Pushing green energy ceilings — wind and solar hitting new highs

The sun is setting in the Coachella Valley as I type this, but somewhere on the other side of the world, I feel certain, it is shining and possibly there’s a solar panel there converting the sunlight to electricity and reducing the carbon emissions that fossil fuel power would have generated.

The spread of solar around the world is part of the story contained in figures from the European Photovoltaic Industry Association.  As of 2012, the world had a bit more than 101 gigawatts of PV running around, producing the same amount of power as 16 coal or nuclear plants of 1 gigawatt each, while reducing carbon emissions by 53 million tons.

Of those 101 GW, just shy of 30 GW were installed last year, about the same as 2011, the EPIA said. What’s more important, the geographic spread of PV installations is expanding.

Thirteen gigawatts of solar are now outside Europe, compared to 8 GW in 2011, the EPIA reported. Germany is still the world leader, with 7.6 GW, while China has 3-5-4.5 GW and the U.S. has 3.2 GW. Another report from Greentech Media projects growing solar markets, about 3 GW, in Africa and Middle East in the next two years.

Meanwhile, wind energy is also hitting new highs in terms of how much power it supplies in different states, according to Pete Danko writing on the Earth Techling website.

From midnight Monday to midnight Tuesday, three wind farms in eastern Washington pumped out 16,593 megawatt-hours of power, or about 23.5 percent of the power Puget Sound Energy needed for its 1.1 million customers. Danko writes:

While wind power rises and falls with the varying wind speed – obviously – Puget Sound said its three wind farms are providing at least some power two-thirds of the time and on average are supplying about 10 percent of the power its customers use.

Texas is also breaking records on wind production. The state leads the nation in wind installations over al,l and at 7:08 p.m. on Feb. 9, those turbines were spinning away, producing 9,481 megawatts of power, 10 percent over the previous record of 8,667 MW.

The Feb. 9 high mark represents 28 percent of the load on the state’s power system.

Meanwhile in Colorado, Xcel Energy reported that wind power accounted for 16 percent of the 35.9 million megawatt hours of electricity it sold in 2012.

The missing link to drive those numbers even higher is, of course, storage. California may be taking a step toward new green energy ceilings to break with a recent decision from the state’s Public Utilities Commission ordering Southern California Edison to add 50 MW of grid storage over the next eight years.

Writing about the order on Greentech Media, Jeff St. John notes it’s a relatively small amount of storage, but provides a signal that the state is serious about integrating wind and solar power onto the grid by the 2020 deadline for reaching the state’s renewable energy goal of 33 percent.

In the context of total energy production, in the U.S. or worldwide, all these new benchmarks may be relatively small, but they reflect a vision and momentum that will continue to push renewable energy ceilings higher and higher.


The Cal ISO-PacifiCorp deal — Getting more green energy on the grid

The best way to integrate wind and solar energy onto the electric grid — without creating big spikes that require the frequent firing-up of natural gas peaker plants to even things out – is to spread out the renewables over as wide a geographic area as possible.

So, in the case of California, if the wind’s not blowing in the San Gorgonio Pass, it might be nice and breezy up north in the Alta pass; ditto for sun in east Riverside versus San Bernardino or Kern counties.

The California Independent System Operator (ISO), which manages the main grid in the state, is taking this concept a step further. The agency on Tuesday announced a memorandum of understanding with PacifiCorps, a utilitythat serves customers in Washington State, Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming and Utah, to create something called an Energy Imbalancing Market or EIM.

PacifiCorp is owned by MidAmerican American Energy Holdings Company, owned by Warren Buffett.

So what the EIM will do is allow the ISO, at times of peak demand, to tap into PacifiCorp’s renewable resources, which include more than 2,000 megawatts of wind energy, much of it located in Wyoming.

“This opportunity is something that will resonate through the West where we are on this constant march to integrate renewables into the system while maintaining best rates,” said Steve Berberich, Cal ISO’s CEO, during a press call Tuesday morning. ”We can ultimately share resources efficiently over a much wider footprint.”

The way things work now is that the ISO has a super-charged system that balances energy supply and demand every five minutes, picking energy sources at lowest cost to meet energy needs on the grid. But, beyond the ISO grid, utilities such as Southern California Edison still have to maintain regional balances between supply and demand with manual systems.

The EIM will allow other utilities, such as PacifiCorp, to tap into the five-minute market to even out times of over- or undersupply and ease stress on local utilities.

Widening the footprint from which ISO can draw power should also lower costs. If wind or solar power is available from Wyoming to fill a gap in peak power demand here, that could mean less need to fire up natural gas peaker plants, which are an extremely expensive source of backup power.

The system will run both ways, so any excess renewable power in California could be sold out of state.

Exactly if or how this will affect our energy bills has yet to be determined. Berberich said the cost to set up the EIM will be a “modest” $2.1 million, but projections on savings are still being calculated.

The MOU announced Tuesday is the first step in what could be a lengthy process. The ISO has scheduled a meeting for stakeholders to gather public input on Feb. 27 and the ISO board will also have to give its OK to move forward with the EIM, tentatively at its March meeting.

The system will likely not be online and working until 2014, so it’s not going to be an easy solution to filling in Southern California’s energy needs this summer if the San Onofre nuclear power plant stays off-line as it seems more and more likely it will.

Certainly there will be problems to iron out, unintended consequences to be manged, but the potential is exciting and enormous. A regional EIM covering the Western states could be possible in the future, making integration of wind and solar less of a problem across the region.

You can follow the implementation of the EIM, and daily supply and demand balancing  on the grid with the ISO’s new free smart phone app, ISO Today,