Local power can encourage renewable energy systems

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

When Paul Fenn made his presentation about local power at last year’s Illinois Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair, he referred to the successful model of local community power implemented in Marin County, California. It took eight years of political battles for the county to gain its own energy authority. Their efforts were fought by Pacific Gas and Electric, the state’s largest utility.

The goal of the Marin Energy Authority is to reduce the environmental impacts of their electrical usage. Their long-term goal is to secure 100 percent of their energy from renewable sources.

They formed a nonprofit organization to purchase the power they want while paying the existing utility to deliver the power to its customers and maintain the grid. As of now, 50 percent of the county’s energy comes from natural gas, with the other half coming from renewable energy sources including wind, solar, hydro and biogas. The authority serves 11 communities, and the county and keeps their rates slightly below that of the utility.

Instead of profits leaving the community, the funds are reinvested in the community. Some $20,000 was invested in energy efficiency and solar rebates. Nearly 2,000 customers generate more than 5.7 megawatts of local renewable energy projects using renewable electric generators of less than 1,000 kilowatts. The customers are on net metering and are paid 1 cent more than existing electric rates and receive an additional $4 per month for every month they generate excess electricity.

A feed-in tariff program is also available to encourage local renewable energy projects of 1 megawatt or less capacity. A 20-year contract to deliver the power to Marin County helps support projects.

A PV system of nearly 1 megwatt is being installed on the hangar roofs at the San Rafael Airport. It is locally financed, designed, built and installed — generating local jobs.

A similar project is planned to provide a solar shade over a parking lot. The agency has also installed five electric charging stations in public parking lots.

To date, their renewable efforts are comparable to removing pollution from 15,000 cars and eliminating 78,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases.

Influenced by the Marin Model, both the cities of San Francisco and Boulder, Colo., are pursuing similar plans. The Marin experience suggests they face a long and difficult process, as existing public utilities will vigorously resist their efforts.

In Illinois, hundreds of communities have implemented community aggregation plans that allow local officials to purchase power for their customers. The plans focus on reducing electric costs for participants in the aggregation but do not focus on getting out of fossil fuels and relying increasingly on efficiency and renewable energy sources.

The Chicago aggregation plan will utilize Integrys Energy Services to provide electricity to the city. The contract will ban electricity generated from coal, which now provides about 40 percent of its electricity

It is expected that natural gas, nuclear and some wind energy will provide the bulk of the power. It is unclear what role other sources of renewable energy, such as solar, will be relied on to produce electricity.

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 Feb. 20-26, 2013, issue

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