CEO’s Report: Solar calculator simplified

Heartland reintroduces customer tool as a web-based application

School has started which means summer has come to an end. It also means our summer interns left us to get back to class.

But, they left behind great work, including a tool that will benefit our customers for years to come.

Heartland’s solar calculator was developed in 2019 to help end-use customers determine true cost savings of solar installations.

It was available for download from our website as an Excel worksheet. Though fully functional, it did have limitations.

Now the calculator is completely web-based, accessed through an online form. This modified process is much more user-friendly and resolves snags from the previous version.

Determines costs, savings

The calculator analyzes projects that fall in one of two categories: retail or utility.

The retail calculator is for customers who want to install solar panels on their property.

Users must provide some data, such as average monthly electric bill and project size or budget. The calculator determines the project’s generation output, savings and payback period.

It also indicates the likelihood of paying off the array, based on an average array lifespan of 20 years

The utility calculator helps determine the cost impact of a solar installation on a retail utility. Users provide the solar array size and the customer’s previous kWh usage.

Both make certain assumptions to determine true cost savings from installing a renewable system on a home or business.

Visitors to Heartland’s website must choose either the Utility or Retail solar calculator.

DEED helps fund internships

Interns developed both the Excel and web versions of the calculator. The internships were made possible in part by APPA’s Demonstration of Energy and Efficiency Development (DEED) program.

Peter Choudek

DEED funds research and innovation projects to improve operations and services of public power utilities. Scholarships are awarded for paid work experience at participating utilities.

Electrical engineering student Peter Choudek created the original version during his internship in 2019. This tool gained national recognition with an Energy Innovator Award from APPA.

John Kirkvold

In 2020, Heartland was again awarded a DEED scholarship to make the renewable calculator web ready. Computer science major John Kirkvold completed this work this past summer.

Links to the web calculators are available on Heartland’s website. Users will also find a step-by-step video tutorial, created by Kirkvold.

Tool helps make informed decision

A new report from research group BloombergNEF says solar power is the global leader in new power generation. In fact, at least 1MW of solar plants were installed in 81 different countries in 2019.

It’s true–solar technology is less expensive than before and widely available for homes, businesses and grids. What’s less clear is the value and suitability of small-scale installations.

Factors including roof space, location, state laws and more impact the payback period and savings that may be achieved.

With the ease of an online form, Heartland’s solar calculator can simplify this cost-benefit analysis and help residents–and the utilities that serve them–make informed decisions.

Heartland receives Energy Innovator Award

Solar calculator recognized by American Public Power Association

Heartland Consumers Power District earned the 2020 Energy Innovator Award (EIA) from the American Public Power Association’s (APPA) Demonstration of Energy & Efficiency Developments (DEED) program.

The EIA award honors utilities that have developed or applied creative,
energy-efficient techniques and technologies. Awards recognize creativity, resource efficiency, benefits to utility customers, transferability, and project scope in relation to utility size.

During the summer of 2019, Heartland employed a college intern to develop calculator tools to help determine the annual benefit and cost of installing a renewable energy system, particularly a solar array. One calculator is for retail customers who want to install solar panels on their property, while the other is for the utility to determine the cost to the utility itself.

The solar calculators are complete and functional within the Microsoft Excel program. The tool allows the residential user to enter data such as state of residence, electricity cost, home electric usage, and solar array size/budget; and it will provide the user with estimated energy savings, cost savings, and potential payback.

These results are custom to the individual user based on the inputs and incorporate state/federal laws pertaining to distributed/renewable generation and applicable tax credits. In addition, a number of assumed average inputs (electricity cost, electric usage, solar cost, etc.) custom to the individual’s inputted location are included in the calculator in case the user does not have the data on hand. In addition, a calculator was developed that incorporates all the previously mentioned calculations into an algorithm that estimates the financial impact of a solar installation on a retail utility.

The calculator makes some assumptions but it does so based on answers to certain questions including geographic location, making it a useful tool for any utility.

