By David Manthos
On Sunday, Dec. 4, 2016, the Army Corps of Engineers issued a decision which will again delay construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. The ruling was cheered by water protectors entrenched in the path of the pipeline at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. These representatives of indigenous nations, environmental activists, veterans and many other groups have been resisting pressure from private security and law enforcement officers from at least 76 different state and federal agencies or departments, as well as enduring sub-zero blizzard conditions. However, the ruling does not definitively end the controversy, it only delays the decision until further environmental impact studies are conducted.
Unfortunately the choices before the Army Corps appear to be limited, given the fact that as much as 87 percent of the North Dakota portion of the pipeline is already complete and nearly 50 percent of the almost $3.8 billion dollar project is completed and/or in the final stages of cleanup and reclamation. Furthermore, any further environmental impact study and public comment for the Army Corps could easily hand the decision over to Trump Administration which has expressed support the pipeline (despite the obvious conflict of interest with the President-Elect owning stock in several of the key companies involved). So while hands are wrung and ink is spilled on the specifics of this pipeline, let's take a look at why people around the world are rallying in opposition to any new pipelines.
The short answer is: 1. Accidents happen and 2. They are multi-million dollar investment projects which further lock us into years, even decades, of fossil fuel extraction and emissions.
20+ Proposed Pipelines Threatening Indigenous Communities https://t.co/VuZuUO9Kte @BoldNebraska @NoTarSands— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1481581208.0
You can explore this map of pipeline spills and releases from our friends at FracTracker, but what exactly do some of these incidents look like on the ground and in the water? Here are some of the most egregious cases from the past decade.
1. Western North Dakota, near Belfield: Dec. 5, 2016
Just this month, less than 150 miles from Oceti Sakowin Camp, a leak was discovered in the Belle Fourche pipeline. An estimated 176,000 gallons leaked and crews are reportedly testing whether or not they can burn some of the spilled oil to stop further spread of the oil.
As of Dec. 15, 10 days after the spill was discovered, less than 1/3rd of the oil had been recovered. But this is the not the first time that True Companies, the pipeline operator, has been in the news.
Belle Fourche Pipeline Leak, Dec. 10,Jennifer Skjod / North Dakota Department of Health
2. Yellowstone River, northeastern Wyoming: Jan. 17, 2015
True Company/Bridger Pipeline's Poplar oil line leaked 32,000 gallons of oil into the Yellowstone River, a tributary of the Missouri River (and by extension, upstream of Standing Rock). The pipeline was supposed to be buried eight feet beneath the river bed, but after the spill investigators discovered that the pipeline had become completely exposed. And it wouldn't be the first time for the Yellowstone River. In July 2013, an Exxon pipeline also leaked 63,000 gallons of oil directly into a different section of the river when it too became exposed and was damaged by flood debris.
Oil is hard enough to remove from water, but what about when that oil sinks?
3. Kalamazoo River, Michigan: July 25, 2010
In south-central Michigan a thirty-inch pipeline carrying diluted bitumen from Canada blew a six-foot gash along a corroded seam, releasing 843,000 gallons of heavy oil product into the Kalamazoo River. Canadian energy transporter Enbridge, the operator of the pipeline, would ultimately be deemed responsible for the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history, with a U.S. National Transportation Safety Board official comparing the company's spill response to the "Keystone Cops."
Fittingly, the Enbridge spill quickly became Exhibit A in the fight against the Keystone XL pipeline which was ultimately rejected by President Obama in 2015. While scientists and activists debated whether or not tar sands bitumen diluted for transport was more corrosive to pipelines than regular oil, another major tar sands pipeline would make headlines.
4. Mayflower, Arkansas: March 29, 2013
In a quiet Arkansas suburb, Exxon Mobil's Pegasus pipeline burst, spilling an estimated 210,000 gallons of tar sands bitumen through a residential subdivision and into nearby Lake Conway. With assistance the Arkansas Chapter of Sierra Club, we used satellite imagery taken before and after the disaster to document the impact on the community and nearby public lands.
But it is not just the U.S. concerned about new oil pipelines. Our neighbors in Canada have also had their fair share of pipeline accidents and have their own slate of new pipeline projects concerning them.
5. Burnaby, British Columbia: July 24, 2007
On a warm summer afternoon in British Columbia, a contractor's backhoe struck the Transmountain Pipeline near Westridge, releasing a gusher of more than 59,000 gallons of crude oil into a residential neighborhood. But in 2016, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently approved Kinder Morgan's plans to expand the Transmountain Pipeline, while making moves to block Enbridge's Northern Gateway pipeline.
