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Photo of two long cabins with a view of one roof, which is covered with solar panels. In the background are forest-covered mountains.

New rules for interconnecting solar power systems to the grid in the U.S. Virgin Islands have led to a significant growth in installed solar power in the territory.
Photo by Don Buchanan, VIEO

Starting Small, Thinking Big

NREL helps communities of all sizes and types—from islands and tribes to rural villages and cities—transition to clean energy.

NREL is fostering a clean energy transition across the United States by providing objective information about policies and best practices to a diverse array of government entities, from islands, tribes, and remote communities to cities and entire states.

Across the United States, there is ample evidence that renewable energy has reached a tipping point and a clean energy transformation is underway. In many U.S. cities, solar-powered traffic signs are commonplace, as are homes sporting solar panels. Cross-country travelers are likely to encounter multiple wind farms along any given highway route.

But in many parts of the world—and even some areas in the United States—significant penetrations of renewable energy remain a rarity. Likewise, it's evident that energy efficiency is beneficial, and a growing number of public and private energy efficiency programs have yielded significant savings, but many homeowners and businesses never bother to obtain an energy audit or invest in energy retrofits.

The difference between the "haves" and "have nots" often lies in the policies and best practices instituted by territorial, state, local, and tribal governments—and, of course, the federal government. NREL analysts have long examined the various approaches taken by these governments, discerning what works and what doesn't when it comes to encouraging people to be energy efficient and adopt renewable energy technologies.

In the interest of streamlining our nation's transition to a clean energy economy, NREL is leveraging its insights and experience to help guide and inform the strategic energy roadmaps of islands and other remote or "islanded" communities, tribes, and cities as a partner or participant in various localized efforts.

An NREL engineer points to a spot on a map while a man takes notes and a woman leans closer to scrutinize the map.

Ted Wright of the Stillaguamish Tribe and Shannon Loeve of Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa review resource maps during a tribal energy workshop in Denver, Colorado.
Photo by Amy Glickson, NREL

Helping Islands Reduce Their Dependency on Expensive, Dirty Fuels

Islands generally present both a need and an opportunity for clean energy transformation. Because of their geographic isolation, relatively small size, and heavy dependence on fossil fuels to meet their energy needs, islands face a number of common challenges. Imported fuel is typically expensive, leading to very high retail electricity rates and transportation costs. As a result, these islanded energy systems are heavily impacted by fluctuations in global oil prices. In addition, the inherent infrastructure challenges of such remote areas mean electricity and fuel are not always reliable or accessible. The combination of sky-high energy costs, price volatility, and energy insecurity has significant economic fallout that affects productivity and quality of life.

On the other hand, islands tend to have abundant renewable resources, small populations, and the political will to alter their course, making them ideal places to showcase the technical and economic viability of a large-scale transition to renewable energy.

NREL's initial work with islands involved on-the-ground engagements in places like Hawaii, where the majority of electricity is generated from oil and the cost for power is nearly 27 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh)—more than double the average U.S. mainland cost of nearly 11 cents per kWh.

Hawaii has set increasingly ambitious goals for the amount of renewable energy that will supply the state. NREL started working with Hawaii after the state signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) in 2008 to create the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative (HCEI), which set a state goal of transitioning from more than 90% reliance on imported oil to 70% clean energy by 2030.

Already on track to achieve its initial goal, the state is raising the bar. In May 2015, the legislature adopted a renewable portfolio standard of 100% by 2045, positioning Hawaii to become the first U.S. state to reach 100% renewable energy and setting a bold example for other states and islands to follow. Since 2008, when Hawaii launched the HCEI, NREL has provided critical expertise that has made the state a pioneer in adopting clean energy technologies.

Another example is the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI), which has set a goal to reduce its fossil fuel use 60% by 2025. According to NREL's Adam Warren, Ph.D., the lab started working with the USVI nearly six years ago, just after the territory had instituted a net-metering policy, which allows owners of solar power systems to earn credit or payment for excess energy generation that is fed back into the power grid.

Despite this progressive program, the territory had no clear policy for interconnecting distributed generation sources, so it was difficult to actually connect solar power to the grid. NREL, working with Keyes, Fox & Wiedman, examined the best practices for interconnection, and the resulting report informed the USVI's work to codify critical interconnection procedures.

The effort paid off, as the territory went from almost no distributed solar generation to about 15 MW—a significant renewable penetration given a total grid capacity of 110 MW. The territory is also buying power from utility-scale solar facilities totaling about 9 MW. Altogether, the USVI is now using 20% less diesel fuel to meet its energy and water needs, putting it at about one-third of its 2025 goal while lowering energy costs for consumers and significantly reducing pollution.

"Islands are leading the way on the use of efficiency but also renewables," said Warren. "In doing so, they're natural laboratories for the policies that promote that adoption and transformation of the energy sector."

