Electricity Industry News

Welcome to our Resources page. Here, you will find coverage of electricity industry news that has a significant impact on the industry and those whom it serves, as well as helpful topics for businesses and consumers, such as how to reduce your electricity bills, eco-friendly electricity usage practices, finding the best electricity rates and plans for your needs, and more.

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Vault Electricity is committed to bringing you resources that increase your knowledge of our industry and what you can do to positively affect your electricity usage as a business or a homeowner. Check in regularly; we continually have new, informative resources to share!

Challenges For Nuclear Power

Tough Economic Environment for Nuclear Power

The now multi-year run of cheap natural gas prices has had a significant impact in the energy world, and has been a disrupting factor in electricity in particular.  It’s been hard for other energy sources to compete in the low price environment that has been created by cheap abundant natural gas in the U.S.

Nuclear power is not immune to this.  Citing low wholesale electricity rates among other factors, several nuclear power plants across the country have been scheduled for retirement in the past year.  In total, five reactors representing a total capacity of around 4,200 megawatts have been slated for shutdown.  In each case, for various reasons, the owners of the plants feel that they can no longer make money in the current environment.

Nuclear reactors are expensive undertakings.  They required massive amounts of capital and years to build. It’s not common to see them retired and their owners don’t take such decisions lightly.  The current round of retirements represent the first nuclear power plant shutdowns in the U.S. since 1998.

Low Electricity Rates and High Regulatory Burdens

The largest recent retirement is the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) near San Diego.  Southern California Edison, the owner of the facility recently made the decision to retire two reactors (units 2 and 3) totaling a combined output loss of 2,150 MW.  The two units have been offline since January of 2012 awaiting repairs.

While the company had originally planned to restart the reactors after repairs were made, they have recently changed course and decided that the cost of repairs and length of the regulatory approval process involved in restarting the units make them no longer viable.

While there were a number of complicating factors leading to the shutdown of the SONGS units, the owners of the Vermont Yankee facility in Vermont are laying the blame for their recently announced shut down specifically on low natural gas prices and what they call “wholesale market design flows” that have kept wholesale electricity rates low in the region.  Consequently, they didn’t feel like the facility could continue to be economically viable.  They will start decommissioning in the fourth quarter of 2014.

The other recently announced closing are:

  • The Kewaunee Power Station in Wisconsin – retired in May 2013
  • Crystal River Nuclear Generating Plant Unit 3 – the plant has been shut down already.

See Also: The Prospects For Nuclear Energy In The US
See Also: Natural Gas Exports Mean Likely Higher Electricity Rates in Texas

Image credit: eia.gov

Biomass And Biogas Energy Explained

When you think of renewable energy, the wind and sun are probably the first places your mind goes. While solar and wind power are easy to see and understand in the form of panels and turbines, biomass and biogas are two energy forms also powering your everyday life. Clean-tech research and development firm Clean Edge released a 2012 study showing the biofuel industry grew to more than $95 billion in 2012, up more than $12 billion from the previous year. Here’s what to know about this growing industry:

Biomass Renewable Energy

Biomass energy is derived from organic matter that comes from living plants, crops and trees. Most of the energy works by converting the carbohydrates contained in the plant matter into a usable form, as Clean Edge notes. If you’ve ever cooked on a campfire, you’ve used a type of biomass energy. However, there’s a fine line between a renewable energy source and a destructive energy source.

The Natural Resources Defense Council reports biomass power, when done correctly, is a good source of renewable energy. Some states, such as Massachusetts, focus on selecting biomass sources that won’t contribute to pollution and other harmful issues. If this type of careful selection is not used, it ends up being harmful to the environment. Fast-growing plants and trees are the best type of material, since they replenish faster than they’re being used. If the energy is produced using resources that cannot renew themselves in a reasonable time frame, it is counterproductive to the renewable energy goal.

