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Will Renewable Energy Make Blackouts Into a Thing of the Past?

Will renewable energy make blackouts into a thing of thepast?

Will renewable energy make blackouts into a thing of the past? (View larger version)

By Patrick J. Kiger

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One of the reasons that we’re so vulnerable to massive blackouts is the nature of the electrical grid system itself. Built in piecemeal fashion during the previous century, the U.S. grid draws electricity from large, centralized sources—massive coal-burning power plants, for example—and then distributes it over long distances, through a sprawling network of interconnected parts, which are dependent upon one another. Along the way, there are myriad pieces in the system that can break down. And if one piece fails, it may trigger a cascading collapse through the rest of the system. In fact, according to a recent article published by a team of physicists, the system’s sheer complexity almost makes it inevitable that big blackouts will occur.

“Our national electric grid struggles to deliver safe, reliable and affordable power,” David Crane, chief executive of utility company NRG Energy, wrote earlier this year. “It’s not for lack of effort or money, but rather because the American power industry deploys technology designed in the 1800s to manage a system of wires and wooden poles that is ill suited to the weather challenges of the 21st century.”

But it doesn't have to be that way. While we’re worrying about the vulnerability of our aging grid, Germany—a nation that suffered a massive grid failure in 2006 that deprived an estimated 10 million homes across Europe of power--is eyeing an electrical system that researchers say could provide a stable source of electricity around the clock, without fear of blackouts.

The difference is that Germany’s grid of the future, unlike the present U.S. system, won’t rely on big power plants and long transmission lines. Instead, Germany is creating a decentralized “smart” grid—essentially, a system composed of many small, potentially self-sufficient grids, that will obtain much of their power at the local level from renewable energy sources, such as solar panels, wind turbines and biomass generators. And the system will be equipped with sophisticated information and communications technology (ICT) that will enable it to make the most efficient use of its energy resources.

Some might scoff at the idea that a nation could depend entirely upon renewable energy for its electrical needs, because both sunshine and wind tend to be variable, intermittent producers of electricity. But the Germans plan to get around that problem by using “linked renewables”—that is, by combining multiple sources of renewable energy, which has the effect of smoothing out the peaks and valleys of the supply. As Kurt Rohrig, the deputy director of Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute for Wind Energy and Energy System Technology, explained in a recent article on Scientific American’s website: "Each source of energy – be it wind, sun or biogas – has its strengths and weaknesses. If we manage to skillfully combine the different characteristics of the regenerative energies, we can ensure the power supply for Germany."

A decentralized “smart” grid powered by local renewable energy might help protect the U.S. against a catastrophic blackout as well, proponents say. “A more diversified supply with more distributed generation inherently helps reduce vulnerability,” Mike Jacobs, a senior energy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, noted in a recent blog post on the organization’s website.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s SmartGrid.gov website, such a system would have the ability to bank surplus electricity from wind turbines and solar panels in numerous storage locations around the system. Utility operators could tap into those reserves if electricity generation ebbed.

Additionally, in the event of a large-scale disruption, a smart grid would have the ability to switch areas over to power generated by utility customers themselves, such as solar panels that neighborhood residents have installed on their roofs. By combining these "distributed generation" resources, a community could keep its health center, police department, traffic lights, phone system, and grocery store operating during emergencies, DOE’s website notes.

"There are lots of resources that contribute to grid resiliency and flexibility," Allison Clements, an official with the Natural Resource Defense Council, wrote in a recent blog post on the NRDC website. "Happily, they are the same resources that are critical to achieving a clean energy, low carbon future."

Joel Gordes, electrical power research director for the U.S. Cyber Consequences Unit, a private-sector organization that investigates terrorist threats against the electrical grid and other targets, also thinks that such a decentralized grid "could carry benefits not only for protecting us to a certain degree from cyber-attacks but also providing power during any number of natural hazards." But Gordes does offer a caveat - such a system might also offer more potential points of entry for hackers to plant malware and disrupt the entire grid. Unless that vulnerability is addressed, he warned in an e-mail, "full deployment of [smart grid] technology could end up to be disastrous."

The U.S. actually has been moving - although more slowly than Germany - toward a modernized grid that increasingly will utilize renewable energy sources.

In 2013, according to DOA statistics, renewables such as solar, wind, biomass, and geothermal power contributed nearly seven percent of the nation’s electrical generation—a substantial increase over the two percent that such sources contributed back in 2003.

