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Renewable barriers return

November 28, 2012

By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President, Illinois Renewable Energy Association

The 200 villagers in Effelter, Bavaria, invested in renewable energy systems to reduce energy costs as part of their retirement plans. They found the big utilities made it hard for them to achieve energy independence, as utilities did not want to lose customers and the profit made from them. The utilities were seen as pressuring political leaders to erect barriers to local energy independence.

Tokelau, a small island country in the Pacific Ocean, now meets all of its electricity needs with solar power, thanks to government support. The switch to solar for the 1,500 residents was financed by the New Zealand government to cut the high cost of electricity and the pollution associated with importing oil and gas to power generators.

With more than a million residents, actions were initiated to reduce Hawaii’s 90 percent dependence on costly oil for electrical production. The effort involved a variety of renewable energy sources. Hawaiian electric companies benefited, as many of the projects expanded the utilities’ roles as renewable energy suppliers. In 2008, a goal of moving to 70 percent clean energy by 2030 through a 30 percent reduction in use from efficiency and a 40 percent increase in renewable energy sources stimulated installations.

It was driven by economic, environmental and security concerns. They also saw themselves vulnerable to rising sea levels, more intense storms and potential droughts driven by climate change.

According to a study by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a boom in electrical production from residential and business installations has occurred, as electricity from solar production in Hawaii is now cheaper than electricity from the grid; the trend continues. With federal and state grants, solar systems now pay back within five years.

Hawaiian utilities are concerned the rapid increase of solar electricity could harm the stability of the electric grid. They have introduced a 15 percent limit on distributed solar electricity carried by local electric power lines and claim it is necessary as a safety measure to protect the grid. Utilities are requiring some potential producers to pay for time-consuming, costly interconnection studies to assess whether the proposed system would adversely impact the grid.

The interconnection process can also add costs, as potential customers may be required to upgrade their home and businesses’ electrical service to meet new electrical standards.

Utilities are authorized to turn off a solar array in the name of maintaining grid stability, but do not need to pay for the electricity produced by the system.

In Illinois, both ComEd and Ameren have been granted similar authority to require interconnection studies for those seeking permission to connect a renewable energy system to the grid if they deem them necessary. They also have the authority to order the shut down of a renewable energy system that fails to comply with upgraded standards.

According to one source, the Illinois utilities have met their state renewable energy mandates through 2018 partially through buying renewable energy credits from other states. In Wisconsin, the mandates are met through 2015. Since they have met their state mandates, the utilities can now require interconnection studies.

Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl are founders and officers of the Illinois Renewable Energy Association (IREA) and coordinate the annual Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair. E-mail sonia@essex1.com.

From the Nov. 28-Dec. 4, 2012, issue

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