Biomass energy is used for nearly five percent of energy in the United States, reports the Institute for Energy Research. This is not as high as other types of renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar power, but it provides a great alternative for locations that don’t receive high wind or lots of sunlight. If you’re looking to get into producing biomass energy, the first step is to determine whether you have a good source of biomass on hand before you dive in head-first. You also want to compare energy suppliers for deals on an electric company that supports you augmenting your energy output.

Biogas Renewable Energy

Biogas energy might make you think companies are trying to extract energy from the methane emissions produced by livestock. However, the gas that it’s actually referring to is the gas that is generated when organic matter breaks down when oxygen is not available, according to The Insititute for Energy Research. Either anaerobic bacteria or a fermentation effect breaks down the organic material.

Common organic matter used for biogas generation includes manure, plants and crops. It can be used in a variety of ways, such as renewable fuels, natural gas, electric production, heating, and transportation. Biogas is a renewable energy source that can be easily used in a residential setting. You use a digester to store your organic material, cover it with water to limit the oxygen, and then seal the container up tight. The average energy usage of a family requires a 200-gallon biogas generator, although you can start smaller if you want to get used to the process.

 

Complaints In Texas Electricity Market Drop Again

For the fourth consecutive year, Texans are complaining less about their electricity providers.  This is according to findings published by Texas Coalition for Affordable Power.

There are number of factors that could be contributing to this steady decline in complaints.

Texans are becoming more and more familiar with how to compare electricity rates and shop for a better deal.   The also understand the terms of the plans better after years of deregulation in Texas.  This familiarity with how to shop and the process of switching providers leads to better experiences for consumers and, consequently, fewer complaints.

Electricity rates in Texas have been considerably lower over the past few years.  This is due largely to a sustained dip in natural gas prices.  Most electricity in Texas is produced from natural gas.  This leads to a strong price correlation between the two.    Consumers who feel they are paying too much are more likely to complain.

Complaints are now at their lowest level since deregulation began in the Texas electricity market.  The first full year of deregulation saw a total of 17,250 complaints to the PUC.  In fiscal year 2013 that number stood at 7,129.  As the market matures and consumers and market players get more familiar with the process, complaints continue to decline.

This follows another recent report that confirms that Texans are more satisfied than ever with deregulated electricity.   The report by JD Power and Associates showed that Texans in deregulated areas of the state showed a higher level of satisfaction than those who lived in areas of the state that have not yet been opened to retail competition.

To file a complaint with the Texas PUC, follow this link: http://www.puc.texas.gov/consumer/complaint/Complaint.aspx

The Best Smartphone Apps For Electric Vehicle Driving

Despite all their environmental benefits, 87 percent of consumers are still skeptical about electric vehicles, Consumer Reports found. People cite several reasons for their reluctance when it comes to electric vehicles, including price, reported safety concerns and range limitations. If you want to drive an electric vehicle, we’ve got the best apps to enhance your driving experience:

GreenCharge

GreenCharge enables you to check the range of the current battery before a charge is required. In addition, the app offers insightful metrics and battery data. Since this information can be accessed daily, weekly and monthly, you can effectively monitor your driving habits to further bolster your cost-saving efforts.

PlugShare

Like Facebook, PlugShare operates through a social network of electric-vehicle driving individuals. Through this network, drivers exchange information regarding the 18,000 electric charging stations that are stationed around the United States and listed in the PlugShare network.

EV Ping

EV Ping employs QR codes to enable you to contact other drivers while they are recharging their vehicle. By doing so, drivers can access real-time information and conditions regarding a particular charging station. This information can be vital in determining whether you should find another charging port, start charging or continue to wait.

Better Place Oscar

The Better Place Oscar app is a component of a bigger, fully connected platform. The app offers members of Better Place the ability to be in touch with the battery’s charge levels or contact customer service at any time. In lieu of the other services provided by the app, smart navigation, range forecasts and personalized energy management are provided.

