Clean Power Plan Presents Challenges and Opportunities to De-carbonize the Grid

Clean Power Plan Presents Challenges and Opportunities to De-carbonize the Grid

This piece was originally published in the March 2016 issue of ei, the magazine of the electroindustry.

By Rodney Durban, Director, Clean Air Initiative, ABB Inc.

At NEMA’s founding 90 years ago, NEMA members could not have envisioned many of the thorny issues that occupy so much of our attention in 2016. Indeed, climate change to a 1920s audience might have sounded straight out of science fiction.

With the UN Conference on Climate Change concluding in Paris in December, the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Clean Power Plan (Carbon Pollution Standards for Existing Power Plants, or CPP) seems less like a radical departure from environmental regulations in the U.S. and more like evidence that the U.S. is committed to doing its part to reduce greenhouse gases.

On February 9, 2016, the Supreme Court reversed a federal appeals court decision from weeks earlier by halting implementation of the CPP while it is being debated. While this means states are no longer required to keep compliance plans on course and progressing—for now—some will continue to do so anyway. Regardless of the final outcome of the CPP legal battle, it seems clear that a critical mass of agreement around the world has been reached with respect to de-carbonizing our energy supply chain.

In the draft rule of the CPP, the EPA seemed to be setting up a “dash to gas” with directives on the capacity factor of lower-emitting generation sources. However, in the final rule, there seems to be a belief that it is better to skip the bridge-fuel step to the greatest degree possible and go to the zero-emitting sources. Because of this realization, EPA built in stronger incentives to bring more wind and solar online during the 2020–2022 timeframe.

North American Resource Mix by Primary Fuel Type (GW)

The chart shows the trends in regional resource mix from 2005 to the first year of our forecast in 2016 and the last year of a 25-year forecast in 2040. Resources by primary fuel types were measured in gigawatts by regions: Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), Midwest (MW), Northeast (NE), Southeast (SE), and Western Electricity Coordinating Council (WECC). Source: ABB Velocity Suite, EPM Advisors

For many NEMA members, these additional wind and solar farms present unique business opportunities, from electrical transmission and distribution to grid interconnection and remote monitoring and operations. Of course, in many cases, the sun shines brightest and the wind blows hardest in remote areas far away from consumers of the electricity produced. In those cases, there will be a need for efficient methods of transporting power—an application ideally suited for high-voltage direct current (HVDC) transmission projects.

Optimizing Control

In addition to the application of HVDC for bringing renewable power to load centers, there are a number of technologies and practices that can be used on the lower voltage distribution portion of the grid to conserve energy.

Because of improvements in monitoring and control systems, it is possible to dynamically manage voltage on the distribution grid in a way that minimizes the amount of power required to keep everything stable. This approach is known as conservation voltage reduction, or volt/VAR optimization. The proliferation of faster control networks and more powerful modeling computers are making this sort of real-time optimization control possible today.

Coordinating Distributed Energy Resources

We are also seeing the expansion of distributed energy resources, or grid-edge technologies:

  • Demand response, such as direct load control and time-of-use rates
  • Distributed generation and storage systems that include diesel back-up generation, combined heat and power applications, solar photovoltaic, battery energy storage, and flywheels
  • Electric vehicle charging infrastructure that supports electrification of transportation with scheduled charging
  • Microgrids, which add grid resiliency and help manage the dispatch of renewable generation by combining storage with renewables
  • Power electronics such as smart inverters and dynamic regulating transformers to help manage feeder voltages and reactive power flows
  • Market platforms that engage distributed energy resource asset owners with sustainable incentives

These resources can help mitigate some of the impact of the CPP if distributed generation and the other distributed energy resources can be coordinated with centralized generation and transmission.

Further, in spite of the fact that end-use energy efficiency was removed from the calculation of state-by-state goals, the EPA has made it clear that energy efficiency remains an eligible—and low-cost—compliance mechanism. NEMA Government Relations has led an industry and non-governmental organization effort to bring more attention to not only the market-based value of energy efficiency but the ways in which states should structure their compliance plans to put non-utility energy efficiency investments (i.e., privately funded industrial efficiency projects) on level footing with the other types of investments.[1]

Applying New Technologies

A broader adoption by industry of high-efficiency motors and variable-frequency drives, for instance, would amount to a significant reduction in greenhouse gases.

Unfortunately, there are losers in the de-carbonization of the grid.

It is not likely that new coal-fired power plants will be constructed in North America, and many of the currently operating coal-fired power plants will be retired, hurting construction companies and coal-mining firms..

However, even in these losses, there are opportunities to apply relatively new technology that makes the grid smarter and more controllable. As power plants close to load centers are retired, utilities can exercise options to bring in power from more distant sources, facilitated by devices such as static VAR compensators (SVCs) that maintain an appropriate ratio of real and reactive power to ensure stability. SVCs run quietly and don’t consume any power, so they are ideal for siting in urban areas where grid stability is an issue.

For coal plants that do survive, there will opportunities to improve efficiency by lowering heat rate values through better measurement, better control, and combustion optimization.

For the most part, the transition to a lower-carbon economy will present more opportunities than challenges for ABB and other NEMA members. It’s safe to say that many of the issues NEMA is tackling in today’s industry would have been completely unforeseen in 1926. But what is as recognizable now as then is our industry’s commitment to ensuring safe and reliable power, whatever the challenge.



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