Energy Policy Questions Too Hot for @LibertyTPP_MN to Handle

The Liberty Tea Party Patriots hosted a talk about energy at their monthly meeting last night. Energy is an important topic that’s certainly worthy of discussion by any group. Here’s how this group promoted their event:

Tea Party Patriots Energy Event

I’m not sure why renewables in is quotes. I suppose is someone doubted that the sun would keep shining or the wind blowing in Minnesota, that would make sense. However, there may be larger issues to discuss than our energy mix if that’s what our future looks like.

This event was hosted in Champlin, so close to the largest producer of both energy and pollution in the State of Minnesota. Xcel’s Sherco power plant. Xcel announced last month that they’re going to transition two of the three coal burning generators at the plant (the older, dirtier, of the three) to a new cleaner-burning natural gas powered generator. And add a large solar array. And, make up for some of the other energy differences with additional wind and solar.

I found the premise and setup of this event fascinating. When I hear the term “Freedom” followed by opposition to locally produced energy, I get confused. When I went through the process of researching solar panels for my home, I watched a lot of YouTube videos on DIY installations. One thing most of those videos had in common is they were done by right-wing Tea Party type individuals who consider themselves Preppers. The Survivalism crowd is full of people who prepare for doomsday scenarios. Prepper tactics include storing food, having a fall-out shelter, an arsenal, or off the grid power generation. To me, these vary in rationality, but something like solar panels can benefit a person whether or not a doomsday ever arrives, so there’s less downside than, say, having a ton of guns around the house.

Frankly, as long as a huge percentage of the state’s energy comes from a single location, we’re more susceptible to doomsday energy issues than if energy is generated in a highly distributed format (and closer to it’s end use). As a bonus, less energy is wasted in transmission. So you’d think freedom loving prepper types would be all over solar in general. However, that’s not necessarily the case. I get the impression the best ideas can suddenly become the worst if the perception is that there were Obama’s idea.

So, I thought it might be interesting to toss a few freedom-centric energy questions into the mix with the Liberty Tea Party Patriot crowd. I did this by posting to their Facebook event’s page last night (typos are all mine):

Questions for Liberty Tea Party Patriots

Since that was a public post, it started to pick up some views and likes from people I know and don’t know. I didn’t receive an immediate response from any members of the Liberty Tea Party Patriots group.

Then something odd happened.

Deleted Post on Liberty Tea Party Patriot's Event Page

Too hot to handle? It’s not like I brought up global warming. I tried to focus on the aspects of locally produced distributed energy generation that would appeal to people who claim to value freedom. The kind of stuff that right-wing Tea Party folks in Georgia used to lobby for more solar energy purchasing by their local utility.

In this case, I get the impression that any idea coming out of the Obama administration is automatically bad. And, that people living near the Sherco plant want government to protect the pollution importing, centralized power producing status quo since there are jobs in those communities tied to the that plant.

It’s a shame that people in that community don’t seem to be able to see a future where there are more energy industry related jobs installing and maintaining locally produced – distributed – micro power plants on houses, offices, and farms, but that’s where things are heading. And, as we go there. As we create a distributed power grid that’s less susceptible to catastrophic outages at huge power plants, with power produced within the communities it’s used (even on the same property in some cases) there will be no going back. We won’t one day say, “You know what, get Wyoming on the phone. Let’s go back to burning trainloads full of coal in Minnesota.” It’s the kind of thing that we already know is ridiculous, and will look only more ridiculous in hindsight.

Should Stealing Electricity be Legal in Minnesota, @PatGarofalo?

Let’s say that you have solar panels on your house that produce electricity. At times, you may use more electricity than you produce, so you cut a check to your power company for the difference. At other times, you may produce more than you consume, so you’ll get a check back from the power company. Either way, you settle up. That’s fair.

Another way to do things would be to carry forward any net production you’ve created as credits on your bill. This is basically an interest-free loan to your utility company, so they’re cool with that. Pat Garofalo’s energy bill includes language that allows for interest free loans from rate payers to utility companies:

Screenshot 2015-04-06 23.35.23

But, it doesn’t stop there. Just look at this:

Screenshot 2015-04-06 23.35.23 copy

Legalized theft.

