Bioenergy, Hydropower

Electric Grid Reliability: Extremes Drive Agenda

As power outages grab the headlines, energy has become a front page story again, as always happens when energy supplies are disrupted. But two sets of extremes seem to drive the policy and market agenda.

RE Insider – August 25, 2003 – Whether it’s extreme weather, poor grid management, manipulation and gaming of energy supplies (as experienced in California), aging of transmission and distribution lines, or threats from terrorism – the electric grid is under greater pressure and more threats than anytime in our nation’s history. Who is to blame? Lack of response to significantly reduce atmospheric carbon, mostly related to human activity (with over 65 percent directly attributable to energy generation), will exacerbate changes in climate that are already causing extremes in microclimate – from higher winds, more hurricanes, and even more tornadoes in downtown US cities from Minneapolis to Miami to the Washington, D.C. mall. Moves to deregulate the electric industries by states and lamely by the federal government, has caused electric utilities to under-invest in the electric grid. These older transmission and distribution systems are more susceptible to equipment failures and outages. Equipment has not been upgraded and maintenance has been lowered in frequency and quality in many regions in the United States. The electric grid, along with our natural gas pipelines, extends for hundreds and thousands of miles. They cannot be fully defended against terrorism or extreme weather, from earthquakes to hurricanes to forest fires to mudslides. A tree branch knocked out the northwestern grid, a squirrel shut down the northeastern grid and ice storms have shut down large regions in the northern United States – all within the last five years. An aging natural gas pipeline blew up in the Southwest and a drunken hunter shut a major pipeline in Canada – all within the last few years. So with all this chaos and extremes in weather, under investment and lack of security, are the policymakers solving the problem? Well, state policymakers and utility regulators are trying to deal with this myriad of challenges. But they, along with their federal counterparts, are being forced into extreme positions – and they are being driven by prejudged studies by interest groups and regional interests. On the environmental side, they believe all will be solved by large-scale energy conservation using standards on appliances and renewable energy (biomass. geothermal, solar and wind) while shutting down all power plants so that coal, diesel and nuclear power are options of the past. Though, key factions within this “family” do not support increasing efficiency of hydropower or incremental hydropower, much of the biomass waste stream, and even in many cases, placement of wind farms. On the traditional technology side, the proponents claim that the traditional subsidized set of energy resources and technologies: coal, natural gas, petroleum (primarily heavy diesel) and nuclear with existing levels of large hydropower – is all the nation needs. They are proven and cost effective and the existing grid, with more improvements, will keep America growing. Low cost and reliable energy. And taxpayer subsidization of the fossil and nuclear industries and their delivery systems surpassing US$10 billion per year is justified. The Bush Administration has fallen into the later camp, for they just announced this August that EPA will change regulations to allow coal electric generators to upgrade polluting power plants so they do not have to comply with the Clean Air Act. Thus millions of tons of mercury (that harm human immune systems), particulates (that exacerbate respiratory diseases from asthma to sinusitis), nitrous oxides (cause smog) and sulfur oxides (that create acid rain and burn lung tissue) are okay as a by-product of a low cost energy strategy, at any cost. This one act will deter more clean energy coming into the electric marketplace than any other policy act and deter infusion of other new and more sophisticated technologies into the electric system. The fundamental issue within this dialectic of views, is that each world view cannot accommodate the other. The first analogy is that if you want cellular phones, there cannot be centralized switchboards, But the fallacy is that while cellular has grown to over 25 percent of the telecommunications markets, this distributed communications technology has coexisted exceedingly well with a “smarter” centralized communications grid. The other compelling problem with the traditional and centralized energy view is that good transmission, which generally is an interstate issue, is limited by the sophistication of the distribution lines that connect directly to the consumer and are locally managed. And all must interact with different sizes and quality of generators. This disjointed relationship has not only hindered “reliability” of power but “quality” of power – the surges, the swells and the transients that utilities generally “write off” as inevitable and controllable but hurts sophisticated controls, computers and communications equipment that is generally taking center stage in the US economy. The need for greater quality of power is the single largest market for clean distributed power after needs for remote or absolutely reliable power. The second relevant analogy focuses on the character of our electric grid. Some companies and policymakers want to enhance its sophistication and costs so that our grid of the future looks more like a space shuttle than an airplane. When it works, it can move faster and react to more “events” and challenges – but when it fails, it can be catastrophic. The Internet was conceived not as one giant mainframe computer housed in some protected building, but as an agile interconnected grid that can quickly compensate and maintain itself when parts of it do not operate well. Mainframe computers are part of the Internet as are small computers and small servers. Just as cellular phones have driven PDA’s, WIFI and now merged handheld phone and computing technologies — distributed generation technologies have emerged into the marketplace which will have a parallel impact. Both regulators, utilities and “traditionalists” forget, that soon consumers will opt to “opt out” of the grid rather than react to the unpredictable prices and reliability, if we are not careful. This already is being demonstrated in the marketplace, and I highlight technology trends below. If the electric grid is to be able to meet the multifaceted challenges of an absolute, reliable power, power quality and protection from unexpected intrusions by either natural or manmade effects, it must become more simplified, more agile — a self-healing network like the Internet – and more unlike the space shuttle. Companies like Ormat are trying their market-proven ORC 250 kW engines from 15 years in the marketplace for the geothermal applications into new market opportunities. These heat engines can use waste heat from natural gas pipeline compressor pumps and from large industry applications such as cement plants to tap into thousands of megawatts of potential energy through the US economy – emission free and at places which utilize and transport energy. STM Power now has their 55 kW