Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Renewable Energy Systems, Electric Vehicles, and Smart Electricity Grids for a Carbon-Constrained World

Lawrence E. Jones, Ph.D.
December 20, 2008

Global warming is one of the greatest challenges facing the world today. The general consensus is that unless concerted actions are taken to reduce the concentration of greenhouse gases (GHG) that are emitted in the upper atmosphere, the Earth’s climate will continue to change – resulting in increases in mean global temperature, more frequent extreme weather conditions, precipitation changes and reduced availability of fresh water. The realization that we must act now or face grave consequences has prompted the United States of America, Europe, and other global players to begin transitioning to a carbon-constrained energy future.

One solution to a low-carbon energy future is to increase the use of renewable energy sources (RES) such as wind and solar and also electric vehicles, all connected to smart electricity grids. The challenge is how to best integrate these non-conventional forms of energy and loads with the existing grids and eventually the emerging smart grids of the 21st century.

According to independent projections from the International Energy Agency (IEA) and other organizations such as the European, American and Canadian Wind Energy Associations (EWEA, AWEA, CanWEA), tremendous growth in wind and solar power worldwide is expected in coming decades. While the capacities of most existing renewable energy systems produce few megawatts (MW) of electricity, to meet the anticipated demand for more clean energy, the capacity of new RES must be several hundreds to thousands of MW. Integrating such large utility-scale wind and solar plants, along with electric vehicles presents unique challenges and opportunities. We will discuss some of these, the enabling information technology solutions to address them, and potential opportunities.

Wind and solar power are intermittent resources and as such make it difficult to operate the power grids to which they are connected. To successfully integrate RES, electric utilities must have reliable forecast information about the quantity and availability of the power output. Thus, forecasting systems are one of the primary requirements to achieving increased penetration of wind and solar energy. The second requirement is combining the forecast information with the real-time operational data in the utilities’ control centers for decision making – both in the front and back offices.

What has emerged as a third requirement is the need for a fully integrated renewable energy information system (REIS) that uses the information from smart sensors and other intelligent applications to optimize the utilization of the generation resources and grid assets for reduced environmental impact. While progress has been made on the first and second, not much work has been done on the third requirement. The need for REIS is based on the fact that utility operators have to assemble an avalanche of data from disparate sources in order to make informed decisions about the impacts of RES on grid operations and reliability. Operators need tools that will enhance their local and global situation awareness. Other users of REIS may include utility executives, managers and regulators. The executives and managers need decision dashboards to better manage their portfolio of RES and mitigate operational risks and uncertainty. REIS will also allow them to maximize their asset performance based on the opportunities in emissions markets. Finally, regulators will need REIS to monitor and determine renewable power plants are in compliance with environmental and reliability standards.

The market for REIS is in its wellspring phase as electric utilities are only now beginning to realize the scale of the challenges they expect to encounter with higher penetration of large RES. New operational paradigms are emerging that will require the development and use of advanced analytical tools and techniques. Some of these include: data mining and pattern recognition, faster and more accurate near real-time forecasting, ultra-fast simulators that correctly mimic the interaction between RES and smart electric grids.

It is inevitable that the transition to a carbon-constrained world will also involve using non-fossil based fuels for transportation. Transportation sector in most countries is major consumer of energy and is a big emitter of GHG. In the USA for example, the transportation sector accounts for more than 30% of the energy consumption. Acknowledging this, there is major push for sustained government and private sector investments to develop batteries and other technologies for plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEV). So much so that recently, in approving several billions of dollars in loans to three US automobile manufacturers, the US government required that these companies as part of their restructuring include plans to begin manufacturing more environmentally and fuel efficient electric cars.

Research and demonstration projects in the US, the European Union (EU) and Australia have shown that PHEVs connected to the power grid can provide ancillary energy during peak hours. Electric cars and emerging battery storage technologies make the power from wind and solar dispatchable. However, for this to happen, utilities also need decision support systems that accurately model the electricity demand of new automotive load. Such a system would also need to constantly and reliably monitor and predict the available stored energy from fleets of geographically dispersed electric cars and other storage devices.

Finally, a critical infrastructure for the low-carbon energy economy is an efficient delivery system (Transmission & Distribution networks) for electricity. Today, regulators, policy makers and utilities around the world are responding to the need for modernizing existing T&D grids by utilizing advanced information, communications and control technologies. These modernized so-called “smart” or “intelligent” grids, will facilitate greater electricity demand elasticity, and make integration of renewable and electric cars easier.

Operating smart grids with large wind and solar plants, fleets of PHEV, and energy storage devices will present unidentified problems for utilities. Developing solutions to resolve these problems will require in depth knowledge of the new kinds of interactions between utilities and their customers. Also required is an understanding of new utility business models as well as the regulatory environments in which they must operate.

The markets along the value-chains in a carbon-constrained energy economy are expected to exceed hundreds of billions of dollars within the next 5 years. In spite of the current global financial crisis, governments around the globe seem determined to stick to their commitments of investing directly or indirectly through policy measures in clean energy. Dealing with climate change and the economic crisis simultaneously has become a global imperative. This was evident from the sense of urgency expressed by world leaders at the United Nations Conference on Climate Change held on December 11 – 13, 2008, in Poland. Another strong positive signal has come from US President-Elect Barrack Obama who is expected to propose an economic stimulus package that will promote investments in wind, solar, energy storage, and smart electric grids. Collectively, these global actions will spur growth in clean technology sector.

To effectively integrate large amounts of renewable power generation with existing and emerging smart power grids, there will be increasing need for modern information, communications and control technologies. But these are not the only prerequisites. There must also be investments in education and training a new work force to carry out the millions of new jobs expected to be created. Work force development must be an integral part of every country’s long term goal in order to compete in the 21st century global economy.

Having skilled human capital is a competitive advantage, and the critical hinge-point for wide-scale deployment of renewable energy, building smart grids, efficient energy storage devices and other clean technologies. However the emerging work force demographics could pose a major problem. In especially North America, Western Europe and Japan, the energy sector is facing a looming crisis of an aging work force within the next 5-10 years. Fewer new and younger people are coming in to replace those leaving. This trend may continue in spite of any potential negative impacts of the current economic crisis on retirement savings. Therefore the recruitment, education and training of more young people in energy related fields must be accelerated.

Transitioning to a carbon-constrained energy future will result in transformation of markets and industries. Given the current pace of technology advances, this will happen much faster and have impact on scale bigger than previous industrial revolutions. The market opportunities for harnessing wind, solar and electric cars along with smart grids can be found all over the globe - from North America, to China, Europe, Australia, New Zealand and the emerging economies in Latin America, Africa and the Middle East. Those who invest in human capital, business innovation, as well as clean technologies today will be the market leaders of tomorrow.

About the Author: Lawrence E. Jones is a contributor to the Smart Electric Newsletter. He has affiliations with academic, Think Tanks, and business institutions including: University of Washington, AREVA T&D Inc., E. E. W. Jones Electrical Engineering Foundation and LAUVICOM Group. He is also Senior Member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc… He received his PhD, Lic.Eng., and Civ.Ing. degrees from the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this document by the author are his and not necessarily those of the organizations with which he is affiliated.

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