The customer-focused calculator is available on Heartland’s website for public power utilities to utilize.

More deliverables, beyond the consumer-focused tool are accessible to DEED members from DEED’s Project Database.

Featured image: Heartland Director of Power Supply Adam Graff, Chief Communications Officer Ann Hyland, and Director of Market Operations McCord Stowater stand with the APPA Energy Innovator Award.

Student intern set to make solar calculator web ready

A solar calculator developed by a Heartland intern during the summer of 2019 will be taken to the next level this year with help from another student intern.

John Kirkvold, a computer science major at South Dakota State University, will be spending the next few months working to make the calculator web functional.

The tool was developed to determine how behind-the-meter renewable generation affects utility rates as well as help end-use customers determine true cost savings of installations.

Adam Graff

“The current calculator is only available in an Excel worksheet which must be downloaded to use,” said Heartland Director of Power Supply Adam Graff. “It is not easily shared, and a web version would make it more user friendly and ensure it remains current over time.”

The calculator has certain assumptions built into it, based on the user’s location, which need to be updated periodically. A web interface will ensure the latest data is always available to the user.

Kirkvold will also be tasked with developing a system to display information on Heartland’s generation and load in real-time on the television monitors in Heartland’s lobby.

Kirkvold was born in North Carolina where his parents were both in the military. He and his family lived in various places until he was 16 when they moved from Stavanger, Norway to Sioux Falls, SD where he graduated from Roosevelt High School.

John Kirkvold

A love of computers since his youth led Kirkvold to choosing a major in computer sciences at SDSU. He enjoys learning how computer systems work as well as how to design them. He has previous experience working at Valley Queen in Milbank, SD as a software development intern where he developed web-based applications and designed company software as part of a team.

He is excited to start working at Heartland saying, “I think what Heartland does is a really important part of society and it is really rewarding that I am able to create and design software.”

Kirkvold is a lover of the outdoors, especially rock climbing, and is the newly elected president of the SDSU climbing club. He is also a contracted cadet of the SDSU Army ROTC and is the Sargent of his ROTC Platoon.

Upon graduating college, Kirkvold plans to commission as an officer in the U.S. Army, either doing four years of active duty or six years of guards.

Heartland was awarded a scholarship through American Public Power Association’s Demonstration of Energy and Efficiency Development (DEED) program to help fund this internship. DEED funds educational scholarships to help improve the operations and services of public power utilities.

Terms of the scholarship include periodic written reports to DEED as well as sharing any tools developed over the course of the internship that could be beneficial to other public power utilities. Heartland was also awarded a DEED scholarship for last year’s internship to develop the calculator.

Increasing reliance on renewable generation poses challenges

By Steve Downer, MMUA’s The Resource, January 2020 edition; reprinted with permission

Minnesota electric utilities are ready to serve peak load reliably for winter 2019-2020, but incorporating increased renewable generation may lead to reliability issues. Those were among the conclusions to be drawn from a Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO) quarterly update meeting held Dec. 13 at the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (MPUC).

According to a presentation from MISO staff, adequate resources are available this winter to meet normal load under typical conditions. However, over recent years, MISO has seen an increase in total outages during the winter, particularly in January, while the base of renewable “limited use resources” has grown.

Total generation outages, including forced outages, have almost doubled from January 2015 to January 2019, from 24,681 megawatts (MW) to 44,411 MW. Much of this is due to “significant challenges” presented by increasing reliance on wind generation, which typically goes off-line at -22 degrees Fahrenheit.

The capacity adequacy of intermittent wind and solar generation is “always a concern,” said MISO’s Jordan Bakke. “Sun is not well matched to load.”

“Transmission solutions” are needed to further utilize renewable resources, and to significantly reduce curtailment. At 30 percent renewable penetration, MISO’s Renewable Integration Impact Assessment (RIAA) “indicates integration complexity increasing sharply.” At 40 percent renewable penetration, “the transmission system is insufficient to further facilitate renewables and access the diversity in renewables and load.”

