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Optimistic Futurist: Banking on a positive future

Banks and electric utilities are both facing tough times.

You don’t have to be a futurist to know that banks have a big problem now, and it isn’t just the housing crisis. Interest rates paid by customers are so low that when they make a loan, they don’t earn much money on that loan, making it hard to be profitable. In turn, they cannot pay those who deposit money with them much interest on their savings. Currently, we have a vicious spiral where saving is discouraged — something not in our country’s long-term interests.

At the same time, electric utilities also have a unique challenge — their customers do not buy the same amount of electricity each minute of the day. This means that the utility has to constantly, literally minute by minute, turn up or down the generators to adjust to the customers’ usage. … They have no alternative, because if the utility produces less electricity than customers need, you get brownouts. If they produce more electricity than the customers are using, the grid and transmission equipment can overload, and unsafe conditions can result. Bottom line is that the supply and demand of electricity must match.

A second challenge facing the electric utilities is that not all electricity costs the same to make. In the United States, it can cost anywhere from less than a nickel to more than 15 cents per kilowatt hour (kwh) to deliver a kwh to a customer, depending on what generation station the utility has to turn on to meet the customer need at a particular moment in time. A kwh is the amount of electricity used to run one 100- watt electric light bulb for 10 hours. The most expensive electricity (up near the 15 cents end of the range) to make in the United States is during the hot summer days. Coincidentally, banks run their expensive computing centers and expensive computer cooling systems full throttle at this time. This makes the banks’ electric bills high.

Combine these challenges, and you actually have an opportunity that can benefit both banks and utilities.

The business proposition for the utility is to encourage others to make an investment that provides electricity cheaper than other alternatives at a particular time of day and year. And they can, because the time when the utility needs help is also when solar electric systems work their best — during bright sunshine.

Some banks have taken this new approach. Their solar energy investment earns them a reliable rate of return, reduces their energy costs for data centers, computers and air conditioning, and makes them more profitable. Along the way, they reduce ozone pollution which harms kids’ lungs, and also reduce the power company’s emissions of climate changing gas, which also places kids at risk. The banks are doing an economic good and a social good at the same time.

One such bank is First Citizens Bank in Raleigh. The bank built a large solar electric system on the rooftop of its corporate data center. After installing a roofing system that helps keep the building cool, the bank added 7,000 solar panels and created a 1.7 megawatt generating system. Now, the bank’s 1,100 employees who work in that building experience a true win/win — their company does better financially while greenhouse gas creation goes down.

A second good example is Aquesta Bank. Located in the Lake Norman area of North Carolina, Aquesta installed solar electric generating systems on the roof over the three lanes of drive-through windows and ATM machines. In addition to making electricity, this installation location allows the customers’ cars to remain cool while sitting in line. Based on its own experience as a company, Aquesta is so excited about this kind of investment that it has created special lending programs for customers seeking to install solar.

Efforts like this are an important and often misunderstood part of our nation’s national energy security. As of 2011, 13 percent of electricity in the United States is now generated by electric utility owned renewable energy plants — an amazing change from just a few years ago. And this 13 percent does not count another significant amount generated by private companies like these banks and individuals who install solar electricity generation materials on their rooftops.

For more information on how banks are working to create a “green” future, you can go to the GreenBankReport (http://greenbankreport.com/eco-friendly-banking/solar-power-atms-banks/)

Having these kinds of examples of banks practicing innovative behavior gives one heart. They become one more partner organization creating a better future.

Francis P. Koster lives in Kannapolis. His “Optimistic Futurist” column appears every other Sunday. For more information, visit www.TheOptimisticFuturist.org or contact him at FuturistFran@aol.com.

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