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Sun Shines Bright for NREL's Energy Execs

October 19, 2010

Photo of two men on a roof installing solar panels. Enlarge image

Jason Richard, left, and Paul Besaw, both with Encore Energy Services, install new solar panels on the roof of the Sangre de Cristo Arts and Conference Center in Pueblo, Colo. Energy Execs grad Greg Severance is hoping to help make Pueblo the solar capital of Colorado.
Credit: Dennis Schroeder

The 2010 Executive Energy Leadership program at the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory recently minted 19 new "Energy Execs" ready to pursue renewable energy projects at their businesses, governments and other organizations.

The five-month leadership program gives decision makers an in-depth look at an array of renewable energy and energy efficient building technologies, as well as economic and analytical tools. Briefings by NREL technology experts, research laboratory tours and visits to field applications are part of the monthly experience.

Energy Execs Go National

Since the inception of the Energy Execs program, participants have been solely from Colorado. This year's class included participants from across the U.S.

"The Energy Execs team worked to expand this Colorado-based pilot program to one sharing NREL's renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies on a national scale," NREL Manager, Corporate Relations Janice Rooney said. "As a national laboratory, we launched this unique forum to provide a dynamic learning opportunity for a diverse group of business, government and organizational leaders. It's exciting to see the impact our grads are having at their businesses and in their communities."

Before graduation, execs must present a viable project using renewable energy or energy efficiency that could be implemented by their organization. Although the execs get broad exposure to many renewable energy technologies, solar solutions are piquing many leaders' interest.

Pueblo County Looks to Take a Solar Lead

Photo of a man kneeling on a roof covered in solar panels. Enlarge image

Greg Severance kneels on the roof of the Sangre de Cristo Arts and Conference Center in Pueblo, Colo. Severance was a member of NREL's 2009 Energy Execs Program; his goal after graduation was to install up to one megawatt of solar panels on Pueblo County buildings.
Credit: Dennis Schroeder

Located along Interstate 25 in southern Colorado, Pueblo County is an economic hub for southeastern Colorado. Home to the city of Pueblo, also known as "Steel City," it is one of the largest steel-producing counties in the United States. But, if Pueblo County Public Works Director Greg Severance has any say, Pueblo will also adopt the moniker of solar capital.

"Our goal is to make Pueblo County the solar capital of the state," Severance said. "The wind doesn't blow hard enough down here but the sun sure shines."

Severance attended Energy Execs in 2009 and left the program with not one, but three goals in mind:

  • Install up to one megawatt (MW) of solar panels on Pueblo County buildings.
  • Contract with a company to perform energy audits and retrofits on all 26 county buildings, yielding an estimated minimum energy savings of $300,000 per year.
  • Work with local utilities to make Pueblo the renewable energy and solar capital of Colorado.

In less than a year, Severance was able to check two of the three items off his list.

Recently, the county commissioners completed a 20-year power purchase agreement (PPA) with Main Street Solar to install 750 kilowatts (KW) of solar on nine county facilities. Estimated savings from the solar panels will fall in the range of $30,000 to 60,000 a year but Severance is looking more toward the future. "We've already had a 10.5 percent cost increase from Black Hills Energy (BHE) to repair old infrastructure, another 20 percent increase is projected in the next year and a half to pay off a new natural gas fired power plant BHE is currently building. Project those numbers into the future and the dollars start to add up significantly," Severance said. "Under our 20-year power-purchase agreement, in year 20, we will still be paying 2.8 cents a kilowatt-hour for our 750 KW of installed solar. Imagine what the BHE electricity costs of that energy will be in 2030?"

Getting to 750 KW of solar for the county took some ingenuity. After the initial assessment of county buildings, it was determined that of the 26 buildings, only five roofs met the criteria for solar (with the needed structural support and south facing roof slopes). Since that would not get Severance close to his goal, Main Street Power stepped up and is building carports to put the added photovoltaic (PV) panels over existing on-grade parking areas.

Severance's second goal — contracting to do energy audits and retrofits on all 26 county buildings — is also complete. The county hired Johnson Controls to analyze energy use in all 26 county buildings at a cost of $4.2 million. Under the contract, the company will look at all of the building systems and do many needed retrofits to improve energy efficiency.

"The cost of that audit is guaranteed to be paid in energy savings or the company will absorb the difference," Severance said. "We have 15-year, $5.6 million energy savings guarantee. They have to pay the difference on an annual basis. Why every governmental agency statewide is not doing this is beyond me."

With two goals accomplished, Severance has turned his focus to goal number three – working with local utilities to make Pueblo the renewable energy/solar capital of Colorado. Although the utilities have been a tougher nut to crack, Severance has been busy spreading the solar message to other community groups, and the idea is catching on. According to Severance, since Pueblo County announced its solar endeavor, the local school district is planning a 1.2 MW solar project, the YMCA is installing 500 KW, the regional building authority is adding 60 KW, and the library is installing a 42 KW PV system. "It's spreading," he added.