Canada Approves Kinder Morgan, Enbridge Pipelines Despite Fierce Opposition https://t.co/A2IVEc0kcr @Greenpeace @350— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1480547109.0
In addition to spills on land, locals are deeply concerned about the risk of oil spills from increased oil tanker traffic along the coasts. Those concerns were brought back to the fore when a tug boat, the Nathan E. Stewart, ran aground near Bella Bella, BC while pushing an empty fuel barge. Even without any cargo in the barge, fuel and hydraulic fluids from the tug contaminated the shoreline and shellfish beds while it took over a month to extract the Stewart from its watery resting place.
These spills have all focused on oil pipelines, but natural gas and refined petroleum pipelines pose their own unique threat.
6. Sissonville, West Virginia: Dec. 11, 2012
Here in the Mountain State, an aging 20-inch transmission line exploded a few years ago, enveloping Interstate 77 in a wall of flames and destroying several homes. Fortunately there were no fatalities. The pipeline was constructed in the 1960's.
7. Salem Township, Pennsylvania: April 29, 2016
More recently, a thirty-inch gas transmission line in western Pennsylvania exploded, destroying a house and hospitalizing a 26-year-old with third-degree burns more than 75 percent of his body. The Spectra Energy transmission line was installed in the 1980's.
8. Shelby County, Alabama: Oct. 31, 2016
An excavator conducting repairs from a prior incident on the Colonial Pipeline struck the massive gasoline transmission line, causing a fiery explosion and ultimately killing two. The Colonial Pipeline provides the East Coast with 40 percent of the gasoline consumed and is the largest petroleum distribution system in the U.S.
As we have published before, even the Obama Administration has fallen short in addressing serious concerns surrounding pipeline safety. For all of the claims that modern pipelines will be safe and loaded with spill-prevention tech, we've yet to see clear evidence of this technology stopping major spills. Even in the Gulf of Mexico, Shell recently lost 90,000 gallons of oil from a subsea pipeline but the person credited with discovering it was not the pipeline operator, but a helicopter pilot who just happened to be passing by.
Even assuming that we could put an end to this litany of disasters, many people are standing up to pipelines because each new project is a multi-million dollar commitment to perpetuate further fossil fuel extraction and consumption for decades to come. In some states and regions, New England for example, companies have proposed passing the construction costs on to ratepayers, even those who don't consume the gas directly. If this subject concerns you, we urge you to investigate what kind of pipeline proposals may be in the works in your region.
Here are just a few we are aware of:
- Mountain Valley Pipeline—West Virginia, Virginia. Interstate natural gas transmission line. Public Comments due Thursday, Dec. 22.
- Mountaineer Gas—Washington Co., Maryland; Morgan, Berkeley and Jefferson County, West Virginia: Local natural gas distribution system. More info on public comments and meetings—Eastern Panhandle Protectors.
- Pacific Connector LNG—Oregon. Natural gas pipeline associated with an LNG terminal for export. More info on the pipeline and Jordan Cove LNG terminal at Citizens Against LNG.
- Rover Pipeline—Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan. Interstate gas transmission line. More info from Ohio River Citizens' Alliance.
- Buckingham Compressor Stations—Virginia. An infrastructure upgrade linked to the planned Atlantic Coast Pipeline. More info at Friends of Buckingham, Virginia.
- Atlantic Coast Pipeline—West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina. Interstate gas transmission line. More info from Wild Virginia, Allegheny Blue Ridge Alliance and Friends of Nelson County.
- Bayou Bridge Pipeline—Louisiana. Regional oil pipeline connecting major hubs with refineries. More info from Louisiana Bucket Brigade.
Through net metering programs, homeowners who have installed solar energy systems can get utility credits for any electricity their panels generate during the day that isn't used to power home systems. These credits can be "cashed in" to offset the cost of any grid electricity used at night.
Where net metering is available, solar panels have a shorter payback period and yield a higher return on investment. Without this benefit, you only save on power bills when using solar energy directly, and surplus generation is lost unless you store it in a solar battery. However, net metering gives you the option of selling any excess electricity that is not consumed within your home.
Generally, you will see more home solar systems in places with favorable net metering laws. With this benefit, going solar becomes an attractive investment even for properties with minimal daytime consumption. Homeowners can turn their roofs into miniature power plants during the day, and that generation is subtracted from their nighttime consumption.
What Is Net Metering?
Net metering is a billing arrangement in which surplus energy production from solar panels is tracked by your electricity provider and subtracted from your monthly utility bill. When your solar power system produces more kilowatt-hours of electricity than your home is consuming, the excess generation is fed back into the grid.
For homeowners with solar panels, the benefits of net metering include higher monthly savings and a shorter payback period. Utility companies also benefit, since the excess solar electricity can be supplied to other buildings on the same electric grid.
If a power grid relies on fossil fuels, net metering also increases the environmental benefits of solar power. Even if a building does not have an adequate area for rooftop solar panels, it can reduce its emissions by using the surplus clean energy from other properties.
