“Smart” switches on power lines can help regulate a two-way flow of electricity. (Photo via Department of Energy)
As solar panels and electric cars catch on among consumers, managing the grid becomes an increasingly vexing challenge for utilities.
To keep track of these and other distributed energy resources, utilities are installing ever more smart meters and other monitoring equipment. They now need to track far more data from far-flung locations just to reliably keep the power on.
The challenge is not insurmountable, but going forward the electric power industry will need new technology and new business and regulatory models, three experts said last week at the annual conference of the Advanced Research Projects Agency—Energy (ARPA-E).
(Photo by Karen Kleis via Creative Commons)
As the country rebuilds its aging transmission system, spending more than $14 billion this year alone, there’s a looming, unanswered question: who gets the bill?
Federal regulators are attempting to equitably distribute the costs, but a recent complaint by an Iowa utility shows that the issue is far from settled.
Interstate Power & Light Co. says its customers are unfairly shouldering the costs of connecting wind farms to the electricity grid. The utility, which is a subsidiary of Alliant Energy, wants federal regulators to spread the cost of local interconnection projects, which mostly benefit other utilities that import wind power, it says.
The company’s complaint against transmission company ITC Midwest is currently pending before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).
“The fundamental question here is: who pays?” said Jim Hoecker, general counsel for WIRES, a nonprofit that represents the electric transmission industry.
Xcel Energy does not have to share ownership of a planned Twin Cities-to-La Crosse transmission line with a Wisconsin competitor, federal regulators ruled earlier this week.
American Transmission Company (ATC) had argued it was entitled to own part of the $490 million project in a complaint to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).
On Monday, FERC denied ATC’s complaint and said MISO, the Midwest’s electricity grid operator, was correct to distribute ownership of the transmission project as it did.
MISO’s current territory is shown in green on this map, with Entergy in blue. (Image via MISO)
The Midwest’s electricity grid operator later this year is expected to add more than 15,000 miles of transmission and 30,000 megawatts of generation to its system overnight — at midnight, to be precise, on Dec. 18.
That’s the date MISO, pending a few remaining regulatory hurdles, will assume responsibility for operating the electric grid in much of Arkansas and Louisiana and parts of Texas and Mississippi.
The area’s transmission has been run since the 1950s by Entergy, a group of southern utilities that was recently pressured by regulators to give up grid management and focus on power generation.
MISO says its new scale and “footprint diversity” will help improve reliability and efficiency and save money, with annual benefits to existing member utilities exceeding $1.2 billion.
Wind energy advocates are also hopeful the integration could pave the way for grid and policy changes to help clean energy reach one of the “last frontiers” for renewables: the Southeast.
(Photo by Adrian S. Jones via Creative Commons)
In 2012, for the first time, more new wind generation was installed than new natural gas- or coal-fired generation as developers rushed to take advantage of expiring tax credits.
Many in the wind industry don’t expect as big of a year in 2013. But if utilities and policymakers heed the findings of two recent reports from grid managers and planners, the next two decades will look a lot more like 2012 — with wind and other renewables continuing to outpace new fossil-fuel generation.
In late December, a Department of Energy-funded planning group released a landmark report indicating that building out wind generation and associated transmission is more affordable over the long haul than continuing to rely mostly on coal and gas for supplying the eastern United States with electricity between now and 2030.
Also in December, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) released a report with a detailed long-term assessment of generation and transmission needs for the Texas interconnection. Using recent real-world data on wind and solar installation, prices and generation potential, they found that new wind and solar installations would outpace natural gas plants between now and 2032.
Renewable energy advocates say the results mean that wind and solar can cost-effectively provide most of our energy, and perhaps sooner than we realize. Other energy analysts, however, caution that which generation sources get built still depends very much on policy.
Transmission lines near Walnut, Indiana. (Photo by Patrick Finnegan via Creative Commons)
New legislation in the Indiana Senate would ensure a healthy, guaranteed profit in perpetuity on utility investments in wires, telephone poles, substations, and other parts of the transmission and distribution infrastructure, and ratepayer advocates and environmentalists are crying foul.
