Tag Archives: utilities

Demand Destruction from Home

Demand destruction is what coal mining companies, utilities, and anyone who benefits from a centrally controlled power grid dreads.  Why?  Demand destruction represents an existential threat to the entire business model of these entities.

Consider the state of Iowa’s electricity generation mix and my recently installed solar photovoltaic system.  Iowa’s electricity generation mix breaks down like this for April of 2017:

Iowa Energy Chart.gif

In Iowa non-hydroelectric renewables usually equals wind given the relatively low penetration of solar photovoltaic generation.  Another caveat is that the wind tends to blow strongly in the spring and demand for electricity has not spiked with the onset of the summer air conditioning season.

Now consider the impact of a solar photovoltaic system, mine or someone else’s.  When that demand leaves the grid, so to speak, what generation sources do you think will be curtailed?  In order I think it would be coal, nuclear, natural gas, and finally wind.  Why?  Wind turbines do not have a recurring fuel cost, so the cost to retire them does not include a perpetuity of fuel cost baked in which can be a significant driver for an asset with a long life.

In other terms, do you keep generating power by paying to burn a fuel or just harvest the wind for free?  In business school the number one lesson I learned in marketing was to not compete with free.  You will lose every time.

So, as demand disappears from the grid as a result of distributed residential solar the traditional fossil fuel sources are forced to compete with installed and cheap wind power for a dwindling number of customers.  I exaggerate to some degree to get the point across, but in Iowa this may not be such a moot point given the plans for wind power development in the next three years.

Depending upon how you measure it Iowa has more than 6,900 megawatts of wind power providing anywhere from 35% to 40% of the state’s electricity.  This is great news in and of itself, but the state’s two major utilities—MidAmerican Energy and Alliant Energy—have announced investments for an additional 3,000 megawatts or more by 2020.  Just with these additions—barring any additional activity by other energy players—would bring Iowa nearly 10,000 megawatts of wind power and give the state the capacity to produce more than 50% of its electricity from the wind.  This is without a significant portion of the state’s electricity demand being displaced by distributed residential solar or energy efficiency.

As you can see from the chart that when the wind blows heavily, which it tends to do in the spring, wind is already the largest source of electricity generation in the state.  That trend was true for February, March, and April of 2017. This is only going to grow in the future.

Our homes can be the drivers of change for a cleaner and greener world.

Thinking about Household Electricity Consumption

As I dither about installing a solar photovoltaic system on my home I also spend a lot of time thinking about electricity consumption in general.

When I first contacted a few solar installers in my area—who have all been very responsive which is a sharp difference from other home service providers lately—all of the systems were sized far in excess of my needs.  I have written before about my household electricity consumption and it remains something that baffles me well into 2017.

The twelve month rolling average electricity consumption of my household is approximately 400 kWh.  It has been stable within 20 kWh of this number for about three years.  What does that number mean in comparison to the average U.S. and Iowa household?

According to the Energy Information Administration the average U.S. and Iowa households consume approximately 900 kWh and 847 kWh per month respectively.  What the hell are people doing with all of this electricity?

It is not as if I live in a small house without the use of many electric appliances.  We have a large-ish French door refrigerator, chest freezer in the basement, electric dryer, and an electric range.  When I lived in a house with a gas range, gas dryer, and no deep freeze the monthly average was below 200 kWh over the course of three years.

We use the air conditioning in the summer, although it is rarely icy like in some houses.  We cook at home all the time using the electric range and small appliances like my beloved Instant Pot.  There are two elementary school aged children in the house so we run through a lot of clothes that often times use the electric dryer.  Sure we turn off lights in rooms, have LEDs in all but a few fixtures, do not watch very much television, and generally exist in a somewhat analog entertainment world (e.g. books that are actually printed on paper occupy many an end table spot).

It makes me question the urgency to install a solar photovoltaic system.  Yes, such a system would divorce me from the somewhat dirty grid in Iowa where even though a large percentage of our electricity is wind derived much of the rest comes from coal.  However, would I be better off investing that capital in something else that might have more of an impact ecologically speaking?

Furthermore, if I am living a modern life at half of the juice—so to speak—of the average household in my state doesn’t that mean we have a lot of room to become more efficient without really sacrificing anything in terms of modernity?  Just some random—kind of like the Tweeter in Chief going off in the morning—thoughts for a Monday afternoon.

Friday Linkage 6/6/2014

The trip to Colorado was good, considering the circumstances behind the trip. It is hard to believe that both of my parents are gone and their ashes are spread to the winds west of the Continental Divide.

It’s also hard to believe that I will be heading back again in about a month, but this time it is with the family and for an entire week. If I could knock off six Front Range breweries in one day imagine what I could do with a week? Hmmm….

On to the links…

Australia Experiences Hottest Two Years Ever Recorded—Australia, a huge per capita emitter of carbon dioxide, seems to be bearing the brunt of the bad news on the climate front. One year it is floods, the next year it is fires, and it is getting to be so gosh darned hot all the time.

Meeting Renewable Energy Targets Turns Out to be Inexpensive—So, with the new emissions rules being rolled out and the predictable right wing response of “High cost!” and “Job killer!” out of the way let us look at some facts. Conveniently, the NREL has taken care of that for us already.

U.S. Residential Solar Just Beat Commercial Installations For The First Time—I am so close to pulling the trigger on an ~5 kw solar photovoltaic array on my home after getting a pair of estimates. I hope to join this trend soon.

Average New-Vehicle MPG Climbs yet Again, to 25.6—Automobile fuel efficiency keeps on going up as manufacturers roll out increasingly efficient vehicles to meet government set targets. Hmmm, could the new carbon emissions targets work the same way?

