Feeling Energized by Wind? October in Review

Author: Valerie Stori, Clean Energy Group | Project: Offshore Wind Accelerator Project

blogphoto-Offshore-Wind-Farm-SunsetOctober was an energized month for the offshore wind industry.  A successful American Wind Energy Association Offshore Wind Conference attended by industry leaders, environmental advocates, state and federal agencies, finance agencies, investors, and university researchers was held in Providence, Rhode Island, and attendees departed with growing optimism. While U.S. regulatory and policy mechanisms supporting offshore wind are still uncertain, things are looking brighter for offshore projects in general.  For one, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management held two successful offshore wind lease auctions earlier this year and a third is planned for off the coast of Maryland later this year, with MA and NJ to follow in the first quarter of 2014.  One of those lease areas, won by Deepwater Wind for a 1,000MW project off the RI/MA coast, lies in what many consider to be the best wind resource site on the east coast and is optimally located close to load centers.  While this project’s development is several years down the road, the upside is that the project will benefit from improved turbine technologies and efficiencies–these developments are critical in driving down overall project costs and help to level out the cost of wind energy.

It was also energizing to see project investors and European finance institutions present at the AWEA conference.  Many spoke to current investments in offshore wind farms in Europe and the importance of investing in R&D to drive down future costs.  The UK Green Investment Bank, which has provided both debt and equity financing for large offshore projects, is also financing offshore wind innovation to improve the affordability of future technologies.  It recently announced a further 2.5 million Pound investment under the Offshore Wind Component Technologies Scheme.  Many European investors stand ready to finance offshore development in the U.S. if and when stable, long-term policy framework is developed.

In the interim, state agencies are working to support offshore wind on a case-by-case basis. Last month, the Long Island Power Authority announced two RFPs, which both have provisions for offshore wind.  The first competitive procurement is for on-island renewable energy–up to 280MW by 2018.  The other proposal seeks 1630MW of generation, storage, and demand response to replace expiring peak generation sources with more efficient resources by 2019. And in Oregon, BOEM announced it was assessing competitive interest in an offshore wind area to determine whether it would issue a competitive or non-competitive lease for the area.

And in other uplifting news from the offshore wind sector, the New Bedford Economic Development Council (MA) is forging ahead with offshore wind port facility aspirations.  At a well-attended session at the AWEA conference, the Economic Development Council outlined the Port’s advantages and mentioned the international attention the offshore terminal’s plan has been receiving.  In both October and November, German developers and port experts toured the facility, to share stories of their successes overseas.  German manufacturer, Siemens, will be supplying the turbines for the Cape Wind project, which is approaching the last of its legal hurdles–New Bedford hopes to capture the bulk of the staging and set-up work for the offshore farm.

These are just some examples of the momentum building within the U.S. offshore wind sector.  Yet despite the progress being made in some areas, the U.S. still lacks comprehensive, long-term policy to really create an offshore industry.  Yes, projects will be built on a case-by-case basis, such as Deepwater Wind’s Block Island offshore development, with individually-procured power purchase agreements or offshore wind renewable energy credits. But to build the industry and attract investors, we need acquisition targets, stable federal support, and regional cooperation.  Let’s keep the momentum going and ensure the success of vital economic development projects such as New Bedford’s offshore wind port facility.

Court Finds NYC Disabled Not Adequately Protected After Sandy; Disaster Planning Must Include Vulnerable Populations

Author: Lewis Milford, Clean Energy Group | Project: Resilient Power Project

blogphoto-Senior-woman-using-walkerLike the proverbial canary in a coal mine, the well being of the most vulnerable in our population—the disabled—during severe weather events may serve as an indicator of how well we are planning to protect the general population.  And confronting our shortfalls should motivate us to more effectively plan our response for future disasters.

A New York court decision last week should prompt cities and states to ask if they are doing enough under existing law to protect vulnerable populations from the impacts of extreme disasters.

Last week, a federal court decided that New York City did not do enough to protect the disabled during Superstorm Sandy, now a year ago. While praising the city generally for its post -Sandy relief actions, the court found that the city specifically violated the Americans with Disabilities Act or ADA by not adequately protecting the vulnerable disabled population during that disaster—the first such ruling in the country.

