A Resilient Electric Grid for a Sustainable Planet Exists Only in a World Beyond Centralized Power
Updated: Jan 6, 2021
PART 1 OF A 3-PART SERIES
When the doctrine of infallibility of the utility transmission lines has been breached shouldn’t we search for solutions beyond our familiar toolkit? Does it make sense anymore, even for solar PV, that we keep resorting to utility-scale power plants with ever larger footprints and increasingly higher capacities? Are we really making the system resilient while doing enough to clean our electric grid without harming Nature? Are we even making any effort to do more with less?
Attention clean energy investors, well-meaning regulators, climate activists and market participants.
The next chapter of cleaning the grid while electrifying transportation needs an unfailing commitment for holistic solutions. In this three-part series, we will discuss the need, now, for true 21st century solutions that must have a minimal physical footprint and reduced material content. These solutions need to deliver a substantial positive environmental and economic impact. They will have to remain more affordable than today’s centralized solutions. Besides, they will be expected to herald an era of unprecedented resiliency and reliability. Together, these demands are well beyond the abilities of centralized powering systems. It’s time to rearchitect an electric grid that is prepared for the challenges of tomorrow and can work equally well with the systems of today.
There is a lot of confusing data out there, which can pose a real challenge to navigate for even the most well-versed professionals. Arguably, cutting through the clutter is far more important than getting lost in the data.
We remain distracted by focusing on centralized photovoltaic (PV) systems and products that only increase physical footprint and material content. The much-ballyhooed benefits of utility-scale solar power plants are not what they appear to be. Utility-scale renewables are actually prolonging the timeframe to transform our energy grid to sustainable clean power. They encourage vested interests to maintain the status quo. Instead, the next chapter of clean electricity generation and clean transportation needs to double down on solutions that double up on their intended purpose. It can and must be done.
True, utility-scale solar photovoltaic (PV) power plants are cheaper to build than rooftop solar, but not without exacting a steep price in other ways. This is typically missed. They are continually aided by natural gas power plants or large energy storage or both as buffer to stabilize the electric grid. Without storage and/or gas turbines massive power fluctuations can occur due to continually varying cloud cover and the sun’s intensity. As end users, we not only pay for the central solar power plants but also to mitigate their potential for disrupting the stability of the electric grid.
THE FOMO TRADE
The last decade saw unprecedented deployment of utility-scale solar PV in California where oversubscription and increased competition led to the classic fear of missing out (FOMO) situation. The evidence is compelling. Utility-scale solar PV deployment increased more than 200-fold and constitutes two-thirds of all solar energy net generation in the state (US EIA database). Since 2010, the power purchase agreement (PPA) pricing for utility scale solar energy plummeted 80% reaching a new bottom every year. Yet, consumers in California saw retail electricity rates increase well over 30% during that same time – a more than three times the increase in the national average electricity rates. Interestingly, a new generation added since 2013 was predominantly solar PV. It is also noteworthy that two-thirds of all new solar PV was utility-scale systems. Solar PV has now become a sizable portion of California’s energy mix. Consequently, the complexity of managing and supplementing an intermittent generation resource of that magnitude has added daunting cost to the overall infrastructure resulting in electricity rates hitting new highs. Far from benefitting from the significant cost reductions of these central solar power plants, consumers are burdened with the significantly higher additional costs of integrating these utility-scale resources.
What’s worse is that when the utility regularly shuts off the transmission lines their contribution to reducing green-house gas (GHG) emissions and electricity generation are dismal. The Golden State’s unforeseen turn of events is a double whammy of resource underutilization and failure in reliability. Higher electricity rates for an unacceptably unreliable infrastructure is the new normal. Simply deploying mega-scale solar PV isn’t enough for cleaning our electricity.
Inconveniently, even utility-scale energy storage hardly helps the consumers or the system. When the transmission lines are powered off the utility-scale systems are nothing more than stranded assets. In California it’s the wildfires, in the Northeast it’s devastating snowstorms. California’s wildfire-driven power shut off predicament may be Nature’s last warning for us to correct course.
It is imperative that we avoid compounding the misery by repeating the same distractions – with a mad rush for utility-scale energy storage.
It’s well past time to start localizing our power sources. Fundamental innovations in powering solutions can deliver the resiliency, reliability to the system affordably and sustainably. It’s now more than ever we need holistic affordable solutions. They will supply unfailing integrity, markedly improved system efficiencies, minimal physical and carbon footprint with marginal material content. Only localizing our power sources at the point of consumption – or in behind-the-meter (BTM) systems – can fulfil the mandates.
The necessary innovations for the 21st century electricity grid are well overdue. There are three primary objectives to pursue:
We must do more with less without harming Nature: minimize material content and miniaturize our physical and carbon footprint – or dematerialize
Storage will remain key in sanitizing the electric grid and reduce our dependence on fossil fuel – or fully decarbonize.
To make both happen we must localize our power sources – or have the electric grid decentralize.
We can and must succeed – NOW!
In the second part of this three-part series we will address one of the most pressing topics of our present grid – utility scale systems on a grid network that is regularly shut off to prevent wildfires. The allure of utility-scale systems admired with overly rosy lenses of solely system-first costs has landed us with a top-heavy infrastructure. But Nature continues to expose the fragility of the top-down infrastructure.
This article appears at Zpryme.com and was published on July 14, 2020.