NewEnergyNews: TODAY’S STUDY: BOULDER CONSIDERS A MUNICIPAL UTILITY

NewEnergyNews

Gleanings from the web and the world, condensed for convenience, illustrated for enlightenment, arranged for impact...

The challenge: To make every day Earth Day.

YESTERDAY

THINGS-TO-THINK-ABOUT THURSDAY, Oct. 23:

  • TTTA Thursday-EVANGELICALS IN ‘CREATION CARE’ CLIMATE FIGHT
  • TTTA Thursday-ADVANCED WIND-MAKERS MAKANI, SHEERWIND READY DEMOS
  • TTTA Thursday-TEA PARTY BACKS SOLAR, ATTACKS UTILITY MONOPOLIES
  • TTTA Thursday-WHAT DRIVERS DON’T KNOW HOLDS BACK THE FUTURE
  • THE DAY BEFORE

  • THE STUDY: THE IMPACT ON REAL PEOPLE OF RISING POWER PRICES
  • QUICK NEWS, Oct. 22: SCHOOLS SAVE W/GEOTHERMAL HEAT PUMP SYSTEMS; BUILDING FOR NEXT-GEN U.S. BIOFUELS; ENERGY STORAGE MARKET EMERGING
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    GET THE DAILY HEADLINES EMAIL: CLICK HERE TO SUBMIT YOUR EMAIL ADDRESS OR SEND YOUR EMAIL ADDRESS TO: herman@NewEnergyNews.net

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    THE DAY BEFORE THE DAY BEFORE

  • THE STUDY: WHERE U.S. OFFSHORE WIND WILL CONNECT
  • QUICK NEWS, Oct. 21: SOLARCITY TO CROWDFUND WITH $1,000 BONDS; NEW JERSEY LOOKS AT OCEAN WIND; SMART LED LIGHTING MRKT TO DOUBLE
  • THE DAY BEFORE THAT

  • THE STUDY: NEW OPPORTUNITIES IN TRANSMISSION
  • QUICK NEWS, Oct. 20: ELEVEN GOOD THINGS ABOUT SOLAR ENERGY; YAHOO BUYS WIND; SMART THERMOSTATS’ BILLION DOLLAR FUTURE
  • AND THE DAY BEFORE THAT

  • Weekend Video: The Ocean Speaks Out
  • Weekend Video: Adapting To The Inevitable
  • Weekend Video: The Joy Of Driving EVs Powered By The Sun
  • THE LAST DAY UP HERE

  • FRIDAY WORLD HEADLINE-HOTTEST SEPTEMBER EVER; WORLD’S HOTTEST MONTHS STREAK AT SIX
  • FRIDAY WORLD HEADLINE-EU WIND BEATS FOSSIL, NUKE ENERGY PRICES
  • FRIDAY WORLD HEADLINE-DESERTEC SUCCUMBS TO MIDEAST TURMOIL
  • FRIDAY WORLD HEADLINE-JAPAN UPS PUSH FOR GEOTHERMAL
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    Anne B. Butterfield of Daily Camera and Huffington Post, is a biweekly contributor to NewEnergyNews

  • Another Tipping Point: US Coal Supply Decline So Real Even West Virginia Concurs (REPORT)

    November 26, 2013 (Huffington Post via NewEnergyNews)

    Everywhere we turn, environmental news is filled with horrid developments and glimpses of irreversible tipping points.

