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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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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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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Why Geothermal is one of the Best Options for Industrial Renewable Energy

In one of my previous blog posts, I discussed a current issue with wind and solar generation. The problem is that the sources come and they go. Obviously the sun goes down at night time, but solar power generation can also be affected by cloud cover. Wind is very sporadic and frequently stops blowing.  The grid on the other hand has a never ending demand for electricity. We can’t just tell people to turn off their refrigerators at night time.  In order to compensate for this fluctuating supply of power the grid offsets solar and wind generation by ramping up and down coal and natural gas power plants. By ramping up and down these traditional energy sources grid managers are able to stabilize the power supply. This method is used to compensate for a lack of energy supply from solar and wind, but solar also carries another disadvantage.

At sometimes throughout the year, solar energy generators actually supply the grid with too much energy. This is especially the case on clear spring days. It has caused a lot of problems for grid operators in California and other states with large solar supplies. The problem occurs on cool spring days when there is a lot of solar potential and the supply is really high. At the same time, not many people are turning on their air conditioners because of the cool temperature and there is no need for curve This situation creates too much supply and not enough demand. It leads to grid operators having to rapidly curtail equipment to balance the grid. It is a pain for everyone, and it is also bad for large equipment to cycle on and off again. This quirk in the solar market is known as the duck curve because when you plot a graph of the power demand throughout the day it resembles a duck. The times when the demand is lowest happen to be the times when solar is producing at its highest.

Geothermal energy is a great counter balance to this phenomenon because it is base load generation. In other words, geothermal produces a mostly stable supply to the grid 24-7-365. It results in a much smother energy product compared to the over and under supply often faced by solar power. Any grid that wants to have more renewable energy on it will be much better off if its energy mix includes some geothermal power.  Hydroelectric is also a good option for base load generation but I understand that most of the feasible places to locate a hydroelectric plant already have one. Geothermal still has a ton of untapped potential in the world.

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Several years ago my boss told me an interesting theory that he had about energy. We were on a long road trip to one of our power plants in the middle of nowhere so he had plenty of time to develop his theory with me. I’ll try to boil down the discussion to what’s relevant to you in this post. Basically he told me that all of the forms of energy that we use to generate power today have their roots in nuclear energy. He is a chemical engineer after all, so he would think this way.

When he first told this to me I didn’t really know how to react. I mean I can think of many forms of energy that are not from nuclear reactions, coal, natural gas, wind etc. But then as we were driving down the long… long highway, we started to go down the list and he systematically showed me that all of them have roots in nuclear reactions.

Let’s start with oil/ natural gas/ and coal. All of these resources are substances that store Kerr Damenergy that we can later burn to make electricity. But where do they come from? They come from decomposing plant material that died millions of years ago and the got buried under miles of earth. Where do plants get their energy from? The sun, a giant burning ball of nuclear reactions going off in the sky. What about wind turbines? Well where does wind come from? It comes from air with different pressures that are being heated up by the sun. The different pressures of air then start to move around because they want to equalize. What about solar power? The sun. Even Hydroelectric power has its roots in the sun’s energy. If the sun didn’t heat up water and evaporate it, it would not fall on the top of mountains and then run down them in rivers to power our hydroelectric turbines. What about nuclear power? Just kidding I don’t have to explain that one. Lastly geothermal power comes from heat at the center of the earth given off by nuclear reactions.

All of this stems back to the concept that we cannot create or destroy energy we can only change the form of it. In this case some of the changing forms weren’t actually done by us, but rather by natural processes. I think this is kind of a fun twisted chemical engineery way to look at the world.

If you can think of a form of energy that doesn’t stem from a nuclear reaction please prove me wrong in the comments below.

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