Silent Rooftop Wind Turbines Could Generate Half of a Household’s Energy Needs—I am really skeptical about small scale wind. It never seems to work once prototypes are deployed into the field. I would love to be able to incorporate a small, silent wind turbine on my house to supplement my proposed solar array because of the near constant wind we have here in Iowa.

A Price Tag on Carbon as a Climate Rescue Plan—When something finally has a price a market can be built around that something. In the U.S. things without prices are not accounted for properly because we have a hard time dealing with the commons or externalities in a concrete way.

How to Cut Carbon: Change the Way Utilities Make Money—Utilities are operating under the most archaic business model possible. It’s amazing.

U.S. Imposes Tariffs of up to 35% on Certain Solar Panels Made in China—Given the dire straits that our climate is in right now we need as many solar panels as possible as cheaply as possible. A trade war around solar panels will hurt the consumer more than it will change government policy.

How Weeds Could Help Feed Billions in a Warming World—I am hopeful that we will finally look to the adaptive mechanisms of weeds for help in figuring out how to adapt our food crops to a warmer planet. Why? Weeds represent the sum total of selection through natural and unnatural stimuli.

What Happens When You Build A Playground For A Bunch Of Rescued Elephants?—I love animal sanctuaries. This is just awesome to watch.

A Close Up Look Inside New Glarus Brewing Company—The New Glarus Brewing Company has something of a cult following here in the Midwest owing to the distribution only being in Wisconsin and a history of making damn good beer.

Electricity Rates on the Rise

The infographic from One Block Off the Grid  highlights why I worry about my household’s electricity usage.  Granted, as I pointed out in an earlier post, my household, on average, uses a lot less electricity than even the lowest state’s per household amount.  However, resiliency, in my opinion, is about reducing my exposure to the almost guaranteed increase in the cost of electricity that is to come in the future.

Another reason to be concerned about your household’s electricity use is the growth in natural gas as a generation fuel and the continued use of coal.

Coal’s problems are well established.  No matter how cleanly it is burned, coal is a dirty fuel.  From mining through to combustion the list of problems is long.  Whether it is mountain top removal or bad practices at mining companies or mercury or soot or some other pollutant, coal is a bad actor when it comes to energy.  It’s cheap and the U.S. has a lot of coal, but that does mean we should be burning the stuff.

Natural gas seems like the better choice.  It’s cleaner than coal on almost all fronts—although its clear superiority has been challenged as of late.  However, hydraulic fracturing or fracking has come to the forefront as a concern.  The U.S. is entering a so-called “golden age of natural gas” as fracking has opened up huge deposits of gas as viable operations across the country.  The growth in gas production is starting to rearrange the entire energy infrastructure as coal is replaced en masse for energy generation and the petrochemical industry gears up to take advantage of this new found bounty.

But the environmental concerns are legion.  The process of fracking is suspected in the poisoning of sub-surface water and the wastewater from the operations sits in polluted lagoons waiting to cause a problem.  Don’t think vast pools of wastewater are a problem?  Just ask people affected by the coal ash disaster in Tennessee or residents near manure lagoons after a flash flood.  It’s as nasty as it sounds.

But, if everyone used less electricity—that oh so dreaded concept of efficiency—there would be less need for any kind of electrical generation.  Furthermore, the percentage of the total generation regime that renewables accounts for could increase because polluting sources like coal and natural gas plants could be taken off line or reserved for peak load moments.

Distributed generation, e.g. photovoltaic systems on residential rooftops, figures into this equation greatly because it places electricity generation near the loads.  In some regions solar PV dovetails nicely with peak demand because the prime solar generation hours coincide with the hottest times of the day and, therefore, with peak demand for things like refrigeration or air conditioning.

Then again, this all just sounds like hippie utopian thinking.  Damn Ecotopia! 

Thinking About Home Electricity Consumption

When my monthly bill from my electricity provider came in the mail I started wondering about my household’s electricity usage in comparison to national averages.  I do not really know why I started thinking about this topic now, but it sparked some investigative desire in my brain.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, in 2010 the average residential utility customer used 11,496 kWh for the entire year or 958 kWh per month.  Tennessee had the highest rate at 16,716 kWh per month and Maine had the lowest at 6,252 kWh per month.

So, at the low end—Maine in this example—the average household electricity usage per month is 521 kWh per month.  How does my household compare?

According to my monthly electric bill the rolling 12 month average for my home is 434 kWh.  Huh?  How is it possible that I have a lower monthly electricity usage than the lowest state average?  I always thought that we were trying to be judicious about electricity usage—turning off lights when possible, etc.—but this almost feels comical.

This number may seem artificially low for a household of over 3,000 square feet and four people, albeit with two children under the age of 5.  Consider this for a moment; both the range and clothes dryer are electric.  Therefore, I have not deferred some of the energy cost of these appliances to natural gas and depressed my average monthly electricity usage.  We have a large refrigerator and a chest freezer in the basement for the long term frozen food storage.  There are two LCD televisions with DIRECTV receivers—a notorious user of standby power—in the house as well.

Furthermore, I live in Iowa which sees some very extreme temperatures.  In the winter, electricity usage rises because the furnace blower is being used to keep warm air circulating through the home.  Granted, I keep the home at an average of 60 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter.  In the summer, the temperatures easily reach into the 90s and the humidity can be brutal so air conditioning gets used a lot more than other areas.

We have taken care of the easy things—replacing incandescent bulbs with CFL or LED bulbs, drying only full loads of clothes, running the dishwasher only when it is full, etc.—so now I am going to have to look harder for energy savings.  Going forward, I am looking to reduce the average monthly usage figure to something below 400 kWh per month.  Therefore, I need to find an annual savings of approximately 408 kWh—34 kWh for 12 months—to reach my new goal.

The first step in this process is going after the vampire loads throughout the house.