Beyond the issue of conservation is the variable nature of wind and solar and how grid managers would incorporate them into the system. As it now stands, the older thermal plants such as coal were never designed to do anything but go full blast all the time. If that use is modified so that those plants cycle up and down only when the wind stops blowing or the sun ceases to shine, they become inefficient. Moreover, they are also creating more emissions in the process.
For an old guy, the grid that transports the electrons that keeps the lights is in decent shape. But it still needs to stretch out and beef up. That’s pretty much what an analysis by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has concluded.
Generally, the 1930s-style grid has served its purpose but that it must modernize to accommodate the needs of the 21st Century that includes integrating more green energy into the system. At present, it can’t do that for a number of reasons, which involve the variable nature of wind and solar to the patchwork of state laws that make permitting new lines a huge headache.
A greater federal role is absolutely essential, says the MIT Energy Initiative. That’s because wind and solar plants are typically built on the outskirts where large plots of land exist and where such resources can be easily captured. But the electrons that they would generate are needed in the urban core – and that they need long distance, high powered wires to get them there. Those lines then have to traverse through multiple jurisdictions where any one of them could say ‘no.’
Haven’t we heard this before? Well, yes, we have. But earlier laws that have given more permitting authority to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission have largely flopped. The 2005 Energy Policy Act wanted to give FERC that kind of backstop authority if the states didn’t act within a year of the requests. But the courts ruled that if the states declined then FERC could not override them. And since 2005, only two cases have come before FERC but both of them withdrew their petitions to build because electricity demand had fallen.
“Unifying federal authority with respect to siting interstate transmission projects would allow a more efficient, direct process,” writes FERC. “Clearly, the backstop transmission procedure established by Congress has not yet been effective.”
The North American Electric Reliability Corp. adds that if action is not taken to build out the national grid, it will harm the growth of renewables that must be transported from isolated regions to urban areas. It has said that 11,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines must get built in the very short term.
Herein is the biggest paradox: Many green groups want to first encourage conservation before considering more transmission – lines that some fear would run roughshod through sensitive habitat.
Beyond the issue of conservation is the variable nature of wind and solar and how grid managers would incorporate them into the system. As it now stands, the older thermal plants such as coal were never designed to do anything but go full blast all the time. If that use is modified so that those plants cycle up and down only when the wind stops blowing or the sun ceases to shine, they become inefficient.
Moreover, they are also creating more emissions in the process. So this becomes a bigger problem as wind increases its market share and those thermal plants would be dispatched more often to firm them up. It’s especially true as 29 states now have renewable portfolio standards that requires utilities to use more green energy.
“If you are a grid operator, you must be dispassionate and follow the engineering,” says David O’Brien, former head of the Vermont’s Department of Public Service and now a consultant for Bridge Energy Group. “The best thing they can do is to provide the data to their stakeholders and to be an honest broker. But they have to ultimately accept the policy mandates.”
With the public demands to increase green energy growing, what might be an optimal firming fuel? The answer could be natural gas. Right now, regulators are favoring the fuel source because it has fewer emissions than its main competitor, which is coal. It’s also priced low, for now, at less than $4 per million Btus.
Technologically speaking, modern gas plants were built to juice up during peak periods, or when the energy is most needed. Basically, such facilities can give wind and solar the push they need to overcome their weaknesses and to get more market share – ironic, give that many greenies see natural gas as coal’s cousin.
“Natural gas prices are currently very low and the plant design is established; we can construct these facilities rather inexpensively and in a couple years,” says Debi Durham, director of Iowa’s Economic Development Authority, where the state has 20 percent of its power coming from wind. But she cautions that natural gas, too, is fraught with challenges, namely expanding the pipeline infrastructure.
Wind and solar have some strong resistance ahead and its coming from their own quarters as well as the state regulators who can shut down long distance transmission. Expanding and growing technologically will remain problematic until those forces are overcome.
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