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This post is a follow-up to three others I have done on Cuba and Vermont, Perspectives on Energy and Culture: Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 - about my visit to Cuba with a delegation of energy industry professionals, and a Cuban colleague’s visit to Vermont where I developed a similar tour.
After lunch with colleagues, we spoke with the Burlington Electric Department to explore how they are able to claim 100 percent renewable energy generation through wind, solar, and biomass energy production and purchase contracts. An increasing renewable energy portfolio is a goal of many states and utilities in response to customer demand. A renewable energy portfolio standard (RPS) means that the utility is producing and/or buying a certain percentage of energy from renewable sources (imposed or voluntary)to meet their customer’s electrical demand. Investing in renewables is beneficial in many ways across the economy, but there is a fair amount of free-market smoke and mirrors behind the curtains of this concept because the regional electric grid hosts many types of generators fueled by gas, oil, nuclear, and renewable energies. How much of what source is in the mix at any given time involves complex minute-by-minute accounting that makes it impossible to know where the electrons powering your home really come from.
Electricity is bought and sold each day, each hour, based on availability and market cost. As demand increases (during peak use hours or weather extremes), the cost to purchase the commodity, in this case electricity, also increases. Add to this accounting the notion of Renewable Energy Certificates, or RECs (a unit of one megawatt hour of renewably-generated electricity) and things get confusing fast. If a utility owns a renewable energy generator such as a solar, wind, or biomass power plant, the power can be used by the utility that owns that resource, or it can be sold as a REC to other utilities trying to meet their own RPS requirements. Whether to sell, keep, or buy RECs all depends on energy demand and market price. In some cases, a large electrical generator (such as a nuclear power plant) may actually pay into the power market so that they avoid a costly facility shut down and restart if they are underbid by another supplier. In other words, they are paying – not earning – to stay in the power market. You, the end user of this commodity, are insulated from all this fluctuation and your local utility needs a skilled negotiation and accounting team to survive the ups and downs. This is a difficult enough concept for a free-market economist to come to grips with; imagine the perspective of a native from a small island nation where everything needs to be accountable, cost-effective, and transparent in order to exist at all. “Show me the renewable electrons! I want to know what is powering my home!” says the islander. “Impossible!” says the free market power manager. “Ridiculous!” is the reply with the laughter of absurd disbelief.
While I don’t live on an island, I do live off the power grid with solar, wind, wood, biodiesel, and sometimes even homemade biogas. In my attempt to move further away from fossil fuels, I’ve developed a direct, hands-on relationship with the energy harnessed from nature and use to meet my family’s needs. In that sense, the notion of having finite resources is a daily consideration and expectations need to be managed around resource availability.
Burlington Electric’s manager of power supply took us to Winooski One, a 7.4 megawatt hydro generator. The river was frozen on the surface but under the ice, liquid water flowed through the turbines. Mario braved the cold and frozen fingers to take photos and video of this site, amazed at the power in the apparently frozen river. Hydro resources in Cuba are few and far between as there isn’t the combination of water quantity and elevation required to produce a substantial amount of power.
Then on to the nearby McNeill Power Plant where 1,700 tons of woodchips are burned each day to generate 50 megawatts of electricity. As with Winooski One, some of the power produced is sold as RECs, and some to the local grid. Of course, all the electrons it produces are mixed in with all the other electrons produced elsewhere. The plant operator showed us a live feed of the regional market price to purchase a megawatt hour (one million watt-hours or one thousand kilowatt-hours). As temperatures were predicted to dip to record lows on this night, the wholesale cost of electricity was on the rise as power planners scrambled to ensure that the extra demand would be met.
The next morning it was -21 degrees Fahrenheit (-29 degrees Celsius), a full 30 degrees Celsius colder than Mario had ever experienced, and to which he jokingly believed he could claim a national record for surviving. We entertained him with cold weather tricks like blowing soap bubbles that quickly freeze and can be held in the hand, then tossing a pot full of boiling hot water up into the cold air to watch it evaporate instantly into a cloud. He provided a bit of unintentional entertainment to his hosts as well. Watching a grown man put on winter gear for the first time balances a line between excruciating and comical. If you’ve ever watched a young child bundle up for winter and try to make the school bus on time, you’ll have a feeling for this. His borrowed boots, jacket, hat, and gloves fit well but took lots of time and energy to install on his body. Then there was the checklist of all the things required for the day – phone, notepad, pen, camera; each assigned to a pocket. “This is ridiculous!” he laughed. Winter’s second skin is second nature to a New Englander, but I was beginning to agree with him on this point.
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