Renewable energy technologies are rapidly entering the mainstream energy mix, presenting myriad challenges for generators and electric utilities alike. At a special Editor’s Briefing at POWER-GEN International in early December, a panel made up of three representatives from the renewable energy industry outlined several key integration challenges and opportunities.
Panel moderator was David Wagman, chief editor of Power Engineering magazine. Panelists included Julia Hamm, executive director of the Solar Electric Power Association; Rick Miller, president of the National Hydropower Association; and Britt Theismann, director of membership and supply chain initiative with the American Wind Energy Association.
Julia Hamm: I think it’s pretty obvious to everyone that the number one challenge to solar… is still cost. It really isn’t a technology issue… Anyone who’s been following the solar industry may be aware that we have seen over the last couple of years a price increase in solar technology. That was driven by the fact that, on the photovoltaic side of things, the main raw material that’s used for the production of photovoltaics is silicon, which is the same material that is used by the semiconductor industry. There was competition between the semiconductor industry and the solar industry to get this primary raw material and both industries were growing at a rate where the silicon manufacturing industry was not keeping pace with demand. Therefore we saw a shortage of this critical raw material for the industry. As a result, for a couple of years we saw an increase of solar power increasing. Fortunately, we’re now to the point where new power facilities are coming online now and we’re again seeing prices come back down again.
…Obviously, solar is an intermittent technology, so storage is definitely a challenge for this industry. With the large-scale solar thermal electric plants, we now are seeing molten salt storage options that are providing about six hours of storage capability. But we definitely need more development in that area and it can be looked at as a challenge.
Another challenge… is on the policy front. The renewables industry is generally very reliant upon policy and regulatory actions. For our industry, policy and regulatory stability is definitely a challenge: stability and standardization. Within the solar space, and with all renewables generally, every state is doing it different. Even within the states that have renewable portfolio standards they all have different targets.
Rick Miller: In our view the single biggest challenge is that we have 30 states that have individual renewable portfolio standards, but it’s an energy-only policy. There’s no complimentary energy storage or complimentary generation technology that would bring a balanced portfolio to something other than energy. There’s not a capacity planning component and there’s generally not a complimentary transmission planning component.
So the model that we’ve had that built this grid for 100 years where utilities had long term planning (generation, transmission and balance with the baseload and peaking facilities) has been broken through various state policies. It’s a state-by-state policy, it’s not regional planning. So what we have is considerable amounts of renewable energy potential a long distance from the load centers and we haven’t got a regional transmission planning process to get the energy where it’s needed.
…The Electric Power Research Institute completed a study for us a few years ago and what we found was that the potential for hydropower… could be essentially doubled. There’s about 96 GW of hydro capacity in the U.S. today. They predicted there could be another 97 GW available. There are over 80,000 dams in this country and 97 percent of them do not have a hydropower plant there.
…The other significant growth opportunity for the industry is what I called closed-loop pump storage…. You’re not going to build a dam on a main stem river. You’re not going to have the environmental footprint, but you’ll be able to have daily cycling storage of about 1,000 MW that could be a great complement to variable technologies.
Britt Theismann: Steady policy is No. 1 of our strategic objectives. We’re looking for a national renewable energy standard and we’re also looking for a long-term extension of the production tax credit.
…Transmission expansion is another of our top priorities. If you look at the nation’s grid, (it) does not have heavy transmission lines where there are no people. For renewable energy, we need to turn the nation’s grid completely inside out. We need the biggest transmission lines where there are the fewest people. We need big transmission lines running out of the center of the country.
…We are also looking for a smart grid. Right now, the control areas are really very small. We’re looking to increase and have large regional control areas. The best-case scenario would be to have a large national control area.
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