If such a measure becomes law, they say, it will burden low-income ratepayers with unnecessarily high bills and further entrench centralized, coal- and gas-based electricity generation, placing distributed, renewable generation at a disadvantage.
At issue in the new legislation is an important but esoteric provision of utility law called a cost tracker. When states allow trackers, they bypass rate cases, a key step in which state utility regulators scrutinize the books of monopoly electric utilities on behalf of the customers who are forced to buy their electricity.
A row of homes in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Ian Freimuth via Creative Commons)
In the past two years, scores of communities across the Midwest, particularly in Illinois, have adopted municipal aggregation of their electricity supplies, wherein city officials break with long-standing utilities and decide where to buy cheaper and often cleaner electricity from alternative suppliers on behalf of residents.
Chicago is among the most recent, and with the city’s vast buying power, renewable energy advocates are hoping to use the opportunity to make a significant dent in pollution and carbon emissions.
However, if the experience of another Midwest state is any indicator, whether that actually happens could be difficult to determine.
Ohio was one of the first states to enact legislation allowing municipalities to aggregate, adding the concept to the legislation that deregulated the state’s energy market in 2001. Currently at least 220 Ohio communities have chosen electric aggregation, and 120 have adopted natural gas aggregation, according to the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio. And in the last two years at least 160 new electric aggregator broker companies have gotten state certification.
Ohio provides an interesting case study in the ways aggregation can play out; especially since it is historically known as a coal state: the fifth-most coal-dependent in the country according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, with a powerful mining industry and 20 major coal-fired power plants (though about half of them are scheduled to close in coming years).
Ohio also symbolizes the way aggregation can be a complicated mix of idealism and pragmatism, of making realistic deals in the present while hoping for more sweeping changes in the future.
CHICAGO — Former President Bill Clinton invoked the ancient Sumerians, campaign stops at wind-blown Texas border towns, the looming budgetary fiscal cliff and an eclectic assortment of other concepts while proselytizing for more investments in the grid and clean energy, during his speech at the Wind on the Wires gala in Chicago Wednesday night.
Veering between big picture philosophical conclusions and wonkish descents into policy details and proposals, Clinton made the case that renewable energy is symbolic of a struggle central to human nature: “a constant tug of war between the demands of the present and the possibilities of the future.” Between sticking with long-time practices that seem most safe and lucrative in the present, versus forays into new territory that offer more hope for the future.
(Photo courtesy General Electric)
CHICAGO — As coal-fired power plants are closing around the country, more natural gas plants are expected to be built to fill the gap, in some cases on the sites of old coal plants.
GE is hoping the trend sparks demand for their new combined cycle natural gas power plants, which they say are the world leader in fuel efficiency and can ramp up more quickly and idle at a lower generation rate than other systems, meaning they are well-suited to backing up increasing amounts of renewable energy on the grid.
GE sold six of their new “FlexEfficiency 60” combined cycle plants to Japan, and they are hoping to drum up orders in the U.S., through a 25-stop cross-country road trip in an 18-wheel tractor trailer outfitted with models and electronic displays about the plants.
Like other combined cycle plants, GE’s new models generate electricity through turbines powered by burning natural gas, then the waste heat is collected and used to create steam which turns another turbine to generate more electricity. The standard model is known as a “2 on 1,” meaning it has two gas turbines and one steam turbine capable of generating up to 750 MW, but it can also be constructed as a “1 on 1” or “3 on 1.”
(Photo by Wavy1 via Creative Commons)
There’s been much buzz about the potential of “smart grid” projects wherein people’s homes and businesses are outfitted with meters that let them know the price of or demand for electricity at any given time of day.
But some energy experts say a disproportionate amount of attention and resources have been given to such “advanced metering initiatives” (AMI) and argue that the term “smart grid” is a misnomer for such systems.
That’s because to reduce energy demand and improve efficiency, advanced meters still depend on consumer behavior and decisions.
These experts say that a more viable way to improve the grid’s efficiency, reduce energy demand and facilitate renewable energy is to actually make the grid itself smarter, by investing in grid-based technology including sensors, routers, switches and storage systems that allow the grid to automatically adjust or redirect electricity flows in real time and to keep voltage levels stable, without human intervention.