Stirling units that not only work on natural gas, but landfill and biogas, and also waste heat. Whether its organic rankine or stirling technologies, these heat engines have a unique quality to use multiple fuels, meet proposed air quality standards, low in noise, and can be distributed throughout the grid along power lines and substations, industrial and pipeline applications, as well as at the endues. From fossil fuels to waste heat and onto renewables, heat engines represent key enabling technologies that will transform the electric grid. A similar enabling technology has begun to emerge in fuel cells. Avista Labs has commercial units that produce on-site power from low-grade industrial hydrogen which is non-pressurized. The units, which can “quick change” their membranes to insure operability are now being used in telecommunications as well as powering strategic functions like the FAA radar at McCord Air Force Base. More than 300 larger 250 kW units have been sold by United Technologies and Plug Power under the GE auspices have smaller units commercialized as well. But the critical breakthrough will not be the fuel cell but the gadget that separates hydrogen needed to power fuel cells from hydrogen-containing substances such as natural gas, propane, landfill gas and biogas, These “reformers” have the potential to have multifuel capacity and become more reliable – and if they do, fuel cells have similar multifuel agility as do heat engines but without moving parts. Thermal applications, in addition to waste heat to electricity, can have enormous impact on shoring up grid reliability and resource diversity. Use of absorption cooling for building air-conditioning used by the natural gas industry is now hybridized by Solartgenix Energy to work from natural gas and concentrated solar. Such cooling systems which account for over 30 percent of the nation’s electric grid load in the summer season, are becoming multifuel capable using absorption cooling with solar, natural gas, and potentially to propane, biogas and landfill gas, hydrogen, among others. The same concentrating solar can heat water or produce electric power on larger scale as typified by the one megawatt Arizona Public Service installation now being built using Solargenix’s concentrated solar tied to Ormat’s ORC engine, and the 50 MW power purchase agreement signed by Sierra Pacific for a Boulder City, NV potential Solargenix installation under the state’s portfolio standard. While large wind farms have shown they can be cost competitive, the smaller wind turbines may surprise the market by becoming the faster and more acceptable version for consumers – less local opposition and more targeted towards consumer needs. SouthWest Windpower has sold over 1600 small wind turbines which is a far larger market penetration than fuel cells or microturbines have together. The company’s brushless motors and flexible turbine blades has shown low maintenance and fast installation. Bergey Windpower has a similar long record in market development and has placed more wind turbines than any company in the European market. And hardened systems such as SkyBuilt that integrates small wind with photovoltaics (PV) and batteries on quick-set up “plop and drop” systems that can augment the grid as well as provide power in remote applications exemplify the potential portability. Free-flow hydropower has begun to make market inroads because it requires no dams, no river diversions, and shares similar attributes with small wind and solar in making no noise nor emissions. The technologies do not harm fish (turbines moves too slow) or impede water use for boating or other recreation. Verdant has just demonstrated its 25 kW microhydroturbine system in New York City’s East River installed on a pontoon. The project was supported by NYSERDA and hopefully followed by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). Several companies, including Verdant are seeking involvement in local clean microhydropower initiatives such as San Francisco. The PV technologies seem the most dramatic. US innovators like AstroPower sell PV through Home Depot while UniSolar sells flexible solar roofing shingles and “peal and stick” panels for metal-seamed roofs. Larger corporations such as Sharp Solar, Shell Solar and BP Solar have robust operations in the US market. Other companies like PowerLight innovated large PV-mounted foam blocks to cover large building roofs. RWE/Schott markets photovoltaics which produce AC current rather than DC (same as batteries) as most PV does. And photovoltaics is following advances in nanotechnology. Konarka Technologies has developed titania dyes which can be ultimately painted onto materials or incorporated into fabrics and into the building materials itself. The PV industry has moved into automation and is the only distributed generation technologies other then diesel engines that have yet done so. But the real breakthrough maybe “smart interconnection” technologies. Now inverters convert DC current to AC while controllers or regulators and moderate electricity flow to insure compatibility with the grid. The inverter company, Xantrex Technologies is creating “smart” inverters that will be able to interact with any distributed technology or blends of them. With the emerged and emerging technologies, there is a solid opportunity to have a centralized network with an immense diversity of technologies seamlessly interacting and supporting each other, yet still independent, For example, WorldWater sells solar-powered electronics that can power heavy duty water pumps for irrigation or municipal water systems from 50 – 600 horsepower. These pumps connected to the grid run by solar during the day, but by grid during the evening if necessary. But with more agile control and interaction, when the transmission or distribution system is disrupted or overtaxed, these heavy duty and dispersed solar systems could be redirected into the local electric distribution system. But with our fixation on traditional technologies and approaches, some of this new technological innovation will be stalled and not integrated fast enough into the marketplace. The recent policies of grandfathering old technologies as allowable under the Clean Air Act, provide massive tax benefits and loan guarantees to conventional technologies at the expense of waste heat, solar thermal, and the array of renewable technologies, failure to remove arcane barriers to electric interconnection already-approved by 36 states, and inability to support meaningful national portfolio standard that moves all renewable and other zero-emission technologies forward, hurts the consumer, harms the US economy, and makes the US electric system less secure. The recent outages prove again and again, that complexity, no matter how well intended, is not the answer for a reliable electric grid. About the author… Scott Sklar is founder of The Stella Group, Ltd.(Washington, D.C.) which is a strategic marketing and policy firm for distributed generation. He served for 15 years as Executive Director concurrently of the Solar Energy Industries Association and the National BioEnergy Industries Association in Washington, D.C. He lives in a solar home in Arlington, Virginia and his coauthored book, A Consumer Guide to Solar Energy, has just been re-released for its third printing.