How Green Mountain Power Makes Grid Defection Work for Them

(3BL Media/Justmeans) — Why would a utility company encourage its customers to produce their own power with the ability to completely disconnect from the grid? The fact that one New England power company is doing just that, and doing well as a result, is a testament to just how convoluted the electricity game has become, now that rooftop solar has literally turned everything upside down.

For starters, it’s not your average utility. Vermont’s Green Mountain Power (GMP) was founded in 1997 with the mission to “use the power of consumer choice to change the way power is made.” They are “committed to sustainability every step of the way,” and offer only products with an environmental benefit and … a zero-carbon footprint.”

Green Mountain Power, the first energy utility to become a certified B-Corp, is a wholly owned subsidiary of GazMetro, a publicly traded Canadian corporation. Earlier this year, GMP was named one of Fast Company’s ten most innovative companies in the energy sector.

On their website’s home page, they advertise Tesla’s Powerwall battery.

The idea of encouraging customers to put solar on their rooftops and install Tesla Powerwall batteries, so that they can run independently, was the brainchild of Mary Powell, who became CEO in 2008. Powell was recently named one of the 25 most influential women of the Mid-Market by CEO Connection, based on her ability to influence innovation and change. She recognized that by allowing customers to produce their own power during peak daytime hours, when the sun is shining, the utility could reduce the amount of external power that they purchase from the regional transmission system, at the time when it is most expensive. The utility also has the ability to draw power from the network of residential batteries when needed. This give-and-take system, in which provider and customers essentially work together to ensure that demand is met, also saves the utility the expense of investing in large scale energy storage.

Electric Cars Are Coming on Strong

(3BL Media/Justmeans) - Change takes time, but sometimes not as much time as one would have thought. A few short years ago, the idea of electric vehicles seemed like a tiny speck on a distant horizon—a toy for technophiles and early adapters. But even the Wall Street Journal says the EV’s will be here sooner than you think. And by here, they don’t mean on the fringes.

The numbers seem to bear this out. Worldwide, some 312,000 plug-in vehicles were sold in the first half of this year. That’s a 49% increase compared to last year. That growth rate, says Clean Technica, is roughly ten times that of the overall vehicle market. The biggest action was in China, where they grew 128% with home grown BYD vehicles providing the lion’s share. Japan came in second, and Europe, taken as a whole comes in third, with 21% growth before we get to the 18% growth seen here in the US.

Here at home, some 64,296 were sold through June. That is about one for every 150 cars sold. The top five models were Tesla Model S, Chevy Volt, Ford Fusion Energi PHEV, Tesla Model X, and Nissan Leaf with Tesla Model S sales roughly double that of the Leaf. Leaf sales have dropped recently in anticipation of a new model with significantly improved range, a phenomenon that has become common in the rapidly-changing EV world.

The tipping point, says WSJ, is the 200 mile range mark, which Tesla has already hit, and others, including the soon to be released Chevy Bolt, will meet and improve on.

Toyota Invests $50 Million In Artificial Intelligence

(3BL Media/Justmeans) – Artificial Intelligence (AI) is already part of our everyday lives. We often don’t know it because it’s not obvious. However, the next wave of AI-enabled devices will interact with humans in a far more noticeable way via intelligent robots and autonomous cars.

Will Tesla New Energy Storage Batteries Change the Game?

(3BL Media/Justmeans) - Electricity is like money. Both are useful, fluid and can be converted into action of many different forms. And both can be saved for a rainy day. The ability to save electricity for a rainy, or cloudy day, has suddenly become much more important now that solar, as well as wind power are becoming important contributors to our energy supply.

Without storage, these renewable sources of electric power, would have to be backed up with other sources that can produce power when they can’t, which undercuts their economic usefulness.

Utility studies have found that energy storage in sufficient quantity and at a reasonable price could, in some circumstances, obviate the need for new power plants.

