A Solar Firm’s Plan to Build Off-Grid Neighborhoods in California

Sunnova is one of America’s largest rooftop solar companies, according to the New York Times. But they’ve now applied to California’s Public Utilities Commission for permission to become the state’s first solar (and storage) micro-utility, initiating formal steps to qualify and “request a certificate to construct and operate microgrids,” targetting new home developments that aren’t yet connected to the grid.

“We see a future where communities, neighborhoods, and businesses can operate independently from the legacy grid with sustainable energy sources that provide uninterrupted power,” says the company’s founder and CEO. “We believe microgrids address a strong need in the market for more robust energy solutions and better connectivity….” But he’s also offering touting another possible benefit: “relief that the existing transmission and distribution system will experience given that most of the power that will be consumed by these communities will be generated locally from renewable resources.”

The company likes to point out that America’s recently-passed climate bill included tax incentives to encourage microgrids. But the New York Times describes it as “a business model that is illegal in much of the United States.”
Sunnova said it would offer those residents electricity that was up to 20 percent cheaper than the rates charged by investor-owned utilities like Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison. If approved by regulators, the micro-utility model, also known as a microgrid, could undermine the growth of those larger utilities by depriving them access to new homes or forcing them to lower their rates to keep that business. Sunnova executives argue that the approach they are seeking approval for was authorized under a California law passed almost two decades ago for a resort just south of Lake Tahoe. In addition, the company says advances in solar and battery technology mean that neighborhoods can be designed to generate more than enough electricity to meet their own needs at a lower cost than relying on the grid.

“If they don’t want to choose me, that should be their right; if they don’t want to choose you, that should be their right, too,” said John Berger, the chief executive of Sunnova.

A small number of homeowners have gone off the grid as the cost of solar panels and batteries has fallen. But doing so can be hard or impossible. Some local governments have rejected permits for off-grid homes on health and safety grounds, arguing that a connection to the grid is essential. But connecting a single home to the grid can cost tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars, which means an off-grid system may actually be cheaper — especially for properties in remote areas, or in places where the local grid is at its capacity and would require significant upgrades to serve more homes. Off-grid setups can also be appealing because once a system is paid off, the cost of operating and maintaining it is often modest and predictable, whereas utility rates can move up sharply…. The nationwide average retail electricity rate increased 11 percent in June from a year earlier, according to the Energy Information Administration.

But the kind of micro-utilities that Sunnova hopes to create have also had problems. The utopian visions of generating electricity where it is used have often run into maintenance and other problems. Many tiny utilities created under such models in the United States and Canada were later swallowed up by larger power companies…. Sunnova’s microgrid approach could suffer a similar fate. But the costs of solar panels and batteries have tumbled over the last decade, making the energy that off-grid systems generate much more affordable….

Utilities have been pressing regulators to reduce the compensation homeowners receive for the excess solar energy their rooftop systems send to the grid. The companies have argued that customers with solar panels are being offered generous credits for power that they are not contributing adequately toward the cost of maintaining power lines and other grid equipment….

Building and operating microgrids could provide a steady source of income to companies like Sunnova. That could essentially transform the rooftop solar companies into the kinds of utilities that they have long fought against.

Sunnova bills itself as an “Energy as a Service” company, and they expect their microgrids to experience 30 minutes or less of outages each year, the Times points out, “compared with an average of two hours a year at California’s large investor-owned utilities.”

In the article, the chief executive of home-building company Lennar says they’ve already formed a partnership with Sunnova. “We value the current electric grid and we’re intrigued by new microgrid solutions that can supplement and support the traditional utility grid and help solve reliability during extreme weather and peak demand.”

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Soon Electric Vehicles Could Charge Faster Than Your iPhone

The Washington Post shares a little-acknowledged downside to electric cars: recharging takes “upward of 15 to 30 minutes.”

But scientists are already working on improvements:

In a report released this week, government researchers said they have found a way to charge electric car batteries up to 90 percent in just 10 minutes. The method is likely five years away from making its way into the market, scientists said, but would mark a fundamental shift. “The goal is to get very, very close to [times] you would see at the gas pump,” said Eric Dufek, a lead author of the study and scientist at the Idaho National Laboratory, a research center run by the Department of Energy….

At issue is the delicate balance of trying to charge an electric vehicle battery quicker, but not doing it so fast that a rapid charge does long-term damage to the battery or plays a role in causing them to explode. Charging electric batteries fast can cause damage, reducing the battery’s life span and performance, scientists said. “You’ve had batteries when you first got it, they were great, but after a couple years or a few hundred charge cycles, they don’t perform as well,” said Eric D. Wachsman, director of the Maryland Energy Innovation Institute, an energy research organization at the University of Maryland. To try to solve this, Dufek and his team used machine learning to figure out how batteries age when charging fast. Their algorithm was trained to analyze 20,000 to 30,000 data points which indicated how well the battery was charging and whether it was aging or degrading….

