How to get renewable energy into the grid — without losing power

There are numerous methods for maintaining electricity supply when renewables are in the grid. Johan Douma/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

The recent review of the Australian Renewable Energy Target has once again raised the issue of the “unreliability” of some renewable power sources such as wind and solar power.

Their variability, which arises from the weather or daily and seasonal cycles, leads some to conclude that they will only ever be able to supply a minority fraction of Australia’s electricity.

But for the most part we have the technology available to ensure a steady supply of power, and where we don’t, technology is rapidly advancing.

South Australia is at the forefront of integrating renewables into the existing grid. With more installed wind than any other state (almost 1,500 megawatts), wind now provides on average 25% of its annual electricity production. On recent occasions it provided 100% of the state’s needs and even exported 487 megawatts of power in June this year.
Why electricity is like driving a car

All electricity grids that use alternating current (and that is almost universal) require that the power generated exactly meets the power needed.

An analogy is driving your car. On a road, a constant speed is achieved using a constant throttle — if you start to drive up a hill and you want to keep the speed constant, then you need to increase the throttle otherwise the car will slow down, and as you go over the crest and down the other side the throttle needs to be released otherwise your speed will increase.

The same thing is required in electricity grids, except the need to keep the “speed” constant is much more critical. If extra generation is present because of greater wind speed or more sunshine, then less power from other sources is usually required.

Wind has several times met all of South Australia’s electricity needs. David Clarke/Flickr

On the surface, this might appear to be a significant barrier to continued strong growth in PV and wind in Australia. Our national electricity grid (mostly on the eastern and southern states) is the result of decades of growth, largely built on legacy operation — large, remote, baseload coal power plants that need to operate continuously.

This resulted in the three tier generation comprising baseload, intermediate and peaking.

Baseload is the term used to describe the large coal-fired power plants that were designed to provide cheap, continuous power. In fact because of their size and design it was not feasible to greatly reduce their output overnight, so it was necessary to provide an incentive to consumers to use power at night to keep them running efficiently.

This was the “off-peak” hot water and other time independent loads that were encouraged through very low tariffs. Aluminium smelters for example, were able to negotiate very low tariffs by providing a reliable “baseload”. The recent closure of some of these smelters is a significant issue for some baseload generators.

As electricity demand became more peaky, Read more »

Germany opens first renewable energy storage facility

Germany has launched what it claims is Europe’s first and largest commercial battery plant, which will help to store renewable power sources. Such sources can prove erratic, as they are dependent on the elements, such as wind and the sun.

The new plant, opened by Wemag AG, will be able to store five megawatts –enough to power roughly 2,500 homes. With Germany committed to going green, one of the country’s biggest problems had been where to store excess energy. The country currently produces around 25 percent of its energy from green sources.

“This is an interesting alternative to conventional power plants and the regional utilities have come up with an interesting project here,” German Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel told German television at the plant’s opening in Schwerin, around 100km east of Hamburg in the north.

The installation cost 6 million euro and is the size of a school gymnasium, while it’s powered by 25,600 lithium-ion batteries, which were produced by Samsung. The plant will service an area of 8,600 sq. km, which already receives 80 percent of its energy from renewable sources. However, by the end of the year the region should be totally dependent on green energy, according to Reuters.

“The first commercially operating battery storage plant of this size is an important step to realize the German energy switch,” said Gabriel, who also added that the German Environment Ministry had contributed 1.3 million euro to the project, Bloomberg reports.

Following the meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan in 2011, German President Angela Merkel made a commitment to phase out nuclear power by 2022 and concentrate on generating a higher percentage of renewable sources.

Germany hopes to raise the amount of green energy it uses from one-quarter at present to as much as 60 percent by 2035.

While Germany’s green energy drive has won plenty of plaudits for caring about the environment and moving away from fossil fuels, it has come at a cost. Over the next 26 years, Berlin will spend 550 billion euro on developing renewable energy, however, the average German consumer is seeing the price of energy bills rocket.

“It’s being sold on the message it’s either wind energy or radioactive catastrophe, this plays on fear, and makes money for wind energy providers,” Petra Dahms, an anti-wind power activist, told RT in October 2013.

Germany subsidizes renewables to the tune of about $16 billion per year, an innovation that comes at a cost to consumers and industry. After her party’s election victory, Chancellor Angela Merkel said she and her cabinet would be reviewing the country’s subsidy program.

“One day I saw it almost doubled, I can’t understand how this bill can be so expensive for two people,” Aminta Seck, a single mother, told RT from her Berlin home.

“Responsibility lies with the government and the power companies, they are so expensive. One of the reasons for price rises is the subsidies being paid out for solar and wind energy,” said Seck.


There’s a Place in the World That Is Fighting Poverty with Solar Power

Ruinda Njaba uses his solar panels (visible on the roof behind him) to power up villagers’ cellphones. He charges them for 12 cents apiece. Tim McDonnell/Climate Desk

Lusela Murandika just wants to be able to watch the evening news.

The 76-year-old farmer lives in Kanyala village in northern Tanzania, 60 miles from the nearest town that’s connected to the electric grid. For years, he’s powered a tiny TV set in the dim sitting room of his concrete house here with a diesel generator, spending roughly $10 each month on fuel—money that could otherwise buy more than 20 pounds of rice in a country where the per capita GDP is $695.

Earlier this year, on the advice of friends, he invested $400 in a small, 80-watt solar system. After charging all day under the East African sun, it can run his TV for two hours. The system was a pain in the neck to install, he says, and the battery is unreliable, but it’s still an improvement over the generator. And here, as in most of rural Africa, there aren’t many options.