That’s why the recent announcement by Tesla Motors of their new battery systems, designed to be used for energy storage for homes, businesses, and utilities, is causing such a stir. While the utility analysis said that the breakeven point for storage would occur when the price per kWh fell below $350, which they predicted was years away, Tesla surprised everyone, by showing up with a utility scale battery right now, that they claim can deliver storage at $250 per kWh.

Tesla’s Powerwall for the home is a flat wall-mounted package that provides 10 kWh of storage and will sell for $3500. It will provide battery backup if the grid goes down or it can store electricity from solar panels in an off-grid configuration. By next year, these will be produced by Tesla’s Gigafactory in Nevada.

For utilities, the 100 kWh Powerpack is a scalable module that can go up to gigawatt levels at the $250 per kWh price point. One utility, said Elon Musk, Tesla’s CEO, has already contracted for a 250 MWh system.

Indeed, the biggest impact may be in the utility-class application. Some concerns have been raised about the residential offerings by, among others, SolarCity, a major supplier that happens to have Elon Musk on its board. SolarCity spokesman Jonathan Bass says they are not happy with the available configurations or the economics. Of the two offerings, only the smaller 7 kWh unit is designed to be charged and discharged on a daily basis. And given the fact that many localities allow the grid to fill in the gaps when the sun is not shining, that calls into question the economics of purchasing a home battery, unless you are completely off-grid. The larger 10kWh battery, is designed for backup when the grid goes down. That would be more attractive for high-end homes or small businesses with a critical need for constant power.

New Solar Deal, Like Everything Else in Texas, Is Big

(3BL Media/Justmeans) - To say that we’ve seen a broad range of responses from public utilities to the “onslaught” of rooftop solar would be an understatement. On the one hand, you have the Florida Public Service Commission voting to gut their energy efficiency program and terminate all solar rebate programs, eliciting  a surprising response from, by all people, the Tea Party. They say the state needs more solar, not less. The battle down there in “the Sunshine State” has led to some unusual alliances, like the Christian Coalition joining hands with Greenpeace, and the Libertarian Party linking up with Sierra Club. It stems primarily from the extraordinary influence wielded by the major power companies in the state.

Over in Texas, on the other hand, the local utility in Dallas has taken more of an “if-you-can’t-beat-‘em-join-‘em” approach. Here, you’ll find MP2 Energy in a partnership with Solar City to help facilitate the rapid spread of solar power. Solar City, if you’ll recall, is also participating in a joint venture with Tesla Motors on batteries for energy storage that can be integrated with solar generation.

This Texas partnership will feature full net metering, and will bring the cost of solar down below the cost of utility power, without any local incentives. This is a big deal, especially in Texas, where previous net metering implementations had restrictions such as requiring homeowners to forfeit unused electricity at the end of each month. Considering that Texas is the nation’s largest energy producer and the fifth largest energy consumer, it is also one of the sunniest states.

Says Jeff Starcher, chairman and CEO of MP2 Energy, “With an average of 240 sunny days per year, Texas is often considered a sleeping giant when it comes to its potential for solar power, and unlocking this state has huge implications for the solar industry at large,” said. “To date, solar has only worked where there are local incentives. With this new partnership, we are making solar a practical option for residential customers in Texas.”

Utilities Move Into EV Charging Game

(3BL Media/Justmeans) - Building out an electric vehicle infrastructure is a bit like building an arch. You need both sides, the vehicles and the charging stations, to be there at the same time, to support each other, to keep the whole thing from falling down. It’s been a little slow taking off. Perhaps partly because it’s not clear who is taking the lead.

High Speed Chargers Bring EV’s One Step Closer to Mainstream

(3BL Media/Justmeans) - In the year 1906, Ray Stannard Baker wrote the following passage about automobiles in the book The Boy’s Book of Inventions: Stories of the Wonders of Modern Science.

