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Monday, July 15, 2013

Energy efficiency is cheaper than building power lines, but that doesn't mean it's easy

The Boothbay peninsula in Maine is in the midst of an experiment to see if directed energy efficiency programs can displace the need for expensive need powerlines. Reports the Portland Press-Herald:

Taken together, these and other non-transmission alternatives, as they are called, are designed to make or save enough energy on the hottest summer days to keep the single transmission line connecting the Boothbay peninsula from overloading.

If the concept works here, advocates hope it can be scaled up to satisfy power needs without transmission upgrades in larger communities, such as Camden-Rockland and Greater Portland.

New England utilities have been on a powerline building spree in recent years, upgrading aging systems and planning for growth. But the billions of dollars in spending are driving up electric rates, and environmental advocates say a greater emphasis on energy efficiency and local generation could make some of this construction unnecessary. As a side benefit, they say, there would be less need to start oil-fired power plants that contribute to air pollution on the hottest days of the year.

But it's not easy:

The initial goal was to line up 2,000 kilowatts of non-transmission alternatives this year. That would have been enough capacity to power roughly 500 homes during peak periods. But only 860 kilowatts worth are in place today. It's enough to handle roughly 8 percent of the peninsula's peak load and provide the needed margin of safety this year, but less than half the kilowatts sought in a first-round bidding process.

The experiment also suffered a setback this spring, when a major project that would have paired solar panels with battery storage fell apart at the last minute because of a problem with financing. Now a diesel generator will be on call to plug the gap, in case the solar panels and efficiency measures aren't enough on some steamy afternoon.

The folks who run the New England power grid have long realized the cost advantage of efficiency, as I reported in December, when they said that conservation is allowing the delay of $250 million worth of transmission upgrades.