Local renewable energy

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

The bulk of this column is based on a presentation given by John Farrell at the 13th Annual Illinois Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair (Aug. 23-24 at Ogle County Fairgrounds). It can be seen in its entirety on his website.

John Farrell directs the Energy Self-Reliant States and Communities program at the Institute for Local Self Reliance. His work focuses on energy policy to expand the benefits of local energy ownership and dispersed generation.

He pointed out that Illinois consumes 143 billion kWhs of electricity each year. Illinois’ wind capacity could produce more than five times the current consumption. Solar could supply 17 percent of existing electrical demand. On a national basis, 32 states could produce at least 100 percent of current electrical demand from renewables.

Germany produces 25 percent of its electrical consumption from renewables, 47 percent of which is owned by individuals and farmers.

Illinois spends $12 billion per year on energy imports, which could be displaced by local energy production. In a recent survey, 77 percent of the people reporting indicated they support increased local ownership of wind power.

Existing investor-owned utilities receive a 10-11 percent return on investment in their infrastructure. It is based on a 20th-century model relying on a centralized vision of electrical production and distribution. The cost of the system, plus a fair rate of return, is paid by ratepayers.

With renewable energy and efficiency advocates challenging the existing utility business model, utilities are fighting back and attacking the right of consumers to generate their own electricity as it cuts into utility profits.

If solar competes with utility power in providing electricity to meet peak power demands, the utility finds its profits disappear, as it cannot meet solar’s low cost.

Utilities also claim that the intermittency of solar and wind power create energy management problems for the utility. Farrell counters that criticism by indicating that with the current capacity of renewable sources, such problems are minor. If wind and solar sources are geographically dispersed and of sufficient numbers, the cost of supplying backup power to compensate for their intermittency is dramatically reduced.

The sun is predictable, which makes it possible to know a day in advance whether supplemental backup power will be needed. The utility can have plans in place to supply additional electricity, as needed.

In Boulder, Colorado, millions of dollars in energy costs have been saved by short-term weather forecasting. Ongoing experience with renewable energy systems has proven that integrating renewable energy into the grid is manageable.

The presence of renewable energy sources and efficiency programs has upset the existing business model of centralized energy sources. However, experiences with mobile phones replacing landlines and digital photographs replacing film suggest the utility industry could be better served by embracing renewable energy and efficiency efforts.

The increasing use of solar energy continues and could accelerate with supportive energy policies. Laura Wisland with Clean Energy reports solar installations in the U.S. increased from 30,000 homes in 2006 to 400,000 by 2013 and could grow to 900,000 homes by 2020. Jo-Carroll Energy in Elizabeth, Illinois, is now offering its electric members an opportunity to purchase panels in its new solar farm.

Major sponsors of the fair were the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation, The Rock River Times and the Ogle County Solid Waste Management Department.

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 Sept. 10-16, 2014, issue

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