What’s also interesting is that the theft of rate payer’s energy generation credits isn’t unique to Minnesota. Similar language is popping up in bills around the country, including this one in Montana:

Screenshot 2015-04-07 08.55.56

If, at the end of the year, I told Xcel, “Looks like I owe you $20. I’m going to cancel that with no additional compensation.” they’d shut my power off. Legalizing the inverse of that is legalized theft of energy producers’ electricity.

I can understand why utility companies that fund and write example legislation for ALEC members would find this valuable. Free electricity is a great deal if you can convince state legislators to make stealing legal.

This is just one example of the language inserted into Pat Garofalo’s energy bill guts clean energy programs in Minnesota. If you legalize theft of energy production from residential solar producers, you reduce the incentive to install panels. That’s a good thing if you’re in the pollution business, but not good for asthmatics, environmentalists, and local small business owners who benefit from increasing our ratio of energy generated from clean sources.

Energy Incentives: Rooftop Solar vs. Electric Cars

Rep. Pat Garofalo’s energy bill in the MN House has $5 million in incentives for purchases of electric cars and $5 million toward solar installations. Here’s why that’s a strange mix.

The US Department of Energy has a calculator where you can type in a zip code to determine what carbon impact electric cars and hybrids have based on where you happen to live. Where you live makes a difference since the sources of electricity vary by region. Here’s how it breaks down for Xcel users in MN:

Electric Vehicle vs Hybrid vs Gas Car

What that’s saying is that all-electric cars actually produce more carbon than plugins since we burn so much coal to create electricity in MN. The assumptions can be found here.

For comparison, here’s the same chart using the 90210 zip code:

Electric Vehicle vs Hybrid vs Gas Car

Electric cars are a lot cleaner when they’re not burning electricity generated at Xcel Energy’s coal-fired power plant in Becker, MN that GOP Rep Jim Newberger continually defends. Freedom’s just another word for increased rates of asthma and other respiratory issues.

Electric vehicles certainly do reduce carbon emissions compared to normal 27.6 MPG gas vehicles. The above report shows a reduction of 1.8 tons of carbon output per year. And, again, that amount is only saved if someone switching to an electric car made that move from gas rather than hybrids.

Compare that to the solar system on my house, which is projected to save 3 tons of carbon output per year.

Then, consider that a solar system lasts 30 years while the average life of a car is probably 10 years since the battery would likely need to be replaced by then, which would probably not be justifiable in a 10 year old car.

So, Pat Garofalo’s energy bill has $5 million in tax incentives for two different forms of clean energy improvements. Solar panels, which could save, say, 90 tons of carbon over 30 years. Or electric cars, which need to run, unrealistically, for 50 years to achieve the same carbon output savings as solar panels.

Geothermal Cooling via Baseboard Heat Flushing?

Engineers and armchair experts, could someone run the numbers on this for me?

The water coming out of my tap is cooler than my home. If I hooked up a garden hose to the drain of my baseboard water heating system, flushed the room temperature water out of the house and into my yard, thus replacing the water in the system with fresh, cool, tap water, could I generate a significant cooling effect (thus, taking pressure of my AC unit)?

Would any heat transfer into the pipes? Would a fan on the pipes make a difference?

The Xcel Energy’s Windsource Program Financial Hedge

The Xcel Energy Windsource program is a deal where you can opt-in to have your home’s energy come from wind power rather than asthma generating, mine shaft collapsing, black lung generating, water polluting sources. While the power sent to your house isn’t coming directly from wind turbines, Xcel is required to source their energy from wind sources in proportion to the number of people who opt-in.

So, please do.

When I first joined the program around 5-6 years ago, the net cost for me was around $7/month. That was affordable, and it felt good to do it. As I’ve managed to reduce my energy consumption, that has dropped to around $5/month.

But, here’s the beauty of this: The true net cost of switching to clean energy is actually much cheaper than $5/month. Take a look at my most recent power bill:

Xcel Energy Windsource Cost vs Dirty Energy Charges

Notice that I paid an extra $4.98 to have my energy sourced from wind turbines.

Now, check out the “Fuel Cost Charge”. This is where non-Windsource users were jacked an extra 2.85 cents per kWh to cover the costs of dirty energy like goal and natural gas. But, they couldn’t jack me because I don’t play that dirty energy game. Instead they kicked that back as a rebate, bringing my net cost for switching to non-asthma generating, mine shaft collapsing, black lung generating, water polluting sources: 96 cents.

