data centers efficient. Yet, efficiency in and of itself does not create carbon neutrality. In January 2009, Google applied for and received government authority to buy and sell power at wholesale pricing in the same way a utility company does. Google will purchase wind power at a negotiated price from local wind farms for a 20-year period ( PPA or power purchase agreement). In return, they receive RECs - renewable energy credits and the ability to sell the wind power back to the grid at wholesale prices. Google, then, has a data center that runs off the same grid. While the data center cannot be assured they are getting the wind-generated energy, Google is adding renewable energy systems to the existing coal and nuclear power grid, giving Google the capability of carbon neutrality. In addition, they are creating local jobs for maintaining the turbines as well as advancing wind farms and putting money back into local economies with renewable energy technology.

With community, utilities, and corporations can coming together interesting things can happen. Given the opportunity, US companies will do what they do best they will innovate. This is a good thing for renewable energy and the future.