Sustainability through Renewable Grid Integration

Sustainability through Renewable Grid Integration

This piece was originally published in the November 2018 issue of electroindustry.

Jonathan Stewart, Industry Director, Utility Products and Systems Division, NEMA, and Brian Marchionini, PMP, Senior Program Manager, NEMA

Mr. Stewart previously served as a government relations manager at NEMA.

Mr. Marchionini oversees NEMA technical work on energy storage, distribution automation, and microgrids.

It’s no secret that renewables are becoming a larger share of the overall generation portfolio. Wind and solar, for instance, are responsible for the majority of capacity increases. In 2017, combined wind and solar made up at least 20 percent of electric generation in 10 states. In that same year, renewables accounted for 55 percent of the 21 gigawatts (GW) of capacity additions in the United States. This was the fourth consecutive year in which renewables made up more than half.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration (EIA), about eight percent (81 GW) of generating capacity in the United States in 2016 came from wind turbines, most of which were onshore.

We need equipment that is capable of measuring and providing more information to other equipment that can process and apply it in the blink of an eye.

Meanwhile, the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) reports that solar’s increasing competitiveness allowed it to increase its share of total U.S. electrical generation from just 0.1 percent in 2010 to more than 2 percent today. The SEIA further estimates that 58 GW of solar generation currently installed across the U.S., reflects an annual growth rate of 59 percent over the last 10 years. By 2021, that figure could grow to 100 GW.

Fueling the Evolution

What’s driving this growth? One factor is state policies, known as renewable portfolio standards (RPS), which call for mandatory goals of renewable generation by a given date. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, there are 29 states, Washington, D.C., and three territories that have RPSs in place. California, for example, set 50 percent renewables by 2026, 60 percent renewables by 2030, and 100 percent carbon-free energy by 2045. Hawaii set 30 percent by 2020, 40 percent by 2030, 70 percent by 2040, and 100 percent by 2045.

Corporations are getting in on the action as well. RE100 is a growing group of more than 150 companies with public voluntary commitments to meet all of their energy needs through renewables. Brands such as Adobe, Apple, Facebook, GM, Google, IKEA, and Kellogg’s speckle the star-studded roster. Aside from being recognizable brands, these companies all operate in large energy-consuming industries such as data centers, manufacturing, and food processing.

Other catalysts such as tax credits and falling prices also make renewable technologies more affordable and practical every year.

NEMA Takes Action

NEMA Members build the equipment that distributes the electricity from renewable and fossil-fueled resources to a vast network of end users.  In order for our grid to work properly, electricity must be essentially generated and consumed at the exact same time. Over time, grid operators have become very good at estimating how much electricity the population will consume over a given time period, even though this amount varies from month to month, day to day, and even hour to hour.

NEMA Members have the products and systems to incorporate clean, renewable technologies into a safe, reliable, and efficient electrical grid.

A major challenge posed by renewable generation is its variability. Fifteen years ago, all of the electrons your devices consumed probably came from a few centralized, fossil-based sources. Fifteen years from now, the electrons your devices consume might come from many distributed sources that cycle online and offline over the course of a week, a day, or even minute to minute. Not only does this complicate current grid operations, it also foreshadows more difficulties if forecasts for renewable generation market growth hold true.

We need equipment that is capable of measuring and providing more information to other equipment that can process and apply it in the blink of an eye. This ensures that the amount of electricity being generated—and dispatched from storage—is equal to the amount being consumed and stored. Equipment developed by NEMA Member companies with those capabilities, like smart meters, smart transformers, and smart inverters, as well as the operating systems to run them, has not been needed on a large scale until now. Although the technology does exist to accomplish all of this, it takes time to build into the system.

Finally, there’s the financial aspect. Installation of one large energy storage system could cost millions of dollars. Utilities, which are largely responsible for modernizing their portions of the grid, either have to assume the substantial cost or raise electricity rates to pay for the upgrades, which they can’t do without permission from regulatory agencies.

Demand for sustainable, renewable generation is beyond question at this point. People want it and the suppliers can build it. NEMA Members have the products and systems to incorporate clean, renewable technologies into a safe, reliable, and efficient electrical grid.

Strategic Initiative Analyzes Grid Modernization

Innovative technologies have the potential to improve electric power system resilience and flexibility, but only if they are adopted by utilities.

NEMA is undertaking a Strategic Initiative to quantify the costs and benefits of grid modernization projects. Ten rate cases for recent grid modernization projects across the United States are being studied to better understand cost recovery mechanisms.

The results may help stakeholders to justify grid upgrades by understanding best practices and lessons learned as utilities plan and execute grid modernization projects.

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