Ask yourself: Is 3.2 cents per day too much to pay to avoid using electricity from asthma generating, mine shaft collapsing, black lung generating, water polluting sources? I would hope not.

It’s an easy choice, and only takes a minute: Sign up now.

Lowering My Home’s Energy Consumption

Back in October of 2009, I installed a TED-5000 Powermeter that ties into the Google Powermeter reporting system. This allowed me to get a much better feel for what was chewing up energy in my home and do something about it.

We made a few changes around the home, including installing a few more CFL bulbs. However, the biggest energy improvement came from swapping out our refrigerator for a new model.

So, had it paid off? Here is a look at the first 7 months with the power meter installed vs. years two and three:

Year over Year Energy Bill Comparisions

For those keeping score at home, that’s a 23%+ decrease in energy consumption. It’s also worth noting that the monthly costs include paying for the Xcel Energy Windsource program, where Xcel is required to acquire energy from wind related sources in proportion to the number of people who participate in the program.

I’m not quite off the grid yet, but less than a dollar a day electricity bills aren’t exactly breaking the bank.

The @MNGOP’s Fight Against Clean Solar Energy Incentives

If you have a solar electric system on your house, there may be times when your solar panels generate more energy than your home consumes. This net energy can be uploaded onto the grid for use by other power consuming neighbors or businesses. This is a good deal, because it increases the percentage of clean electricity sources while allowing you to offset some of the costs you invested in your solar system. Put another way, you can literally make the meter run backwards.

At what rate does the meter run backwards? Under current state law, the meter runs backwards at the retail rate. Power companies like Xcel Energy buy the energy you contribute to the grid at the same rate you normally pay them. For example, if you have your thermostat set to turn off your A/C during the day while you’re at work, the intense sun during the day would likely generate net energy that could be used to cool occupied office buildings. This is a time when the meter would run backwards. When you get home, you may use more energy to cool the house, cook, or do laundry, thus using more energy than your panels are likely generating at that hour. Essentially, you could generate clean energy for Xcel Energy during some of their highest peak demands, which is good for everyone. One would think.

Pathetically, the Minnesota GOP thinks this is a BAD IDEA. Instead of making the meter run back and forth to at an even rate, they’d like to change it to a one step forward two steps back model. By that, I mean that they want Xcel to be able to buy your excess electricity to you at wholesale and sell it right back to you at retail rates. That’s right. They want you to only earn wholesale rates on the clean energy you created during the peak demand hours of the day, then pay retail rates to earn it back when the meter runs forward.

You can thank Rep. Michael Beard (R) of District 35A (Shakopee, MN) and Rep. Tom Hackbarth* (R) of District 48A (Cedar, MN) for this proposed dirty energy handout. Not just anyone would propose taking away incentives for investments in home solar energy systems.

Here is the destruction of clean energy sanity in action:

Solar Energy Net Cost Retail Wholesale Amendment

Reps Beard and Hackbarth have the courage to stand in favor of asthma, mine shaft collapses, black lung, natural gas fracking, and water pollution. Or, maybe they’re just standing in support of campaign donations from power companies? Is there a difference?

Here’s a look at a sample of the donors to Rep. Mike Beard’s campaign:

GREAT RIVER ENERGY – Electric Utilities – $500 -09/02/2010
RURAL ELECTRIC PAC – Electric Utilities – $250 – 06/12/2010
XCEL ENERGY EMPLOYEES PAC – Electric Utilities – $250 – 07/02/2010
OTTER TAIL POWER – Electric Utilities – $200 – 09/03/2010
XCEL ENERGY EMPLOYEES PAC – Electric Utilities – $100 – 10/14/2010

That’s $1,300 in campaign contributions from electric utilities. $1,300 may not sound like a lot, but it Rep Beard’s total campaign contributions were $19,733. Of the $19,733, $5,893 was from public election subsidies and $1,200 from self-funding, so the $1,300 accounts for more than 10% of his campaign’s outside money contributions.

Clearly, those utilities would be getting a HUGE return on their investment in Rep. Beard if that amendment passed.

Thankfully, this story has a happy ending. In spite of the efforts of power companies to buy a horrible change to our state’s energy acquisition, common sense won out. This amendment by Reps Beard and Hackbarth was tossed out.

