Reflections on the Future of Renewables and the Grid

(3BL Media/Justmeans) — From the standpoint of utilities, renewables are the new kids on the block, that they knew very little about until they moved in. The same can be said of many renewable providers.

There was a lot of discussion at the GTM: US Renewables & Power Summit in Austin this week, about what exactly makes for good neighbors in this economic neighborhood. Numerous analysts from GTM Research, their parent company Wood Mackenzie and their affiliate MAKE, offered their thoughts on a range of issues including Shayle Kann, Dan Shreve, Scott Clavenna, and MJ Shiao, along with a host of executives from the utility, financial and technology sectors.

Obviously, the first impression is that these were competitors moving in, and that’s never good. But in a changing world, sides can change, and many utilities have already taken an “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em,” approach, or are at least trying it on for size.

Peeling it back a layer, we find that not all solar is created equal. In the rush to produce ever-cheaper panels, which were, until recently, by far the most expensive component in the system, relatively little thought was given to the inverters, which are the electronics that interface the power coming from the panels, which is DC, to the grid, which is AC.

It turns out that how these inverters are designed can go a long way to make a solar installation more grid-friendly, not by simply doing their primary job of ensuring that the power meets the grid standards but also by providing a number of ancillary services that can be of considerable value.

As an example, consider the fact that the grid experiences loads that fluctuate vigorously on a moment-to moment basis. Think of an airplane experiencing turbulence. Every now and then, there is a stomach-wrenching drop that can spill your coffee or worse. For the grid, if that drop means it needs more power right now, it has to have resources ready, if the lights are to remain steadily on. Bringing more power online can take minutes or hours, or even days, depending on the type of generation being deployed.  Solar PV, on the other hand, is solid-state power, that can, provided that the sun is shining, provide power to the grid instantaneously. It can be used to address those dips, or for other control functions like frequency regulation, ramping, or volt/var, which I won’t go into here, except to say that they can help maintain grid stability and efficiency.

Not only does this make solar a better neighbor, it also could become an important element of a new, more robust, business model for solar, which, as we mentioned earlier, is finding the environment of ever-falling prices, a difficult one to be profitable in.

I had the occasion to visit the labs of Ideal Power while in Austin, which makes very sophisticated grid-friendly inverters and microgrids. Some of their equipment is about to be deployed to St. Croix to help some local businesses get back online after the recent hurricanes.

A microgrid can be thought of as local, or private grid in a box, which is often connected to the larger grid, but has the ability to operate independently. They all have their own power generation source which could be solar, natural gas, or even diesel fuel. Most, particularly those powered by solar, have batteries. They also all have electronics that oversee the operation, control the flow of power between sources, as well as the grid interconnection.

It seems clear that this will be another growth area, particularly in this era of extreme weather events, where many customers, particularly in the business community, along with high-end residential will gladly pay a premium to keep the lights, and the computers on, at all times. One of the presenters, Enchanted Rock, received some very good publicity as a number of their natural gas microgrids kept the lights on for customers in Houston throughout hurricane Harvey.

What might be the next game-changer in the forward march of renewable power? Surprisingly little was said about the idea of round-the-clock solar. The general sense is that the amount of storage required would simply be too great and too costly. This, despite the fact that the capability has already been demonstrated with concentrated solar thermal power at Crescent Dunes. The world simply cannot resist the continually falling PV prices, and that approach has been pushed to the sidelines, consigned to a niche market, at least for now.

The other idea that didn’t get a lot of airtime as perhaps too threatening was the idea of a substantially decentralized electricity system, where rooftop and community installations become the rule, rather than the exceptions. The topic did come on the second day, in the context of Blockchain, which will be discussed in the final segment of this series.

Murray Bookchin was an American political philosopher who died in 2006. His writings advocated for the development of parallel community structures within the dominant order, rather than either the overthrow or the attempt to change the ruling order from within. We are already seeing a parallel to this in the energy world, with those going off-grid, or turning to local sources on their rooftops or across town for the bulk of their power. Bookchin’s ideas are making news these days because they were influential to the imprisoned Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan. It remains to be seen what part they might play in the future of the Kurds, though it seems as if they are already finding their way into the US energy system.

This is the second article in RP Siegel's series on the GTM: US Power & Renewables Summit. Catch up on Part 1 and Part 3