Talking about integration of renewables with a smile — The Mountain Town News

Xcel Energy’s Greater Sandhill Solar Farm north of Alamosa, Colo. Colorado’s San Luis Valley has some of the nation’s best solar resource. Photo/Allen Best

From The Mountain Town News (Allen Best):

What’s needed to integrate renewables at scale in the U.S. electrical grids

For all the worries about budget cuts as Donald Trump ascended to the presidency a year ago, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory at Golden, Colo., has remained intact and, in at least one division, is expanding.

That particular division, the Strategic Energy Analysis Center, will add 40 analysts by the end of the year to the existing 150, reported David Mooney, the director.

That division has several major studies to wrap up and others soon to get start, said Mooney in Fort Collins Tuesday evening at an event sponsored by the local chapter of the Colorado Renewable Energy Society.

In March, a study will be released that examines the costs and benefits of breaking down the electrical fences in the United States. The West, the East, and Texas are all on different grids, interconnected but not integrated. Think of three people holding hands, three heartbeats, but not quite with the same timing.

A seamlessly-connected grid would cost trillions of dollars to create but would yield so many benefits that the cost would be reimbursed within 15 years if the work were started in 2024.

Another study, due in October 2019, examines renewable energy integration across North America, not just the United States.

Then there’s the study—expected to be due in 2020, although Mooney said the contract has not been finalized—that will examine what the options would be for the Los Angeles Basin, home to 13 million people, to achieve 100 percent electrification based on renewable energy. “That is real exciting,” he said.

The tone of the evening was a smile. Renewable energy is happening—even more rapidly than many people expected. Mooney related the prices of solar energy when he was a grad student in the 1980s, the most optimistic predictions of the time—and now the reality that is far, far below those most optimistic projections.

Just how low can these prices for renewable go? In Colorado, proposals by independent power developers to Xcel Energy announced in late December were “some crazy good prices,” said Mooney. Wind, as expected, came in at the very lowest, but solar prices, too, were very low.

In fact, Colorado has pretty good solar resources, especially in the San Luis Valley. Mooney related how, after Colorado voters in 2004 ordered Xcel and the state’s other investor-owned utility, Black Hills Energy, to begin investing in renewables, he was at a meeting with representatives of Xcel. He informed them that some of the nation’s best solar capacity was to be found in the San Luis Valley. Three weeks later Xcel was buying land, and the valley now has 26 megawatts of solar generating capacity.

It’s about as good as the Mojave Desert because not only is it nearly as cloudless, but it’s also high, about 8,000 feet, meaning there are no extremely hot days. That results in better electrical production.

But wind is where Colorado really excels, at least in terms of raw generating capacity. It ranks 10th nationally, with about three gigawatts in capacity. Wind now provides about 17 percent of the total electricity consumed by customers of Xcel on an annual basis. Xcel is the state’s largest utility, with more than 60 percent of the state’s customers, including those in Summit County. Xcel is also a wholesale provider for several electrical co-operatives in mountain valleys, including Steamboat Springs and the Yampa Valley and the Vail and Aspen areas.

What stands out is how rapidly this has all come about. Mooney said when he was a grad student in the late 1980s, the world had a total of 50 megawatts of wind, solar and other renewable generation. Now, the United States alone has 1,180 gigawatts and the world has 6,000 gigawatts. One gigawatt has 1,000 megawatts.

If the United States has exploded with renewable generating capacity, and Germany with solar collectors, China has blown past everybody.

Now comes energy storage. Again, it’s not new, but from 2010 to 2017, prices of lithium-ion battery storage have dropped 81 percent.

This plummeting cost of storage is now causing energy analysts like Mooney to begin shifting their thinking. They are no longer asking at what penetration level is storage necessary. Instead, they’re starting to wonder what happens if storage become ubiquitous.

If deep, broad penetration of renewables in the electrical and—more broadly—energy supplies is the goal, then what helps achieve that?

To maximize renewables, he said, the electrical grid needs to be flexible, able to respond rapidly to changes in demand but also changes in supply. Storage, he said, is the ultimate source of flexibility. He also emphasized strengths achieved through the interconnections of effective transmission. The final component is geo-spatial diversity of resources.

“For a robust, well-interconnected transmission system, geo-spatial diversity in assets is really key,” he said.

About Allen Best
Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist. He publishes a subscription-based e-zine called Mountain Town News, portions of which are published on the website of the same name, and also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines.

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