DriveTime Chose the SmartWay

While ditching your gas hog for an efficient electric vehicle offers several benefits, everyone doesn’t have the resources to buy a new electric vehicle. Unlike other national dealers, car loans by Drivetime help drivers with poor credit. The loans feature several money-saving and credit-building facets designed to help you re-establish your credit. Check out the free Car Loan Calculator app for insight about amoritzation schedules and interest. When you are considering loans, remember to look for the “leaf,” which represents the government-sponsored fuel-efficiency rating program, SmartWay. The SmartWay sticker ensures car loans will be on vehicles with low greenhouse gas emissions, more fuel-efficient choices with the EPA’s air pollution standards.

Entune Entertainment System

Toyota’s Entune system is the first infotainment center to integrate apps into the vehicle’s touch-screen display. Entune offers on-screen apps such as Panadora, Bing, iHeartRadio, Open Table, MovieTickets.com and several other types of information, which is featured in Toyota’s Prius. Entune reduces the need to be concerned with your mobile phone because it is offered on the vehicle’s interface.

Texas Electricity Capacity Sufficient To Meet Fall Demand

In its latest seasonal assessment of the state’s grid, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) says that the state’s available generation capacity should be more than sufficient to meet anticipated demand for electricity in the fall and winter seasons.

ERCOTS seasonal assessment predicts a peak demand of 47,000 MW in the fall of 2013 while available generation is expected to be 74,000 MW.  This creates a comfortable margin even in the event of unexpected losses in generation or weather related spikes in demand.  The picture for the winter of 2013 / 2014 is similar with comfortable margins projected.

Officials and the public have watched the state’s capacity situation closely for the past few years after several scares in 2011 that lead to the threat of rolling blackouts for much of the state.  Ongoing drought conditions within the state have also created concern for the electricity supply.  Fresh water for cooling is a requirement for many methods of generating electricity.

Despite occasional warnings about potential tight electricity supply, Texas has not had a real power crisis since 2011.  ERCOT predictions of electricity usage have been too high recently with Texans using less power than anticipated.  This has left some to wonder if the capacity crisis in Texas has been somewhat overblown.

Among the proposals to address potential future shortfalls in electricity capacity is a plan to transition Texas to a ‘capacity market‘.  Consumers and consumer groups are not onboard with a transition to a capacity market.  Such a change would result in effectively higher electricity rates as new fees are attached to electric bills to prefund the construction of new power plants.  The state’s electricity generators are generally in favor of a capacity market because it would reduce their risk of building new capacity by paying them up front to build new plants.   Under the current system producers only get paid when they sell their electricity in the market.

 

Texas Gets a New PUC Commissioner

The Public Utility Commission is once again fully staffed following Texas Governor Rick Perry’s appointment of Brandy Marty, a former Perry staffer, to fill a vacant seat.  The three-member panel has been shorthanded since the resignation of Rolando Pablos in March of this year.

Marty has a law degree from St. Mary’s University in San Antonio and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Texas in Austin.   She has worked in the Governor’s Office since 2007 and in March of 2013 she was named a Perry’s Chief of Staff.  Interestingly, this was on the same day as Pablos’ resignation from the PUC.

Marty comes in at a critical time for the Texas electricity market.  As the state struggles to find ways to address looming power shortages, the PUC has some critical decisions to make about the structure and polices of the Texas market going forward.

One of the most critical issues on the table is the proposal to convert Texas from a demand only model to a capacity market.  Under a capacity market, producers would be paid simply for building out additional capacity and having it available for use by the grid.  Under the current structure, producers are paid only when the electricity they produce is used.   Donna Nelson, the Chair of the Commission seems to open to the idea of a Capacity Market.  Marty could be the swing vote in favor or against a capacity market.

The PUC has recently taken other steps in the effort to incentivize new production of energy capacity in the state.  This includes a substantial increase in the state’s cap on the wholesale price of electricity that producers are able to charge during times of peak demand.

See Also: Texas Electricity Rates Going Up – Again
See Also: Will Texas Switch To A Capacity Market For Electricity?

