SOLAR 2008: DAY 3 – GRIDLOCK?
Originally posted May 7.
Power is not the problem – it’s what to do with the power that’s the problem.
The Solar2008 Tuesday plenary session presenters made it utterly clear New Energy is building at a pace far beyond the energy establishment’s wildest expectations.
From rooftop photovoltaic panels to desert solar power plants to biomass projects to massive wind farms, the megawatts are rapidly becoming gigawatts. (A gigawatt is a thousand megawatts.)
Old Energy still doesn't really see what's coming. (click to enlarge)
Jigar Shah, Chief Strategy Officer, SunEdison, started the morning with a pitch for Distributed Generation. Distributed generation comes onto the grid from a wide variety of small, local directions (like rooftop solar panels) rather than from a central power plant source. During times of peak electricity demand, like hot summer afternoons, distributed generation reduces the strain. A smart grid can significantly expand its capacity to meet peaking loads by drawing on extra power generated variously and locally.
Rooftop solar panels are probably the most popular form of distributed generation. If solar continues growing at its current 40+% per year rate (and generating $16+ billion dollars in 2007), it will be providing 65 gigawatts of power in 10 years. That would easily meet solar’s share of the urgently needed new, non-emissions spewing U.S. power but, because much of solar’s growth will be “distributed” and require significantly less transmission on central infrastructure lines, it is even more important to the country.
The spirit of Distributed Generation. (click to enlarge)
It is Shah’s contention, in fact, that BECAUSE small solar installations require less transmission infrastructure than centralized power plants, they might turn out to be the key to preventing brownouts (and maybe blackouts) predicted by 2011 in many parts of the U.S. where power plant capacity and grid carrying capacity are overburdened.
But utilities and power planners tell Shah it’s too expensive to build solar installations. To which Shah replies, “But you’re even MORE expensive.” Insightfully, Shah insists power producers not compare solar energy cost to the cost of power generated by existing Old Energy production but to the cost of building new production from traditional sources. Considered that way, distributed solar generation – especially when the cost of building new transmission for the traditional sources is considered – is competitive right now.
Shah added that distributed solar generation is now storable, predictable if intermittent, and there are plenty of places to build it, from the rooftops of homes and businesses to the brownfields of inner cities. What is still needed, he concluded, are good incentives, innovative price schedules, net metering and a smart grid.
Chuck Kutscher, Principal Engineer, National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) summarized the resurgence of solar power plants (also known as concentrating solar power), like distributed generation another rapidly rising source of output. In solar power plants, solar energy heats flowing materials that are used to do the same thing nuclear and coal plants do with the heat they make - heat water to create steam to drive turbines to generate electricity. There's one small difference, of course; solar power plants emit no CO2 and produce no radioactive waste.
Parabolic trough collectors, the most mature of the concentrating solar power (CSP) technologies, have been built in California and Nevada and are planned all over the U.S. Southwest. NREL studies show there is available, just at a small selection of best sites in the region, seven times the energy necessary to power the entire country. (Interest in potential Southwestern desert sites is so high there is land speculation on them.)
An important factor in solar power plant growth, Kutscher said, is that utilities understand and are unintimidated by the steam generation of electricity whereas they seem to regard distributed photovoltaic installations as foreign and beyond their control.
A parabolic trough -- the most mature of the power plant technologies. (click to enlarge)
One of the most exciting developments Kutscher described is in solar energy storage. It is no longer hypothetical. It is being done in Spain and storage facilities are being built with some of the new plants here. The economics of storage support power plant construction. The marginal costs of building a second solar field to feed the storage facility while the first one is generating real-time power are easily offset by the value of the stored power continuing to produce electricity during the evening peak demand periods when solar plant output would otherwise be fading.
The result: Solar energy-generated electricity can be sold at an average 14 cents per kilowatt-hour in markets where the best natural gas can do is 12 cents per kilowatt-hour. And, as Kutscher pointed out, the price of natural gas is expected to go up while the economies of scale on solar power plants are just beginning to be felt. Better reflective materials, prevention of heat loss and more efficient, durable fluids are all in the pipeline.
There are next-generation solar power plant technologies, too, such as solar power towers and Stirling dish systems. For technical reasons, the power towers may lend themselves to better storage. The Stirling dishes promise much higher efficiencies and don’t require water.
Kutscher concluded by describing the stickiest consideration for solar power plants – transmission. There is adequate wire space right now for present needs but to take advantage of the kind of sun under which the southwest languishes, a whole new smart grid and a set of high capacity lines running to the north and the east would be necessary. Europe is talking about the same kind of new lines because some dreamers there think lines under the Mediterranean can carry North African and Saudi Arabian solar energy to them.
Ed DeMeo, President, Renewable Energy Consulting Srvcs, Inc., talked about the wind energy industry’s intention to provide 20% of U.S. electricity by 2030. Tt is a level of growth much of the energy establishment does not believe wind capable. DeMeo and wind energy advocates have no doubts. Raw wind power is many times the entire U.S. power requirement. Costs are already widely competitive and as fossil fuel prices go up, wind’s value gets better.
Wind represents huge economic opportunity and job growth in the U.S. but it does have problems. Getting the siting of turbine installations right is challenging. The national demand for better New Energy incentives must be met Congressional action. And, most importantly, like CSP, wind expansion will require – and does not have – new, smart transmission.
The grid needs a makeover. (click to enlarge)
Craig Cornelius, Principal, Hudson Clean Energy Partners, shared his insights about the growth of distributed solar, CSP, wind energy and the other New Energies, calling on his perspective as the former Program Manager for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)’s Solar Energy Technologies Program.
