Editor's Note: The following is the second installment in a new Utility Dive series, "Diary of a Grid Defector." Each month, Utility Dive's Robert Walton will report on his adventures setting up an off-grid cabin and exploring developments in distributed energy in upstate New York. We hope his experiences will give our readers an insightful, first-hand look at what life is like at the edge of the electricity system—and how the revolution in distributed energy technologies is changing it. The first installment, "How an energy reporter is going off the grid," can be found here.
It's been about a month in the woods and if I've learned one obvious lesson, it's this: It's not easy to generate solar power when you live in the woods. More than one Utility Dive reader made the observation to me, and they were right.
It took about two weeks to put up insulation and walls in the small cabin I'd set down in rural New York, but probably just four days of actual work once you factor out a malfunctioning generator (spark plug) and an inept carpenter (myself). I decided to delay finishing the ceiling while I work on some other projects, and so I finally moved in furniture and felt like I lived there.
Everything I own now fits in one small cabin. My closest neighbor — he gets good sun — is a farmer. At night, there is no light pollution in this town of less than 5,000.
Years of apartments and moving, downsizing to travel and then re-establishing, boxes and trunks spread among friends, storage units rented and relinquished — the things you own get distilled. And while I'm used to that, this little cabin takes it to an extreme. Everything crammed in here has either purpose or significance. Like living in a salon-style gallery of your life's making. With flimsy walls.
Microgrids and microbrews
Among the emails I received from readers was one from Lou Vogel, president of Taitem Engineering in Ithaca. The 25 year-old firm does consulting on energy efficiency and sustainability, designs solar arrays, and is involved in a microgrid project in nearby Endicott, N.Y., that was awarded a $100,000 NY Prize grant from NYSERDA last month.
The firm's solar business has really ramped up within the last five years, going from a pair of specialized employees to almost 20 now.
Vogel asked me to meet him for a beer to talk local energy, but we wound up spending an hour talking mostly about swimming, hiking, and eating and drinking in the Finger Lakes region. It seems everyone who lives here, loves it (at least during the six warm months of the year, anyway).
Vogel also invited me to Taitem's office downtown, and a couple of weeks later I sat down with Vogel, Sustainability Consultant Sara Culotta, and Renewables Manager Gordon Woodcock to talk about their microgrid project and the evolution of the utility industry.
New York is at the forefront of states pushing the utility industry to modernize and and revamp old business models. The state's Reforming the Energy Vision is focused on integrating distributed resources and opening up utility distribution systems to third party business opportunities. And the NY Prize competition, focused on developing microgrids across the state, recently awarded 83 projects with funds for feasibility studies and the chance to move ahead with development.
Taitem's project in Endicott involves developing a microgrid capable of islanding itself for the Huron Campus business park and essential services in the village like fire and police. The Huron campus already has a major thermal plant in place, a centralized heat and steam system and it's own New York State Electric & Gas substation.
“It's incredibly resource-rich, from a utilities standpoint, and they run it very well,” Culotta explained.
When Endicott suffered extreme flooding twice in recent years, losing power in the village while Huron stayed online, it spurred questions about how a microgrid could improve the reliability and quality of the area's power.
The project could also help bring down costs for the village, which gets its power from New York Power Authority, delivered by NYSEG, and then distributed by Endicott Light Department.
“We had thought we were going to keep the microgrid just in the NYSEG territory, because that's simpler, but we're finding the two grid architectures are a lot more complicated than we had realized,” said Culotta. “That's why you do a feasibility study. There is a lot of discovery going on right now that will impact the proposed plan.”
'A monumental task'
The next phase of the NY Prize competition requires groups to submit design and engineering work that is investment grade. Along with the village, business park and NYSEG, Taitem is also working with the Binghamton Regional Sustainability Coalition on the project.
New York is increasingly taking a regional approach to funding energy innovation, in part because the state's rural-urban-suburban split makes one-size-fits-all solutions impracticable. “There are lots of ways money is being directed to clean energy or smart energy developments, and it's being filtered through regional economic development councils,” Culotta said.
The NY Prize structure initially called for only 30 winners from the first round, but funded almost triple that number. The state, says Woodcock, is casting a wide net in its search for transformative ideas.
“They could have been more selective,” said Vogel. “But instead they allowed more possibility for innovation.”
“It's such a monumental task, reworking the utilities,” Woodcock added. “Utilities are so slow to change, and we're talking about these radical realignments that are supposed to happen in a decade or so. … So the best chance of finding something good is nurturing a bunch of different ideas to see what's going to happen.”
“It's pretty radical change that has to happen, and I don't think anyone right now really knows what it's going to look like,” Woodcock said.
The payback period
As an engineering firm focused on renewables and efficiency, Taitem pays close attention to what incentives are available for projects. Other industries and fuels have already relied on subsidies to develop robust markets, they say, and so green energy has started the race at a disadvantage.
Selling consumers on renewable projects hinges on the payback period, says Vogel. And when you remove incentives, the time it takes for a customer to save sufficiently to pay for the investment goes up.
"One of the things we've been concerned about, if the price of fuel goes down, then the payback period goes up. If naural gas goes way down, then fewer of these projects are going to happen without incentives," Vogel said. "When we do an energy audit, that's part of how we sell the audit."
Most residential consumers are targeting a payback period of less than a decade, with the sweet spot being three to eight years. It's actually shorter for corporations, which are "definitely below five years," Vogel said.
"It's hard for some corporations to look beyond the next quarter," Woodcock said.
"I'm totally a 20-year payback guy, but that doesn't sell," Vogel said. Incentives have allowed for shorter payback periods, but "we're resigned to them going away," he said, of a range of efficiency and renewable credits. That will mean finding more creative ways to package products, such as bundling something with a one-year payback alongside a longer time-frame project to try and bring down the numbers.
Woodcock calls the 2016/2017 timeframe a "looming drop," when the solar investment tax credit will fall off. "Everyone is aware of it and simultaneously not thinking about it. We're strategizing around it. But it's hard to say with any kind of assurance that we need to do anything, because maybe it gets extended. Maybe something changes. But we still have to have some strategy in place."
Back at the ranch
My own, tiny solar system will have a payback of... well, never if I don't relocate the panels eventually. Sure, solar in the woods is a stretch, but then again so is this whole idea.
When I met Vogel a few weeks back, he said something that stuck with me. He's got a 3.6 KW solar system now and is living off the grid, but said if he could look back at how he got there, he might make some changes. "If we had started out with an off grid system," he said later, "I think I would be using less energy now."
The other day I found myself thinking about how much water it takes to wash a coffee cup, because every time I use the hand-pump sink it sends out 1.5 ounces. Wash enough cups and you start to think. Boiling things down to only the essential and scaling back has a way of making details matter.
This adventure in minimalism and off-grid living is teaching me many, often obvious, lessons. And so I defer to veteran journalist Bill Moyers, who wrote in the introduction to "The Power of Myth" that a journalist is one who "enjoys a license to be educated in public." Even if that means learning that solar power requires sunlight.
The editors of Utility Dive would love to hear feedback on this new series from you. Did you find Robert's dispatch interesting? Useful? Applicable to your job? Or maybe you simply have a tip for his new, off-grid lifestyle. Whatever it may be, send us an email at [email protected]