Oh, Kansas


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I live in California. Even more specifically, I live in the Bay Area, which has generally embraced both that sustainability is a pretty good long term goal and that public money can be used pretty effectively to address and promote that goal.

At the other end of the sustainability spectrum is a recent story about Kansas.

The Kansas legislature’s Committee on Energy and Environment is proposing House Bill No. 2366, which would ban all state and municipal funds for anything related to “sustainable development” [via Bloomberg]. In the bill, sustainable development is defined as

development in which resource use aims to meet human needs while preserving the environment so that these needs can be met not only in the present, but also for generations to come.”

The full text of the bill (only 2 pages long) is worth reading:

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You can also read it online here (PDF).

As noted by the somewhat snarky Bloomberg article, “… House Bill No. 2366 shouldn’t affect the wind industry, because Kansas already doesn’t support wind development with public funds.”

Oh, Kansas.


Zero Net Energy part 1

photo credit: Alan Walker

Zero Net Energy (ZNE) is a term that is increasingly heard throughout the architecture and building sector, but it is also a term that can mean different things to the different people who use it. In this series of posts I will give an overview of the four common definitions of  ZNE, and a brief expansion on their respective implications in relation to policy structures and physical infrastructure.

The four common definitions of ZNE are: 1. Zero Net Site Energy, 2. Zero Net Source Energy, 3. Zero Net Energy Cost, and 4. Zero Net Energy Emissions. All four of  these calculations are as measured over a calendar year, or on an annual basis. The difference is in the metric (the “thing” being measured) and the boundary (what is included in the calculation). All four definitions can be applied to –and calculated at– a “community” or multiple-building scale as well. In all cases the “net” part refers to how energy is accounted for at the grid level; low energy buildings that are not grid tied would therefore not be under a zero net energy designation.

Part 1. Zero Net Site Energy

what this is: A Zero Net Energy Building is one that uses no more energy than it can produce on-site within one calendar year (this is the most commonly used definition of the term “zero net energy” at present).

what this means: A “site” can be defined as either the building footprint itself or the building and the property it sits on. In this definition, the building/ building site would incorporate a form of on-site renewable energy such as solar (most common), wind, small hydro or biogas. As mentioned, a ZNE building is still tied to the larger energy grid. For example, a ZNE building that generates energy through the use of solar panels would create a surplus of power while the sun was shining (and the excess power would be fed back into the grid), but would have to draw power from the grid in the evening or during cloudy days. The goal here is for the overall power drawn within one calendar year to be less than or equal to the power generated.

pros, cons & considerations: The chief benefit of this definition is that it promotes deep efficiency at the single building scale. This is because in order to viably (and cost effectively) achieve this definition of ZNE, it is much more desirable to build the lowest energy-use building possible and then add a source or renewable generation. In addition, ZNE sets a concrete goal to achieve and thus can be a more useful target than trying to meet or best shifting baselines as building performance codes change.

However, buildings are built in many types and have many necessary functions- not all of which are compatible with the site definition of ZNE. For example, hospitals, restaurants, industrial activities, etc., may all have a very hard time achieving a ZNE facility because of unusually high energy demands. In addition, high-rise buildings and urban infill sites have their own challenges due to physical constraints (poor solar access, low rooftop-to-building ratio, proximity and density issues, etc.)

The implication here is that if a ZNE site-definition goal is in place on a policy level, at a certain point it becomes necessary to start looking at the issue from a multiple-building, or “community”scale, that would allow energy balancing between buildings to achieve an overall ZNE outcome (this is a simplification, but that is the main point).

Further reading:

P. Torcellini et al., Zero Energy Buildings: A Critical Look at the Definition, National Renewable Energy Lab, 2006.

This post is part of our definitions series on “eco-lingo” and technical terms

California’s Clean Energy Future, Part 2


On Tuesday, January 25, I was in the audience at the SPUR Urban Center in San Francisco as Panama Bartholomy, CEC, and Emma Wendt, PG&E, gave presentation about California’s clean energy future.

The post below consists of Part 2 of my record of the presentation – the second part of Panama Bartholomy’s presentation. All portions are included in chronological order.

An ellipsis (…) indicates that I was not able to capture the words or thoughts skipped. The presentation is transcribed as accurately as possible – punctuation choices are mine. I also added any photos or images.

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Panama Bartholomy

… …

That’s the context. Let’s get into solutions. On is zero net energy new buildings…. All new homes will produce as much energy as they use by 2020. But our challenge isn’t really new buildings. Our challenge is existing buildings… … We have 3/4 of the units in California built before there were energy codes. So that’s a real challenge….