The successful island energy transitions NREL has shepherded are providing models for increasing energy efficiency, developing indigenous renewable resources, and achieving high penetrations of renewable energy on islands. To assist other remote and noncontiguous communities throughout the world in leveraging the lessons learned from these pilots, NREL worked with DOE to produce the "Energy Transition Initiative: Islands Playbook", a 120-page guide to achieving clean energy transformation in an island environment.

Tribes and Other Remote Communities Look to Their Renewable Resources

Tribes and other remote, noncontiguous communities face challenges similar to islands. In fact, some tribal communities in Alaska are located on islands. But even tribes in the contiguous United States often deal with insufficient and unreliable energy services. On the upside, most tribal lands have ample renewable resources.

The potential for tribal leadership in clean energy is significant: NREL geospatial research shows that while American Indian land comprises only about 2% of the total U.S. land base, it represents an estimated 5% of the total U.S. renewable energy generation potential.

NREL is a key strategic partner for the DOE Office of Indian Energy Policy and Programs' Strategic Technical Assistance Response Team (START) Program, which is designed to build tribal capacity for clean energy projects on tribal land and create replicable models for state, local, and tribal governments. Through START and START Alaska, tribes can apply for and are competitively selected to receive technical assistance from DOE and national laboratory experts to advance renewable energy and energy efficiency projects.

NREL also supports the Office of Indian Energy in providing tribal communities with short-term, on-request technical assistance in clean energy planning and development. For example, NREL facilitated an on-site strategic energy planning workshop for the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe in New York State. The resulting plan takes advantage of the state's aggressive clean energy goals. NREL provided similar technical assistance to support the California-based Bishop Paiute Tribe in developing a strategic energy plan that takes advantage of the state's incentives for solar power.

A photo of downtown Cleveland, Ohio, at dusk. The river and bridge can be seen in the foreground.

Cleveland, Ohio, was one of 20 U.S. cities that had its long-term energy plan examined in detail by the Cities Leading through Energy Analysis and Planning project.

Helping Cities Leap Into Clean Energy Plans with Cities-LEAP

Cities are another example of jurisdictions in the midst of the clean energy transition.

"Cities are on the front lines of the clean energy transition," said NREL's Elizabeth Doris. "City electricity costs can be a large percentage of city costs, and cities are going to have to start making decisions about how much clean energy they want as they negotiate with their power providers. Digging into NREL technologies, research, and analysis, we get actionable information to city governments to support them in achieving their energy and economic development goals."

One way NREL is starting to prepare for those challenges is the Cities Leading through Energy Analysis and Planning (Cities-LEAP) project, which aims to arm city-level decision makers with data to drive informed energy decisions using a multi-pronged approach. First, analysts looked at what cities are doing now, and the extent to which data can be, and is being, used to inform energy decisions. NREL selected a diverse group of 20 U.S. cities for in-depth analysis and found limited evidence of data-driven decision making or impact evaluations, indicating either that the energy data isn't available or that it doesn't offer a clear value proposition for decision makers. NREL found that most city leaders don't have access to detailed energy data.

Second, to address this need, NREL developed and will soon roll out standardized, localized energy calculations and analyses that will provide cities with estimates of their energy use and costs by sector. This project uses innovative data science methodologies to derive city-specific data for 23,400 cities across the United States.

"The idea is to enable city leaders to make more data-driven energy decisions," said Doris.

The project builds on the State and Local Energy Data (SLED) tool, a tool developed by NREL for DOE that pulls available energy data sets together to help a wide range of communities make energy-related decisions. By entering any U.S. ZIP code or city name, users can quickly discover average retail electricity rates and trends, fuel sources, and electricity demand by sector—all good starting places in creating a strategic energy plan. But Cities-LEAP goes much farther.

"The idea is to get everyone access to that data, and then the next stage is to say, 'these are the actions that cities are taking; this is how to connect your city-specific calculated data to NREL's in-depth analysis of the energy actions taken by cities,'" said Doris. "With the revisions to SLED that include both the calculated city-level data and the actions collected from the 20 city-level case studies, it's possible to say, 'Oh, you use a lot of electricity in your industrial sector? Other places that use a lot of electricity in their industrial sector have used these actions to optimize that energy use.'"

NREL's cross-organizational work supports cities by providing technology-neutral, actionable energy data and strategies for achieving their energy and economic development goals. These innovative methodologies contribute to a rapidly developing field of urban science by preparing cities with world-class decision support.

Beyond R&D: Market Impact

Spring 2016 / Issue 9

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Editorial Team

  • Kim Adams | Managing Editor
  • Bill Gillies | Creative Director
  • Dennis Schroeder | Photographer
  • Jennifer Josey | Editor
  • Michael Oakley | Web Development
  • Amy Glickson | Web Development
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