Last year, when we put together our predictions for 2020, we missed one very important, game-changing element: COVID-19. And today, while still in the midst of the pandemic that has turned the world on end, we once again engage our collective brainpower to foretell what the coming months will bring.
For more than 100 years utilities have supplied electrical power to customers and have done so with good reliability. The principle is simple. Loads may do as they wish. They may be random or intermittent and generally are not individually monitored by the utility. Generation, on the other hand, MUST be both dispatchable and monitorable, and electric system operators must be able to manage the real and reactive power from a generator.
Historically, utilities have become very adept at managing generation capacity to maintain a continuous balance between supply and demand. But today, the world is faced with a need to reduce or even eliminate carbon emissions, which complicates the supply-demand balance. Most electricity in the US, for example, is generated by burning fossil fuel. This needs to change, along with change to the electricity supply system and the direct customer use of fossil fuel. We are looking to remove the steady performers, and to replace them with supplies that are intermittent and perhaps random, all the time maintaining a balance between supply and demand.
Science has told us that we must reduce carbon emissions if climate change is to be kept below acceptable limits. The transition has led us in many new directions. Most politicians outside the US believe that our energy supply must be based entirely on renewable energy. This alone creates a large issue, in that the electric grid supplies less than 20% of total energy needs. The proposal to replace all fossil fuel with renewable capacity would require a potentially large increase in grid capacity. Ironically, many politicians typically include nuclear generation among the sources to be eliminated. The one bit of good news is that the efficiency of electrical devices is often better than fossil fuel, and the existing grid operation using a generation following load approach results in a system that can deliver more energy.
The results to date have been frustrating, both in costs and performance, and there are many serious problems that may make a complete conversion very difficult. These challenges include a lack of grid and generation capacity to handle the added electrical load, as well as the operation of the existing grid with extensive distributed devices.
I read Milton Caplan's post entitled "An Inconvenient Reality: Nuclear Power is Needed to Achieve Climate Goals." I can certainly support much of the article, but it seems to miss one very key point and that is the need.
Science has told us that we need to reduce carbon emissions. The trouble starts when the political masters translated that to mean that we need to fully get rid of fossil fuels and switch entirely to renewables – and while at it, we need to get rid of nuclear as well. I wonder where that latter part came from? Nuclear is clean. Why was it lumped in with fossil fuel? Much of the opposition was based on past fears. The movie Pandora’s Promise shows how many of the opponents have, after a careful look, reversed their views..
Cities around the world, including 22 cities in the United States and a growing number in Canada have pledged to go 100% renewable. It’s a noble, collaborative effort to be the cleanest, most environmentally sustainable cities on the planet, with an ultimate and cumulative end goal of each city doing its part to reduce worldwide carbon emissions.
Many cities that have made the pledge don’t yet have a route to an all-renewables, carbon-free destination. Some don’t have ownership of their electricity providers and thus have little or no influence over power fuel sources. Others depend today on energy sources that are based almost entirely on fossil fuel, making the renewables transition particularly difficult. Still others are dealing with high permitting costs for popular renewable options like rooftop solar, as well with other regulatory obstacles. Technologically, anyone switching to a renewables-based grid must, by default, deal with the intermittency and reliability issues imposed by wind and solar. Even hydro electric energy is generally limited by the amount of water flowing in rivers, a quantity that can vary significantly over time.
A broader question, however, is why a fully renewable grid is more desirable than any other combination of zero-carbon energy sources. And what the overall effort and cost would be to decarbonize via that pathway alone.
Right now, analysts see enormous growth ahead for solar-plus-storage systems. A report by IMS Research forecasts the market for storing power from solar panels – which was less than $200 million in 2012 – to reach $19 billion by 2017. And, it’s easy to see why.
After all, rooftop solar panels are more valuable to people if they can store the excess energy produced and prolong the benefits of the on-site generation capacity. Plus, the flexibility of battery energy storage makes it truly valuable. With a quick response time and precise controllability, batteries can provide a wide set of grid services, so they can deliver value to multiple participants in the power system, including end-use customers, distribution utilities and wholesale market operators.
Last year, analysts at Gartner placed IT/OT convergence on their Top-10 list of trends affecting the utilities industry. Actually, it’s been in progress for nearly a decade but, now more than ever, IT/OT integration looms as a crucial utility move. What’s more, it is factors outside utility walls that are rousing such urgency. What are they? Look around your neighborhood. If you see a lot of rooftop solar panels, some of those factors are sitting right in front of you.
What’s more, GTM Research forecasts a 94 percent increase in new PV installations in the U.S. during 2016. Worldwide, Navigant Research says, “Annual installed capacity across the global distributed energy resource (DER) market is expected to grow from 136.4 GW in 2015 to 530.7 GW in 2024, representing $1.9 trillion in cumulative investment over the next 10 years."
What does this have to do with IT/OT convergence?
Raise your hand if you sometimes feel like Mr. Scott from the original Star Trek series, frantically trying to keep the engines roaring while the ship takes one phaser hit after another: If you did raise your hand, you’re not alone. There are plenty of reasons utilities might be playing the Mr. Scott role.
One is under investment in infrastructure, which was named as the top concern by 47 percent of utility executives who answered a Utility Dive survey late in 2015. Another is what the California Independent System Operator calls the Duck Curve. It shows how behind-the-meter solar installations are creating daytime over-generation on the California grid and, because rooftop solar quits generating power about the same time people come home and start using more of it, there are steep ramps at the end of the day.
Demand response programs could help utilities deal with these issues. But, utilities that are doing simple demand response are kind of like Star Trek’s Scotty. They’re just getting by, handling one crisis after another, giving it all she’s got, Captain. “I don’t think she can take any more!”
This blog was co-authored by Enbala and the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI). Enbala extends its heartfelt thanks to the Institute for the insights and effort that went into creating this piece.
Demand flexibility - allowing household devices like HVAC systems and smart appliances to interact with the electric grid in response to real-time price changes - can save customers money and lower the overall cost of electricity. The Rocky Mountain Institute's recent paper, The Economics of Demand Flexibility, analyzed the economics of making common household loads controllable and responsive to electricity price signals. The Institute found that just making two devices flexible, i.e., smart thermostats that could flex an HVAC system’s output up or down by 2 degrees and smart water heaters that could change the timing of water heating, could lower system-wide peak demand by eight percent and save $10–15 billion in costs to the grid annually.
Topics: Distributed energy resource management, Solar energy, battery storage, DERs, demand management, DERMs, peak load management, demand flexibility, Symphony by Enbala, Rocky Mountain Institute, distributed energy
I’ve said this before, but it’s worth repeating: Utilities deliver three things: voltage, frequency and reliability. The first two items impact the third. And, frequency – at least in an interconnected system with plenty of inertia like what we have in continental North America – is pretty easy to manage because it’s the same throughout the power system. Here in the Western interconnection where I live, that means the frequency is the same in Denver, Las Vegas, San Diego and Vancouver, BC.