Remember that classic “Sesame Street” song about cooperation? Well folks, it’s not just useful for singing muppets and kindergarteners. We can take some lessons from Jim Henson when it comes to clean energy too.
We all know that replacing coal and natural gas power plants with cleaner, safer, and renewable sources like wind, solar, geothermal, and bioenergy is critical to reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change and the air pollution that harms our health.
But, we also hear that it’s not possible to bring large amounts of renewables online because these sources don’t always generate during the times we want electricity. A recent report by the Regulatory Assistance Project (RAP) concludes our power grid (aka the Western Interconnection) has the flexibility to integrate large amounts of renewable resources, but, as operated today, that flexibility is largely unused. Click here for the report landing page, and scroll down to the one titled “Meeting Renewable Energy Targets in the West at Least Cost: The Integration Challenge.”
Energy agency fragmentation in the West—what does it mean for renewables?
Western states are expected to double the amount of renewable energy generation on their grids between 2010 and 2022. The Western Interconnection hosts 37 different “balancing authorities” that have independent jurisdiction to balance the supply and demand for electricity within their systems.
The report makes the case that it’s a lot more expensive and challenging to balance on your own rather than working together. Imagine 37 small boats rocking in a turbulent sea, using 37 paddles to maintain stability. Pretty chaotic, right? Then imagine all 37 boats linking together to absorb all those waves coming from different locations and at different times. The vessels are able to use each other for stability without working as hard.
The RAP report lists several different ways these 37 balancing authorities can more efficiently draw on each others’ resources to share and shift power, and better utilize the transmission lines we’ve already built to do so. Here’s a brief recap of a few of the report’s suggestions:
Schedule energy and transmission more frequently than every hour: outside of California and Alberta, there are limited opportunities to buy and sell electricity within a one-hour period. This makes the grid more clunky and unresponsive to the intra-hour generation variability of renewable energy resources. And remember, renewable generation is not the only thing that changes more frequently than every hour. Our electricity demand is constantly changing. Do you consult your neighbor when you decide to turn on the t.v. at 3 in the morning? Markets need to be able to respond to this intra-hour variability so we don’t unnecessarily lock-in an hour’s worth of natural gas generation and space on a transmission line when we could take advantage of a clean wind resource, and ramp down the gas to save it for another time when the wind is not blowing.
Electrically transfer generation from one balancing authority to another: this practice is called a “dynamic transfer” and allows electricity to be generated in one balancing area, and absorbed into the grid in another. This is where the transmission sharing really comes into play. Dynamic transfers allow renewable energy to be built in places that make the most environmental and economic sense, and allow the electricity to be used by the balancing authority that is most able to integrate it into the grid. It creates additional flexibility on the system and will enhance the geographic diversity of renewable energy.
Improve weather forecasting: this one is simple (compared to the last two). The better able we are to predict when the wind will blow and when a clump of clouds will pass over a solar array, the better we’ll be able to schedule that power into the grid when it shows up, and plan for when it does not.
The report also identifies several ways grid operators can use energy efficiency and demand response tools (using less or more energy during certain times of the day) to make the grid more flexible and responsive for clean energy generation.
RAP doesn’t sugarcoat the reality that getting 37 fiefdoms talk to each other and share resources is a challenge, and points out that some of the coordination will require capital investments in new communication technology. However, the report offers a large set of strategies that grid operators can deploy today to make the grid more flexible, efficient, and responsive to clean energy sources. In my mind, this effectively eliminates the ability of any western state to throw up its hands and say renewable energy is too hard to deal with.
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