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.


Power outages: Would a smart grid help?

As I write, we still don’t know what caused today’s power outage, affecting millions across Southern California.

The fact that I’m writing means I’m one of the lucky folks — so far – in Southern California Edison territory, but while my colleagues in the newsroom are covering the story, I have been thinking about whether at least some of the damage might have been prevented if we had an updated “smart grid.”

A quick Google search turned up an article on a website called Triple Pundit that was written in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene.  Our current outage may not be weather related, but the potential for smart grids to locate problems and avoid outages is relevant.

Here’s what writer Boyd Cohen had to say:

Smart grids enable real-time digital transmission of data regarding grid performance, locations of problem areas, and mechanisms for redistributing energy. They are also commonly accompanied by enhanced ability to “plug-in” multiple energy sources including distributed energy.  For example, green buildings with solar panels can not only receive energy from the grid but easily return excess energy (e.g. on a weekend when no one is working in the building) back to the smart grid.

So how can smart grids actually help reduce vulnerabilities to climate events?  ComEd (Commonwealth Edison), an energy company serving nearly 4 million customers in Northern Illinois, recently explained how their proposed smart grid would have significantly reduced outages from the record-setting storms that passed through in July.

“If Smart Grid technology had been in place, here’s how it would have minimized the impact of the storm: ComEd would have known customers were out of power without them having to call us. Technology would have pinpointed outages allowing us to dispatch crews more quickly to restore service. Digital automation would have rerouted power or corrected a problem before an outage occurs meaning fewer customers would have seen outages, and thousands of customers may have never experienced an outage. With the June 21 storm, we estimate that 100,000 customers would have never experienced an outage. With the July 11 storm, we estimate that approximately 175,000 customers would have never experienced an outage.”

Next up — for some thoughts on the bigger picture — I found a January 2011 article by S. Massoud Amin, a professor at the University of Minnesota, who coined the term “smart grid.” 

Massoud has mapped the increase in power outages across the U.S. in the last decade, and an accompanying decrease in grid investments by utilities.

“There were 156 outages of 100 megawatts or more during 2000-2004; such outages increased to 264 during 2005-2009. The number of U.S. power outages affecting 50,000 or more consumers increased from 149 during 2000-2004 to 349 during 2005-2009,” he writes.

At the same time, “R&D spending for the electric power sector dropped 74 percent, from a high in 1993 of US $741 million to $193 million in 2000. R&D represented a meager 0.3 percent of revenue in the six-year period from 1995 to 2000, before declining even further to 0.17 percent from 2001 to 2006. Even the hotel industry put more into R&D.”

All of which means if utilities such as San Diego Gas & Electric weren’t skimping on R&D, their CEO Michael Niggli might not have had to get up in front of TV cameras today and say the blackout was caused by an “incident” that  he didn’t know the cause of and couldn’t predict when it would be fixed.  

In the meantime, for techno-geeks, the Department of Energy has a Smart Grid Information Clearinghouse, www.sgiclearinghouse.org.