My Solar Use Case

In case it’s not already clear that Beard and Hackbarth’s utility funded ideas are not good for Minnesota, here’s another perspective: I’ve been considering installing a solar system. As I understand the numbers, the energy potential of five typical panels would cover my home’s gross energy needs. That would not cover peak load, but it would more than cover the base load when no one is home and the A/C is off. Under current state law, this would allow me to get my electric bill down to nearly zero. But, if I’m going to do this, it would make sense to put as many panels on the roof as fit, since they represent only a fraction of an entire solar project’s cost. Why not make the meter run backwards by contributing enough energy to the grid to power a second Minneapolis home? If Reps Beard and Hackbarth had their way, the incentive to do this would be much less since the payout on the investment in clean energy would go up by years. Why take away my incentive to invest in improving the quality of our state’s energy sources? Try putting common sense ahead of campaign dollars and sense, guys.

* Yes, this is the same Rep. Hackbarth that was cruising St. Paul’s Highland Park with a sidearm last fall in search of a woman he had met online.

Improving Our Home’s Energy Efficiency

I recently gave Centerpoint Energy a ring and asked if they could pull the records on what Carly and I have been paying for natural gas used in our home over the time we’ve owned it. CenterPoint provides up to 15 months of data on their website (login required) but will print and mail larger data sets.

Once I received the thick envelope of data and returned it to an electronic format, I created this year over year look at monthly costs:

Gas Payment by Month

Ideally, I’d like to see the red line (Year 2) below the blue (Year 1) with the Gold line (Year 3) below the red. To achieve that, I need to progressively decrease what I’m paying CenterPoint Energy for natural gas.

Uses of Natural Gas

I believe this is a complete list of how natural gas is consumed in my house. I’ve tried to rank them based on how much natural gas I perceive each system consumes annually.

1. Furnace to heat water for baseboard water heating
2. Hot water heater
3. Clothes Dryer
4. Stove/Oven
5. Gas Grill

Cost Cutting Actions

Over time, we’ve made a few changes around the house that I assume helped lower our natural gas consumption, but the feedback loop isn’t as precise as it is with the Google PowerMeter used for monitoring electricity. Here’s what I think has helped.

Water Heater Blanket – I don’t think we’ve reduced the amount of cooking, grilling or laundry we’ve done in summer months, so the drop may be tied to the water heater blanket I purchased and installed in April 2009. I paid $26.21 for that at the time, so it may have paid for itself in only a few months. If it cut my gas costs by as little as 10 cents/day, it’s already paid for itself.

Door Sweeps – When we moved in, you could literally see light entering the house from below the doors. Closing the obvious gaps with door sweeps cost less than $40.

Expanding Foam Sealant – $5 spend on this stuff helps close drafts in tough to patch areas. For example, our front door has a skeleton keyhole that would shoot air into our home that’s 100F colder than indoor temps on coldest days. A few cents worth of foam shut that down. Don’t get this stuff on your hands.

Attic insulation – I found Owens Corning’s attic insulation calculator valuable for determining how much insulation my attic could use. Since there was already stuff up there, I picked up around 14 rolls of R-30 insulation to roll out on top of what was there. My total cost of supplies (including a face mask, gloves, and box cutter) was under $200. Rolling out the insulation took around 3 hours. I was itchy for a day after that. Before do-it-myselfing this, I also got a quote from a company that would blow in insulation. That was $2,000 rather than $200.

Programmable Thermostat Adjustments – I can’t imagine not having a programmable thermostat in a house these days. They’re cheap and help save a ton of energy since you’re only using as much energy as you need to be comfortable at any time of the day or week. The cost from $25-$100 depending on how complex a model you’d like (I use a relatively simple 5-2 model where it has one setting for weekday wake-up, mid-day, evening, and overnight temps and a second setting for the weekend routine). We got a bit more aggressive with our overnight low temp this year, which probably accounts for some of our more recent savings. At this point, our overnight temp is “chilly on the couch but perfect for sleeping” with the heat ramping back up starting early enough in the morning to make crawling out from under the covers comfortable. Then it drops off during work hours. Painless savings.

Like I said earlier, it’s tough to correlate individual projects with energy savings since the feedback loop on gas consumption is so poor. What I do know is that we spent $269 less in our second year in our home than the first on natural gas. We saved around 315 therms worth of natural gas. Converting that to a car gasoline’s energy (btu) equivalent, we burned 252 gallons less gas without compromising on comfort. Good stuff.