5 comments
Bahitzhan Almenov
Bahitzhan Almenov

Все вышеназванные системные проблемы всегда будут до тех пор, пока существуют системы.Единственный способ избежать системных сбоев - это разбить систему на мелкие, независимые друг от друга ячейки.Существующие типы альтернативных источников не могут гарантировать стабильное энергообеспечение. Нами изобретен способ производства энергии из воды, находящейся в состоянии покоя. Изобретение патентовано в Республике Казахстан и зарегистрировано в Женевском международном патентном бюро 24 июня 2004г за                                 № WO2004/053329. Мы готовы к сотрудничеству в реализации этого проекта на взаимовыгодной основе.  

Dave Hymers
Dave Hymers

For some info on what David Bakken is talking about, check out this NREL paper http://www.nrel.gov/docs/fy04osti/34701.pdf Draw your own conclusions, grid storage and reactive power compensation on this scale aren't complete pipe dreams.

Also, for what its worth in a situation like this, of course its important to have important institutions running with power, but your home can be equipped pretty easily too. If you're planning on going solar, select an inverter with a "Sun-up" off-grid circuit. SMA is perhaps the best known (German) inverter manufacturer in Solar and their new series of transformer-less inverters in the 3-5kw range have a 15a outlet option for running in off-grid mode, no batteries required, sun-up power.

1.5kw of power while the sun is up means refrigeration, communication, moderate electric vehicle charging, pumping and even entertainment. This can even be supplemented by a cheaper battery setup: An AC charger for day charging and a cheap 500 watt inverter for night power.

Perhaps the entire point of this series/exercise should be to take notice of you're immediate needs and possibilities for supplying your own power, don't rely on others.

David Bakken
David Bakken

Contrary to the title of this blurb, renewable energy source actually may greatly destabilize power grids. Oops!

This is because they produce only real power, not reactive power, the complex number component of power, the lack of which can cause blackouts. (See also VARs.) Indeed, power grids today are amazingly under-modeled because they are so very complex. Power researchers don't have anything close to a fundamental understanding of how the physics of these very new kinds of power sources interact with existing power grids dominated by hydro and fossil fuels, which are as I noted not modeled and understood nearly as well as an engineer from another field or the public at large might assume. I'm not talking their intermittency -- solar and wind can go away without little advanced warning -- but their fundamental physics.

Also, the present governmental favoring may well bankrupt conventional utilities that provide the crucial baseline power. See "How to lose a half a trillion euros: Europe's electricity providers face an existential threat" in The Economist from Oct. 12, 2013. 

The article also assumes that energy storage in large quantities is possible. This is not close to being proven feasible yet.

While I have no skin in this game, I believe its time to take a deep breath regarding"renewables".  Not only are they likely not economically sustainable (i.e., requiring government subsidies into the distant future), they may bankrupt existing utilities, requiring even more governmental subsidies. Unless you're a fan of bigger government and think it can run things better than the private sector, you should be quite concerned. Unfortunately, some of the biggest proponents of renewables (and all kinds of restrictions on private energy production and greenhouse gasses etc) tend to be very big proponents of much bigger government. Caveat emptor.

Josh Utley
Josh Utley

Renters should be offered an easily installed independent solution. Eliminating the grid is the only sure method of prevention. Period. Home owners in densely populated areas are already prevented from using solar because of regulating laws. It is like trying to get a stop sign in where you have to wait for an accident before officials are convinced it is necessary. Sadly I don't think any program will ever be aimed towards the logical solution of independent power generation in my lifetime. I can however ensure I have my own solar system, fuel, water, etc. The rest of the people are free to depend on the grid.

Bahitzhan Almenov
Bahitzhan Almenov

Все вышеназванные системные проблемы всегда будут до тех пор, пока существуют системы.Единственный способ избежать системных сбоев - это разбить систему на мелкие, независимые друг от друга ячейки.Существующие типы альтернативных источников не могут гарантировать стабильное энергообеспечение. Нами изобретен способ производства энергии из воды, находящейся в состоянии покоя. Изобретение патентовано в Республике Казахстан и зарегистрировано в Женевском международном патентном бюро 24 июня 2004г за                                 № WO2004/053329.                                    Мы готовы к сотрудничеству в реализации этого проекта на взаимовыгодной основе.