His opening comments? “The grid is not there.”
In 2003, policy initiatives creating National Interest Transmission Corridors and allowing modes of cost recovery for transmission builders were put through but government regulatory oversight and Not-In-My-BackYard (NIMBY) attitudes still prevent new transmission from being built. It is not cost and it is not technical issues, Cornelius said, it is a matter of national will.
Despite the absence of transmission, Cornelius was upbeat about the boom in New Energy and it’s upside potential.
In a question and answer session following the presentations, NewEnergyNews asked the presenters to expand on the topic of transmission needs and explain what prevents the building of new wires.
Mr. Shah was frank. Enormous costs are involved. Mr. Kutscher said the high voltage transmission lines to carry solar power plant-generated electricity from the U.S. Southwest to major population centers in the north and the east are an exiting idea but still a long way away, as are the sub-Mediterranean lines. For the time being, some medium-sized projects in the pipeline could facilitate some expansion. He repeated what Cornelius has said: Only a change in national will would allow the kind of grid building really necessary.
“But siting new transmission lines,” Mr. DeMeo added, “…is probably the most difficult problem in the utility industry.” He then pointed to a way out of the NIMBY conundrum. It can be solved by giving people whose property is transgressed by power lines a stake in the new transmission. “We need to help those people along the right-of-way share in the revenue of that line…the whole situation would change [if] they get something out of it…we need a different way to involve the general public, to cut them in…”
Mr. Cornelius was somewhat encouraging about small transmission projects financed by entrepreneurs to make new CSP and wind projects practical. "There are many gigawatts worth of projects that can get done," he said. "…not requiring hundreds of miles of transmission…”
Mr. Shah finished up the discussion by admitting it might, in fact, take a precipitous event like a major blackout or a series of brownouts to motivate the nation’s leaders to build new transmission. He reiterated his emphasis on distributed generation, due in part to a recognition that (1) new transmission is needed, (2) it takes a long time to build, (3) it requires a complicated process that is barely started and therefore (4) an alternative is necessary.
“…In any political environment, people don’t like to take their vitamins,” Shah said. “But they like to take pain medication…Like many of the changes that have happened in the past five years, destructive events like Hurricane Katrina or very high gasoline prices… or blackouts like there were in the Northeast during…2003 will cause extraordinary change…there will be increasing strains on the grid over the next five years and when that happens there will be bouts of innovation…It IS what it is, I wish more of us took our vitamins and regularly exercised but in general a heart attack seems to do the trick for most folks.”
The Bad News: There was something left unsaid as the Q&A session moved to a different topic, something uneasy, even disturbing. Off-the-record remarks to NewEnergyNews later in the day by two of the participants confirmed it. There is a good possibility the country is headed for transmission gridlock and, like with so many other of the nation’s woes, it is a problem being left for the New Energy industries to deal with.
The Good News: These folks here at the American Solar Energy Society’s Solar2008 and the other dynamic members of the New Energy industries community are a capable, Can-Do bunch. If new transmission needs to be a part of the 21st century energy infrastructure’s New Energy architecture, these folks will take it on and they will get it done.
NewEnergyNews was honored by the opportunity to mingle with them at Solar2008 in San Diego. Here’s to next year in Buffalo!
The American Solar Energy Society’s SOLAR2008: Catch The Clean Energy Wave
The American Solar Energy Society (ASES) Day 3 plenary session speakers: Jigar Shah, Chief Strategy Officer, SunEdison; Chuck Kutscher, Principal Engineer, National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL); Ed DeMeo, President, Renewable Energy Consulting Srvcs, Inc.; Craig Cornelius, Principal, Hudson Clean Energy Partners
Day 3 at Solar 2008, the American Solar Energy Society annual conclave covering everything important in the world of solar energy.
- Solar 2008 Day 3: May 6, 2008
- ASES was founded in 1954.
"Adios" and "au revoir" and "don't stop thinkin' about tomorrow" from San Diego. (click to enlarge)
- Town and Country Resort & Convention Center, 500 Hotel Circle North, San Diego, CA 92108
- ASES headquarters is Boulder, CO.
- ASES is the U.S. affiliate of the International Solar Energy Society
Descriptions of the plenary sessions:
- Renewable Energy Technology Solutions: …An overview of the current state of the industry, and visions for where the industry will be in 20 years.
- Emerging Transportation: The documentary Who killed the electric car? has mainstreamed interest in electric vehicles and has brought attention to the auto industry’s role in delaying the availability of clean renewably powered vehicles. Chris Paine, director of the film, and Chelsea Sexton, one of the main characters in the documentary will speak on their continuing efforts to promote vehicles that can be charged from renewable energy. Steve Heckeroth, Chair, Renewable Fuels and Sustainable Transportation Division will wrap up the plenary with a presentation the many advantages of solar electric mobility.
click to enlarge
- Vital new ASES report: Economic and Jobs Impacts of the Renewable and Energy Efficiency Industries
- Vital new ASES report: Tackling Climate Change in the U.S.; Potential U.S. Carbon Emissions Reductions from Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency by 2030
- Jigar Shah, Chief Strategy Officer, SunEdison: “…In any political environment, people don’t like to take their vitamins,” Shah said. “But they like to take pain medication…Like many of the changes that have happened in the past five years, destructive events like Hurricane Katrina or very high gasoline prices… or blackouts like there were in the Northeast during…2003 will cause extraordinary change…there will be increasing strains on the grid over the next five years and when that happens there will be bouts of innovation…It IS what it is, I wish more of us took our vitamins and regularly exercised but in general a heart attack seems to do the trick for most folks.”