    Just a handful of examples are breathtaking: Scientists have dared to pinpoint the years at which locations around the world may reach runaway heat, and in the northern hemisphere it's well in sight for our children: 2047. Survivors of Superstorm Sandy are packing up as costs of repair and insurance go out of reach, one threat that climate science has long predicted. Or we could simply talk about the plight of bees and the potential impact on food supplies. Surprising no one who explores the Pacific Ocean, sailor Ivan MacFadyen described long a journey dubbed The Ocean is Broken, in which he saw vast expanses of trash and almost no wildlife save for a whale struggling a with giant tumor on its head, evoking the tons of radioactive water coming daily from Fukushima's lamed nuclear power center. Rampaging fishing methods and ocean acidification are now reported as causing the overpopulation of jellyfish that have jammed the intakes of nuclear plants around the world. Yet the shutting down of nuclear plants is a trifling setback compared with the doom that can result in coming days at Fukushima in the delicate job to extract bent and spent fuel rods from a ruined storage tank, a project dubbed "radioactive pick up sticks."

    With all these horrors to ponder you wouldn't expect to hear that you should also worry about the United States running out of coal. But you would be wrong, says Leslie Glustrom, founder and research director for Clean Energy Action. Her contention is that we've passed the peak in our nation's legendary supply of coal that powers over one-third of our grid capacity. This grim news is faithfully spelled out in three reports, with the complete story told in Warning: Faulty Reporting of US Coal Reserves (pdf). (Disclosure: I serve on CEA's board and have known the author for years.)

    Glustrom's research presents a sea change in how we should understand our energy challenges, or experience grim consequences. It's not only about toxic and heat-trapping emissions anymore; it's also about having enough energy generation to run big cities and regions that now rely on coal. Glustrom worries openly about how commerce will go on in many regions in 2025 if they don't plan their energy futures right.

    2013-11-05-FigureES4_FULL.jpgclick to enlarge

    Scrutinizing data for prices on delivered coal nationwide, Glustrom's new report establishes that coal's price has risen nearly 8 percent annually for eight years, roughly doubling, due mostly to thinner, deeper coal seams plus costlier diesel transport expenses. Higher coal prices in a time of "cheap" natural gas and affordable renewables means coal companies are lamed by low or no profits, as they hold debt levels that dwarf their market value and carry very high interest rates.

    2013-11-05-Table_ES2_FULL.jpgclick to enlarge

    2013-11-05-Figure_ES2_FULL.jpg

    One leading coal company, Patriot, filed for bankruptcy last year; many others are also struggling under bankruptcy watch and not eager to upgrade equipment for the tougher mining ahead. Add to this the bizarre event this fall of a coal lease failing to sell in Wyoming's Powder River Basin, the "Fort Knox" of the nation's coal supply, with some pundits agreeing this portends a tightening of the nation's coal supply, not to mention the array of researchers cited in the report. Indeed, at the mid point of 2013, only 488 millions tons of coal were produced in the U.S.; unless a major catch up happens by year-end, 2013 may be as low in production as 1993.

    Coal may exist in large quantities geologically, but economically, it's getting out of reach, as confirmed by US Geological Survey in studies indicating that less than 20 percent of US coal formations are economically recoverable, as explored in the CEA report. To Glustrom, that number plus others translate to 10 to 20 years more of burning coal in the US. It takes capital, accessible coal with good heat content and favorable market conditions to assure that mining companies will stay in business. She has observed a classic disconnect between camps of professionals in which geologists tend to assume money is "infinite" and financial analysts tend to assume that available coal is "infinite." Both biases are faulty and together they court disaster, and "it is only by combining thoughtful estimates of available coal and available money that our country can come to a realistic estimate of the amount of US coal that can be mined at a profit." This brings us back to her main and rather simple point: "If the companies cannot make a profit by mining coal they won't be mining for long."

    No one is more emphatic than Glustrom herself that she cannot predict the future, but she presents trend lines that are robust and confirmed assertively by the editorial board at West Virginia Gazette:

    Although Clean Energy Action is a "green" nonprofit opposed to fossil fuels, this study contains many hard economic facts. As we've said before, West Virginia's leaders should lower their protests about pollution controls, and instead launch intelligent planning for the profound shift that is occurring in the Mountain State's economy.

    The report "Warning, Faulty Reporting of US Coal Reserves" and its companion reports belong in the hands of energy and climate policy makers, investors, bankers, and rate payer watchdog groups, so that states can plan for, rather than react to, a future with sea change risk factors.

