Thursday, March 13, 2008

More utility smart grid news

Glancing through the paper this morning, I came across an interesting article regarding Xcel Energy's new smart grid initiative:

Xcel Energy Inc. plans to roll out "smart grid" technology in Boulder, Colo., in coming months that will give residents a chance to test sophisticated equipment for monitoring and adjusting how much electricity they use, even from remote locations...

...The utility also intends to install equipment upstream of consumers, on its energy-delivery system, such as in substations, that will boost grid intelligence and reliability, squeezing out some of the inefficiencies that push up costs.
Some of the details are worth focusing on:
  • Xcel isn't waiting for regulator approval to recover costs, assuming that cost savings and benefits will prove its case
  • 25,000 installations up front over the next year, with an option for the other 25,000 homes in Boulder
  • The meters will allow for dynamic, time of use pricing and remote access
  • Project costs $100 million, with several partners participating
The project was originally reported back in January (one of the perks of not posting in two months is that I can easily find January news stories).

There was a great study on a Seattle smart grid project (found here) a couple months back that lays out a lot of the challenges and opportunities in these projects.

I anticipate posting a lot more of these smart-grid related stories throughout the year.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Environmental costs of solar or backlash?

If you saw this article on Sunday, it is definitely something to pay attention to. It is an investigative piece regarding the environmental damage that Chinese polysilicon manufacturers are inflicting upon citizens.

In China, a country buckling with the breakneck pace of its industrial growth, such stories of environmental pollution are not uncommon. But the Luoyang Zhonggui High-Technology Co., here in the central plains of Henan Province near the Yellow River, stands out for one reason: It's a green energy company, producing polysilicon destined for solar energy panels sold around the world. But the byproduct of polysilicon production -- silicon tetrachloride -- is a highly toxic substance that poses environmental hazards.
I’m in two minds about this piece. As far as investigative journalism goes, it’s incomplete and tries to draw very large conclusions from a very small sample. As an environmentalist and solar enthusiast, I am deeply troubled. After all, whether it is lead paint in toys or poison in pet food, China has a contentious past in this area.

The key is to point out (as the article hints at) is that this type of production method for polysilicon is not acceptable, nor is it necessary. Unlike oil sands, or coal extraction, there are environmentally-sound methods of making poly-silicon that need not drastically impact the price. (while the article points to the cost savings in producing poly-silicon in this fashion, it neglects to point out the very limited role this plays in the overall price of a solar system).

Beyond this however, I believe this article is part of the first wave of the inevitable solar backlash we will be seeing (which I wrote about in my 2008 predictions post). I imagine that the next six months will bring a number of articles about the high cost of solar relative to other technologies, environmental damage in its production, the over-valuation of key solar stocks, etc.

It will be important to answer these charges (all accurate to varying degrees) with honesty and transparency, and point to the considerable future value of solar - its expected large reduction in costs as we move down the experience curve, its potential benefits to utilities, consumers and the economy, and the immense future importance of building a national clean, distributed generation network.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Apologies and first post in a while

The rather dramatic fall-off in production (ie zero) the last 6 weeks has been frustrating. Unfortunately, various responsibilities are pulling me away from this blog. In that many of those responsibilities actually pay however, small as the stipend may be, they are taking precedent.

Still, I enjoy the process of blogging immensely (and even the challenge of building an audience person by person), and hope that I can re-start the process now. Here goes...

Finding Where the Wind Blows: (subs. required) a very interesting short piece covering some of the next stage of challenges facing the wind industry. On the plus side, who would've thought be get here a few years ago. On the down, these issues will grow increasingly prevalent as more renewable energy is added to the grid:

An electrical emergency in Texas last week has grid officials and power companies re-examining how they manage wind energy, an increasingly popular but potentially fickle power source.

Wind turbines don't emit greenhouse gases, unlike conventional power plants. But wind power requires astute handling or it can affect reliability and power prices. Grid officials have fretted for some time that construction of enormous wind farms could jeopardize grid stability.

In response to its shortfall, Texas officials now are speeding up plans to improve wind forecasting. U.S. officials also are looking at other nations that manage far larger wind resources deftly. California's grid operator is seeking bids from wind consultants. It also is considering ways to tailor power consumption by big users so they could more closely match wind production, as well as ways to store wind energy for use later.
As always, where there are challenges, there are opportunities. A number of companies are developing innovative grid management technology, while others are seeking to get into the private weather monitoring game. Certainly weather derivatives could grow in prominence.

What happened?
A cold front blew through West Texas on Feb. 26, temporarily lifting wind production. When it subsided, wind speeds dropped, turbines slowed and productivity dropped by 80% to 300 megawatts from about 1,700.

The situation was exacerbated by greater-than-expected energy demand and by lower availability of some fossil-fuel units. To get the system back in balance, the grid operator declared an emergency and tapped big customers who had agreed to be cut in exchange for cash payments.
The specifics of the situation demonstrate that for the first few decades of adoption, renewable energy will be have a much smaller marginal utility the further up the penetration curve one goes.

And while scientists, utility executives, policy makers and some investors have been concerned about this phenomenon for a while, expect more focus as wind and solar become an increasingly prevalent phenomenon:
Nationally, grid operators have been notified that up to 147,000 megawatts of wind turbines may seek to connect to the grid in coming years, though a significant proportion won't get built. Currently, the U.S. has about 16,818 megawatts of wind capacity, enough to power 4.5 million homes, according to the American Wind Energy Association, a trade group. That amounts to less than 1% of U.S. power.

In California, there are plans to more than double wind capacity in the next few years once $1.8 billion in transmission upgrades are completed in the Tehachapi Mountains, which separate the northern and southern parts of the state.
One final note: Germany has a fascinating pilot program that seeks to solve this problem, which I blogged about here.