Grid neglect will undermine other efforts

I wrote a Clean Break column this week on the need for more attention — serious attention — to matters involving the electric grid. My concern is that we put so much focus on new power generation, arguably a more sexy topic when we talk about wind and solar, and seem to forget that maximizing renewable output means improving the way the grid operates and expanding its reach. In other words, we need to be moving more aggressively toward a “smart grid” that’s self-healing and automated to the point where the energy from a wide variety of resources — wind, solar, ocean, biomass, biogas, geothermal — can be tapped, directed, managed and carried to where it needs to go.

Vinod Khosla has raised this concern and need. So has the U.S. Electric Power Research Institute, which considers grid modernization a top priority. Unfortunately, the utilities themselves and politicians don’t seem to get it — at least not yet. This could become a major bottleneck within a few years, so we need to start addressing it today. If we envision a world of electric cars, plug-in hybrids, smart appliances and more and more renewables, then the grid is what ties it all together and makes it work. The grid we have today, built with technologies from the 1950s, 60s and 70s, just won’t cut it.

What this will take is a vision from government — at all levels, but particularly federal government — and a clear policy direction with benchmarks we need to meet.

6 thoughts on “Grid neglect will undermine other efforts”

  1. Some of the updating that is needed to accommodate increased renewables doesn’t even require lots of hardware upgrades. Consolidating load balancing and control regions would make diverse wind and solar sites easier to aggregate for planning purposes. Likewise, it may be necessary to rethink the standard purchase and transmission business agreements which were simply not designed for intermittent power sources. The business as usual utility system probably overvalues firm power, especially considering the opportunities for DSM as well as the inherent time coherency of certain intermittent sources, such as solar, with load demand, air conditioners.

  2. I think what we really need to do is get away from the concept of centralized generation. Distributed Generation from renewables, and from fuel cells/stirling engines would ease the load on the transmission grid and create a much more robust system then what we have now.

  3. I think the post and comments are dead on. Without a smart energy network, or what i call the Electranet, renewables die on the vine. I am concerned about the constant call for “standards”…why have one called price.

  4. Our grid is not the biggest problems – it is more the operating restrictions caused by the generation on the grid. For example, nuclear plants need to run at an almost fixed load… they cannot change load by much – or very quickly. Coal fired plants are similar, and when they reduce output at night, they are much less efficient. On the other hand, hydro, wind and other renewables can be started, change load or shut down quickly… Guess what gets shut down in many places at night. Our grid is generally near fully loaded during daytime – and has huge surpluses at night. Often getting rid of the night surplus is the real problem. Ontario has had several occasions in the last year or two where night pricing has dropped below ZERO…

    What really needs to be done is to work on loads – so that night surpluses are consumed to displace fossil fuel – and the difference between night lows and daytime highs is smaller. The grid will be more efficient… and will reduce GHG emissions…

  5. I think you’re correct. Transmission is expensive, difficult to build, and it makes urban areas more vulnerable to disturbances rather than more secure. To the extent clean technologies can be economically scaled down and installed closer to where the load is, we get a less costly, more secure grid.

  6. Whether utilities overvalue firm power is not relevant. Customers Wind energy is not regulated based on the available supply of other resources – it’s very much the other way around. Texas nearly went dark earlier this week when an unexpected warm spell coincided with a rapid drop in wind output and generators that had been turned off to accommodate wind energy could not be started quickly enough.

    What the industry needs is spot prices that accurately reflect supply and demand conditions, except that politicians are reluctant to allow the kind of price volatility that’s necessary. Wind producers would not be happy with the likely outcomes since the wind blows here mostly when it’s least needed and provides very little energy on the hot days that drive peak demands, but that’s the way it would work out.

    There’s no conspiracy against wind on the part of the large regional grid operators. Just like large coal and nuclear plants that are happiest and least expensive when they run flat out, the presence of intermittent wind generation creates headaches and coordination challenges for grid operators.

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