Legal groups brought suit soon after Sandy on behalf of the disabled in New York City, more than one-tenth of the city’s population, arguing that the city had not done enough to give them access to emergency services following the disaster.  They brought the case on behalf of the “889,219 individuals with disabilities, making up 11% of the population. . . . [Of these,] 183,651 individuals have a serious hearing difficulty, 210,903 have serious vision difficulties, and 535,840 individuals have difficulty walking or climbing stairs.”

The court found that the City failed to provide reasonable accommodation to protect these citizens during and after Sandy, to make sure the blind, deaf and physically disabled were able to get access to post-disaster services, like emergency shelters and transportation, which were available to the able-bodied of the nation’s largest city.

This decision, if upheld, could have national implications for how cities and states plan for disasters in the future.  While many argue about imposing new legal obligations for climate impacts on government agencies, the court decision says the current law compels communities to do more. It highlights the legal obligations already on public agencies across the county to provide for better adaptation requirements in planning, electric power, and transportation after future disasters to help their most vulnerable populations.

This is how the court described the situation facing the disabled during Superstorm Sandy.

The question in this lawsuit…is whether in planning for, and responding to, emergencies and disasters, the City has adequately addressed the needs of people with disabilities—a segment of the population for which emergency planning is even more challenging…These Plaintiffs contend that the City’s emergency preparedness program fails to accommodate their needs by, among other things, inadequately planning for the evacuation of people with disabilities, from multi-story buildings and generally; failing to provide a shelter system that is accessible within the meaning of the ADA; ignoring the unique needs of people with disabilities in the event of a power outage; failing to communicate adequately with people with special needs during an emergency; and failing to account for the needs of people with disabilities in recovery operations following a disaster.

In this class action on behalf of the entire disabled population in the city, the court found that the City violated the ADA when it failed to ensure that the disabled had access to these basic city services.

Most significantly, the City’s plans are inadequate to ensure that people with disabilities are able to evacuate before or during an emergency; they fail to provide sufficiently accessible shelters; and they do not sufficiently inform people with disabilities of the availability and location of accessible emergency services.

Among the many issues at trial was problem of power outages. The lack of reliable electricity alone prevents the disabled from getting the protection of public services in a severe storm—from emergency shelters without power to stalled elevators in public housing to a lack of charging stations to power up wheelchairs and ventilators.

On that issue, the court’s finding could be an important legal precedent that might lead cities to provide more reliable power to serve vulnerable populations. And if they don’t, they might well face lawsuits like this successful one in New York.

The individuals harmed by lack of power gave powerful testimony to the court.

Class member Joyce Delarosa testified that although she has informed Con Ed that she relies on an electricity-powered oxygen machine, Con Ed did not notify her in advance of Hurricane Sandy that it would be shutting down power in her neighborhood. Because of the power outage, she was unable to use her oxygen machine. As a result, her health deteriorated and she was in serious pain, leading her to require emergency medical attention for oxygen deprivation.

Class member Melba Torres relies on electricity to power her wheelchair, the air mattress she uses to reduce the pain caused by a curve in her spine, and the lift she uses to get in and out of bed. Torres testified that, because of the power outage during Hurricane Sandy, she was unable to evacuate her building and was unable to inflate her bed for a week, leaving her in severe pain.

When electric power goes out, many disabled are severely affected, the court noted.

People with disabilities often depend on access to electricity. For example, some people depend on electricity to power life-sustaining equipment, such as ventilators. And people with mobility disabilities often rely on power wheelchairs or scooters that need to be recharged. In addition, some shelters are only accessible if the elevator is working, and thus if the shelter has power. For many people with disabilities, then, their ability to stay in a shelter depends upon the availability of electricity at the shelter…Another essential element that ensures people with certain disabilities are included in general population shelters is the ability to access power (when necessary via generators) for: charging power wheelchairs, scooters and other essential devices, and refrigerating certain medications.

[The Court also noted the] guidance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (“FEMA”) stating that emergency plans “should include strategies to provide power for services that require a back-up power system in an emergency or disaster.”

The court went on:

The City’s shelter plans do not include strategies to provide back-up power generators at shelters or to otherwise ensure that electricity will be available at shelters for those who depend on it. (Nothing in the City’s written emergency plans “addresses the issue of providing power for people who use medical devices powered by electricity”)….During Hurricane Sandy, however, most evacuation centers lacked generators and some, therefore, at times, lacked power.