    [Clean Energy Action is fundraising to support the dissemination of this report through December 11. Contribute here.]

    It bears mentioning that even China is enacting a "peak coal" mentality, with Shanghai declaring that it will completely ban coal burning in 2017 with intent to close down hundreds of coal burning boilers and industrial furnaces, or shifting them to clean energy by 2015. And Citi Research, in "The Unimaginable: Peak Coal in China," took a look at all forms of energy production in China and figured that demand for coal will flatten or peak by 2020 and those "coal exporting countries that have been counting on strong future coal demand could be most at risk." Include US coal producers in that group of exporters.

    Our world is undergoing many sorts of change and upheaval. We in the industrialized world have spent about a century dismissing ocean trash, overfishing, pesticides, nuclear hazard, and oil and coal burning with a shrug of, "Hey it's fine, nature can manage it." Now we're surrounded by impacts of industrial-grade consumption, including depletion of critical resources and tipping points of many kinds. It is not enough to think of only ourselves and plan for strictly our own survival or convenience. The threat to animals everywhere, indeed to whole systems of the living, is the grief-filled backdrop of our times. It's "all hands on deck" at this point of human voyaging, and in our nation's capital, we certainly don't have that. Towns, states and regions need to plan fiercely and follow through. And a fine example is Boulder Colorado's recent victory to keep on track for clean energy by separating from its electric utility that makes 59 percent of its power from coal.

    Clean Energy Action is disseminating "Warning: Faulty Reporting of US Coal Reserves" for free to all manner of relevant professionals who should be concerned about long range trends which now include the supply risks of coal, and is supporting that outreach through a fundraising campaign.

    [Clean Energy Action is fundraising to support the dissemination of this report through December 11. Contribute here.]

    Author's note: Want to support my work? Please "fan" me at Huffpost Denver, here (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/anne-butterfield). Thanks.

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    Anne's previous NewEnergyNews columns:

  • Another Tipping Point: US Coal Supply Decline So Real Even West Virginia Concurs (REPORT), November 26, 2013
  • SOLAR FOR ME BUT NOT FOR THEE ~ Xcel's Push to Undermine Rooftop Solar, September 20, 2013
  • NEW BILLS AND NEW BIRDS in Colorado's recent session, May 20, 2013
  • Lies, damned lies and politicians (October 8, 2012)
  • Colorado's Elegant Solution to Fracking (April 23, 2012)
  • Shale Gas: From Geologic Bubble to Economic Bubble (March 15, 2012)
  • Taken for granted no more (February 5, 2012)
  • The Republican clown car circus (January 6, 2012)
  • Twenty-Somethings of Colorado With Skin in the Game (November 22, 2011)
  • Occupy, Xcel, and the Mother of All Cliffs (October 31, 2011)
  • Boulder Can Own Its Power With Distributed Generation (June 7, 2011)
  • The Plunging Cost of Renewables and Boulder's Energy Future (April 19, 2011)
  • Paddling Down the River Denial (January 12, 2011)
  • The Fox (News) That Jumped the Shark (December 16, 2010)
  • Click here for an archive of Butterfield columns

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    Some details about NewEnergyNews and the man behind the curtain: Herman K. Trabish, Agua Dulce, CA., Doctor with my hands, Writer with my head, Student of New Energy and Human Experience with my heart

    email: herman@NewEnergyNews.net

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    Your intrepid reporter

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  • Tuesday, February 26, 2013

    TODAY’S STUDY: BOULDER CONSIDERS A MUNICIPAL UTILITY

    Boulder’s Energy Future Municipalization Exploration

    February 26, 2013 (Boulder City Council)

    Executive Summary

    The City of Boulder has embarked on a significant undertaking that could change the future of electric service and energy management for its residents and businesses. As directed by council, city staff has been analyzing the viability of various options to help the community achieve its Energy Future goals. The process is grounded in commitments to be objective, to include as many alternate viewpoints as possible, and to project out not only the results on the first day of potential service from a municipal utility, but for 20 years into the future.

