In Heartland: Is Sun the New Wind?

March 4, 2018

Wind energy is still, for the moment, the gorilla in the new energy room. But that rumbling you hear is an emerging new tech earth quake across the heartland.


How big is solar in Iowa? Can solar energy become the next wind power?

Drive through Washington County, and it seems virtually every hog and turkey barn boasts solar panels on the roof.

Washington County, where virtually every hog and turkey barn has solar panels on the roof, leads the state in commercial solar installations, according to SEIA. Winneshiek County has more residential solar than any other county in Iowa.

In fact, Washington County had 88 solar energy projects with over $700,000 in state tax credits between 2012 and 2014, according to the Iowa Department of Revenue. Linn County had 34 projects during the same period with more than $150,000 in state tax credits.

Across the state, as the price of photovoltaic cells and related equipment continues to decline and technology continues to improve, more businesses and homeowners are installing solar energy systems to cut their utility bills.

The latest figures from the Washington, D.C.-based Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) show roughly 27 megawatts of solar energy have been installed in Iowa. That ranks the state 29th in the country in installed solar capacity.

Contrast that with wind-generated energy, in which Iowa ranks No. 1 in the nation with more than 31.3 percent of its electricity generated by wind turbines, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

“We are probably where the wind industry was 10 or 12 years ago,” said Barry Shear, president and CEO of Eagle Point Solar of Dubuque. “We will certainly not get to the place where wind is because of the nature of solar.

“Solar can be a wonderful energy source that complements wind, which typically produces better at night than in the daytime. Solar obviously does not produce electricity at night.”

Installed solar photovoltaic system prices in the Iowa have dropped steadily — by 6 percent from 2014 and 48 percent from 2010, according to SEIA. Last year, $16 million was invested on solar panels and related equipment in Iowa to install 6 megawatts of solar electric capacity.

Meanwhile, there are roughly 50 companies in the state employing more than 300 people in the solar energy supply chain, according to SEIA.

That includes 30 contractor/installers, eight manufacturers, four product developers, two distributors and three companies engaged in other solar activities such as financing, engineering or legal support.

Moxie Solar of North Liberty is an example of a relatively young but growing renewable energy contractor specializing in solar power. The company, with 18 employees, has experienced three-year revenue growth of 536 percent.

Future Structure:

The Iowa Utilities Board has given MidAmerican Energy the green light for the utility’s plans for a $3.6 billion wind energy investment, the largest renewable energy project in the state.

The state board on Friday gave final approval for the utility’s Wind XI farm.

The project — first announced in April — is part of Des Moines-based MidAmerican’s goal to reach 100 percent renewable energy for Iowa customers.

“We are finalizing plans to begin construction of the 1,000 wind turbines, with completion expected by the end of 2019,” MidAmerican spokeswoman Ashton Hockman said in an email Monday. “Wind XI will add up to 2,000 megawatts of wind generation in Iowa and is the largest wind project MidAmerican Energy has ever undertaken.”

Hockman said Wind XI will include multiple sites across Iowa, but exact locations are still being finalized. Those sites will be brought into service over a three-year period, from 2017 through 2019, she added.

The entire cost of the project planned to be recouped through federal production tax credits over 10 years, so the company is not seeking financial assistance from the state. Nor will customer rates be increased, according to MidAmerican officials.

“The early approval helps ensure MidAmerican can take full advantage of the recently extended federal wind production tax credit — a policy we support,” said Nathaniel Baer, energy program director with Iowa Environment Council, in a prepared statement.

In July, Alliant Energy officials announced that utility’s plans for a $1 billion wind project that will add 500 megawatts to Iowa’s renewable energy infrastructure.

Alliant officials have said the large majority of funds are planned for an expansion of the utility’s Whispering Willow Wind Farm in Franklin County.

Alliant, which is taking advantage of production tax credits, still needs final approval of the project from the Iowa Utilities Board.

Wind energy can lead to lower electricity rates for consumers, according to the American Wind Energy Association.

Iowa ranked second last year among all states in net electricity generation from wind, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Wind power proponents have said such projects further position Iowa as a leader in renewable energy efforts.

More than 31 percent of Iowa’s total electricity generation came from wind, a larger share than any other state, according to the energy administration.

Midwest Energy News:

With the ongoing decline of solar energy costs and now a favorable ruling by Michigan regulators recognizing its ability to produce valuable energy during peak times, advocates say the sector is poised for growth here.

Moreover, solar advocates at the national level have said Michigan could be a model for other states considering changes to “avoided cost” rates that utilities must pay independent power companies for their generation.

On November 21, the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) issued a final order in a case setting avoided cost rates for Consumers Energy, one of two major investor-owned utilities in the state. These are rates utilities pay independent power producers under the federal Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act (PURPA) of 1978, which was passed to encourage domestic renewable energy and keep costs low for ratepayers.

The commission first opened the case in May 2016, and could set the tone for other utilities’ avoided cost proceedings, including DTE Energy.

The MPSC’s ruling marks a significant transition in the way utilities procure energy and capacity from independent producers, which was traditionally based on the cost of new coal plants and favored sources like hydro, biomass and landfill gas. With the first update in decades, avoided costs are now based on the price of natural gas and, in the case of Michigan, recognize the value of solar during peak times like hot summer afternoons.

In its ruling, the commissioners said: “This is indicative of a broader trend in the electric industry, in which the cost of new generation is declining and is more economical than the embedded cost of existing generation.”

