Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Mecklenburg sets litter(free) record

A new survey of Mecklenburg County found litter at a record low, Keep Mecklenburg Beautiful reported Tuesday.

The county's Litter Index, based on a survey last week of 50 points throughout the county, was 1.22. That broke last year's record index of 1.35.

The index has been falling steadily since the surveys began in 2004, said Jake Wilson, executive director of Keep Mecklenburg Beautiful.

Wilson attributes the falling scores to less debris blowing from construction-company trucks during the economic downturn, and to growth of the state's Adopt-A-Highway volunteer trash pickup program.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Apple says Maiden data center to be all green

Apple says its $1 billion Maiden data center will sport a second large solar farm that will help power the site entirely by renewable energy by the end of this year.

The 500,000-square-foot center will draw about 20 megawatts of power at full capacity, the company says in a post on its website, and produce 60 percent of it onsite. Apple says it will directly buy the other 40 percent from local and regional renewable-energy sources.

Greenpeace has pressured Apple for months over use of coal by Duke Energy, which serves the area, and more recently the use of diesel-powered backup generators.

The N.C. Utilities Commission on Thursday granted a permit for a 20-megawatt solar farm in Maiden. Apple now says it will build a second farm a few miles away.

Apple is also seeking state approval of a 4.8-megawatt fuel cell installation in Maiden that it says will be the nation's largest non-utility project. That project is still before the N.C. commission.

Together, Apple says, the projects will produce 124 million kilowatt-hours of energy, enough to supply 10,874 homes. The actual output will be registered with North Carolina's Renewable Energy Tracking System set up by the utilities commission.

The LEED Platinum-certified Maiden data center, it says, features an array of energy-saving technologies.

Apple says it runs its facilities in Austin, Sacramento, Cork, Ireland and Munich wholly on renewable energy. Its Cupertino, Calif., headquarters now gets more than half its energy from renewable sources including fuel cells.

Photo: Activists stopped a coal train en route to Duke Energy's Marshall coal plant May 3, 2012 and branded it with the Apple logo. The activists contended that coal would be used to power Apple's Maiden, NC data center, currently under construction. Photo by Greenpeace

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Duke seeks rate break for struggling businesses

Duke Energy has asked for state approval to offer its largest industrial and commercial customers in North Carolina a one-year, 6 percent rate reduction at a shareholder expense of about $13 million.

Duke's Carolinas industrial sales have dropped 20 percent since 2002 while other customer classes grew. The N.C. Utilities Commission approved a 7 percent rate hike in January.

The proposal now before the commission would help manufacturers survive the economic slump, Duke wrote in its filing. It would also help stabilize an industrial customer base that brings in 40 percent of Duke's N.C. retail revenue.

"The company believes that efforts like this pilot can help retain the industrial base in North Carolina so that the state can experience economic success,"  Duke wrote. "The company believes that retaining its industrial base is not only good for the state of North Carolina's economy, but that it helps keep rates competitive by keeping larger customers on the system to help pay for fixed costs that would otherwise be spread to other customers."

Duke would offer the rate reductions on a first-come basis to customers with annual demand of 75 kilowatts or more on schedules LGS, I, OPT-G, OPT-I, OPT-E or HP. The program would be capped at  a total of 700,000 kilowatts.

Examples of eligible customers are those that are in financial distress, have lower-cost energy options, are considering a relocation or will commit to retain current job levels or energy use.

In a settlement leading to the January rate hike, Duke agreed to donate $11 million of shareholder money to community nonprofit groups to help low-income residents with their energy costs. N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper has appealed the rate hike.

Spokesman Jason Walls said Duke is "evaluating possible options to support our customers in the economic recovery" in South Carolina.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Battery could give boost to clean energy

For all the clamor over solar and wind energy, making best use of its on-and-off nature is a problem yet to be solved. No one's come up with a viable way of storing the energy on a large scale.

Potential investors and energy engineers at an uptown Charlotte lunch meeting the other day heard about a potential solution: vanadium. The metal is used in high-strength steel and lightweight aircraft frames. It's also the focus of growing interest in 25-year-old technology called vanadium flow batteries.

The main appeal of these batteries is that they can easily be scaled, from small applications for a single household or ones large enough to serve whole grids.

American Vanadium Corp., one of two Canadian companies presenting (the other, Crosshair Energy Corp., mines uranium for nuclear fuel) at the Charlotte lunch, is developing what it says is the only vanadium mine in the United States.

The United States imports virtually all its vanadium from China and Russia. American Vanadium says its Nevada site will produce high-purity vanadium at low cost.

"Energy storage is the holy grail for renewables," said CEO Bill Radvak. "We'd like to be the company that creates battery storage." The company is seeking partners in the solar, wind and grid-scale battery manufacturing industries.

The Energy Department has invested millions of dollars in vanadium storage technology, including a demonstration project at a municipal coal-fired power plant in Painesville, Ohio. The world's largest vanadium flow battery will soon begin serving an onion-processing plant in California, storing energy when electric rates are lowest for use during peak demand times.

"Once permitting is in place, financing remains the main hurdle and an off-take agreement with a battery
manufacturer ... would do a lot to rebrand American Vanadium as cutting edge in alternative energy," said a research report Wednesday from natural resources research firm Hallgarten & Co.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Duke merger filing reflects "changed circumstances"

The $650 million in fuel and operation savings that Duke Energy and Progress Energy have guaranteed to Carolinas retail customers might take longer than five years to achieve, the utilities say in a new settlement agreement with N.C. consumer advocates filed late Tuesday.

The agreement with the Public Staff, which represents utility customers, cements some consumer aspects of the $26 billion merger but allows Duke and Progress wiggle room on others. The N.C. Utilities Commission would have to approve the settlement after the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission rules on the merger, likely by early June.

Among the changes to September's settlement: An 18-month extension of the five-year cost-saving guarantee, based on whether the falling price of natural gas means that three Duke plants burn less coal than previously expected.

But the companies agree to swallow rate reductions and cost increases related to their efforts to assuage FERC's concerns about decreased market competition from the merger. Analysts at Bernstein Research peg those costs at about $875 million, or 27 cents per post-merger shares. Duke projects the total will be far smaller.

"We see the settlement therefore as a further evidence of Duke's commitment to consummate the merger," Bernstein senior analyst Hugh Wynne wrote Wednesday. "It is also evidence, however, of the merger's high cost, and the incentive that Duke will face, if the merger does not close by (the termination date of) July 8, not to renew the commitment."

Duke CEO Jim Rogers last week predicted the merger is "more likely than not" to be approved, but added that Duke will remain financially strong if it does not.

In Tuesday's agreement, the utilities say they won't try to recover from N.C. customers $220 million to $230 million in severance cost or the $40 million to $50 million in estimated losses from short-term power sales over three years. They also agree to reduce Carolinas retail rates by about $70 million over that period. The utilities won't try to recover $110 million in costs for transmission upgrades for five years after the merger.