 

New Homes Larger But More Energy Efficient

According to data released by the Energy Information Administration (EIA), newer homes built in the U.S. are significantly more energy efficient than those build before 2000.  This is according to data from the EIA’s Residential Energy Consumption Survey.  Those newer homes, built after 2000, consumed about the same energy despite the fact that they are on average 30% larger.

The newer houses consumed 21% less energy for space heating even though they are significantly larger than older homes on average.  The improvement was largely attributed to better heating systems technology and more efficient building construction as a result of more stringent energy codes.  Space heating is the only category of household energy consumption that saw a net drop from older to newer homes.

The relatively smaller energy demand for heating can also be attributed to the fact that a disproportionate number of newer homes have been built in the south in places like Texas.   This geographic trend towards Texas and the southern states resulted in increased energy usage for air conditioning.

Even with better air conditioning technology and improved housing construction energy efficiency standards, average household energy consumption for air conditioning is 56% higher in newer homes.  Adding to the increase in energy for air conditioning was the fact that newer homes tended to be larger, newer homes are more likely to have central air than older homes, and the fact that newer homes are more likely to be in hotter parts of the country.

While natural gas is often then fuel of choice for heating, especially in northern states, electricity powers air conditioning.  Even with more energy efficient air conditioning units, the increase in electricity demand has put a strain on the U.S. electricity infrastructure.

See Also: Texas Tops States in Grid Modernization

 

Texans Are Satisfied With Deregulated Electricity

JD Power and Associates, which releases an annual report on the Texas electricity market, has release its 2013 results.   The study, which surveys Texas electricity consumers, shows that Texans are happier than ever with the state of the deregulated Texas electricity market.  The primary factor responsible for this satisfaction is price, according to JD Power.

Despite a slight recent uptick, electricity rates in Texas have remained relatively cheap for a number of years.  The cheap rates can be attributed to competition and the extended run of low natural gas prices.   Not only did customers report their highest satisfaction level for retail Texas electricity providers in the six year history of the survey, but price satisfaction specifically went up over 2012’s results.

Another notable result within the survey is the large gap in price satisfaction levels between consumers within deregulated utility areas and consumers within regulated utility areas.  Specifically, consumers who where customers of competitive electricity providers scored those providers at an average of 684 points (on a 1,000 point scale) in the price category.  Regulated utilities, on the other hand, scored only 570 points.

Not surprisingly, those consumers who reported the greatest levels of satisfaction are more likely to recommend the electric provider to friends and family.   The most important factor for selecting a provider, however, remains price.  61% of the survey respondents said that low rates was the main reason they selected their provider.

JD Power also ranked Texas electric providers individually.  For the 4th consecutive year, Champion Energy ranked highest.  Champion received a 5 out of 5 in Power Circle ratings.  They were the only company to do so.  Champion was followed in the rankings by Green Mountain Energy (4 out of 5), Bounce Energy (4 out of 5), and StarTex Power (4 out of 5).

See Also:  Texas State Senator Pressures ERCOT to Leave Reserve Margins Unchanged
See Also: Congratulations To Champion Energy and Bounce Energy For Receiving The Highest Ratings In JD Power’s Survey Of Customer Satisfaction (2012)

 

Largest Federal Wind Farm To Be Built In Texas

Pantex wind farm to provide electricityAlready a leader in wind energy, Texas will soon be home to the largest federally owned wind project.  In May, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) awarded a contract to Siemens Government Technologies to construct and maintain an 11.5 megawatt wind farm in the Texas panhandle to provide electricity to the Pantex nuclear weapons facility.   The project is expected to break ground this summer and be operational by next year.

The project will consist of five 2.3 megawatt turbines which will add to the state’s already substantial portfolio of wind energy.  Texas produces three times more wind energy annually than the next state.  Most of the state’s wind turbines are located in West Texas where abundant land and wind create ideal conditions for wind energy.

