Monday, February 23, 2009

A Local Town Energy Meeting

Last Friday night I was a part of a panel at a local meeting on energy, put together by the local Democratic party. There were a number of us that had been asked to speak, and ahead of time, I had predicted that, with the meeting starting at 7 pm I would be home by 8:30 pm. The first surprise was that before the meeting started they had to bring in extra chairs. (I take no credit for this, I was a minor speaker). According to the local paper there were more than a hundred folk in the room, and one of the utility speakers noted that on this topic he usually sees about fifteen. The meeting was based on an initiative that passed in the last election that required utility companies to get 15% of their electricity from clean energy resources by 2021. It passed with 66% of the vote.

Missouri is one of the states that currently requires that a utility have a power plant in place and producing electricity before it can make any charge to the rate-payers. The practice of allowing a surcharge, while the plant is being built is called Construction Work in Progress (CWIP). It is controversial.

The benefits of this to those paying these bills is only there until the higher, later bills show up. Nevertheless with a construction time at around a decade, the first speaker, Erin Noble from the Missouri Coalition for the Environment spoke strongly about the need to keep the rule in place, while the nuclear power station at Fulton is doubled in capacity. She was answered later in the evening by the Ameren representative, who pointed out that money does not come free, and if the company has to carry that debt (and interest) until the charges can begin, then obviously they would be higher.

The second speaker, John Hensley, was from Wind Capital Group the company that had installed the wind turbines in Northwest Missouri. One of these, at Rockport was in an earlier Pick Points, because it is the first community that they feel can meet all its needs from the turbines. (Their web site has a wind speed indicator that shows the wind is currently blowing at 10 mph as I write). He gave a little of the history of the company and some of the benefits of the installations to the local community. He also showed slides of the rather impressive foundation that has to be installed to hold one of the turbines. To date it has been a success, but, for this state, all the potential sites with enough wind to be useful are up in the Rockport area. The company was able to tie into existing distribution lines to use the power it generated, but getting much power further into the state will require that new power lines be run, and there are a number of different forms of cost and delay in getting that accomplished. He did note the potential of the stimulus package to help.

Our group, from the University tried to cover a number of the different programs that we are currently working on, with Angie Rolufs, Director of the Institute for Environmental Excellence, giving the campus overview of projects. These range from the more mundane (but effective) step of having the campus do an energy audit (which it has) through a number of current programs that include improving grid connections to intermittent sources of power (wind and solar) to vehicles powered by various unconventional means. The next topic, covered by Curt Elmore, related to our ongoing study of wind and solar power, and the way to integrate it into the grid. He it was who had to explain to folk that, even though we have a small turbine installed, the low and intermittent quality of the wind in this part of the state would not make wind an economic viability - it will take about 40-years for the one installed to pay for itself. Then I talked a bit on our current algae program, and John Sheffield finished out to group talk with some words on the Hydrogen project and the current work on the EcoCar Challenge.

There were two representatives from AmerenUE, the generator of electricity for this part of the state, who began by discussing the funding of Callaway, during which they acknowledged that the increasing prices of natural gas generators would limit their future potential as a power source. They moved on to discuss their current initiative to improve household efficiency in the use of electricity and the willingness to do energy audits of homes, and what typical results might be. They referred to the latest National Geographic, which features an Energy Audit article. (I described one that I was familiar with in an earlier post. The need for improving energy use was also stressed by the local utility that provides power to the surrounding area, Intercounty Electric and the opportunity for a free home energy audit was explained.

There were a number of questions throughout the evening, and at the end (somewhere around 10 pm) most of the folk were still in the room, asking questions and debating. Energy is obviously an issue that has us rural folk’s attention.


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