The court explained that the ADA requires that public agencies can’t just offer services on equal terms to the disabled, which would fail to accommodate their special needs. Rather, agencies must make affirmative accommodation to ensure that the disabled can access public services in a usable way—so that the emergency services actually reach the disabled. The court found that New York City did not accommodate enough to ensure that the disabled had access to the same services as the able bodied.

The testimony and findings in this case also have significant implications for how cities plan to protect their general populations during disasters.  If shelters don’t have electricity, are they capable of truly functioning as shelters for the general population, for example in conditions of extreme heat or cold?  What about those who are considered able bodied, yet rely on rechargeable electronic medical devices and medicines that must be refrigerated?  If the disabled cannot access shelters, what about members of the general population who may have been injured during a natural disaster?  What about those who are not classified as “disabled” but are elderly or ill?  As with many other aspects of our society, our failure to adequately plan for its most vulnerable members exposes our shortfalls in planning for all.

The decision only held the City liable under federal ADA law. It did not impose any remedies, nor did it provide any findings as to how the city could offer emergencies services in areas like power and transportation that would satisfy the law’s requirements. That will be addressed in the next stage of the case. And, of course, the City could always appeal and try to block the order.

Whether more planning is enough, or whether the city should start to install more protective local power equipment at most shelters to accommodate the disabled, will likely be one of the questions facing the court going forward.

But whatever the remedies reached, the decision finding the city liable should be a warning now to other communities facing disaster and emergency planning decisions— especially as they assess their responses in areas of power and electricity, transportation and recovery. This is no small problem. The disabled population in the U.S. is much larger than most think. According to most recent census, almost 20% of the total U.S. population – or 73 million people – are considered disabled. And among the elderly, the percentage of disabled rises to 30% to 40% in most states.

These people are most at risk from severe weather events, from excessive heat and other disasters. Many people have written about how climate emergencies in the future will disproportionately harm these vulnerable populations.

Now, for the first time, those warnings are backed by legal obligations that cities and states ignore at their peril.


This blog post was also published in the Huffington Post.

Solar Storage: The New Resilient Clean Energy Technology

Author: Todd Olinsky-Paul, Clean Energy Group | Project: Resilient Power Project

blogphoto-Green-trees-and-blue-skyClean Energy Group’s new Resilient Power Project is helping states figure out how to provide resilient power to critical infrastructure, so that needed services can be provided during a natural disaster that knocks out portions of the electric grid.  These critical services include food, water, shelter, heating and cooling, medical and emergency services, communications, and fueling.  Facilities that can provide these services include community buildings, schools, supermarkets, gas stations, cell towers, and hospitals, among others.

There are many technologies, and combinations of technologies, that can be used to provide resilient power to critical facilities.  One method is to add solar PV to the facility, with a battery storage backup system.  Because there is a lot of interest in solar and energy storage systems, and questions about how they operate and interact with the grid, we decided to provide the following primer. We also describe new business models and companies that are beginning to move into this solar storage space, taking advantage of new revenue streams that could change the game for how energy storage is financed.

Solar/Storage 101

Let’s say you have a large facility or campus with a sizeable PV system on site (local generation).  The PV system generates electricity when the sun shines, which is mostly at midday and early afternoon, supplying the facility with electricity.  During those times, if the PV system’s electricity generation exceeds local demand, the excess generation is sold onto the grid under a net metering contract.  When local generation does not meet the facility’s demand, for example in the evening, the grid provides electricity to bridge the gap.  This works well for the local facility; all of its power needs are met.  However, for the electric grid operator, who must make electricity supply meet demand from moment to moment, the PV system’s electricity feeding into the grid can cause problems, because PV output is very variable over very short time periods.  The grid operator cannot predict how much electricity is going to be coming from that PV system at any given moment.  If a cloud happens to come between the sun and the PV modules, electricity generated from the PV system will fall quickly, and the grid operator must have spinning reserves ready to step in at any time to make up for the sudden loss of generation.  If this were not the case, the local facility, and others on the grid, would experience constant fluctuations in power.