The commission also increased the maximum size of projects that qualify for PURPA contracts, from 100 kilowatts (kW) to 2 megawatts (MW), with the ability for companies (or “Qualifying Facilities”) to set 20-year contracts, giving them additional certainty.

“This really marks that in Michigan, solar is now competitive with the costs of other forms of large-scale generation, and its cost is continuing to go down,” said Douglas Jester, a consultant with 5 Lakes Energy who provided testimony throughout the case. “From here on out we see solar as not only a viable but a vibrant alternative to traditional generation, and should see steady development of solar on that basis.”

While rates for each facility vary, Jester said avoided costs were broadly set at 6 cents per kilowatt-hour for hydro and biomass facilities and roughly 9.5 cents per kilowatt-hour for solar. While the MPSC hadn’t changed avoided costs since the 1980s, Jester said this marks a significant departure in the way solar is valued.

Effectively, existing facilities will get more money per their nameplate capacity but “a good deal less” on a kilowatt-hour basis compared to solar, Jester said.

“The existing Qualifying Facilities … are not irrelevant now. They’re going to struggle a bit with the economics of low natural gas prices,” he said.

Margrethe Kearney, a Michigan-based staff attorney with the Environmental Law and Policy Center that also joined the case, agreed.

“At the end of the month, (solar) producers would get less in absolute dollars, but that’s always the case for solar and intermittent technology,” she said. “But when they’re producing — when the capacity is very valuable to a utility — it works out so that when that value is accurately measured like we believe it is here, there’s the avoided cost rate high enough that solar is a viable option.”

Kearney and Jester said even potential tariffs on imported solar panels — a proposal under consideration by President Trump — may not hobble solar’s anticipated growth here.

“It will raise the cost of developing a facility, thereby reduce the profitability given this avoided cost rate,” Jester said. “But because there are economies of scale on a solar array, the right way to think of this is that an increase in the tariff increases the minimum size of an array that can be profitable.”

17 Responses to “In Heartland: Is Sun the New Wind?”

  1. pendantry Says:

    Solar obviously does not produce electricity at night.

    I seem to recall reading a piece some time ago that said that a type of solar panel that collects energy from other wavelengths than visible light was being developed — this was said to be able to gather from heat radiated from the ground that had been laid down during the daytime. So ‘solar’ can produce energy at night, too…

    … unless that was an April Fool’s piece I read, of course…

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      I’m going to guess that this is more of a research stage than something cost-effective in the civilian world. In any case, it’d be worth it to the military first, who paid higher costs for early PV technology as a savings on battery weight in the field, and reduction of the blood costs of keeping Forward Operating Base in fuel.

    • grindupbaker Says:

      The panel would need to have significantly lower emissivity on its upper surface than the ground below it. That plus air heat input (geothermal is negligible). Essentially it’s using the emissivity difference plus temperature difference of air entering below the solar panels and leaving to derive its energy. The limit of power it could produce (100% efficiency) is:
      * where radiated power from ground depends on ground temperature which is going to be altered by solar panel shading during day, solar panel downward LWR always and air heat transfer to the ground below it. A bit complicated but it could be figured out with a few hours of thought.

    • Sir Charles Says:

      There are molten salt reactors which store the energy collected during daytime and use it in the night.

      • dumboldguy Says:

        Uh, Chucky? We know your science background is somewhat limited, but the term “reactors” is usually reserved for nuclear power plants (and perhaps in a limited way to equipment used in a process involving a chemical reaction).

        Inhabitat needs to up its game as well. The link includes this statement:

        “Once it has been heated the salt will retain its thermal energy for a long time, and it can be mixed with water to produce steam on demand, which can be used to drive turbines to produce electricity”.

        “….mixed with water to produce steam…”???? NO, NO, NO—-that’s not how it works (and the “salt” they use for thermal storage is not table salt, but types that that can be explosively reactive with water if “mixed”)

        • Sir Charles Says:

          I guess you learnt that quackquack above in your ‘etiquette’ lessons, dumbo.

          The molten salt mixture is both non-toxic and inert.

          => Molten Salt Energy Storage

          • dumboldguy Says:

            Actually, I learned about it from studying the issue over time, unlike you, who lazily googles any old crap from self-serving “entrepreneurs” who seek to get rich from the concept. Although it’s a better place to invest your $$$ than Solar Roadway, don’t expect to make a lot of money because the whole thing is still in the “development” stage. One of the problems being worked on is how to keep very hot CHEMICALS from doing damage to the equipment.

            (And please stop the toxic products of your inert thinking on Crock—-you waste our time)

  2. grindupbaker Says:

    Stupid thing chops out bits of comments even when they’re not naughty.

    The limit of power it could produce (100% efficiency) is:
    (emissivity difference) * (radiated power from ground)

  3. Sir Charles Says:

    Ryan Zinke has been in control of the U.S. Department of the Interior for only one year, but has inflicted staggering damage in that time — dismantling the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments, moving to repeal critical climate protections regulating methane emissions, auctioning off nearly all of America’s coastlines to fossil fuel companies for oil and gas drilling, and reopening loopholes to benefit the coal industry.

    Send your message here =>

    (Natural Resources Defense Council)

  4. botterd Says:

    Reread the article twice, but still don’t get how these “avoided costs” work exactly. Never heard of them before.

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