Another Novel Approach to Balancing the Grid in Califonria

GE and Southern California Edison recently worked on a project together to more efficiently ramp up generation in the evening when the sun is starting to set and people are coming home to turn everything on. My research assistant a.k.a. my mom just pointed me to this interesting new method that combines a lithium ion battery system with two existing natural gas turbines. The total output of the system will be 50 MWs, and they are calling it the LM6000.

Before there was so much solar and wind power on the grid, energy supply and demand were smoothly coordinated by slowly ramping up natural gas turbines for up to twelve hours. This process worked fine in the old days, but with today’s variable renewable Natural Gasenergy sources it is a much bigger challenge.  The traditional system of ramping up a gas turbine wasted a huge amount of fuel and therefore released a ton of carbon into the atmosphere. The reason for this is that traditional systems have to burn fuel for hours while they are is standby mode and waiting to connect to the grid.

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With the LM6000 system SCE will be able to instantly begin discharging power from the energy stored in batteries while they ramp up the gas turbines. This system allows for much more flexibility then current technology because they can literally start providing energy supply in seconds as opposed to hours. This is going to add stability and reliability to the grid for all of the end customers.  By having this capability SCE is also positioning itself to be able to acquire more solar Power Purchase Agreements (PPA) without fear of how to balance supply and demand. Another benefit to the new set up is that is that it can be economical because instead of wasting all of that fuel to start up the gas turbines now they just turn on the battery. Then as the gas turbines start ramping up. All of that energy can actually be sent into the grid instead of being wasted as heat.

If you are interested in more renewable energy information please follow me on twitter @EvanNWarner

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Renewable Energy Reno Style

Today I took a tour of all things renewable in the Reno Nevada area. It was quite a long day but a good experience to see all of the progress that Reno is making. Each of these individual pieces comes together to form the full energy picture for Reno. This list isn’t comprehensive, but it does give a nice look at the spectrum.

To start out my grand renewable tour I headed over the Verdi Hydroelectric Power Plant west of town. This is one of three hydroelectric power plants in the area which total 6.7 MWs. I was amazed to learn that the plant is actually over one hundred years old and it is still running on the original equipment.  When I think about it, it actually frustrates me a little bit to know that we haven’t made very much progress over the last hundred years.  It does show that if it has lasted for 100 years it must make sense, and it probably isn’t just a fad.

After stopping by the hydroelectric plant I stopped by a couple of organizations that are using solar panels to power their internal loads and sell some of the excess energy back to the grid. Both organizations I went to told me that they were negatively affected when NV energy changed its policy on buying back solar.  Neither of the two solar locations were utilizing any storage capabilities, but that is probably because they are primarily open during the daylight hours.

Next on my list of renewable must-sees was the geothermal power plant located at the base of Mount Rose.  That power plant actually produces up to 100 Megawatts of OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPhoto Credit

electricity. A megawatt is enough energy to power about 1000 homes.  All of this electricity gets sold to NV energy and eventually gets passed along to the consumers.

All in all Reno is moving in the right direction when it comes to renewable energy. More cites should take note.  If you think your city has a lot of renewable energy let me know in the comments.

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A New Look at the Way We Distribute Energy

There is a new trend taking place with energy transmission and storage. Microgrids have a new take on how we can generate, store, and distribute our energy. This concept is making us all take another look at our mass centralized generation and distribution system.

Most of our electricity today comes from large coal or natural gas fired power plants. From this central power plant the electricity can travel hundreds of miles along transmission lines before it gets to your house. There are definitely some benefits to using this method of energy production. For one you can gain a lot of efficiency and cost saving by having one or two large turbines and generators. But there are also some problems with the current model. One problem that has always existed with form of distribution is that there are large costs associated with building and maintaining the transmission lines. Another problem is that when you transmit electricity over long distances of power lines, you can lose up to 3% of it in the form of heat and electromagnetic energy.  A problem that is only recently being realized with this process is that traditional grids are not really designed to handle large swings in generation. Historically this was not a problem, but with all of the new solar and wind energy entering the grid, it is becoming more and more of an issue.brief3_Figure1v2

