Wednesday, March 21, 2007
Solar Synergy For Northern Virgin-y
We were reading a Washington Post article today on the natural synergy in the Pacific Northwest between hydroelectric power and wind energy and it got us thinking about the local situation in Northern Virginia.
(The synergy in the Pacific NW occurs because wind farms can ideally be placed near existing underutilized high voltage transmission lines used for hydro power and because hydro can efficiently kick in when wind is scarce.)
In Northern Virginia, a different kind of synergy exists, with solar power.
As discussed in this blog on a number of occasions, Dominion Virginia Power plans to build a $300 million high voltage transmission line through parts of Northern Virginia to meet the region's voracious demand for electricity. Absent the new line, Dominion says some parts of NoVa may experience temporary blackouts by 2011 or 2012. While there's vigorous debate about some of Dominion's numbers and motives, there's not much dispute that NoVa's continued rapid development will, sooner or later, tax the region's distribution system IF something isn't done.
One answer is solar energy. We're the first to tell you that as a stand-alone proposition, solar electric is still not economical for the average home or business. However, solar has one quality that fits perfectly with NoVa's needs: it generates maximum output on hot summer afternoons when the distribution system is strained by high air conditioning demand. Solar, therefore, is a great relief valve that can stave off the need for additional high voltage lines. And, when you factor in the high costs of peak power and additional distribution capacity, solar suddenly becomes much more economical.
Alden Hathaway, who built a solar home in Loudon County and wrote a book about it, estimates that each zero energy solar electric home cancels out the need for peak power/additional distribution capacity of four standard homes on a hot summer afternoon. The Curmudgeon's experience with solar panels so far would seem to validate that: during the middle of the day on a sunny day, we're generating a good deal more electricity than we're using, putting it back into the local grid.
Solar electricity stabilizes the grid because it is usually produced right at the source of consumption, rather than miles away in a power plant, such that there is no need to build expensive high voltage lines to transfer it around. (In contrast, wind turbines often are most ideally situated in remote areas, requiring additional transmission lines to get the power to where its needed.)
Here's how Dominion--given the proper incentives--could alternatively invest $300 million in solar power in NoVa instead of building a new, ugly, intrusive, expensive high voltage line. Take the $300 million and offer homes and businesses a 25% subsidy for installing solar cells where they are suitable. The subsidy would make solar sufficiently economical for many homeowners and businesses to want to invest in the other 75%. That way, Dominion could transform its $300 million into $1.2 billion in new solar in NoVa, which would make a huge dent in peak summertime power consumption.
As an additional incentive, Dominion could credit solar power generators with a summer peak premium for the electricity they provide during certain hours on certain summer days, reflecting the true value of such power.
(While conservation is generally less expensive than solar, it is not that helpful on hot summer afternoons. For example, the cheapest conservation measure--installing fluorescent lighting--has little impact during daytime summer hours when lighting needs are minimal. Dominion could, however, encourage greater use of the most efficient air conditioning systems, especially in all new homes.)
Our back of the envelope calculation suggests Dominion could fund 60,000 Curmudgeon-sized solar systems (about 2.5 kws) with our 25% subsidy scheme, and could probably do much better because it could achieve greater economies and efficiencies. It would also stimulate a large investment in solar infrastructure for further development over time.
We'd also rather see Dominion--and other local utilities--head up programs like this because they'd generally be more efficient than government. For example, Dominion presumably would want to get the most bang for its buck and would therefore select solar sites with the most optimum characteristics.
The key, of course, is to give Dominion the proper incentives for structuring such a program, allowing it to recoup a premium on its investment. With a little creativity, we have no doubt that such incentives can be crafted, just as they have in other states. (Dominion could also increase the investment pot by being granted authority to charge a higher peak power rate, with the extra money going to solar and conservation subsidies.)
We note that environmental groups have, of late, had some success in sitting down with utility executives and negotiating agreements to reduce carbon emissions and invest in green power. Perhaps its time to do the same with Dominion?