The U.S. Department of Energy has granted a $43 million loan to a Massachusetts-based company to prove the value of a new technology in which spinning flywheels are used to improve the efficiency of the electric grid. Beacon Power Corp. will build a 20-megawatt flywheel plant in upstate New York in which flywheels spinning up to 16,000 times per minute will act as a sort of short-term power storage system for the state’s electrical distribution system, according to the Associated Press.
The number of small hydropower projects in the U.S. is increasing as utilities try to avoid concerns about the environmental impact of large dams, the Wall Street Journal reports.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission now has applications for 14,000 megawatts of hydropower projects — enough to power 7 million to 14 million homes — and most are located on small rivers, streams, and creeks. That figure is a 20 percent increase from two years ago.
As the number of projects grows in states such as Washington, Colorado, and Montana, environmentalists are beginning to raise objections to the small dams, which critics say can still block fish runs, interfere with whitewater rafting trips, and carve up wilderness habitat with roads, power lines, and other infrastructure.
Some projects are just too big to let the private sector handle them alone. Updating our aging one-way system of centralized power production to a smart grid is one of those projects. Left mostly to its own initiative, the energy industry has done very little in technology innovation during the past fifty years to make the grid more efficient and to accommodate distributed power production.
The need is so clear that even a group that supports limited government agrees that building a smart grid that conserves energy, integrates renewables, and diminishes peak power requires the guiding hand of the federal government.
The Lexington Institute has published a paper that neatly summarizes the smart grid challenges, and concludes that “Just as the grid of today required presidential initiative, the smart grid will take a high-level policy push, too.” The public policy research group, which says it “actively opposes the unnecessary intrusion of the federal government into the commerce and culture of the nation,” adds that “Smart grid will most likely require federal, state and local government incentives” and that “Policy action is worthwhile to move promising technologies closer to full adoption.”
Ford Motor Company has developed an intelligent charging system that previews how its production vehicles will interact with the grid. The unnamed system enables all-electric and plug-in hybrid vehicle owners to restrict charging to when electricity prices fall below a certain threshold, or even “when the grid is using only renewable energy such as wind or solar power,” according to Ford.
Being able to drive “emissions free” could be a huge selling point for the upscale and eco-minded early adopters who will be buying EVs and plug-in hybrids during the next few years. There’s a natural synergy for customers to put solar on their homes and buy hybrids/EVs, who can then drive free of fossil fuel guilt.
California, which has often led the nation in emissions reductions and environmental initiatives, is not the standard bearer in producing renewable energy today. If you consider all forms of renewable energy — solar, wind, hydro, and geothermal, then California isn’t at the top in total production, and as a percentage of energy produced, it’s not even in the top five.
Washington, with its longtime investment in hydropower, produced nearly 58 percent more renewable energy from electricity than California, according to 2007 data. In California, 25 percent of all energy produced comes from renewables, which is lower than Idaho (84 percent), Washington (77 percent), Oregon (65 percent), South Dakota (50 percent, Maine (49 percent) and Montana (34 percent). Note that this is electricity generated not consumed. Many of the upper Midwest states actually export energy, while California imports the most energy in the country.
Imagine directing traffic in Manhattan when the power is out, no one knows how to find the bridges or tunnels, and most of the drivers are speaking different languages. That scenario is similar to what smart grid company Gridpoint is up against in building software than will enable electric vehicles, charging equipment, utilities and grid operators to all get along.
Gridpoint is developing version 3 of its Smart Charging software (due to ship to customers in September) that will schedule and monitor vehicle charging while keeping track of the grid’s health. The software includes tools that enable utilities to understand how vehicles individually and in aggregate are impacting power demand. Utilities can compare recent vehicle demand on the grid with what would have happened with no control over vehicle charging to see how well their attempts at shifting the load are doing. The Smart Charging software also provides day-ahead demand projections based on previous charging data.
It is understandable why some utilities might be hesitant to embrace smart grid technology. It’s expensive (Repower America says implementation will cost upwards of $400 billion) and at the same time will reduce their ability to sell their core product (energy).
Getting the utilities and regulatory agencies on board requires ample amounts of carrots (financial incentives) and sticks (limiting carbon emissions), according to energy efficiency experts Portland Energy Conservation Inc (PECI).
PECI’s new report “Wiring the Smart Grid for Energy Efficiency goes into deeply depressing detail about the many formidable challenges to implementing the smart grid. Among the toughest to tackle are that buildings are ill-equipped to participate in demand response systems, and the near total lack of interoperability today between grid equipment and building energy management tools. There’s also a lack of university and professional training programs to fill the gaping hole in HVAC engineers who can maximize energy efficiency programs.
When Congress returns from its summer vacation it will consider legislation that could energize investment in renewable energy projects with an almost “cash for clunkers”-like fervor.
Like the cash for clunkers legislation (and American Idol, and The Office), a feed-in tariff bill would be a ripoff of a European idea modified for American consumption. Bills that would require utilities to pay a premium for renewable power have been tried and failed here before, but the time (and composition of the Congress) may be right for the fight to take flight.
Introduced by Democratic Senators Jay Inslee (WA) and Bill Dellahunt (MA), the bill would guarantee a market for the renewable power projects and would do much to calms fears in today’s skittish investment arena. Feed-in tariffs have been overwhelmingly successful in Germany and Spain, basically creating the solar industries in both those countries.
Because a feed-in tariff promises American jobs and reduces foreign energy dependency, Congress will likely give the idea more of a fair hearing when the leaves begin to turn in DC.
One of the more interesting subtexts in the ongoing Waxman-Markey negotiations is the irony that as the bill gets closer to garnering the support it needs for passage — through horse trading, earmarking, compromise and watering down — it looks less and less like a positive step for renewable energy advocates to have a federal regime at all.
Thanks to preemption doctrine, whatever does emerge from Congress will likely trump much of what already exists at the state level for energy-environment regulation. Sure, the bill may hold out state autonomy to set higher renewable standards or more ambitious target dates than those federally prescribed, and that kind of dual sovereignty — especially where expressly permitted by Congress — has long been held constitutional. But, for a “progressive” energy state like Massachusetts, there are likely to be direct conflicts with the federal law, and in those cases the state standard (in many cases the more aggressive one) will be preempted.
Matthew Benson: What is Positive Energy?