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A microgrid is a small localized grid that can be used to power a community or even a college campus. Microgrids usually consist of some method of producing their own energy, and usually have a method of storing the energy for later use. Often the source of energy for these microgrids is some form of renewable energy such as wind or solar. There are some microgrids that generate electricity by burning one thing or another, but typically with these systems, they are able to capture the waste heat and use it for heating other buildings in the community.  By using the waste heat, they are able to significantly increase the efficiency of the system. There are downsides if these types of grids just like with anything else. If you have multiple microgrids covering multiple areas there will be a lot of redundant equipment and therefore wasted resources.

Please leave me a comment and let me know what you think about microgrids.

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The Struggle is Real When it Comes to Developing Geothermal Power Plants

Geothermal Power generation is a really difficult industry to get into. There are many barriers for companies trying to start geothermal power plants. First of all you have to be located in the correct areas in the country.  For some reason, most of the geologically viable regions are located in the west coast of the U.S. and a majority of the hottest smu_georesourcesmap11resources are located in California and Nevada. So geological restrictions alone eliminate about 40 of the US states from ever having a producing geothermal power plant.

Once you narrow down your search to the correct geological region, you can identify localized regions that you believe have geothermal activity. In order to have a functioning power plant you need to find a sight with two qualities. It has to have high temperatures close to the surface, by close I am talking in geologic terms so less than 10,000 ft.  It also has to have a reservoir of naturally occurring water in the same area.  After you have picked the area you want to set your plant at, you need to acquire the land or at least the rights to use the land.

After acquiring your land access you need to begin the permitting process. You need to secure drilling permits to drill on the land. Many times there is a lot of environmental impact studies that are involved in the permitting process. Once you have your permits, start drilling test wells so that you can get a better picture of what is going on underground. By drilling test wells, you can send instrumentation down into the earth to start getting some temperature profiles, mapping the fractures, and measuring the amount of water flow that will come out of the specific hole.

After collecting all of this downhole data you can create a model of how you understand the resource to be behaving underground.  This model is very important for figuring out where you are going to drill your production and injection wells. After you get an understanding of the resource you have to start drilling your wells. Geothermal wells can cost between $1 million and $10 million each. The drilling requires you to hit the fault in the exact right location. If you don’t hit it just right, your $5 million well can be a complete dud that you have to plug.

As soon as you have your tested production and injection wells, now you can spend the $50 to $150 million to get your power plant built. At the same time you have to work on securing a long term power purchase agreement with someone who promises to buy your electricity. This entire process can take around six or seven years before you are actually generating any electricity and bringing in any revenue. Geothermal is definitely not for the faint of heart!

If you are hungry for more renewable energy insights follow me on twitter @EvanNWarner

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Proponents of Compressed Energy Storage Aren’t Just Full of Hot Air: How LightSail Energy is Changing The Game

If you have been following my blog I think you will know that a key challenge to bringing renewable energy to mass market is storage. We have the ability to generate a huge amount of cheap solar energy during the day time, but we really struggle to deliver it at night time.  One approach to solving this lies in battery storage. Battery storage has a lot of potential (no pun intended), but we are not able to store municipality levels of energy in batteries yet. Another method that is being tested to store energy is using compressed air.  The idea is that we can compress air with electricity generated by solar panels during the day, and release it across a turbine at night time.

This is a clever idea and it does actually work. The problem is that every time we convert energy we lose some efficiency. Air compressors have notoriously low efficiencies which can be between 65% and 80%. This means that for every 10 KW you put into compressing air, you only get about 7 KW of usable air. At this point a reader might ask, “I thought we can’t create of destroy energy, so where does the rest of the energy go?” Great question, I’m glad you asked. You are correct that we can’t destroy energy in reality most air compressors lose a lot energy in the form of heat.  All of the energy that is lost in the process of compressing and expanding air across a turbine makes it hard to remain economical.

