Between rooftop solar for homeowners and big companies building microgrids, traditional power utilities are facing a major threat to their traditional monopolistic ways of doing business. We don’t need them nearly so much as we used to. It makes sense for big companies to have control over some or all of their power. Microgrid technology allows companies to easily switch between their own solar, fuel cell, or wind power and that coming from the utility. Smart utilities are gearing up to meet this huge change in distribution of power. Dinosaur utilities will fight it – and lose.
The 3,200 U.S. utilities are already facing what NRG Energy Inc. CEO David Crane calls a “mortal threat” to the industry. Forces including deregulation, green politics and an explosion of rooftop solar and other homemade energy — known as distributed generation — mean a reduction in the fossil-fuel electricity utilities sell.
Microgrids may be the mechanism through which this revolution in clean distributed generation will be carried out – – a portal for leaving the traditional power grid.
California’s mandated push to at least 33% renewable energy by 2020 faces supply problems for six months each year when the sun sets earlier, says the California Independent System Operator. Their ‘Duck Chart’ shows the problem. More power is needed in late afternoon / early evening, when people return home from work. However, for six months each year, that’s precisely when solar power production drops. And if wind isn’t blowing at wind farms, the problem gets worse. If more renewable energy is added, then there will probably be excess capacity during the other six months.
Of particular concern to the ISO are three-hour periods when the sun goes down in January, February and March and in October, November and December of each year (called “shoulder months” by the ISO). In a future state energy system that is half green, it would no longer be the peak hot months of the summer or an unusual winter cold snap that would present the risk of blackouts or rolling brownouts. Instead, it would be the sunset period of each day during moderate temperature months that is likely to present a critical challenge to the reliability of electricity for customers.
One blade for the turbine. Credit: windpowermonthly.com
A behemoth Samsung Heavy Industries’ 7 MW wind turbine is being installed 65 feet offshore in Scotland. It has a walkway to people can gape at the 640 ft tall structure, which can power 6,000-10,000 homes.
Europe and the United Kingdom already have huge offshore wind farms. Several gigawatts more are planned by 2020. Costs are dropping dramatically due to constantly improving technology and economies of scale.
Studies indicate that building floating turbines in deeper waters off Europe’s coasts will improve wind energy’s yield and could cut offshore wind costs.
These studies are relevant in light of Deepwater Wind CEO Jeffrey Grybowski’s claiming that offshore wind is “significantly less expensive than solar energy.”
Meanwhile, back in the sticks in the US, we’ve yet to install a single, solitary offshore wind turbine. Not one. Pathetic isn’t it?
Dinosaur utility companies unwilling or unable to change are getting slammed by the fast-dropping price and expanding availability of solar energy and wind power. Relying on coal and nuclear is no longer feasible for utilities. Instead, it’s change or die. Texas is spending almost $7 billion to expand their grid, bringing wind power for rural areas to the cities. Traditional utility companies are getting hit hard.
“The transmission is finally there in Texas to bring all the wind power to the population centers and it’s a disaster for the generation companies,” Andy DeVries, an analyst at CreditSights Inc., said in a telephone interview.
Traditional power companies across the U.S. and Europe are struggling to compete in wholesale markets with newer generators supplying subsidized wind and solar energy. In Texas, wind has more than doubled in the past six years and now makes up 13 percent of the state’s generation capacity.
Now this is different! A three blade vertical offshore wind turbine combined with an underwater current turbine. It’ll be tested soon in Japan. This isn’t wave or tidal power, it’s current power. Has this ever be done before? Plus, the underwater turbine can power the wind turbine.
Combining a three-bladed Darrieus turbine on top, a Savonius turbine underneath, and a generator in between, the SKWID power generation concept is claimed to be the world’s first hybrid system “capable of maximizing the harvesting of ocean energy from wind and current“.
Texas has vastly more installed wind power than other states, routinely getting 9% of its energy from wind. On some days it’s 20%, with more and bigger wind farms being built. California isn’t even close. Yes, this gives traditional environmentalists fits. But Texas has always been a leader on energy.
WaPo reviews the ‘The Great Texas Wind Rush’ which chronicles how Texas became a powerhouse of wind. A big reason was that Texas focused on how wind power could be profitable and downplayed environmental reasons.
The tale begins in the late 1970s when a father-and-son team began to build new turbines, and by 1981, the second wind farm in the nation went up in northwest Texas. Thirty years and various disasters, backroom deals and fits of inspiration later, Texas had eclipsed California and every other state to become by far the biggest wind energy producer.
Former Enron CEO Kenneth Lay and then Texas Gov. George Bush play roles in committing the state to renewable energy. In 1996, Bush told a top staff member, “By the way, we like wind,” and when the dumbfounded aide starts to ask a question, Bush simply replies, “Go get smart on wind.”
They do things different in Texas. Heh.
When a national environmental group asked about the risks that turbines might pose to coastal migratory birds, one wind booster replied that the birds would get smarter over time and that the giant blades could also be “the first line of defense against avian flu.” The environmentalists reportedly were not amused.
The European Wind Energy Association says (PDF) development of floating wind turbines in deep water should be encouraged, as the amount of power they can generate is vast. Note: The turbines are indeed on floating platforms but are tethered to the ocean floor.
Using only North Sea sites with water over 50m deep as an example, the potential for deep offshore wind energy is vast. 66% of the North Sea has a water depth between 50m and 220m and could therefore be used to deploy the deep offshore designs. For illustration purposes only, assuming 6 MW wind turbines, the energy produced in this area could meet today’s EU electricity consumption four times over.
Having ample renewable energy isn’t enough, the power also needs to get to cities in a timely manner, especially when generated in remote areas. The US Midwest has increasing amounts of wind power but sometimes turbines must be idled because transmission lines can handle the power.
Shipley said the electric market and the wind farms were losing money because of the curtailments, as the pool is unable to sell power that the grid is incapable of transmitting.
“There’s enough resource there to power the United States a dozen times over by conservative estimates,” Goggin said. “A lot of that resource is concentrated in the middle of the country, far from where people live. There’s extremely cost-effective wind left out there. We just can’t tap it, because we haven’t built out the transmission system.”
Development of wind farms in Germany is becoming extremely controversial. Turbines are noisy, say those who live near them. Plus they kill insects and birds, mar landscapes, and may not even be cost-effective, especially when considering the huge transmission lines that must be built from remote wind farms to cities. ABC News details the ongoing battles in a translated article from Spiegel Online.
Germany plans to build 60,000 new wind turbines — in forests, in the foothills of the Alps and even in protected environmental areas. But local residents are up in arms, costs are skyrocketing and Germany’s determination to phase out nuclear power is in danger.
The underlying divide is basic and irreconcilable. On one side stand environmentalists and animal rights activists passionate about protecting the tranquility of nature. On the other are progressively minded champions of renewable energy and climate activists determined to secure the long-term survival of the planet.
The probable answer to all of this is offshore wind farms, where the turbines can be ginormous and are actually easier to assemble because parts can be transported by boat rather than on land, plus no one is around to hear them.