About Michele Rolph
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An EcoMotion White Paper by Ted Flanigan, April 2017
Microgrids are all the rage, one of the hottest trends in the power sector. Taking advantage of technology gains, we’re experiencing a return to smaller power grids; shifting back from centralized utility systems to neighborhood-scale power. Small is beautiful! Microgrids are elegant, sustainable, resilient, and can be cost-effective.
Microgrids are not a new construct. Thomas Edison began with a microgrid. They’ve been on college campuses and at medical centers for years, often based on combined heat and power systems. But this paper is about a new and exciting form of microgrid. The microgrids that are the root of this paper – that combine renewable energy with energy storage — may become ubiquitous throughout North America, for campuses, for communities. They are a new form of microgrid, carbon-free microgrids. They do not replace utility grids; they complement them, adding key features, like onsite renewable power and emergency back-up systems. They’re mini grids that work daily and then that really spring into action when the big grid goes down. And they are enabled by advanced energy storage.
Many of us are confused about the difference between RECs and Carbon Offsets. They are both good tools to cut greenhouse gases (GHGs). They both represent new market mechanisms to clean our air and to mitigate the effects of global climate change.
Environmental Market Mechanisms
RECs = 1 MWh
VER / CRT = 1 Metric Ton of Carbon
They are parallel and related, but distinct, environmental markets — the market for Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs) and the market for Voluntary Emission Reductions (VERs), also known as carbon offsets.
First off, RECs only focus on electricity. A renewable energy certificate represents 1 MWh of renewable energy, be it solar, wind, geothermal, etc. A REC represents the environmental attributes of clean power. So when you buy a REC, you are buying the rights to claim that you are using clean power even if the REC comes from an energy source very far away. For instance, you might buy wind RECs from the Midwest, or solar RECs from California or New Jersey to offset your electricity emissions in Vermont or Maine.
The carbon offset value of a REC can vary. For instance, a REC that is offsetting one utility’s power mix in the coal-rich Midwest might cut carbon more than a REC offsetting another utility’s rather clean power mix, say in California. So when you buy RECs you can offset your own emissions (kilowatt-hour by kilowatt-hour)… but the amount of carbon being offset can be quite different depending on the type of RECs you buy.
REC prices depend on a number of factors, including the technology, the vintage (year in which it was generated), the volume purchased, the region in which the generator is located, whether they are eligible for certification, and whether the RECs are bought to meet compliance obligations or serve voluntary retail consumers. REC prices in compliance markets are much higher than in voluntary markets. Voluntary RECS are in the 50 cent – $2 range, compliance more like $40 – $50.
There are three categories of RECs in California: Categories 1, 2, and 3. Category 1 RECs are from bundled resources. Category 2 RECs are from firming/shaping resources. Category 3 RECs are unbundled. There are three compliance periods through 2020… noted by the phasing out of unbundled resources. California ushered in “tradable RECs” (TRECs) in 2010. California utilities can use these to achieve up to 25% of their Renewable Portfolio Standard… that drops to 10% in 2017.
So who is really green? Who gets the green bragging rights?
If the RECs are unbundled and sold separately, then the purchaser of the RECs has bought the legal right to the renewable attributes they represent. This means that the energy originally associated with the RECs can no longer be considered renewable or to originate from a renewable source. For example, if homeowners were to sell the RECs associated with the energy generated from their rooftop solar PV installations, then those homeowners cannot legitimately claim to be using renewable power in their homes. Only the purchaser of the RECs can make that claim.
Carbon offsets are more finite. A carbon offset – known as Voluntary Emissions Reductions (VERs) or Carbon Reduction Tons (CRT)… represents a metric ton of carbon regardless of its source. And carbon offsets must be verified. Climate Action Reserve is a leading verifier of RECs, be they from forestry projects, methane capture, etc.
Offsets also face strict rules, including the requirement that “the emission reduction credited be real, permanent, verifiable, and most importantly, additional to a business-as-usual scenario.” This “additionality requirement” is central to ensuring that the ton you emit is really offset by a new action to reduce carbon. RECs, however, are not subject to this additionality requirement. In contrast, RECs can come from “business as usual” renewable resources… those that are already built or those that are in compliance markets where the RPS has already been met, and whose owners seek to recover some development costs through the sale of RECs.
The question of Offsets vs. RECs is not a question of better or worse. Offsets and RECs are simply different players in a similar game. Both represent the environmental benefits of certain actions that can help mitigate climate change and reduce reliance on fossil fuels.
Check ’em out online. You can build one for as little as $2,000, or buy one for $10,000 and way up! The Little Cottage Company will send you one for $3,199 with free shipping. It’s a new movement. According to Forbes, tiny houses “are having a moment.” The tiny house movement has gone huge. They are inexpensive, ecologically motivated, and force owners to change their lifestyles… reducing possessions and tying into the de-clutter movement. They’re part of the quest for simplicity, a rejection of stuff and waste. Experts note that the movement has appealed to a surprisingly broad demographic.
The typical American home is around 2,600 square feet, whereas a typical tiny house is 100 – 460 square feet. This bucks a trend: In 1978 the average American house was 1,780 square feet in size. This grew to 2,479 square feet by 2013 despite a decrease in the size of the average American family.