“The electric vehicle which has had its most successful development in this country has its well-defined advantages and disadvantages. It is simpler in construction and more easily managed than any other vehicle: one manufacturer calls it ‘fool proof.’ It is wholly without odor or vibrations and practically noiseless. It will make any permissible rate of speed and climb any ordinary hill. On the other hand, it is immensely heavy, owing to the use of storage batteries; it can run only a limited distance without recharging…”

He goes on to say, “Indeed, all the manufacturers of electric vehicles speak with the confidence of the day when the whole of the United States will be as thoroughly sprinkled with electric charging stations as it is today with bicycle road-houses.”

A hundred years ago we were at a crossroads similar to the one we find ourselves at today, with electric vehicles vying against gasoline-powered cars. Back then, the choice was made, influenced by a good deal of lobbying and maneuvering by the oil industry. The fact that gasoline powered cars were also cheaper and didn’t have the range issues of electrics also helped to tip the scales.

So, the question is, how much have things changed? Electric cars are still more expensive and still confront the range limitation challenge that seems to be inherent in trying to store adequate energy in electrical rather than chemical form.

What has changed is the realization that widespread usage of fossil fuels has put our planet and everything living on it at risk of a destabilized climate that threatens every aspect of our life-support system.

With so much of our day to day life built around a gas powered car that can be quickly and (of late) inexpensively filled up at any of the thousands of gas stations that cover the landscape, the challenge of switching over to a completely different energy is huge.

Yes, EV prices are coming down (see Chevy Bolt) and charging stations are popping up everywhere. According to DOE, there are currently 8,983 charging stations and 22,387 charging outlets in the US. Whether that’s as many as there were bicycle roadhouses back 1906 is not clear, but unless people are convinced that it’s enough to assuage their “range anxiety,” they will hesitate to buy an EV. Roughly 120,000 electric vehicles were sold in the US last year, bringing the total up to around 280,000.

There are a couple of other dimensions to this question. One is that, unlike gasoline, people do have access to electricity at home, which is where much of the vehicle charging, at least for local trips will take place. That’s why there needn’t necessarily be as many charging stations as there are gas stations. The other dimension is the fact that not all charging stations are created equal.  What varies is the amount of time required for a charge, though what is true in all cases is the fact that it will take longer to charge your car with electrons than it did to fill it with gasoline.

Most people will come to recognize that it will be worth the wait in order to maintain a livable climate, but that doesn’t mean it will be an easy adjustment.

Is there another way to do this? In a word, yes. Some areas, like Denmark, for example, are experimenting with the idea of a charged battery as a service. This is how that works. Instead of owning the battery as part of your car, the battery is a shared resource. When your charge is getting low, you pull into a station, where they lift out your battery and replace it with a fully charged one. This doesn’t take any longer than filling up a gas tanks, but it’s a different ownership model that is more in line with the sharing economy. Not all EVs are configured for this but several Nissan models are designed to work with a robotic battery switching station designed by Shai Agassi of Better Place. That same approach, by the way, was used by New York taxi companies in the early 20th century when electric cabs made a brief appearance. The other option would be to go to hydrogen fuel cell, which is being vigorously pursued by Toyota.

Electric Cars Get A Jump Start in China

Anyone concerned about the planet's future and our ability to bring our climate-disrupting emissions under control, can't help but regularly steal nervous glances at China. What China, with its massive population and prodigious growth rate does or doesn't do, will have a significant impact on all of us. So when China said they wanted 500,000 "new energy vehicles” on the road by next year and five million by 2020, many of which would be driven by first time car buyers newly entering the middle class, that gave us reason to be hopeful. Many have been skeptical that such numbers could be achieved. Especially since last year, only 17,600 EVs were sold. Today, there are approximately 50,000 of them on the road.

But a number of recent developments could be turning up the heat.

First, Chinese EV-maker BYD, which is partially backed by Warren Buffett, has been selling most of their cars in their home city of Shenzhen. Earlier this week, they gained approval to begin selling in Beijing with its population of 11.5 million. Beijing officials will provide a subsidy for EVs and they also commit to installing 100 charging stations in the city by the end of the year with roughly ten charging units per station. This roughly coincides with Swiss electrical equipment-maker ABB's announcement that it would begin making and marketing wall-mounted home electric vehicle chargers in China. The chargers are being developed for Denza, a new joint venture between BYD and Daimler.