“It’s a joke to think we’ll all be connected to the grid,” he says with a rueful grin.

Some joke. Nineteen percent of the global population lives without access to electricity, according to the International Energy Agency. In Africa, that number is 58 percent. The vast majority of those without power are in rural areas. In Tanzania specifically, 86 percent of the population has no electricity, a fact that was illustrated when the lights cut out at President Obama’s hotel in Dar es Salaam during a visit he made there last year to dedicate $7 billion for energy access improvements across the continent.

Tanzanians still get 76 percent of their energy—mostly for heating and cooking—from charcoal, wood, and other biomass. So there’s more at stake than turning on the lights: Indoor air pollution kills more than 4 million people every year, more than AIDS and malaria combined. Increasing access to clean energy is literally a matter of life or death.

In Tanzania, the population is predominantly rural and scattered in small villages across vast reaches of terrain, while the state-owned utility is chronically cash-strapped and urban-focused. So Murandika’s pessimism about the grid is almost certainly justified. But just as the mobile phone revolution in Africa dramatically reduced the need for telephone landlines, solar power is now leapfrogging the electric grid. Like Murandika, thousands of rural Africans are turning to solar as the solution, in a clean-energy boom that development experts say could become a catalyst for widespread economic empowerment.

These aren’t the oceanic fields of solar panels some German entrepreneurs have proposed to build in the Sahara, nor the grid-connected rooftop systems that power entire American homes. Instead, these are small kits that come complete with the necessary panels, wiring, power converters, and batteries to power a few lightbulbs, a small appliance, or a cellphone charger.

Top: Rooftop solar panels on Ruinda Njaba’s house. Bottom: A power inverter and battery that Njaba uses to charge his neighbors’ phones. Tim McDonnell/Climate Desk

But if the device is small, the potential is huge: The IEA estimates that off-grid systems like this will account for 20 percent of new electricity needed by 2030, with solar the most important source of that. In other words, small-scale solar is the key to bringing light into disconnected rural areas.

“This is a challenge that is imminently resolvable,” said Shari Berenbach, president of the US African Development Foundation, a federal agency that supports African entrepreneurs. Technological improvements over the last several years have brought costs of solar down to a point where panels are increasingly being snapped up by rural people desperate for basic household lighting, she explained.

“It really improves people’s quality of life,” said Berenbach. “You can deliver babies by that light. Kids can study.”

So just how much of a boom are we talking about here? Read more »

Can The Gigafactory Run On Just Renewable Energy?

By: Christopher DeMorro

Last week an area outside of Reno, Nevada was chosen as the site of the first Tesla battery Gigafactory. In addition to bringing 6,500 much-needed jobs and a cutting-edge manufacturing facility to Nevada, Elon Musk has also promised to power the Gigafactory using only its own, green energy sources. Can it be done, and if so, how?

It is no small task to power a facility as huge as the Gigafactory, which is said to cover 929 square-meters and about a thousand acres of land, and over at Tom Lombardo ran some calculations to see just how much power the Gigafactory would need. Based on a Navigant Research study, Lombardo estimates the Gigafactory could consume as much as 2,400 MWh each day if it’s running at full-tilt (that is to say, 500,000 battery packs per year). That’s enough energy to power 80,000 average American homes. Where the hell is Elon Musk going to get all that power?

Well Lombardo goes on to say that if 850,000 square-meters were covered in efficient solar panels (from, say, Solar City?), that alone would generate about 850 MWh of energy per day, about ? of what’s needed. The official Gigafactory picture also included about 85 windmills on the hills in the background, and despite the Reno area not been particularly friendly to wind farms, a setup of similar size would generate about 1,836 MWh of energy, which puts the Gigafactory well past its 2,400 MWh needs. Musk also said geothermal energy could play a role, and a small 10 Mw facility could produce 240 MWh of usable energy each day. All told, the Gigafactory could actually produce 20% more energy than it needs on a daily basis.

The catch, of course, is storing that energy; solar power will be non-existent at night, and on calm days wind energy will be hard to rely on. Given that the Gigafactory can make a half-million battery packs per year though, they’ll probably be able to come up with some pretty effective storage solutions, and at an affordable cost.

Those arguing that Tesla is more than just a car maker may have a point, as the Gigafactory could set a new standard when it comes to the definition of what makes a factory green, and what’s just greenwashing.


New York unveils solar power program for schools

By:  Edgar Meza

A total of 40 school districts representing some 200 schools across the state registered for the solar program.

The New York state government is giving public schools the resources to adopt solar power. wikimedia commons Read more:

New York last week announced the rollout of K-Solar, a landmark program under the $1 billion NY-Sun Initiative, to help public school districts throughout the state lower energy costs.

The program will provide schools with the tools, technical expertise and access to financing to make solar an affordable option for schools. A total of 40 school districts have registered to participate in the program, representing nearly 200 schools in communities across the state.

“New York is becoming a national leader in the solar industry, and today we’re taking another major step forward by giving schools across the state the resources they need to tap into this innovative technology,” Governor Andrew M. Cuomo said. “Increasing the use of renewable energy at our schools will both protect the environment and modernize our electrical grid.”

K-Solar is a joint partnership between the New York Power Authority (NYPA) and the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), working with the New York State Education Department.

NYPA is offering every New York State school district free energy advisory services and expertise to collaborate with school personnel in determining if solar energy is suitable and cost-effective for their district. The Authority will work closely with the districts and the solar industry to secure the most attractive solar financing, the governor’s office said.

The services will be free to schools and there is no limit to the number of public school districts that can participate in the program.