    The analysis presented in this memo was designed to answer a critical first-level question:

    • Can the city municipalize? In other words, is there at least one form of municipalization that meets the prerequisites that voters approved as part of the City Charter?

    If council decides that the answer to that question is yes, staff will continue its work with the community over the next few months to answer equally important second-level questions:

    • How can the city best achieve its Energy Future goals? Is a city-owned utility the best path to accomplish the broad set of goals the community set for its Energy Future? Would a city-owned electric utility provide value sufficient to offset potential risk and distinguish its services from those that Xcel Energy currently offers or could offer in the future through a new partnership? A question the city has posed in the past is, should we form a municipal utility? Staff believes the answer to this question will become more clear as the analysis continues and as part of a series of future decisions. The previous questions, however, are the ones the community and city officials should be starting to assess now.

    Based on the current analyses, the answer to whether it is possible to municipalize is yes, and the findings to date are promising in terms of the potential value a local electric utility could bring when compared to other alternatives. The results detailed in this memo indicate that a local utility could operate effectively with cost savings and flexibility, creating significant advantages. Certain options for the local electric utility would meet the Charter metrics and with a very high likelihood be able to:

    • Offer all three major customer classes (residential, commercial and industrial) lower rates than what they would pay Xcel, not just on day one, but on average over 20 years;

    • Maintain or exceed current levels of system reliability and emergency response, and, if the community chose to, use future investments to enhance dependability;

    • Reduce harmful greenhouse gas emissions by more than 50 percent from current levels and exceed the Kyoto Protocol target in year one;

    • Obtain 54 percent or more of its electricity from renewable resources; and

    • Create a model public electric utility with leading-edge innovations in reliability, energy efficiency, renewable energy, related economic development and customer service.

    The Electric Utility of the Future

    At the core of these analyses is a vision of “the electric utility of the future” that is bold and exciting. No matter which energy path the city chooses to take, it strives to be a leader in reducing the impact its electric use has on climate change and in providing local energy services that meet the unique needs and community values of Boulder. For traditional electric utilities, “managing energy” is their core competence. Xcel has repeatedly said it is limited in its ability to shift from its current trajectory. The question Boulder faces is whether it wishes to be beholden to this antiquated business model for the next 20 years, while also recognizing community concerns that change represents risk.

    Public utilities are not regulated at the state level in the same way as investor-owned utilities, but they are subject to local oversight that in many ways ensures the utility is held to a higher standard of service. Locally controlled public utilities, because they are not regulated by a state Public Utilities Commission, have the freedom to design programs and services that directly match the needs of the geographic and demographic area served. A regulated utility must provide more generalized services that are designed from a top down view of its entire service area. Typically, what the investor-owned utility offers to one set of customers it must offer to all, making customization difficult.

    Boulder’s vision for the future requires a utility willing to phase out the old business model and aggressively pursue a new way of operating. The community’s Energy Future goals prioritize a cleaner energy supply; the ability to develop innovative energy efficiency and demand-side management programs that enhance customers’ control; a structure that supports economic vitality through low costs and high reliability, as well as the creation of a high-tech test bed; and the opportunity to work with energy consumers to meet their diverse needs. Boulder’s vision, either in partnership with Xcel Energy or through a municipal utility, is to transform from a utility model centered on selling more electrons to a new business model in which the mission is to collaborate with customers to provide options to use fewer electrons.

    The opportunity exists for Boulder to transition to a new sustainable, low-carbon emission society, and it is coming much faster than anyone had anticipated just a few years ago. The growing differential between the rising costs of fossil fuels and the declining costs of renewable energy technologies is setting the stage for the emergence of a new economic paradigm for the next century. Boulder is poised to drive this process to tackle climate change, secure energy independence, and grow a sustainable 21st century economy all at the same time.

