Can Reprogrammed Renewables Stabilize Grids?

As renewable power displaces more coal, gas, and nuclear generation, electricity grids are losing the conventional power plants whose rotating masses have traditionally helped smooth over glitches in grid voltage and frequency. One solution is to keep old generators spinning in sync with the grid, even as the steam and gas turbines that once drove them are mothballed. Another emerging option will get a hearing next week at the 15th International Workshop on Large-Scale Integration of Wind Power in Vienna: creating “synthetic inertia” by reprogramming wind and solar equipment to emulate the behavior of their fossil-fired predecessors.

Continue reading “Can Reprogrammed Renewables Stabilize Grids?”

Might That Emperor of Electricity, the Power Grid, Have No Clothes?

Distributed energy solutions, such as rooftop solar, should be the electrification solution for the 1.1 billion people who are not plugged into a national power grid, not just a stopgap measure. That is the message from a new global industry group, Power for All, that brings together businesses and NGOs that distribute off-grid solar systems. They say bottom-up distributed energy solutions are faster, cleaner, and cheaper than extending power grids to rugged or sparsely-populated regions. Figures released this week by the joint UN-World Bank energy access program—Sustainable Energy for All—lend credence to their argument. Continue reading “Might That Emperor of Electricity, the Power Grid, Have No Clothes?”

Could Europe’s New Grid Algorithm Black-out Belgium?

Elia's 4cast app alerts Belgians to blackout threats
Elia’s 4cast app alerts Belgians to blackout threats

Two of the big European power grid stories from 2014 were the software-enabled enlargement of the European Union’s common electricity market and a spate of nuclear reactor shutdowns that left Belgium bracing for blackouts. Those developments have now collided with revelations that the optimization algorithm that integrates Europe’s power markets could potentially trigger blackouts.

The flaw resides, ironically, in a long-anticipated upgrade to Europe’s market algorithm. This promises to boost cross-border electricity flows across Europe, expanding supplies available to ailing systems such as Belgium’s. Earlier this month market news site ICIS reported that the upgrade, in the works since the launch of market coupling in 2010, has been delayed once again Continue reading “Could Europe’s New Grid Algorithm Black-out Belgium?”

Time to Rightsize the Grid?

Does Size Matter Source CarrerasLast week a team of systems scientists known for counter-intuitive insights on power grids delivered a fresh one that questions one of the tenets of grid design: bigger grids, they argue, may not make for better grids. University of Iowa electrical engineering professor Ian Dobson and physicists David Newman and Ben Carreras make the case for optimal sizing of power grids in last week’s issue of the nonlinear sciences journal Chaos.

In a nutshell, the systems scientists use grid modeling to show that grid benefits such as frequency stabilization and power trading can be outweighed by the debilitating impacts of big blackouts. As grids grow larger, they become enablers for ever larger cascading blackouts. The Northeast Blackout of 2003 was a classic case. From a tripped line in northern Ohio, the outage cascaded in all directions to unplug more than 50 million people from western Michigan and Toronto to New York City. Continue reading “Time to Rightsize the Grid?”

Solar PoweRING the Mediterranean

Areva's Bir Osta Milad substation in Libya copycreditpeterfairley2008Engineers working in the teeming cities and lonely deserts of North Africa are creating the last links in a power grid that will ring the Mediterranean Sea. Sharing electricity over this ‘Mediterranean Ring’ could secure Europe’s power supply with clean renewable energy, accelerating North Africa’s development and knitting together two worlds that seem to be racing apart — those of Muslim North Africa and an increasingly xenophobic Europe.

We make the case for all this unabashed optimism in Closing the Circuit – a feature story in this month’s issue of Spectrum. Closing the Circuit is the product of two years of on-again, off-again research that came to fruition with on-site reporting in Libya and Morocco this summer.

The timing is fortuitious: North African countries – in many ways among the most progressive in the Muslim world – face a rising threat of Islamic fundamentalism, including increasingly deadly attacks by Al Qaeda-aligned militants. Economic development and democratization are the best hope for a North African renaissance. At the same time Europe’s growing dependence on Russian oil and gas and desire to slash carbon emissions has intensified interest in North Africa’s energy resources.

The scale of the potential exchange is immense: Analyses by the German government estimate that solar power generated in scorching North Africa could meet Germany’s entire electricity demand. No wonder then that the Union for the Mediterranean launched by French president Nicolas Sarkozy this summer to spur cooperation between Europe and North Africa is fleshing out a “Mediterranean solar plan” as one of its first actions.

The geopolitical and social import could be bigger. Consider what Dominique Maillard, President of French grid operator Réseau de Transport de l’Electricité, said when asked last month what the Mediterranean Ring represents during an interview last month for the European Energy Review. Maillard began his response by noting that the electrical interconnections between the European countries got started in 1951 – well before the signing of the Treaty or Paris, which created a European coal and steel market, and before the Treaty of Rome in 1957. “At the dawn of Europe, energy – and even electrical energy – had therefore already preceded politics,” says Maillard.

The implication by extension is clear: Electrical interconnection can be the forerunner for peaceful codevelopment among the countries of the Mediterranean, even including Israel. Call it informed optimism. 

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This post was created for EnergywiseIEEE Spectrum’s blog on green power, cars and climate