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Unitil explores nontraditional energy frontier

George Gantz, a Unitil vice president, unveiled some company dreams this past week to reinvent the big regulated utility. He told Rep. Naida Kaen, D-Lee, and other stakeholders for "distributed energy" that Unitil would like to work itself out of business as a traditional energy retailer. Distributed energy, a new buzz word, is made by small generators scattered across the electric grid, often remote from the big power plants. ...Under existing law, that would be like McDonald's buying burgers from its patrons. But everybody would win if Unitil could claim the renewable energy credits a business or homeowner can earn under a new state law also sponsored by Fuller Clark. It rewards sustainable energy sources.

George Gantz, a Unitil vice president, unveiled some company dreams this past week to reinvent the big regulated utility.

He told Rep. Naida Kaen, D-Lee, and other stakeholders for "distributed energy" that Unitil would like to work itself out of business as a traditional energy retailer.

Distributed energy, a new buzz word, is made by small generators scattered across the electric grid, often remote from the big power plants.

Gantz is pushing legislation by Sen. Martha Fuller Clark, D-Portsmouth, to help his customers make their own electricity with wood chips or solar panels or windmills and sell their excess capacity to Unitil. Net metering hardware would track which way the current is flowing.

Under existing law, that would be like McDonald's buying burgers from its patrons. But everybody would win if Unitil could claim the renewable energy credits a business or homeowner can earn under a new state law also sponsored by Fuller Clark. It rewards sustainable energy sources.

Paul Chamberlin, the UNH vice president for energy and campus development, immediately liked the Unitil idea. It was like looking in the mirror.

He's honchoing a project to bring methane gas... more [truncated due to possible copyright]  

George Gantz, a Unitil vice president, unveiled some company dreams this past week to reinvent the big regulated utility.

He told Rep. Naida Kaen, D-Lee, and other stakeholders for "distributed energy" that Unitil would like to work itself out of business as a traditional energy retailer.

Distributed energy, a new buzz word, is made by small generators scattered across the electric grid, often remote from the big power plants.

Gantz is pushing legislation by Sen. Martha Fuller Clark, D-Portsmouth, to help his customers make their own electricity with wood chips or solar panels or windmills and sell their excess capacity to Unitil. Net metering hardware would track which way the current is flowing.

Under existing law, that would be like McDonald's buying burgers from its patrons. But everybody would win if Unitil could claim the renewable energy credits a business or homeowner can earn under a new state law also sponsored by Fuller Clark. It rewards sustainable energy sources.

Paul Chamberlin, the UNH vice president for energy and campus development, immediately liked the Unitil idea. It was like looking in the mirror.

He's honchoing a project to bring methane gas from the Turnkey Landfill in Rochester down 12.5 miles of public rights of way to a 7.9-megawatt campus boiler. It sells electricity into the New England grid during the summer and heats three-fourths of the dorms and classrooms in the winter. Conventional boilers warm the rest of the campus. The needed 12-inch pipeline is 80 percent built and will also fuel a 4.6-megawatt co-generation turbine in the works to boost power production.

"This is the kind of innovative thinking that will be absolutely essential to solve the energy and climate crisis," Chamberlin said of Unitil. But he could have been talking about the university.

The UNH boilers now run on natural gas, but the price of that fuel has climbed from $2 or $3 per million British thermal units in 2000 to $8.60 this past week. The prospect of cheap natural gas spurred construction of the 525-megawatt Con-Edison plant in Newington and the 720-megawatt AES Granite Ridge plant in Londonderry. They soon found themselves vying for fuel with half a dozen New England plants built at the same time.

To make a perfect storm, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission capped the hourly spot price of electricity to protect ratepayers from California-style soaring energy costs. It's hard for $300 million power plants to switch fuels, but UNH seized the chance to save money, cash in on renewable energy incentives, and set a good moral example.

The feds bailed out plants like Newington and Granite Ridge by paying them tens of thousands of dollars per year per megawatt just to stay in business. UNH stands to pick up $100,000 or $150,000 itself from these same forward capacity market payments. How much depends on the price that comes out of a New England auction in February.

Chamberlin declined to say what the project will save the school.

"If I knew the price of natural gas that far ahead, I'd be selling gas futures," he joked. "But we asked, 'What if natural gas prices stayed fairly low?' The project still makes financial sense. And it reduces our carbon footprint."

The school was recognized by the federal Department of Education in 2001 for its insulation program, its computerized thermostats and other energy savings.

"We can turn all the rooms to 55 degrees from a single control during Christmas vacation," Chamberlin said. "Air sensors govern the lighting in big lecture halls. When a group meets, the system intakes fresh air. When the people leave, everything shuts down to save on heat and power. I'm not sure what we'll think of next, but we'll think of something."

Any future energy saving projects at UNH could qualify for those forward capacity payments, too.

How Unitil would gain

Unitil is eyeing the same windfall. It would like those forward capacity dollars its customers could earn. In exchange, the utility would use its expertise, its positioning and its economies of scale to cut the risks and simplify the task of launching a tiny power plant. Unitil would partner with banks to provide some bridge financing. Owners would gradually pay off the cost of their solar panels as a surcharge on their electric bills. The customers, or rather suppliers, would get federal tax breaks, and they'd be eligible for grants. Unitil would help them apply.

Pie in the sky? Not to Dorn Cox, a Lee dairy farmer who makes biodiesel from waste grease. It comes from UNH, where else?

"Unitil is really forward thinking," Cox said.

Now, he wants to own a windmill. He's clever enough to figure out how to do something like that, but Unitil wants everybody to be able to.

"I know a farmer in Canterbury with a windmill," Cox said. "I'm thinking of a 10-kilowatt turbine. His is about 120 foot. Ours would be around 100."

Holland in Hampton?

Seacoast residents barely notice the curious structure at the edge of the marsh off Route 101. Actually, its 6-foot propeller blades do not constitute a structure under town rules. But the device is close enough to the beach to capture the daily sea breeze. Who owns it? Would you believe, Unitil?

"It isn't permanent," said Hampton Town Planner Jamie Steffer. "I've heard a lot of support for it. It's noiseless and unobtrusive."

Ann Carnaby heads the Hampton energy committee. That's another sign of the times, a town with an energy committee.

"I was surprised how low the windmill is," she said. "Nobody has said if it's wonderful or terrible."

Ben Moore chairs the Hampton selectmen and serves as a Republican state rep. He's pushing legislation to keep towns from banning these windmills by calling them too-tall structures.

"We need things like this if we're going to reach 25 percent renewable energy by 2020," he said. "It doesn't bother me a bit. Anything to cut the use of petroleum is good. The ones I've seen all over Europe are peaceful like ours."

He'd even welcome windmills offshore. He's been following the Massachusetts regulatory fight over a proposal for such a project off Cape Cod.

"I can't imagine it would make much difference to a tourist on the beach," Moore said. "Fifty percent of the people may disagree with that."

Chris Dornin, of Golden Dome News, covers the Statehouse in Concord.


Source: http://www.seacoastonline.c...

NOV 11 2007
https://www.windaction.org/posts/11866-unitil-explores-nontraditional-energy-frontier
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