Unlocking Your Potential for Clean Energy

Patience and Persistence Required when Introducing Renewables

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Michael Ahern is an executive with Ever-Green Energy based in St. Paul, Minn.

Ben Foster is senior vice president, Americas, for Optony Inc., an international provider of independent lifecycle management services for commercial and governmental renewable energy projects.

Nick Smith is renewable energy product manager for Alliant Energy, headquartered in Madison, Wis., with offices in Cedar Rapids and Dubuque, Iowa.

Posted: Wednesday, November 12, 2014 3:30 pm

Many communities want to use and provide renewable energy options. But moving from green energy ideas to a plan-of-action and an installed system can be an overwhelming process, stretching across years, changing budgets and the rapidly developing industry of renewable energy technology.

Achieving the goal of increased renewable energy is possible and in a community's best interest, according to three presenters who discussed their initiatives at the Growing Sustainable Communities Conference, held recently in Dubuque, Iowa.

Implementing a renewable energy system takes patience and persistence, said Michael Ahern with Ever-Green Energy, a subsidiary of District Energy St. Paul. The company helps communities incorporate renewable energy sources into integrated energy systems, like the combined heat and power district system in downtown St. Paul, Minn.

While many communities think of integrated energy systems solely from an electricity standpoint, Ahern said thermal energy also needs to be considered, since it can be a major source of energy loss.

For the past 30 years, St. Paul’s district energy system has heated and cooled the majority of the downtown and it’s the largest hot water district heating system in North America, Ahern said. It also provides very stable energy rates, since it has a large variety of fuels to draw from and can make changes based on market prices.

“Customers pay less than they did 30 years ago, when adjusted for inflation,” he said. “It truly is a community energy system.”

Creating a district system has its share of challenges – from determining the public-private partnerships, to managing the expense of installation and finding solutions that are best for the individual community. Overcoming these challenges depends on having at least one “champion” for the project during all the twists and turns of its development and implementation.

“Every group of stakeholders who are involved have their own interests, and while they all see the final vision – and to some extent are contributing to that – at times there’s a little bit of a pull based on the public or private entities interested,” Ahern said. “There are some examples … where there’s not as strong of a champion, and that is the hardest thing, when you don’t have one entity who comes out and leads and says, ‘We will make this work come hell or high water.’ That creates a real challenge, a real void.

“None of these projects are very easy, but something can always be done,” he added.

Finding the resources to help develop and execute an idea also can be a huge challenge for municipalities, said Ben Foster, with Optony Inc., particularly when it comes to solar installations, which are growing in popularity around the country.

To help municipalities find the resources they need, Optony worked with the U.S. Department of Energy to create the Solar Roadmap a free resource for communities, utilities and service providers on global best practices and applicable resources.

“Even though there are opportunities everywhere, dollars and resources are not distributed equally and communities often just don’t know, don’t have the resources, don’t understand what’s possible,” Foster said. “The potential is there and they want to make things happen, and once they get connected they can make things happen.”

The Solar Roadmap enables communities to compare their projects with what other towns and cities across the country are doing, Foster said, and “look across all different sectors for opportunities, because they’re not the same for each community.”

Once a community has developed a plan, it’s important to again bring in the stakeholders.

“Let people know you’re taking action and actually leading and then they’ll continue to support that,” he said. “Communicate broadly what you’re doing because it’s exciting.”

The Solar Roadmap isn’t the only option for communities wanting to explore their renewable energy options, said Nick Smith, with Alliant Energy. Utilities are increasingly willing to work on municipal, business and residential projects.

“In years past, the perception may not have been that way,” he said. “But look across the country and you’ll see that some are really taking to heart that the writing’s on the wall. Renewables are here.”

Alliant Energy is considering ways to make renewable energy a more dynamic part of its portfolio, Smith said, and to act as a facilitator for customers interested in installing renewable energy options, such as solar panels.

“We don’t want to be a hindrance as far as solar is concerned, we would like to work with you and be someone you invite to the table,” he said.

In 2009 Alliant had 100-200 customers that were self-generating, but now it has more than 1,000 with solar alone in Iowa. The utility company is instituting new guidelines for self-generating customers, with the goal of being an advisor in both energy options and incentives, as well as safety standards.

“There has to be some engineering review, a safety element to it to ensure you’re safe, your neighbors are safe,” Smith said. “Safety has to be paramount in anything that you do as far as electricity is concerned.”

The company also is considering community solar options and developing a tariffed, buy-in or ownership option for the program, Smith said.

“We want to see what is going to work best for our customers,” he said. “We are certainly taking this seriously … and we want to be a trusted adviser for you.”

By preparing the groundwork for renewables now, Smith said the company hopes to be well prepared for the future.

“With advancements in battery technology and solar technology – when it becomes dispatchable, that’s really going to be a game-changer, not just for us but for all utilities across the country,” he said. “When you have a renewable source that’s not only renewable when the sun is shining or the winds blowing, but that’s dispatchable, that really changes everything. So we’re certainly trying to put ourselves in a position to be ready for that.”

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