How Net Metering Works
There are two general ways net metering programs work:
- The surplus energy produced by your solar panels is measured by your utility company, and a credit is posted to your account that can be applied to future power bills.
- The surplus energy produced by your solar panels is measured by your home's electricity meter. Modern power meters can measure electricity flow in both directions, so they tick up when you pull from the grid at night and count down when your solar panels are producing an excess amount of electricity.
In either scenario, at the end of the billing period, you will only pay for your net consumption — the difference between total consumption and generation. This is where the term "net metering" comes from.
How Does Net Metering Affect Your Utility Bill?
Net metering makes solar power systems more valuable for homeowners, as you can "sell" any extra energy production to your utility company. However, it's important to understand how charges and credits are managed:
- You can earn credits for your surplus electricity, but utility companies will not cut you a check for the power you provide. Instead, they will subtract the credits from your power bills.
- If your net metering credit during the billing period is higher than your consumption, the difference is rolled over to the next month.
- Some power companies will roll over your credit indefinitely, but many have a yearly expiration date that resets your credit balance.
With all of this in mind, it is possible to reduce your annual electricity cost to zero. You can accumulate credit with surplus generation during the sunny summer months, and use it during winter when solar generation decreases.
You will achieve the best results when your solar power system has just the right capacity to cover your annual home consumption. Oversizing your solar array is not recommended, as you will simply accumulate a large unused credit each year. In other words, you cannot overproduce and charge your power company each month.
Some power companies will let you pick the expiration date of your annual net metering credits. If you have this option, it's wise to set the date after winter has ended. This way, you can use all the renewable energy credits you accumulated during the summer.
Is Net Metering Available Near You?
Net metering offers a valuable incentive for homeowners to switch to solar power, but these types of programs are not available everywhere. Net metering laws can change depending on where you live.
In the U.S., there are mandatory net metering laws in 38 states and Washington, D.C. Most states without a mandate have power companies that voluntarily offer the benefit in their service areas. South Dakota and Tennessee are the only two states with no version of net metering or similar programs.
If net metering is available in your area, you will be credited for your surplus energy in one of two ways:
- Net metering at retail price: You get full credit for each kilowatt-hour sent to the grid. For example, if you're charged 16 cents per kWh consumed, you'll get a credit of 16 cents per kWh exported. This type of net metering is required by law in 29 states.
- Net metering at a reduced feed-in tariff: Surplus electricity sent to the grid is credited at a lower rate. For example, you may be charged 16 cents per kWh for consumption but paid 10 cents per kWh exported. Feed-in tariffs and other alternative programs are used in 17 of the states where retail-rate net metering is not mandatory.
Note: This is just a simplified example — the exact kWh retail price and solar feed-in tariff will depend on your electricity plan.
The Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency (DSIRE) is an excellent resource if you want to learn more about net metering and other solar power incentives in your state. You can also look for information about solar incentives by visiting the official websites of your state government and utility company.
Other Financial Incentives for Going Solar
Net metering policies are one of the most effective incentives for solar power. However, there are other financial incentives that can be combined with net metering to improve your ROI:
- The federal solar tax credit lets you claim 26% of your solar installation costs as a tax deduction. For example, if your solar installation had a cost of $10,000, you can claim $2,600 on your next tax declaration. This benefit is available everywhere in the U.S.
- State tax credits may also be available depending on where you live, and they can be claimed in addition to the federal incentive.
- Solar rebates are offered by some state governments and utility companies. These are upfront cash incentives subtracted directly from the cost of your solar PV system.
In addition to seeking out solar incentives available to you, you should compare quotes from multiple installers before signing a solar contract. This will ensure you're getting the best deal available and help you avoid overpriced offers and underpriced, low-quality installations. You can start getting quotes from top solar companies near you by filling out the 30-second form below.
Frequently Asked Questions: Solar Net Metering
Why is net metering bad?
When managed correctly, net metering is beneficial for electricity consumers and power companies. There have been cases in which power grids lack the capacity to handle large amounts of power coming from homes and businesses. However, this is an infrastructure issue, not a negative aspect of net metering itself.
In places with a high percentage of homes and businesses using solar panels, surplus generation on sunny days can saturate the grid. This can be managed by modernizing the grid to handle distributed solar power more effectively with load management and energy storage systems.
How does net metering work?
With net metering, any electricity your solar panels produce that isn't used to power your home is fed into your local power grid. Your utility company will pay you for this power production through credits that can be applied to your monthly energy bills.
Can you make money net metering?
You can reduce your power bills with net metering, using surplus solar generation to compensate for your consumption when you can't generate solar power at night and on cloudy days. However, most power companies will not pay you for surplus production once your power bill has dropped to $0. Normally, that credit will be rolled over, to be used in months where your solar panels are less productive.
On very rare occasions, you may be paid for the accumulated balance over a year. However, this benefit is offered by very few electric companies and is subject to limitations.