Wachsman said the new research is helpful for the field. “Not too fast, not too slow,” he said of Dufek’s charging approach. “It’s just right in that Goldilocks [zone].” But the bigger benefit, he said, would be if this method spurs car companies to make electric vehicles with smaller batteries, since they’d now have batteries that could be charged quicker and allow consumers to feel less worried about stopping periodically to get a quick recharge.

“Smaller batteries are cheaper cars,” he said.

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Nuclear Fusion Breakthrough Confirmed: California Team Achieved Ignition. Research Continues

“A major breakthrough in nuclear fusion has been confirmed a year after it was achieved at a laboratory in California,” reports Newsweek:

Researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s National Ignition Facility (NIF) recorded the first case of ignition on August 8, 2021, the results of which have now been published in three peer-reviewed papers….

Ignition during a fusion reaction essentially means that the reaction itself produced enough energy to be self-sustaining, which would be necessary in the use of fusion to generate electricity. If we could harness this reaction to generate electricity, it would be one of the most efficient and least polluting sources of energy possible. No fossil fuels would be required as the only fuel would be hydrogen, and the only by-product would be helium, which we use in industry and are actually in short supply of….

This landmark result comes after years of research and thousands of man hours dedicated to improving and perfecting the process: over 1,000 authors are included in the Physical Review Letters paper.

This week the laboratory said that breakthrough now puts researchers “at the threshold of fusion gain and achieving scientific ignition,” with the program’s chief scientist calling it “a major scientific advance in fusion research, which establishes that fusion ignition in the lab is possible at the National Ignition Facility.”

More news from this week’s announcement by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory:
Since the experiment last August, the team has been executing a series of experiments to attempt to repeat the performance and to understand the experimental sensitivities in this new regime. “Many variables can impact each experiment,” Kritcher said. “The 192 laser beams do not perform exactly the same from shot to shot, the quality of targets varies and the ice layer grows at differing roughness on each target….”

While the repeat attempts have not reached the same level of fusion yield as the August 2021 experiment, all of them demonstrated capsule gain greater than unity with yields in the 430-700 kJ range, significantly higher than the previous highest yield of 170 kJ from February 2021. The data gained from these and other experiments are providing crucial clues as to what went right and what changes are needed in order to repeat that experiment and exceed its performance in the future. The team also is utilizing the experimental data to further understanding of the fundamental processes of fusion ignition and burn and to enhance simulation tools in support of stockpile stewardship.

Looking ahead, the team is working to leverage the accumulated experimental data and simulations to move toward a more robust regime — further beyond the ignition cliff — where general trends found in this new experimental regime can be better separated from variability in targets and laser performance. Efforts to increase fusion performance and robustness are underway via improvements to the laser, improvements to the targets and modifications to the design that further improve energy delivery to the hotspot while maintaining or even increasing the hot-spot pressure. This includes improving the compression of the fusion fuel, increasing the amount of fuel and other avenues.

“It is extremely exciting to have an ‘existence proof’ of ignition in the lab,” said Omar Hurricane, chief scientist for the lab’s inertial confinement fusion program. “We’re operating in a regime that no researchers have accessed since the end of nuclear testing, and it’s an incredible opportunity to expand our knowledge as we continue to make progress.”
Thanks to long-time Slashdot reader hesdeadjim99 for sharing the news.

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Boosters of US Climate Bill Included Clean Energy Companies, Nuclear Developers – and Bill Gates

A proposed $369 billion bill would have far-reaching impacts on America’s energy landscape — and in a wide variety of ways.
The Washington Post took a close look at its tightly targetted energy-industry tax subisidies. “The goal? To make new green energy production cheaper for utilities to build than fossil fuel plants are.” But others benefit too:

The bill contains numerous smaller measures aimed at specific parts of the economy with high emissions: $20 billion for agriculture subsidies to help farmers reduce emissions, $6 billion to reduce emissions in chemical, steel and cement plants, and $3 billion to reduce air pollution at ports.

Yet how do you convince a congressman from a coal-producing state? Politico explores what changed the mind of one of the legislation’s last hold-out votes and convinced West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin that “The next generation of clean tech needed Washington’s backing to take off.”

Brandon Dennison, CEO of the economic development organization Coalfield Development, said he’d argued that the legislation offered a way for the coal-producing region to “stay an energy state…. If we want to benefit from the investments and the jobs that are going to come with that transition, we need to be part of the proactive solutions and policies rather than constantly playing on defense.”

Jason Walsh, executive director of the BlueGreen Alliance, a coalition of labor and environmental groups, said several West Virginia companies pushed Manchin to back the credits as well — even suggesting failure to pass the bill imperiled their plans to invest in new operations. “There were folks who I can’t talk about who are directly involved in potentially developing clean energy manufacturing in the state of West Virginia where site visits had happened where all they needed was a set of investments,” Walsh said. “And that communication happened as well.”