But all hope is not lost for this method of storing energy. An innovative company called LightSail Energy seems to have figured out a better way. LightSail Energy uses technology that both compresses air for later use, and captures and stores the waste heat caesfor later use. By capturing and storing the heat, LightSail is able to greatly increase the efficiency of the process. Which means they are able to make this type of project much more economical. Another nice thing about compressed air energy storage is that you can scale it up by storing air in large underground caverns.

This company really understood the root problem and came up with a viable solution to solve it.  Keep an eye out for LightSail Energy in the future because they are doing a lot of things right.  They recently received large rounds of funding from big investors including Bill Gates.

If you have any thoughts on this innovative new technology please share them in the comments section.

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Nuclear Fusion: The Ultimate Renewable Energy Source

There is a form of energy that will be renewable, abundant, base-load, and make all of your dreams come true, it is called nuclear fusion. So far scientists have yet to figure out a way to produce these reactions in a safe and reliable way, but we witness the power of fusion every day. The sun and all stars for that matter are giant nuclear reactors that suntake hydrogen atoms and merge them together to form helium atoms. This process gives off an extraordinary amount of energy that we experience as the sun’s light and heat. Scientists have been able to create nuclear fusion reactions in the past just not in a controlled way. Hydrogen bombs utilize these same reactions that I am referring to. They give off an extreme albeit uncontrolled amount of energy. If we could channel that same energy we could power the world.

Nuclear fusion is a process of taking hydrogen atoms and fusing them together so that they form helium. Normally it is very difficult to get atoms that close to each other because there are forces that repel other atoms away from them. Inside the sun there is a huge gravitational force which creates intense pressure and temperature and allows these reactions to occur. This process on earth will take some very sophisticated and expensive equipment in order to recreate that environment. So how do normal nuclear power plants work? Traditional nuclear power plants work through basically the opposite process. Nuclear power plants as we know them use nuclear fission which is a method of splitting atoms apart and harnessing the energy that is released.

The benefits of nuclear fusion are really spectacular. Nuclear fusion reactions give off about four times as much energy as nuclear fission reactions. Also the byproduct of nuclear fusion is just helium atoms and there is no nuclear waste to dispose of. Because there is so much hydrogen on earth we have basically a never ending supply of fuel. All of this energy could be produced consistently 24 hours a day 7 days a week, and there are no carbon emissions to worry about. I really hope that I can see this technology become the norm in my lifetime. The bad part is, there is a joke about fusion which says the technology is always about 40 years from being developed.

If you are interested in more renewable energy information please follow me on twitter @EvanNWarner

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The Singularity is Near: When Cars Transcend Hydrocarbons

It seems like the auto industry is heading towards a future of more electric and less gasoline. This is great for the quality of our air and our children’s air. It is also great for reducing the amount of carbon dioxide that we are putting in the atmosphere (assuming they get their electricity from renewable sources). But the coolest part about all of these electric cars taking over our driveways and garages is that they each have a battery built in to them. In a previous blog post I talked about one of the biggest barriers of solar and 25-researchersswind energy is that they fluctuate and we need storage to offset those fluctuations. Soon all of these electric cars will be plugged into the grid and they will communicate with it in order to give and take power as necessary.

Of course a majority of the time, cars will be taking power off the grid so that they can have fully charged batteries for the drive ahead. But it is also likely that when the sun goes down, a small fraction of the electricity stored in millions of cars will be used to pump up the electricity of the gird to supply the night time demand. If we make batteries that can serve multiple purposes such as powering our vehicles and balancing the grid, they become more cost effective and there is more incentive for people to buy them.  Just investing in batteries to balance the grid and nothing else is a much tougher sell.

When cars become one with the grid, they will also be able stabilize sudden power failures or sudden spikes in power. Currently if some generating equipment goes offline, it can mean a power outage for customers in the affected area. With car batteries supplementing the grid, these bursts and shortfalls will all be smoothed out. There will be less power failures, and less need to rely on ramping natural gas turbines up and down.

Do your part, go out and buy a plug in electric vehicle today!

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