The Pantex facility near Amarillo, Texas is the nation’s only facility for the assembly and disassembly of nuclear weapons.  It has been in continuous operation since 1951.  Its primary function today is carrying out the NNSA’s mission of nuclear nonproliferation and management and security of the nation’s nuclear stockpile.  The wind power produced by the project is expected to provide Pantex with about two-thirds of its electricity requirement.   It’s unlikely that wind energy could ever provide 100% of the power for such a facility because of the intermittent nature of wind power.

The project is to be financed using an Energy Savings Performance Contract.  Using such an agreement, Siemens will provide the upfront costs to build the wind farm while the government pays the company over time using the electricity cost savings the project is expected to deliver. The window farm is expected to result in a savings of around $2.9 million annually over the next 20 years.

Energy savings performance contracts (ESPCs) are designed to allow federal agencies to take advantage of programs to reduce energy costs while paying for the project cost from the actually energy cost savings realized by the project.  The company who is awarded a contract under such an agreement guarantees that the improvements implemented will result in the projected cost savings.

ESPCs are seen as an important tool for allowing federal agencies to participate in energy saving programs and meet the goals outlined by President Obama to meet federal clean energy and energy efficiency goals.   The federal government is the largest consumer of energy in the US.

See Also: The U.S. Military’s Green Mission
See Also: Has The Wind Energy Industry Peaked?

 

Sales of EVs, Hybrids Continue to Climb – Where Do We Stand Now?

U.S. sales of hybrid, electric and “clean” diesel vehicles keep going up. Americans bought more than 57,000 green vehicles in June, notes Auto Blog Green, making the month the highest in sales growth for green cars over the same period in 2012.

For the full year through June, U.S. consumers bought nearly 320,000 electric, hybrid and diesel vehicles. That’s almost a 20 percent gain over 2012’s first six months. Purely electric (or plug-in) car sales alone showed even higher growth numbers, more than 80 percent, over the previous year.

Why the Growth?

Sky-high gas prices are a main driver. With the U.S. national average for a gallon of gas at $4.11 last month, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, filling the family car every week is a big drain on Americans’ budgets. It’s cheaper to charge and maintain an electric car (EV) or hybrid, which if course, is more attractive to consumers. Depending on the current gas prices across the U.S., electric recharging costs can be substantially lower than fuel; charging costs anywhere from a fifth to a tenth of gasoline. And if you’re currently spending $100-$150 a week on gas, those savings can make a big difference.

Charging Stations

Photo by Flickr user quinn.anya

One drawback of EVs is the distance one can travel on a single charge. The new 2013 Nissan Leaf can go about 80 miles on a single charge, depending on driving conditions, weather, traffic and more. And charging these cars at home isn’t yet a two-minute activity: A professional EV charging unit can cost upward of $2,000, but will charge your car quicker than a 200-volt outlet, which takes about 7-8 hours to fully charge the new Nissan Leaf. A regular 100-volt outlet will double that re-charging time.

But a ray of hope exists. EV charging stations are popping up in urban centers across the country. In Phoenix, for instance, charging stations have grown to cover wide parts of the Valley, and EV owners can log onto plugshare.com to find them. Potential electric car buyers can test-drive a hybrid or EV car at the Chevrolet dealer in Phoenix.

Brighter Energy Future

Industry insiders see the rise of electric cars and lesser dependence on foreign oil as a good combination for future growth of the industry. One estimate from the International Energy Agency notes that there could be as many as 20 million electric vehicles on the road in less than a decade. Technology companies, too, see both civic and business opportunities. In June, companies like SAP, Google, GE and other electric and technology firms came together to discuss opportunities at the Silicon Valley Leadership Group’s Driving Charged and Connected 2013 conference.

But ultimately, it’s up to the United States government to lay down immediate energy policies to oversee this growth. In doing so, it will help bring about a new era of certainty for both electric car makers like Tesla and consumers who would rather re-charge than fill up.

Photo by Flickr user RambergMediaImages