If this PV system were a grid-scale system, selling power to the grid under a power purchase agreement, the same variability problem would exist, but at a greater scale.  At higher levels of penetration of wind and solar on the grid, this variable generation can cause significant problems on the grid.

Going back to the local facility with its PV system, one way we can mitigate problems caused by variable PV generation is to add battery storage to the system.  Now, when local generation exceeds local demand, the excess electricity is first used to charge the battery.  When the battery is fully charged, excess power is exported to the grid.  If a momentary cloud comes overhead, the PV/battery storage system continues to export electricity at a steady state, because the system can pull power back out of the battery to compensate for the momentary drop in solar generation.  This is a much more stable system from the grid operator’s perspective.  Output from the solar/storage system now looks much more like output from a dispatchable gas, coal, nuclear or hydro plant, and the PV/storage system owner may now be able to sell power into markets that were not previously open to him because of the addition of the battery.

Resilient Power 101

In order to provide a resilient power benefit to our local facility, we add special switches that can isolate (or ‘island’) the PV/storage system in case of a grid failure. When the larger grid goes down due to a natural disaster, a switch is thrown that decouples the local circuit and allows it to continue to function as an isolated unit.  In this scenario, the local facility would need to drop non-essential load, keeping only its critical loads powered, in order to extend the life of the battery.  For example, in the example of a university, critical loads might include lighting and HVAC equipment in buildings designated as community emergency shelters.  Other loads, such as non-critical buildings (libraries, computer labs, theaters, etc.) would not be powered. The PV system would continue to charge the battery and power critical loads when the sun was shining, and the battery would power critical loads when there was not enough solar power.  In order for this system to work, the PV would need to be sized sufficiently both to power critical loads and charge the battery fully during the daily period of peak insolation; and the battery would need to be of sufficient size to carry critical loads overnight and into the next afternoon.

In order to make this system even more resilient, we could add a supplemental generator, such as a gas- or biomass-powered microturbine or engine running in CHP mode (where waste heat is captured and used for space heating).  In effect, we now have a microgrid.

This simple system becomes more complicated, but also more cost-effective, when additional revenue streams from grid services are factored in.  If the PV/storage system were located in an area that is compliant with FERC orders requiring fair compensation for grid services, the battery storage could earn significant revenue by selling ancillary services to the grid, such as frequency regulation services.  In some areas, it could also engage in electricity arbitrage, buying cheap power at off-peak times and discharging it during peak demand times, when it is most valuable.  Since grid-damaging natural disasters occur only infrequently, the battery would be able to generate these revenue streams during the vast majority of its lifespan.  This greatly improves the cost/benefit calculation for the PV/storage system.  Decisions about whether to provide services to the grid or the local facility would be made on an economic basis, depending on whether more money could be made by providing grid services, or saved by providing power to the host facility.  If the grid were to go down, the PV/storage system would island just as before, providing valuable critical services to the community at large.

With more grid operators coming into compliance with the FERC orders mentioned above, new third-party battery companies are beginning to take advantage of the revenue streams made possible by these regulatory changes.  Two companies operating in this space are Solar Grid Storage and Energy Surety Partners.  These companies provide the battery and inverter free of charge, collocated with a PV or wind generator.  Their business models are based on the provision of grid services, services that energy storage systems like batteries can provide very quickly and accurately.  They also engage in electricity arbitrage.  The renewable generator benefits because the presence of energy storage smoothes the combined system output and makes it more dispatchable; in a microgrid situation, the battery helps to integrate and balance local renewable generation with other generators and with loads.  An example of this model in action is the new Konterra solar microgrid in Maryland.

Such new business models could make it much easier for customers to add storage to existing solar systems, or to build storage into new systems, through what are essentially leasing arrangements similar to the third-party models that have made PV broadly accessible and wildly popular.  As more areas of the country come into compliance with the new FERC orders, the cost/benefit calculation for energy storage will continue to improve, and up-front costs will continue to decline, removing a major financing barrier to purchasing expensive equipment. This is how the solar industry has exploded in size; solar storage could well be the next technology to take off through creative technical and financial engineering.

In the very near future, Clean Energy Group will feature Energy Surety Partners and Solar Grid Storage in a webinar on solar/storage solutions. Stay tuned!


This blog post was also published in The Energy Collective.