    Public Outreach and Working Groups

    Given the potential impact of a decision to create an electric utility on residents and businesses, more than 50 individuals, many of whom offered significant industry expertise, participated in developing the options, vetting assumptions and providing specific data inputs. Five working groups were formed, representing the major areas of finance, reliability, resources, decision analysis and public outreach (see Attachment A). The city staff extends a huge thank you to the community members who gave significant amounts of time to help ensure the integrity of this process. Draft recommendations included in this memo have been vetted with these work teams. Additionally, extensive community outreach will take place between the Feb. 26 study session and April 16 council meeting.

    The Modeling Process

    The analysis incorporated five major areas of focus: financial, reliability, resource mix, asset acquisition and legal issues. Models were designed to span 20 years, from 2017 to 2037. An extensive list of inputs, which were vetted by community working groups and consultants, drew upon current market pricing, analyses by federal laboratories, benchmarking from American Public Power Association and regional utilities, and a diversity of other sources to ensure that data was accurate, realistic, conservative, and locally relevant. A smaller number of high-impact variables were modeled with wide cost ranges to show the risks associated with future uncertainty. These variables included gas prices, wind prices, interest rates, operations and maintenance costs, stranded and acquisition costs, and the ability of the utility to generate sufficient debt service coverage. Although the models are robust, they have limitations—for example, they do not allow for the types of course changes that might happen in reality. The significance of this is that a city-owned utility could start on a path of least-cost power and move to more renewable energy based on changing market conditions, just as Xcel could.

    The structure of the modeling for this phase was driven by the first-level question of whether municipalization is feasible under the conditions set by the City Charter. Staff modeled an Xcel Energy Baseline, based on publicly available documents and Xcel’s own projections, for comparison to five municipalization-driven options that combine different resource packages and energy efficiency investments. The Xcel Baseline was modeled as conservatively as possible, giving Xcel a notable benefit of the doubt; significant cost increases, such as a planned $3.5 billion capital plan, may not have not been fully incorporated as not all of Xcel’s forecasting information is available or accessible. The utility’s latest rate increase was not included in this phase of modeling.

    No alternative partnerships with Xcel Energy have been modeled at this time because the city does not have sufficient information from Xcel about the type of agreement—from among those proposed by the city in December 2012 or new ideas the company might have— Xcel would be interested in pursuing. It is possible that Xcel, working with the city, could become the utility of the future. In fact, it is possible that some of the municipalization options presented in this memo could be implemented in partnership with Xcel, if the company is willing and able to make some necessary changes. Staff is hopeful that Xcel will come to the table to develop these ideas more concretely in the upcoming months.

    Reliability

    Reliability was raised as a key concern by both the business community and by residents. Given its importance, a separate analysis and working group was formed to address this issue. Engineers were hired to evaluate the system and its current condition, provide recommendations about needed improvements, identify regulatory reliability requirements and recommend best practices to ensure the acquired system would be just as reliable, if not better, than it currently is. The city recognizes that it is fortunate to have major employers who are industrial customers, and these customers have processes that require high-quality power and a reliable supply. Power failures can have significant financial impacts to these customers. Therefore, it was critical to not only talk to these companies about their needs and concerns, but to have equipment, systems, and processes in place to meet those specific needs. All models assume that reliability is a requirement and are based on separation and service area recommendations that participating engineers have indicated will achieve this goal.

    Conclusion

    Results presented later in this memo show that three of the five options for forming a local electric utility could achieve all of the Charter metrics with medium to high likelihood. In all cases, except the Xcel Baseline, a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and increased renewable resources could be achieved. Two options that were modeled to prioritize greenhouse gas emissions reductions did not meet the Charter requirement of rate parity at the time of acquisition, while a least-cost power option was able to bear even the highest cost stranded and acquisition rulings under certain conditions.

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