A senior executive with a utility operating in Appalachia said that his company communicated with Manchin how aspects of the bill such as tax credits to build clean energy manufacturing plants at former coal sites and incentives for developing small nuclear reactors and hydrogen would help West Virginia’s economy.
“We know coal plants are ultimately going to close,” the executive said. “What is going to replace them? What are the jobs? What are we transitioning to? In this case, we are going to explore hydrogen, new nuclear and get manufacturing in the state.”

Form Energy, a battery storage startup backed by Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Ventures and which has plans for a West Virginia manufacturing hub, walked Manchin’s staff through its growth trajectories with and without the proposed suite of legislative incentives, a person directly familiar with the interaction said. That person said Form Energy officials showed the differences on a graph. Its investors — including Gates — also called to assuage Manchin’s concerns over disbursing the tax credits to companies through a direct pay system rather than using tax equity markets.

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1,500 Tesla Powerwall Owners Have Already Joined the New Virtual Power Plant In California

PG&E announced that more than 1,500 Tesla Powerwall owners have already decided to joined the new virtual power plant it launched in partnership with Tesla in California. Electrek reports: A virtual power plant (VPP) consists of distributed energy storage systems, like Tesla Powerwalls, used in concert to provide grid services and avoid the use of polluting and expensive peaker power plants. Last year, Tesla launched a test VPP in California, where Powerwall owners would join in voluntarily without compensation to let the VPP pull power from their battery packs when the grid needed it. Last month, Tesla and PG&E, a large electric utility company in Northern California, announced the launch of a new commercial VPP where homeowners with Powerwalls would get compensated for helping the grid with the energy in their battery packs.

PG&E has now released an update on the virtual power plant and said that more than 1,500 Tesla Powerwall owners have already joined the program: “On June 22, Tesla invited approximately 25,000 PG&E customers with Powerwalls to join the VPP and help form the world’s largest distributed battery. In the first two weeks of the new program, more than 3,000 customers have expressed interest in enrolling, with more than 1,500 customers officially in the program.” With an average of two Powerwalls per customer, the VPP most likely already has a 13 MW load capacity. PG&E says that if all eligible Powerwall owners join, the VPP would have the available megawatts equivalent to “the energy generated by a small power plant.” Tesla Powerwall owners can join through the Tesla app and receive $2 per kWh that they send back to the grid during emergency events. “Enabling Powerwall customers to support the grid and their community is a necessary and important part of accelerating the transition to sustainable energy,” said Drew Baglino, senior vice president of Powertrain and Energy Engineering at Tesla. “We seek to partner with utilities and regulators everywhere to unlock the full potential of storage to bring more renewable, resilient, and less costly electricity to everyone.”

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North Carolina Looks To Remove Public EV Chargers, Probably To the Trash

An anonymous reader quotes a report from Car and Driver, written by Ezra Dyer: Politicians have to run on some kind of platform, and Ben Moss — my incoming state House representative here in North Carolina’s District 52 — decided that his animating principle is Being Mad at Electricity. To prove his animosity toward this invisible menace, he’s sponsoring House Bill 1049, which would allocate $50,000 to destroy free public car chargers. It contains some other enlightened ideas, but that’s the main theme: We’ve simply got to do something about these free public chargers, even if it costs us $50,000! Those things cost tens of cents per hour, when they’re being used.

Of course, there’s a caveat here. Moss isn’t saying that free public Level 2 chargers — of which there are three in my town, with plans in the works to convert to paid kiosks — definitely need to get crushed by a monster truck. That rule only comes into play if a town refuses to build free gas and diesel pumps next to the EV chargers. So anyway, warm up El Toro Loco, we’re smashin’ some car zappers! But what about private businesses? you ask. Don’t worry, Moss hasn’t forgotten that a business might put a charger on its property as an inducement for EV owners to patronize the establishment. And small business is the heart of the local economy. That’s why he’s staying out of the way when it comes to private property. Just kidding! Ben Moss cares about the consumers being harmed by these hypothetical free chargers — namely, any customer who arrived via internal-combustion vehicle, or on foot, or in a sedan chair. Why is someone else gaining some advantage based on a decision they made? That’s not how life works.

Thus, House Bill 1049 decrees that all customer receipts will have to show what share of the bill went toward the charger out in the lot. That way, anyone who showed up for dinner in an F-150 (not the electric one) can get mad that their jalapeno poppers helped pay for a business expense not directly related to them. It’s the same way you demand to know how much Applebee’s spends to keep the lights on in its parking lot overnight, when you’re not there. Sure, this will be an accounting nightmare, but it’ll all be worth it if we can prevent even one person from adding 16 miles of charge to a Nissan Leaf while eating a bloomin’ onion — not that restaurants around here have free chargers, but you can’t be too careful. Now, there is a charger at the neighborhood Ford dealership, which is marking up Broncos by $20,000. Coincidence? I think not. “Critics of this bill might point out that increasing the number of electric cars could actually benefit owners of internal-combustion vehicles, thanks to reduced demand for petroleum products,” adds Dyer. “Electron heads, as I call them, also like to point out that electricity is generated domestically, so your transportation dollars are staying in the U.S. rather than going to, say, Saudi Arabia.”

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