Says Chunyuan Gu, ABB's top man in China, "Either you believe or you don't believe. What's difficult to predict is how fast the volume will come."

BYD also received approval this week to sell its plug-in hybrid, the Qin, in Shanghai

China's fast growing car market is attracting the attention of automakers around the globe. Last year 22 million cars were sold there, compared with 15.6 million in the US. Major problems like air pollution and gridlock are leading local officials to tighten restrictions on new drivers' licenses, which will slow the pace of growth. Electric cars, which don't contribute to air pollution are getting a warmer reception.

Some people believe that were are approaching a point of “peak cars” altogether, but that is clearly still a ways off in China.

Incentives Drive Norway To Take Lead in Electric Vehicle Sales

You might find this surprising, but Norway’s best selling cars for several months late last year were electric vehicles. EV’s accounted for more than 12% of all vehicle sales in November. With 21,000 EVs already on the road in a country of five million, EV's will soon constitute 1% of all Norwegian cars. The Nissan Leaf, priced at the lower end of the scale was the best-seller for one month, while for two months, the high end Tesla Model S topped the list. So there’s obviously a broad market being stimulated. This is a dramatically higher per capita rate of adoption than anywhere else in the world, close to 20 times that of the US.

Why so many? Well, government incentives are certainly playing a role. This is probably a case study of how effective government action can be. Zach Shahan at CleanTechnica shared survey findings that analyzed the reasons why people said they bought EVs, and rank-ordered them in a series of bar graphs. The top-ranked reason was that EV drivers would be exempt from tolls. The second reason was no vehicle purchase tax. Then was the fuel cost, about one-fifth the cost of running a comparable gasoline-powered vehicle. The fourth reason was free access to the bus lanes. In Oslo, where there’s quite a bit of traffic, EVs are allowed to use the bus lanes, which can save time when roads are crowded. This feature could become self-limiting though, as the bus lanes are filling up with electric cars which make up as much as 75% of the traffic. This brings to mind Yogi Berra, who once said, apparently referring to a popular restaurant in his native St. Louis, “Nobody goes there anymore because it’s too crowded.”

Free charging, available at any of the thousands of charging points, ranked as the number seven reason for buying an electric vehicle.

There’s also a low annual road fee, free parking, and free ferries, and they tend to cost less to insure, probably because there are fewer parts that would have to be repaired in case of an accident.

Solar Grid Storage Saves the Sunshine for a Rainy Day

Fossil fuels like gasoline, or even coal, have a unique characteristic that we never thought about until we thought about trying to replace them. That is the fact that, not only are they energy sources, but they are energy sources that store the energy they contain, to be released whenever needed. That is not that case for wind power or solar. They do not come packaged with their own built-in storage capacity.

Or at least they didn’t before the folks at Solar Grid Storage, sensing a business opportunity, came up with a way to package solar energy and energy storage into an integrated system.

Combining technological innovation with business innovation, they retain ownership of their storage systems, providing storage-as-a-service to their customers. By maintaining the storage asset and dispatching power to the grid as needed, they can derive revenue from the grid support market, to help finance the storage assets. At the same time, their systems include the power inverter needed to convert the DC power coming off the PV arrays into grid synchronized AC power. This saves their customers the expense of installing the inverters, which all other grid-supported solar PV systems require.

The systems also provide resilience and stability to the grid, and they answer directly the FERC’s orders to grid operators “to develop and adopt programs aimed at creating and delivering fast reacting services that help balance power.” The net result is a more reliable grid, even during times of high stress. This is crucial to mission-critical operations and highly desirable everywhere else.

California regulators recently set new targets for energy storage capacity, recognizing the criticality of this capability to the continued growth of renewables, as well as the stability of the grid. A full 1.325 GW of storage, much of it from independent developers, is expected to come online by 2020.

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