Renewable energy reduces financial and future electricity need uncertainty

November 19, 2009    Energy Security and Renewable Energy:   keeping the lights on using wind energy systems, batteries and emergency generators and distributed power generation


“The American farmer is the only man in our economy who buys everything he buys at retail,

sells everything he sells at wholesale, and pays the freight both ways.”     - John F. Kennedy, 9-22-1960

Just days before this scheduled program on Energy Security and Renewable Energy there was a relevant international news story about how the Country of Brazil had just suffered a devastating blackout.  There is well-known loss-of-power risk due to hurricanes and other storms, and we are susceptible to the risk of repeating the massive North-East Blackout of 2003 and  power-source failures like the Brazilian Hydro Blackout.  This Brazilian Blackout resembled the Blackout in New York of 2003, where one circuit failed, causing excess power to be directed to other circuits which in turn failed, a condition called “cascading failures” until the served-area was dark.

According to the Maryland Public Service Commission the next few years could show high energy prices during peak periods, rolling blackouts and brownouts –  because we use more electricity that the existing sources of power are able to deliver.  This may be simply an inconvenience for some or represent a critical loss-of-potential income and  catastrophic, unsafe conditions for neighborhoods, municipalities, farms and businesses.

According to Dr. Carlos Fernandez of Potomac Wind Energy, many people inquire about purchasing a small-wind energy system and assume that the system will work independently of the grid when the power goes down.  According Carlos, if a wind turbine is never associated with an electric meter, is always operating “off grid” then of course power will be available when the grid fails.  However, for most urban applications, if a customer has a need for   backup emergency power, they must also invest in a battery backup system.”

He also shared that, “There is great value in combining a personal wind energy device with a  battery backup system.  There’s no telling how long power will be out in the future.  Farmers…dairy and poultry farms in particular… must have adequate, continuous power.  The wind resource is renewable; not dependent on being in-line to get a refill of fuel to keep going.”

James G. Holt of Holt Electrical Contractors, Inc. is an expert in standby emergency generators.  Jim served as Chair for the Independent Electrical Contractors Association – Chesapeake Chapter, Apprentice and Training Committee and was involved in  founding the Fire Lite Fire Alarm training lab and serves on IEC’s Renewable Energy Committee. As presenter Jim Holz, of Holz Engineering said, “in many power-loss emergencies, to have continuous, dependable power source, the investment in a generator is the way to go.”  Holz represents several lines of emergency generators and has served municipal and business clients during widespread emergencies.  Emergency generators require a fuel source; many are diesel-fueled and will operate consistently and effectively until refueling occurs.  Holz said, “Emergency generators are the cornerstone of providing power for essential public services like fire stations, communication command centers and hospitals.”

Rick Lank of Renewable Energy Stewardship shared that even seemingly modest amounts of distributed renewable energy production serving local communities will be important for homeland security and emergency power management.  “If even 10% of a community’s power resource came from renewable sources and was dedicated to serve critical loads during emergencies, our communities will be safer and more disaster- resilient.”  America’s electrical grid is also “old”, been patched together over the years to accommodate an ever increasing demand, 24/7, with no relief.  Maryland, and the East Coast is considered a highly concentrated area.  And, there is a 30% shortfall from the electricity used in Maryland versus the amount of demand we expect.  The Continental U.S. power transmission grid consists of about 300,000 km of lines operated by approximately 500 companies. In addition, from a power interruption and terrorism perspective, we have “centralized” power plants that are the only sources of power to the Grid.   Each power plant would take many years to rebuild if they were ever destroyed.  Power plants include hydro-dams, coal plants and nuclear sites.  And, even commercial-scale wind farms and solar concentrators add “cleaner” power to the Grid.  Power plants are generally far from population centers and require expensive transmission and distribution lines to bring the power produced to where it is used.   We need a cleaner energy “balance sheet”, with sources and uses closer together, and a means of increasing sources with more clean, economical, renewable energy production.  Our energy security will depend on investing in energy conservation (education, weatherizing and technology improvements) to decrease demand and more community, local, distributed-production of renewable energy.

Financial Benefits Improved:

The 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act now allows for a Federal 30% tax credit on the purchase of a wind energy system.  There is no ceiling on the amount of credit allowed.  For businesses, this tax credit may be taken in the form of a cash-grant.

In Maryland, the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act has made the Windswept Grant program of Maryland Energy Administration more advantageous.  For certain qualified 5 kW wind turbines, for instance, a Windswept Grant may provide $10,000.

“These incentives bring down the out-of-pocket costs of an investment in a wind energy system.  More bankers as well are beginning to offer loans for wind energy systems.  And small farms may qualify for grants from the US Department of Agriculture (up to 25% of a project cost) and MARBIDCO, Maryland’s rural business program.  These grants and credits materially reduce the payback period.”