The “small house” movement is for homes less than 1,000 square feet in size. “Tiny houses” are generally less than 500 square feet. Tiny houses on wheels have also gotten lots of attention at about 96 square feet in size. They often have the cabinetry reminiscent of the galley in a sail boat.
In 2002, the Small House Society was formed. Then in 2005, and after Hurricane Katrina, “Katrina Cottages” were developed that were 308 square feet as alternatives to FEMA trailers. There have been reality TV shows, Tiny House Nation and Tiny House Hunters. There are even tiny apartments in New York and San Francisco.
Yes, tiny houses are more affordable and they are certainly ecologically friendly… but in fairness, they are a tiny part of real estate transactions. Less than 1% of new sales were for homes of less than 1,000 square feet in size…often in the form of “accessory dwelling units” for mother in laws.
Tiny they are, but in terms of cost per square foot, they can be quite expensive, in the $200 – $400 per square foot range. Why? While compact, tiny houses still have all the expensive mechanicals of a “normal” home…appliances, bathrooms, etc.
China is out to build a fleet of the most nature-incorporated architectural structures in the world. Construction has begun on Asia’s first vertical forest – the Nanjing Vertical Forest — and is expected to be complete by 2018 thanks to the architectural vision of Stefano Boeri. His vision is to build green settlements of 100 – 200 buildings each, of different heights and sizes, all featuring green rooftops, balconies, and facades. Imagine how city skylines will change colors through the seasons.
Critics point to the need for a more thorough analysis: Buildings that can handle the additional weight of soil and forests will have to be built stronger, requiring more CO2 producing cement. And water will be required for the plants to thrive… another scarce input in many places. But proponents claim that these structures are anti-sprawl devices. They point out that the vertical forests are a viable alternative to urban sprawl.. which is also heavy in its use of concrete. These are alternative urban environments. They allow residents to live close to nature, typically achieved by commuting and living in the suburbs.
In related news, the Via Verde Project in Mexico is transforming highway pillars with plants that cleanse, beautify, and hopefully lower driver stress.
Desert Mirage High School hosted the Emissions Time Bomb display during the school’s Earth Day festival. Students from the High School and Middle School were able to see the display and learn how they can “save a ton”.
In 2012, EcoMotion conceived and fabricated “The Ton” to raise awareness about greenhouse gases and their enormity. Our climate action planning made clear that greenhouse gases are “out of sight, and out of mind.” Citizens and businesses lack a frame of reference for greenhouse gases and individual footprints. Then we saw a visual from the United Kingdom of a metric tonne of CO2, dwarfing a double-decker bus. This is about a month’s emissions for every Californian.
EcoMotion has inflated the Ton in Glendale (where it was covered by an ABC Channel 7 news helicopter), Irvine, Palm Springs, Palm Desert, Desert Hot Springs, Anaheim, Thermal, and at the Los Angeles Convention Center where it dwarfed other exhibitors. In 2013, EcoMotion took the Time Bomb across the country visiting the University of Colorado at Boulder, Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, Millbrook School in Millbrook, New York, Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, Middlesex Community College in Bedford, Massachusetts, and Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. Lots of photos are snapped. Many students want to touch it, or punch it, a tactile reinforcement of the awareness raising demonstration.
EcoMotion’s principals are credited with having designed and run some of the nation’s largest replacement programs. In collaboration with the cities of Irvine, Santa Monica, Moreno Valley, and Corono, our team managed hundreds of volunteers, coordinated with police and fire departments, and the news, and successfully ran some of California’s largest halogen torchiere trade-in programs. Truckloads of products were distributed, dumpsters of inefficient produce was removed.
In each case, halogen torchieres were collected and recycled and replaced with efficient and safe compact fluorescent counterparts. In each case, 250 watts of lighting energy were replaced with 60 watts, cutting power and air conditioning requirements. At Irvine City Hall, EcoMotion’s principals managed a trade-in event with eight lanes of traffic and thousands of participants claiming the payloads of several tractor-trailer trucks full of efficient product. In most cases, fire departments were on hand to support the replacement of dangerous halogen torchieres, lamps that have a sorry history of house fires in America.
EcoMotion has also distributed other efficient products, from lamps to desktop and standing fans, showerheads, and more. In Cathedral City, known for its oppressive high summer temperatures, we distributed window fans using a City Public Works flatbed, a highly popular event.
For several years EcoMotion provided strategic guidance on developing a community outreach effort in the City of Mammoth Lakes spearheaded by the High Sierra Energy Foundation. Ted Flanigan was instrumental in helping the Foundation frame and secure a Southern California Edison Partnership that funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars into the community, to save many times more through increased comfort and energy efficiency. EcoMotion’s principals lectured for three sequential years at the Energy Summit there, and continue to support the innovative partnership that melds community education and action on energy efficiency and geothermal energy.
For Burbank Water and Power, EcoMotion provides technical support for the Solar Support Rebate Program. In this capacity, the EcoMotion solar team verifies solar installations – including numbers and types of panels and inverters – and confirms solar potential for newly constructed installations. EcoMotion worked with BWP to develop reporting procedures and requirements. EcoMotion also provided key account energy services in Burbank, working with major studios and industries as well as governmental accounts including the Bob Hope Airport. In 2012, EcoMotion was selected by Anaheim Public Utilities to perform similar solar system verification services.