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What if renewable energy projects could be done affordably just about everywhere, even in rural areas that do not have strong winds or bright sun? This week, put on your heaviest coat for a trip to Minnesota to look at a project that may answer this question.

I’m Dan Gearino, your guide to the clean energy economy. Send me your questions, comments and news tips at dan.gearino@insideclimatenews.org. Thanks for reading!


— Dan

Seeing Big Promise in Minnesota Wind-Solar Project 

By the end of 2018, a 2-megawatt wind turbine and a 0.5 megawatt solar array will operate side by side in a rural area near Fergus Falls in west-central Minnesota. The two installations will work together with a level of integration that’s groundbreaking for wind-solar hybrids.

To understand the significance, it helps to know a couple of things.

One, Minnesota is rich with wind farms, but not around Fergus Falls. Most are located more than 100 miles to the south, where the wind blows the strongest.

Solar is also rare in this part of the state, especially an array so large it takes up two acres.

Put wind and solar together, and you have an oddity for this region.

Clay Norrbom, managing director of Juhl Energy, the Minnesota renewables company behind the effort, told me the project shows the potential of wind-solar hybrids to provide affordable renewable energy in rural places all over.

The affordability is largely because of new technology being used in this country for the first time that cuts down on the plant’s costs while boosting energy output. The technology, developed by GE Renewable Energy, allows wind and solar installations to share a critical piece of equipment that converts electricity from the wind and sun into a form that can be used by the grid.

Ordinarily, the wind and solar sides would each need this equipment, called an inverter. For this project, it’s about the size of a subcompact car and located inside the base of the wind turbine. (Other wind-solar hybrids, such as the one being planned in Ohio that I wrote about in October, use separate inverters.)

Using one inverter is one of the reasons the project costs about 10 percent less to build than one that doesn’t use this system, Norrbom said.
The GE inverter is designed for hybrid projects and can manage the output of the wind and solar more efficiently than if there were separate inverters. The inverter increases annual electricity output by about 10 percent, he said. This is the second project in the world to use the technology, GE said. The first was in India.

The financial benefits are on top of other factors that are already making wind and solar more affordable everywhere, namely the decline in prices of many parts.

The project also has the same advantages as any wind-solar hybrid: It can produce electricity from solar when the wind isn’t blowing, and from wind when the sun isn’t shining, providing a more reliable source of energy than if each technology was by itself. Also, hybrids can save money by sharing the operations and maintenance aspects of running the system.

The customer is Lake Region Electric Cooperative, a utility with about 28,000 customers.

“Not only does the hybrid nature of the facility protect our environment, but it also is a major part of our long-range rate stability strategy,” said Tim Thompson, the utility’s CEO, in a letter to customers. “It’s exciting to be participating on the cutting edge of this innovative approach to developing renewable electric power.”

The technology could be used on much larger projects, but Norrbom thinks the best application is in small projects that serve parts of the grid that otherwise would not have renewable energy. These include many areas that don’t have strong winds or bright sun to attract larger investment.

“The vision here is that we’re essentially going throughout the grid, closer to communities, closer to the user, and deploying this in a distributed way,” he said.

(Photo: Construction of the wind-solar hybrid in Fergus Falls, courtesy of Juhl Energy)

Texas City to Put ‘Virtual Power Plant’ on Its Roofs

Georgetown, Texas continues to distinguish itself by finding ways to make clean energy part of the city’s identity and economy.

The city of about 70,000, north of Austin, last year became the first in Texas to commit to getting 100 percent of its electricity from renewable sources. The city signed up to get most of its electricity from utility-scale solar arrays located elsewhere in the state.

Now, the city government has a plan to generate electricity within its borders, using a series of rooftop solar arrays. This “virtual power plant,” which I read about in a report from KERA radio, involves renting the rooftops of homes and businesses and using rooftop solar in combination with battery storage.

The plan, which has won a $1 million grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies, would start with up to 15 rooftops and up to nine battery systems.

Georgetown’s project joins 23 other virtual utility projects in the U.S., according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

“Across the board, they are demonstrating that this works, at the very least,” Eric O’Shaughnessy, a research analyst at the lab, about the projects, told KERA. “There still are a lot of open questions.”

Some of the questions are about costs relative to other energy options. Georgetown officials say solar and storage will only get more cost competitive, which means their project will be well positioned to take advantage of that as costs decrease.

Goodbye Chevrolet Volt. Hello Trucks and SUVs.

General Motors said on Monday that it will idle production at five plants in the U.S. and Canada, lay off about 15,000 workers and stop making the plug-in hybrid Chevrolet Volt, among other models.

I vividly remember the introduction of the Volt, a model that went on sale in 2010 and was supposed to signal a new direction for GM as it was rising from bankruptcy, an embrace of a cleaner fuel future. I covered the auto industry for an Ohio newspaper, part of a business beat that included energy, manufacturing and a little bit of everything else.

GM devoted its ample public relations muscle to supporting the idea of the Volt as a car that would change everything, and I remember interviewing consumers who were completely sold on this idea.

Yet the Volt has done little to change the identity of GM. The company was known for trucks and SUVs before the bankruptcy and continues to rely on those vehicle segments for the bulk of its sales and profits, as my colleague Marianne Lavelle recently wrote, despite its bold proclamations for a transition to a zero-emissions future.

GM says cost-cutting will help to financially prepare for a shift to electric and self-driving vehicles. Considering the company’s history, that’s a hard sell.


“I like what they said about electrification; the problem is what they’re investing in,” David Reichmuth, senior engineer with the Union of Concerned Scientists’ clean vehicles program, told Greentech Media. “A lot of it in the short term has been around their SUVs and pickup trucks. I think GM and a lot of the companies know that electrification is the future, but they’re prioritizing the short-term profits from some of these less efficient gasoline vehicles.”

While the Volt is gone, GM continues to sell the all-electric Bolt, which went on sale in 2016. The Bolt isn’t a hit, but it has done well enough to continue being made.

Clean Energy Turnaround About to Begin in Maine

Keep an eye on Maine, a state with the building blocks to be a clean energy leader, but that has been held back by Gov. Paul LePage. It now appears poised to make a leap, with Democrat Janet Mills elected governor.

I am eager to see the specifics of what Mills and the legislature, which is controlled by her party, will do. The Portland Press-Herald has a good overview of what may happen on energy and climate policy, including comments from the leaders who will shape it.

“From warming seas and rising ocean waters to an increase in the tick population, climate change is hammering our state and will have a significant impact on our economy,” Mills told the Press-Herald. “As governor, I will prioritize fighting climate change by embracing and advancing a clean-energy future, including, for example, supporting UMaine’s offshore wind research and by providing incentives for community solar and rooftop solar.”

Maine’s offshore wind research, which I wrote about in April, is one of many areas in which the state has lost ground, while others, such as Massachusetts, have moved ahead.

(Photo: Democrat Janet Mills, Maine's newly elected governor. Credit: Brianna Soukup/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)

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