The International Energy Agency recently announced that solar generated power is now the “cheapest electricity in history.”
We can debate the variables behind this statement, but for now, let’s just accept that this is an incredible achievement, something almost unfathomable just a few years ago. It highlights the impact technology advancements and scaled-up manufacturing can have on the goal to reach carbon free electric power generation. Wind power is making giant leaps forward as well – doubling installed capacity over the past decade.
Utilities worldwide are playing a major role in the acceleration of renewable generation by committing to net-zero emissions goals, and installing more solar and wind generation every year. It’s an amazing turnaround in the effort to combat climate change.
Still, the same issues regarding renewable generation, specifically solar and wind, remain: intermittent capacity. No matter how much capacity is built, and no matter how far the technology advances, we can’t avoid the fact that sometimes the wind doesn’t turn the turbine blades, and for 8-12 hours per day there will be no sunshine hitting the solar panels.
One way to help make up the intermittent capacity is to overbuild renewable generation, and store the excess for when it’s needed later. It’s part of three key points to solving the intermittency problem:
• Overbuild renewable generation capacity
• Store the excess
• Be more efficient
Storage isn’t only about batteries
For the past several years when the topic of intermittent capacity is discussed the answer is usually to build more storage, mostly in the form of large-stack lithium ion batteries. This is a great technology that can help solve the renewable generation intermittency problem. But these batteries are expensive, and the current mining and construction of the materials creates carbon emissions. Not exactly the best answer when we’re trying to make the renewable generation process completely carbon free.
There are other tried and true storage technologies, such as pumped hydro. But this can’t always be the preferred storage answer either, especially in the arid regions of the western United States, or anywhere that water is a premium. Some truly innovative minds are researching a variety of interesting storage concepts. Right now, these new technologies are not ready for utility scale use.
Yes, moving forward, storage systems need to be a part of the overall picture as more renewable generation is installed. But that will not be enough to cover the needs of all utility customers. There will be times when electricity from renewable generation simply won’t be dispatchable.
Let’s discuss distributed control efficiency
Right now utilities operate their assets in a kind of hub and spoke system. All decisions come from a central operations center, even if most of those decisions are made automatically by machines. It’s better than the previous method of doing things, but it could be more efficient.
We need to move the intelligence and decision making from the operations center further out toward the grid edge. Quicker decisions can be made by machines at the substation, and other locations along the distribution network rather than from a central location. This would increase efficiency for the network, and allow operations centers to focus on the larger issues, such as improved modeling for future grid events.
Traditionally utilities have forecasted demand based on some predictable modeling. Those models are based mostly upon seasonal weather, and the capacity available from traditional fossil fuel plants. Intermittent renewable power generation can play havoc on these models. Perhaps it’s time utilities think in reverse: instead of dispatching capacity, utilities should dispatch demand, by using the distributed resources growing exponentially on their networks.
We need your help
Utilities should reach out to customers, and their grid-connected devices as they anticipate curtailment issues from the renewable power resources. Utilities could charge all the electric vehicles (EVs) on their system an extra few minutes knowing they can pull that power back on the grid within the next hour.
Perhaps they communicate with the smart water heaters on their system to turn up the heat knowing they may curtail that for a few moments in the future. Smart thermostats can deliver the same effective outcome with the right advanced communication and cooperation.
Utilities need their customers’ help. Reach out and ask. They are willing, and have the resources to make a significant contribution. Most customers bought an EV or smart thermostat to be more energy efficient.
They’re ready and willing. We just need to ask.
Tom Eyford is a third-generation “utility brat” with 25 years in the industry, including 15 years at PacifiCorp. He now is an industry strategist at Oracle, helping utilities build smarter electrical systems.
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