So we adopted a very ambitious plan in California… the Long Term Energy Efficiency Strategic Plan… [highlighting retrofit goals] If you look just at the building sector and where the GHG emissions are coming from… Lighting represents 12% of all the emissions from the building sector. All the pieces get more and more efficient… Except for the “misc” category… which is basically plug loads… Flat screen TVs are 10% of residential energy consumption… and 1% of California’s total electricity consumption…. So we created standards… We had a choice of either building power plants to power all those TVs, or making efficient TVs… we chose efficient TVs.

… …

The CEC now has the authority to enforce energy reduction in existing buildings… We’re going to start by eventually requiring labeling of buildings… Eventually requiring upgrades at different parts in the lifecycle of buildings to improve energy efficiency… Please join us at the rulemaking.

But there are major market barriers… awareness… lack of coordination among the various programs… lack of a trained home performance workforce… lack of home energy rating system. And lastly, a significant lack of access to capital… One of the ways we’re addressing this is with a new program… Energy Upgrade California.

Now I want to talk about renewables… It’s a law that by the end of 2010, all IOUs need to provide at least 20% of their electricity to consumers through renewables… The IOUs have enough renewables under contract to get to 33% by 2020… … There has been intense growth in the Renewable Portfolio Standard capacity over the last few years…. …

Geothermal right now is the number 1 producer, then wind, then a significant amount of small hydro … You can get the most updated numbers on the CEC website….

There are a huge number of renewable projects going through permitting at the state and local level right now… Almost 51 MW total. Obviously, not all will get through permitting, and not all will get built, but that’s a significant number.

… …

One of the reasons the CEC was created is because we were having trouble getting new power plants built in California in the 1970s… thermal plants. We don’t do solar and we don’t do wind… The average solar project site is over 125 times larger than the average natural gas plant. So there are some major issues there… And the Mojave Desert is not a wasteland – it is a fragile ecosystem.

(Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Is solar a renewable resource if it destroys a fragile ecosystem that can never be replaced? … We’re seeing a need to reassess what we mean by renewable energy in California. So we’re developing the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan… Starting to created a program for the future of responsible renewable energy in the Mojave Desert. … Achieving all cost-effective energy efficiency reduces the renewable energy needed to meet electricity demand… this means we can have much more strategic placement of the projects…

It comes down to a choice. California’s residents, who live mostly in cities, can put down new power plants on tortoises, or they can change some light bulbs …

… … [looking at a map of where the good wind, solar sites are] So either we need major power lines from spots in the desert to where the people are, or we need to put some PVs on a roof… or on a parking lot… …

With electricity you have a lot of options… With natural gas, you don’t have a lot of options. One is solar thermal… And we better do it quick… … Right now in China, you can buy a system for about $200. The alternative is to heat water with electricity for about $150 per year. In the US a system costs about $7500…

In California, about 42% of union trade members are on the bench right now… [looking at a chart] For every MW of construction, we can look at how many jobs are created for different generation technologies… You can invest in renewable, which are a little more expensive up front, but create jobs…and it’s pretty much free after that except for some maintenance…

Now, to summarize Brown’s plan:

  • Build 12,000 MW of localized electricity generation…
  • Build 8,000 MW of large-scale renewable energy…
  • Federal and state agencies should carry out one integrated environmental review…
  • Reduce peak energy demands and develop energy storage…
  • Increase efficiency of buildings and appliances…
  • Develop more combined heat and power…
  • Appoint a clean energy jobs czar…
  • Develop CEQA Guidelines that accelerate permitting of renewable energy projects…
  • Deliver targeted workforce training programs…

We’re not going to achieve these goals in Sacramento… Politicians don’t retrofit homes… … The only way we achieve any of these goals is through leaders in community, leaders in industry, and the leaders in this room. Thank you very much for your time.

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Part 1 is posted here. Part 3 will be posted soon.

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The Difference Between the CEC and CPUC


I know what you’re thinking – a really exciting topic. But this question has actually come up in conversation a remarkable number of times in the last couple of weeks. This is not intended to be a definitive guide, but just to start the delineation between the organizations.

In a future post, I will discuss some of the practical ways that these organizations influence energy efficiency policy in California.

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Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Basics

The CEC is California’s primary energy policy and planning agency.

The CPUC regulates privately owned electric, natural gas, telecommunications, water, railroad, rail transit, and passenger transportation companies.

This post will focus only on the energy aspects of the CPUC’s role.

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The California Energy Commission (CEC)

The five CEC commissioners are appointed by the California governor and must be approved by the Senate. Terms are five years. Commissioners must represent the following specific areas of expertise: law, environment, economics, science/engineering, and the public at large.