Despite the fact that Xcel Energy rejected a proposed partnership for a utility scale PV project in Pueblo County two years ago, Severance believes other opportunities will be forthcoming and when the day comes, he says he's laying the ground work to get as many solar companies as possible to submit bids for projects in Pueblo County.

"Pueblo is home to Xcel Energy's 1,410 MW coal-fire Comanche power plant and that electricity is already being shipped to Denver so we know it is possible to ship renewable energy from Pueblo to Denver," Severance said.

Bringing Solar to San Diego's International Airport

Photo rendering of a parking lot covered in solar panels. Enlarge image

This photo rendering by Viasol Energy Solutions simulates the visual impact of PV covered parking at San Diego's Airport.
Courtesy Viasol Energy Solutions, LLP

2010 Energy Execs grad and Senior Project Architect Christine Murphy is looking for ways to bring solar to San Diego's airport, but she has a few challenges to overcome. "Solar was identified as one renewable energy resource that is feasible in our area, but available unused land at the airport is nonexistent," she said.

When Murphy says there is no land, there is no land. "San Diego is a postage stamp sized airport yet it's the busiest single-runway airport in the U.S. and second busiest single-runway airport in the world," Murphy added. The San Diego airport sits on a mere 661 acres. For comparison, Denver International Airport, the largest international airport in the U.S., has a site that spans 53 square miles and the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport has more breathing room than San Diego with 4,700 acres.

No worries, just put solar on the terminal roofs, right? Not so fast says Murphy, "The terminal roofs at the airport are all reaching the end of their lifespan. Placing solar on top is not a feasible solution until the terminals are re-roofed."

What the San Diego airport has is parking — lots of on-grade parking. Murphy is looking to enter into a PPA with a company that will build raised solar panels over the existing parking, providing 2.3 MW of renewable energy along with a little shading for the cars beneath.

Business Modeling for Solar to Hydrogen Energy Storage

One of the issues with using renewable energy such as wind and solar is being able to store the energy created on bright or windy days and then use it on the not so bright or windy days. Two members of this year's class — Sanjeeva Senanayake , vice president, HSH Nordbank and Jason Coccia, associate, Booz Allen Hamilton, Inc. — teamed up to see if proposals for using hydrogen to store solar energy from photovoltaics could bring returns for investors. (Visit NREL's Wind2H2 Web site to see the project that inspired Senanayake and Coccia.)

"There are a lot of things you need to think about when trying to decide if this is an economically viable technology," Coccia said "It's the efficiency of the system, it's the cost of the components and the capacity that you want to think about."

The good news is that after crunching the numbers, they found good potential ROI as costs for PV continue to improve. "Given today's market, today's cost and efficiency numbers, the returns are pretty low," Senanayake said. "The key take away from this model is that as PV panel costs come down, the integrated PV-to-hydrogen storage system will make sense. We think there is tremendous business opportunity here."

Dairy Farmers Look to CSP and Wind

David B. Johnston, corporate project engineer for Dairy Farmers of America (DFA), admits he had an advantage when he began his first 2010 Energy Execs class. "I cheated. I already had my project in mind before I signed up for the class," Johnston said. "A year ago, our management came to our team looking to build a new facility for milk condensing. So I just got really fired up about the idea of using renewable energy at this facility."

Dairy Farmers of America is a farmer-owned for-profit marketing cooperative that has experience leveraging renewable energy to boost its bottom line. Examples include:

  • Members use methane digesters to turn cow manure into natural gas that can be used to power homes and equipment.
  • DFA offers consulting service to its members interested in incorporating wind or solar energy on their operations.
  • DFA works to optimize transportation routes and is using idle-monitoring technology to conserve fuel.

The plant Johnston's team is looking to build will receive 2 million pounds (or about 40 truckloads) per day of raw milk for processing at a location in western Kansas. Because of the demands that trucks be sanitized on site and then turned out to get a new load along with the milk to be pasteurized, approximately 100,000 gallons of hot water storage and 45,000 pounds per hour of steam generation also is built into the facility plans.

Between the location in windy western Kansas and the hot water storage already on site, Johnston is investigating two opportunities for using renewable energy at the new plant — concentrating solar power (CSP) and wind energy.

"You look at the solarJPG and wind energy resource mapsJPG on the NREL Web site and we are definitely in a hot spot for renewable energy," Johnston said.

Learn more about the NREL Executive Energy Program on the Web site, where updates will be posted later in the year about the application process. To contact the program, e-mail energyexecs@nrel.gov.

— Heather Lammers