• Peninsula utility explores solar, hydro and tidal research to diversify energy future
By Hannah Heimbuch
Whether he’s speaking as a Homer Electric Association board member, or as a community member, Jim Levine likes to talk renewable energy. He put a wind turbine up at his home to offset his household’s energy use, and he has been an outspoken supporter of alternative energy production on the HEA board.
Lately, Levine has put his own energy behind a pilot solar project, now in preliminary stages of planning and discussion.
“I guess you’d call it a solar community project,” Levine said.
HEA would buy a 100-kilowatt solar power system to serve as a base. Beyond that, HEA members could buy shares in the project, which would be expanded beyond 100 kilowatts as people invested.
Members’ utility bills would be offset by the amount of power their percentage of the solar project produced.
This is a relatively small starting output, Levine said, considering that HEA uses about 80 megawatt-hours on a cold winter day, and the average household about 630 kilowatt-hours per month.
“We’ll get our feet wet, see what it does, if it works, how it works,” he said.
The advantage to this system, he added, is allowing people to invest in a renewable energy resource whether or not they have the space or capital to install it at their own homes.
“I have an 80-foot tower,” Levine said. “Well, you can’t put an 80-foot wind generator up in the middle of Homer.”
Whether it’s a lack of space or funding or inclination, this gives people an easier option for investing in diverse energies, he said.
“Not everybody has the ideal site, but I think people would like to be able to participate.”
For HEA, said association spokesman Joe Gallagher, that interest does exist — from both the utility and its members.
“From the co-op’s perspective, I think it’s an exciting idea,” Gallagher said. “It just opens up an avenue for our members to participate in a renewable energy project when they might not be able to do it on their own.”
As of 2013, Gallagher said, there were 57 member-owned power projects hooked into the HEA grid. Of those, 25 are solar and 32 are wind.
“We have seen a pretty substantial number of those put onto our system in the last four years,” he said.
So far, early project work has generated a preliminary design, or engineer’s report, and a location.
“We’ve got the land,” Levine said. “We’re looking at a piece of HEA property that’s out East End Road.”
The next step is coming up with the capital.
There will be a round of renewable energy grants through the Alaska Energy Authority in September, Levine said, and the plan is to apply for some of that funding.
Next would be getting approvals from the Regulatory Commission of Alaska for the type of net metering they would need, as some aspects of the program wouldn’t meet certain property and usage specifications. For instance, the regulations now state that a person using net metering to offset their energy bill must be accessing a renewable energy source on or adjacent to their property.
“In order to do this community program, we have to get the RCA to agree to a variation in their regulations,” Levine said.
While net metering is intended to offset use and lower utility bills for members producing some of their own power, there is some concern that it has a negative effect on members not on the net metering system.
A home may be using less energy due to supplemental power, Levine said, and in peak production times may even feed electricity back onto the grid. This results in a lower cost to the independent producer, because their utility bill will be lower depending on how much juice they put back into the system, and how much they avoid using to begin with by having alternative energy.
That being said, there is still a cost – hardware and maintenance in particular – to having electricity available to your home, no matter how much you’re using. Typical monthly service fees don’t really cover that actual cost, Levine said. This means that a home with a solar or wind supplemental may incur less cost, but the base cost of providing electricity at all has remained the same, and must in theory be offset by the remaining utility members.
This issue has cropped up around the country, as energy utilities strive to create a system that is constantly shifting to incorporate new energy sources, and incentivizing alternatives.
It’s one of the concerns they will need to deal with moving forward, Levine said.
It’s one more step in the right direction according to Levine.
“I guess I think that it’s just the wave of the future,” he said. “We have to get beyond fossil fuels.”
A trend toward cost effective renewable energy projects is one that both the board and the Homer Electric staff in general are supportive of, Gallagher said.
At the moment, he said, 90 percent of HEA’s energy production comes from natural gas, causing the utility to be subject to market fluctuations.
“So it’s important to diversify,” he said. “And we’re looking at a couple of different things. The community solar project would be one.”
They’ve also been looking into a hydro project at Grant Lake.
“It’s a small, five-megawatt hydro electric project that we’ve been studying for about five to six years now,” Gallagher said. “We’ve just finished up what we think is the final round of field studies, and we’re going over the results with agencies right now.”
If the project progresses, HEA will apply to the federal energy regulatory commission in 2015 to move forward on it.
In addition, Gallagher said, HEA continues to support research in tidal energy. There has been discussion about a tidal project in Cook Inlet, though that is likely a ways off at this point as that industry’s technology continues to develop.
“We have a partnership with the Ocean Renewable Power Company,” he said. “So we continue to work with them. It’s an industry that’s in its infancy really, but they’ve made great strides in the last decade.”
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