The MISO presentation contained information from its RIIA, which studies capacity and energy adequacy and operating reliability, including the ability to withstand unanticipated component losses or disturbances, such as occurred during last winter’s coldest days.

MISO’s RIIA found that integration complexity increases sharply beyond 30 percent renewable penetration. The probability of losing load is “expected” to be one day in 10 years, over all penetration levels.

The effects of a high percentage of wind in the MISO North geographic footprint include a reduced effective load carrying capability (ELCC) during winter.

From its Base to 50 percent renewable “milestone,” MISO assumed the majority of its thermal fleet remains available to maintain adequacy (with 17 gigawatts retired), and 100 gigawatts of renewable capacity added.

As renewable penetration increases, the change in fuel mix at various electric demand points drives changing reliability risks. Increased percentages of wind generation coupled with decreased natural gas generation leads to increased reliability risk. Constantly shifting wind and solar generation leads to the need for increased ramping up and down of thermal (fossil-fueled) generation.

System-wide voltage stability is the main driver of dynamic complexity starting at 40 percent and worsens at 50 percent, which requires transmission technologies equipped with dynamic-support capabilities.

After the presentation from MISO, utility industry representatives responded to the presentation and Commissioners added some comments and questions. The discussion at this point revolved around batteries, electricity storage and various other technologies that, it was generally acknowledged, are not yet commercially available.

Electronic aids will likely be applied in various upcoming situations, but the ultimate electronic solution is not yet identified and MISO staff warned that without thermal, rotating generation, the grid “loses ability to remain stable.”

As the region’s generation portfolio becomes more weather dependent, the transmission system gets more stressed. Given our “current tool set,” said an ITC representative, more wind means more 345-kilovolt lines. And, significant transmission upgrades “won’t happen overnight.”

Solar power: trend or fad?

There are currently about 1.5 million solar panels installed in the United States, producing about 64 GW of energy, equating to about 1.6% of all the generation in the country.

Most solar installations have occurred in the last few years, with almost one sixth of current solar energy installed in 2018 alone. Solar has ranked first or second each year since 2013 in new generating capacity added.

The average solar installation equals 5 kilowatts. However, utility scale solar (installed solar capacity greater than 1 MW) is becoming more popular with about 2,500 MW currently under construction.

Like many other emerging technologies, the price of installing solar continues to fall, and efficiency continues to increase.

But many questions remain. Is solar cost effective? What will the payback be? Is solar power just a passing fad?

Heartland Chief Operations Officer Nate Jones tackled those questions and more at Heartland’s recently held Budget Meetings.

According to a recent survey, 89% of Americans support solar. However, cost was not a consideration in the survey. Since 59% of those who support solar say saving on their electric bills is their motivation, cost would certainly impact this statistic.

So, the question becomes, will you save on your electric bills by installing solar panels?

Heartland’s recently developed solar calculator should help answer this question, for both residents interested in installing solar panels and the utilities that serve them.

The calculator is designed to determine the payback of different-sized installations.

The solar calculator can be downloaded from Heartland’s website.

The calculator utilizes every state’s unique set of rules governing solar installations. These rules differ in regard to billing offsets and the rate at which excess generation must be purchased by the utility. It correctly analyzes solar data including accurate production estimates, which gives a realistic payback period.

While solar vendors will provide savings estimates, it is important to remember their goal is to make a sale. Our goal is to provide another non-partial resource to ensure all the most relevant information is available to make an informed decision.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to solar. Factors including roof space, location, state laws and more will determine the payback period and level of savings able to be achieved.

All costs and risks must be weighed against potential savings.

We encourage you to use this calculator as a resource when your customers inquire about installing solar. While solar may not have popped up in your community yet, chances are it will at some point.

Heartland recently sent out a survey to our customers inquiring about your utility’s feelings about solar and readiness for installations in your community. We encourage you to fill that out if you haven’t already done so. This will help us determine how we can best help customers be prepared should you see an interest in solar in your community