The CEC’s responsibilities include:

  • Forecasting future energy needs and keeping historical energy data.
  • Licensing thermal power plants 50 megawatts or larger.
  • Promoting energy efficiency by setting the state’s appliance and building efficiency standards and working with local government to enforce those standards.
  • Supporting public interest energy research that advances energy science and technology through research, development, and demonstration programs.
  • Supporting renewable energy by providing market support to existing, new, and emerging renewable technologies; providing incentives for small wind and fuel cell electricity systems; and providing incentives for solar electricity systems in new home construction.
  • Developing and implementing the state Alternative and Renewable Fuel and Vehicle Technology Program to reduce the state’s petroleum dependency and help attain the state climate change policies.
  • Administering more than $300 million in American Reinvestment and Recovery Act funding through the state energy program, the energy efficiency conservation and block grant program; the energy efficiency appliance rebate program and the energy assurance and emergency program.
  • Planning for and directing state response to energy emergencies.

The CEC is located in Sacramento, CA.

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The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC)

The five CPUC commissioners are also appointed by the California governor and must be approved by the Senate. Terms are six years.

The CPUC regulates investor owned utilities (IOUs) that distribute electricity and natural gas, including Pacific Gas & Electric Company (PG&E), Southern California Edison (SCE), San Diego Gas & Electric Company (SDG&E) and Southern California Gas Company.

The CPUC does not regulate municipal utilities, such as the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD).

The CPUC’s mission is the following:

  • The California Public Utilities Commission serves the public interest by protecting consumers and ensuring the provision of safe, reliable utility service and infrastructure at reasonable rates, with a commitment to environmental enhancement and a healthy California economy.  We regulate utility services, stimulate innovation, and promote competitive markets, where possible, in the communications, energy, transportation, and water industries.

The CPUC has a number of different divisions; the Energy Division assists Commission activities in the electricity, natural gas, steam, and petroleum pipeline industries. Energy Division handles the regulation and Commission approval of official rates and terms of service for energy IOUs.

Because the regulated California utilities are so large, and their programs reach so many customers, CPUC energy policy decisions and goals have wide influence in California. The CPUC touches programs in energy efficiency, demand response, low-income assistance, distributed generation, and self-generation, among others. It has a role in California climate policy. It is overseeing the CA utilities’ switch to Smart Grid technologies. The CPUC regulated electric generation and procurement, electric rates and markets, gas policy and rates, and electric transmission and distribution.

CPUC headquarters are in San Francisco, CA.

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Patch-working the Grid


This Friday’s links highlight a few examples of global progress toward integrating cleaner energy into conventional energy grids.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

The New York Times reports on the impressive bump from 17% to nearly 45% renewable-source energy in Portugal’s grid over the past five years. However, the gain in cleaner energy has come at a hefty premium for consumers- take a look at how the Portuguese are balancing it all.

Visit Australia’s Clean Energy Council website and have a look at the interactive map of all clean energy plants over 100kW in operation.

Denmark’s official website cites 12 large scale solar operations in the country that add up to 20% of annual energy demand and offer flexibility within the national grid.

Lastly, read a discussion of progress toward integration of wind energy into European energy grids on the European Wind Energy Association’s website.

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Lots of Bay Area News

U.S. Representative and  House Appropriator Mike Honda secured funding to the tune of $2 million towards extension of the BART system to Silicon Valley as part of the FY 2011 Transportation, Housing and Urban Development spending bill. What is the “BART to Silicon Valley” project? It’s an extension of the existing BART system to Milpitas, San Jose, and Santa Clara starting from the future Warm Springs station in Fremont (along the eastern side of the South Bay).

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Google Energy has signed its first contract, a 20-year wind power contract in Iowa. Google will sell the electricity on the spot market and retire the associated renewable energy credits (RECs) – via TechCrunch.

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More people are freaking out about smart meters, but this time not in the Central Valley…

The Fairfax Town Council gave the nod to the creation of an ordinance that, if passed, would try to prevent PG&E from installing smart meters in Fairfax –  via the Marin Independent Journal.

The Marin Association of Realtors has issued a statement calling for a moratorium on its SmartMeter program due to concerns in three areas: concerns about overcharging, concerns about health effects from the radio waves, and concerns about PG&E imposing meters on folks that don’t want them – via the Marin Independent Journal.

The Marin Independent Journal also reports that the Marin supervisors have sent a letter to Michael Peevey, president of the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), asking the CPUC to suspend PG&E’s SmartMeter rollout until a commission has reviewed the funtion of the meters and until the health implications of the electronic emissions from the wireless devices has been addressed…

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The Department of Energy announced yesterday that $122 million has been awarded to a team of scientists from California (including Lawrence Berkley National Lab) to establish an Energy Innovation Hub that will be focused on converting sunlight into liquid fuel.

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