Sidestepping the utilities to go green

By David Ehrlich
Published February 19, 2008 - 11:52am
Getting commercial-scale renewable power generation up and running can be a long, costly, and bureaucratic process for investor owned utilities, but some cities in California are working around that by setting up a system to control their own power supply.
San Francisco-based consulting company Local Power is helping a number of cities in the Golden State set up a Community Choice Aggregation agency, or CCA.
The system, adopted into law by the states of California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Ohio and Rhode Island, allows cities and counties to use the aggregate buying power of its citizens to secure renewable energy supply contracts.
In addition to being able to roll their own packages of energy supply, cities and counties in California can fund the programs using tax-free municipal bonds, giving CCAs a significant financial advantage over utilities and potentially leading to lower rates for consumers.
Local Power CEO Paul Fenn, who drafted the CCA legislation for California, said the system can streamline the process of getting clean energy online.
“CCAs are rate setting authorities. They are authorized under state law to make decisions regarding investments and the rate structure to support those investments,” he said.
“They don’t have to seek approval or win approval by regulators, so they won’t be subject to the kinds of delays that have limited the ability of the investor owned utilities to plan their resources.”
Last June, San Francisco adopted a CCA system designed by Local Power.
“We are now preparing to take the plan to market and find suppliers that are interested in becoming the new energy supplier for San Francisco,” said Fenn.
Under that plan, San Francisco would become an electricity purchaser for residents and businesses currently served by utility PG&E.
Although PG&E would continue to provide electricity transmission and distribution services, as well as meter reading and customer billing, CCAs aren’t making the utility very happy.
PG&E sent a letter to Marin county supervisors who are also considering a CCA, questioning whether the power the CCA would be able to buy would be greener than what PG&E already delivers.
In its letter, PG&E said it was “concerned whether a CCA operating by a Marin County Authority could meet its goal of achieving a significantly higher percentage of renewable power than is currently available from PG&E electric service without the risk of higher rates compared to those being offered by PG&E.”
San Francisco and Marin county are both aiming for a 51 percent renewable portfolio standard by 2017.
PG&E gets about 12 percent of its power from renewable sources and plans to exceed 20 percent under contract or delivered by 2010.
But the utility has hit some potential snags in getting to that target (see PG&E to meet renewable energy requirements - sort of). Earlier this month, Vancouver, British Columbia-based Western Geopower terminated its contract to sell 25.5 megawatts of geothermal power to PG&E.
While the investor owned utilities would be missing out on some revenue streams if they’re taken out of the power generation loop, Fenn said CCAs would lower the utilities’ renewable energy obligations, since the companies would no longer need to provide renewable energy to the cities using CCAs.
The San Francisco project will start out by building 360 megawatts of new renewable and demand side resources.
“That first phase will be followed by a second phase emphasizing baseload capacity,” said Fenn. “That number has not yet been defined, but it’s going to probably be another three or four hundred megawatts baseload capacity.”
He said the first phase calls for just over a billion dollars in investment, and should take just a few years to build.
If a similar package were put through by a utility, Fenn said it would all be broken into separate contracts, each requiring approval by the regulators.
“In this case it’s all approved as a single package. The bonds are issued, and all the facilities are taken together as, in effect, a single investment.”
The types of power generation used by the CCAs can vary.
“Up in Sonoma, you’ve got a lot of geothermal resources,” said Fenn. “Down south, we designed a similar portfolio for San Diego,” he said. “There they have really no tidal resources down there, so it’s all mostly wind out in the desert or photovoltaic.”
“We’re technology agnostic. We just try to find the best applications for a geographic region.”
Fenn believes the system of using CCA and tax-free bonds could spread to more states and even beyond the U.S.
“We’re very hopeful that once you see the Bay Area cities go up and start building that it’ll cause a wave across the country. And perhaps even in European markets, because I know they’re looking for ways to finance renewables in a more liberalized environment.”
Fenn said his company believes that decentralization of the grid is key to changing the system.
“There’s really a global potential, ultimately, for this type of approach.”
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New CO2 Capturing Material Could Make Plants Cleaner

Scientists claim to have discovered a new compound that will capture damaging carbon dioxide from power plants using a technique commonly used to by the pharmaceutical industry to find new drugs.
The sponge-like material, called ZIF-69, promises to hold 60 times its volume in carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas scientists say is primarily responsible for climate change.
The compound, along with twenty-four others like it, were discovered using so-called high-throughput screening, a massively parallel technique for testing chemicals. The new molecule could be used to capture the carbon dioxide generated by power plants when they burn coal, gas, or biomass.
“We’re altering the environment irreversibly and something needs to be done or we might not have time to do anything about it,” said Omar Yaghi, a professor of chemistry at UCLA, lead author of the paper. “If you can capture carbon dioxide that goes a long way towards a cleaner environment.”
Capturing carbon dioxide requires that you can sort that CO2 molecule from other particles. That’s a trick that has proven quite difficult. Previous efforts have required heat to trap the carbon dioxide particles. Heat requires energy, and that energy costs money. Making carbon capture more efficient could reduce the cost of the process and bring “cleanish” fossil fuel plants closer to reality.

Yaghi’s paper, published online today in the journal Science, describes more than just the properties of one carbon dioxide capturing material. It defines a new process for creating materials with the properties that scientists want with unprecedented speed.
“The high-throughput method will get us into more and more complex structures and ultimately more useful materials,” said Yaghi. “We were discovering so many new compounds that we asked the students to stop, so we can summarize our work and publish it.”
Once they had a set of new compounds, the team of chemists went to work analyzing the properties using x-ray crystallography to define their shapes and topography. That’s how they found the new high CO2 capacity material, ZIF-69.
ZIF-69 is like a carbon dioxide trap, allowing only CO2 in, while screening out molecules with different shapes. Under pressure, the compound allows the carbon dioxide in, but not back out. Then, when scientists decompress the material, the gas is released, allowing scientists to dump the captured CO2 into a storage system.
Such properties could make carbon capture substantially more efficient, although its efficacy under real conditions is unknown. Yaghi doesn’t think the material will be ready for field tests for several years.
Franklin Orr, an earth sciences professor at Stanford, called the discovery “potentially quite significant,” but noted that many of the details of how the material could be used in a carbon capture are still to come.
“They can be forgiven for not attacking every aspect of whether or not this is a commercially viable process in the first announcement of the finding,” Orr said.
Orr noted that carbon dioxide capture is a major piece of the puzzle for making fossil fuel fired power plants cleaner. But carbon capture and sequestration is a multistep process. Once the carbon dioxide is captured, it has to be stored. Right now, engineers are planning to inject the CO2 into the ground in a process known as geological sequestration. Critics contend that such a strategy would require constant monitoring for leaks and would carry a very high level of risk.
These concerns lead environmental groups to deride carbon capture and sequestration as a pie-in-the-sky idea that entrenched fossil fuel companies promote to stave off the implementation of truly renewable technologies like solar and wind power.
“We are against coal carbon sequestration,” said Daniel Kessler, a Greenpeace spokesperson. “The reality is that the technologies are going to require billions of dollars of investment. If we go that way, it’s going to come at the expense of renewable energy.”