Renewable Energy Becomes a Utility Lifeline

TheStreet.com

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- When North Carolina Republicans brought forward a bill pushed by ALEC, the conservative lobbying group, to gut the state's renewable energy standards this year, they figured they had a model piece of pro-business legislation that would sail through.

But, as North American Windpower gleefully reported, it died in committee.

Key to the story is the committee where it died, public utilities and energy. It died there because the state's electrical utilities, mainly Duke Energy , which bought out rival Progress Energy last year, didn't support it, despite the fact that the bill's prime sponsor formerly worked there.

What happened?

Duke has found out how to make money with renewables. Its non-regulated Duke Energy Renewables unit plans to double production from wind, solar and biomass projects this decade. Big customers including Google and Apple , both of which have large data centers in the state, are supporting a new green energy rate, reports the Charlotte Business Journal.

It turns out solar and wind projects offer big advantages to electric utility companies. They can get a premium rate for solar power, whose supply peaks in the afternoon alongside the higher load of air conditioning. They can make a big profit from homes and businesses that install panels, paying off-peak rates for the same power.


Even the additional storage capacity needed to deal with such projects can become a profit center. A Department of Energy rule called FERC 890 effectively doubles the value of storage projects, which the agency lists at its energystorageexchange.org site.

Imre Gyuk, program manager for energy storage research at the Department of Energy, said in a recent Atlanta talk that there were 686 Mwatts of storage capacity online around the world as of March. He estimated that for every five watts of power available, one watt of storage is necessary to assure the stability needed by modern cloud data centers. But there is over 300 Gwatts of continuous load throughout the U.S. grid alone. The opportunity, in short, has barely been touched.

The cash, and profit from these operations doesn't fall within the regulations of state governments. AES Energy Storage, with the same corporate parent -- AES as Indiana's IPALCO utility -- has a 32-Mwatt battery in West Virginia controlling the output of a wind farm. It makes money.

Not every utility company is on board with this. Municipally owned CPS Energy in San Antonio is trying to cut what it pays homeowners for solar power, citing increased costs. Most of Texas' grid is isolated from that of the rest of the country, as seen in this Google Sites map.

While the profits from renewables can be high, so can be the risk in fighting them.


Pacific Gas & Electric is trying to fight off a challenge to its monopoly status in San Francisco from the municipally owned CleanPowerSF. As the cost of solar power plunges below that of other grid energy, the number of customers producing their own power rises, and the city wants to harness this to compete against the utility monopoly.

The San Francisco Bay Guardian calls the result a "dirty war", and it is the ultimate nightmare for utilities. Failure to buy renewable power, and to plan for it, risks a utility's long-term survival as a monopoly provider. And there are lots of ways to gain unregulated -- free -- cash flow from making, selling and managing renewable power.

Against that reality, ideology is powerless.

At the time of publication, the author was long GOOG and AAPL.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

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