Tuesday, October 28, 2008

"It's (mostly) all about the grid"

The National Academy of Engineering has called it the greatest engineering achievement of the 20th century. Whether you agree with that assessment or not, there's no disputing the fact that the U.S. electric grid is a technical marvel and represents the largest industrial investment in history. It's time to reinvest in the grid.

Modernizing it could achieve a variety of important goals including making it more accommodating to renewable energy technologies and electric vehicles while encouraging energy efficiency and conservation. This has been an ongoing mantra of mine on this blog. More importantly it is an idea supported by people a lot more knowledgeable about these things and one that seems to really be catching on.
So one more time. If we're serious about making serious progress towards sustainable energy independence we should:
  • Set our sights on the U.S. Department of Energy's scenario of producing 20% of the nation's electricity from wind by 2030 (including T. Boone Pickens' plan for developing the wind resources along the Texas-Dakota corridor and the development of our offshore wind resources)
  • Support the development of plug-in hybrid and pure electric vehicles; and
  • "Smarten" the grid. (GW)
The Matrix Overloaded: Clean Energy Will Depend on a New, 'Smart' Grid

By Jeffrey Ball
Wall Street Journal
October 24, 2008

Wind turbines and solar panels have become the icons of renewable energy. But renewable energy is only as effective as the infrastructure that moves it around: the electrical grid.

Cool devices to harness pollution-free energy won't do much to lessen the country's fossil-fuel dependence unless aging and unsophisticated infrastructure is vastly updated to transmit it.

Explore how energy might flow through a modernized electrical grid.

Even at today's levels, renewable energy is straining an electrical grid already showing signs of fragility, as evidenced by the 2003 blackout that turned out the lights from Connecticut to Michigan. In Texas, which has more installed wind-power capacity than any other state, wind turbines sometimes are ordered shut off because the state's electrical lines can't handle the surge of fresh juice. In California, energy from strong solar rays are stranded far from thirsty markets because of a shortage of transmission lines.

The challenge of modernizing the electrical grid to accommodate cleaner energy rivals the monumental task of extending the grid into rural America in the 1930s and building a fleet of new power plants in the wake of World War II.

"We may need to do it again in a different way if we're really going to take advantage of these resources," says Dan Reicher, who directed the Department of Energy's alternative-energy programs in the 1990s and now heads up renewable-energy policy and investment at Google Inc.'s nonprofit foundation, Google.org. Renewable energy, he says, "will indeed remain a boutique industry unless we build out the transmission lines."

Falling oil prices and the financial crisis threaten the renewable-energy effort, too. Still, the long-term push for cleaner energy is likely to continue.

The current electric grid has two basic shortcomings. It's not big enough to accommodate all the new electricity the nation is likely to need in coming decades,regardless of how that electricity is produced. And it's not flexible enough to handle the inconsistencies of renewable energy, which is less steady than the workhorses of coal and natural gas; the wind doesn't always blow, and the sun doesn't always shine.

In other words, it's dumb. It's not sophisticated enough to minimize electricity waste by allowing, for instance, power companies and consumer appliances to communicate about fluctuations in energy supply and demand.

An updated electrical grid is also crucial to realizing a "green" car. Such a car will depend on an improved power network as much as today's cars depend on the ubiquity of gas stations.
[Google's Toyota Prius ] Google

One of Google's Toyota Prius hybrids that's been converted into a "plug-in" version which uses less gas by tapping an outlet to recharge its battery.

The jury's out on what might sit under that car's hood. Some, like Google, foresee "plug-in" hybrid cars, which, unlike today's hybrids, plug in to an outlet for recharging. The vehicles would run on electricity much of the time, using their downsized gasoline-powered engines only when necessary. But the cars would amount to a real environmental win only if their electricity were produced in a way that didn't pollute the atmosphere as much as power plants that burn coal or natural gas.

Others, like Texas billionaire T. Boone Pickens, envision what might be called indirect-electric vehicles. These vehicles would burn natural gas, and a greater percentage of the gas used in the U.S. is produced domestically, compared with oil. To free up the gas for vehicles, the country would have to stop burning it in power plants. Thus, the other part of the oilman's plan: producing much of America's electricity from wind.

Both these visions could be dismissed as shameless self-interest. Google makes software it wants to sell to help run a bigger and more sophisticated electrical grid. Mr. Pickens plans to develop a huge wind farm in Texas to feed the grid. But the two visions expose an often overlooked weakness in the nation's energy system.

The U.S. electricity industry, too, stands to gain from plug-in hybrids, which would represent a big new market. The industry's research arm, the Electric Power Research Institute, says the grid will have to be expanded to handle the energy from renewable sources.

At its current size, the network could accommodate many new plug-in hybrid cars -- but that would require making the grid smarter. The vast network needs new controls that sense and communicate information about energy load and consumption to ensure, for example, that cars are recharged at night, when there's plenty of unused capacity available. Parts of the current grid are over a half century old, predating the personal computer.

"Maybe the biggest technology hurdle we have right now -- it sounds funny -- is the ability to exchange information seamlessly, because there is no common language," says Arshad Mansoor, a vice president at the Electric Power Research Institute.

The grid will become far more complex since so much will depend upon it. Many more varied sources of energy will feed power into it while many more electrical appliances will draw power from it. Tomorrow's car "is less about the vehicle," says Google's Mr. Reicher. "Now it's about the grid."


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