Friday, April 25, 2008

Shaving peaks and educating the grid: The new face of electrical power

A unique public-private partnership will address some of the world's key future energy issues at the Maui Lani Substation of Maui Electric.
(Photo: New program could result in rewiring of the grid.)

The program—which is a piece of a three-year, $50 million, nationwide energy research effort--is designed to find ways to bring the power grid into the modern age, including allowing power grids to handle far more renewable power than they now can.

The $15 million Hawai'i project—one of nine nationwide—would be funded with $7 million in U.S. Department of Energy funds and $8 million from a range of partners that include research institutions, utilities and renewable energy providers.

It will be headed by the University of Hawai'i's Hawai'i Natural Energy Institute. Partners include General Electric, Hawaiian Electric Company, Inc., Maui Electric Company, Columbus Electric Cooperative, the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, Sentech and UPC Wind.

Two significant problems with today's energy grid are these:

  • Power use has significant peaks and valleys. Utilities need to have generators to meet the peaks, even though those costly generators are superfluous during the rest of the day.

  • Utilities are running up against limits in the amount of intermittently available renewable energy they can now handle, in part because their grids are unable to respond quickly to variability, such as sudden drops in wind power when the breeze fails.

The new research effort is aimed at increasing the efficiency of the energy infrastructure and increasing its ability to handle renewable power.

One goal will be smooth out the day's load curve, primarily by reducing peak load by as much as 15 percent.

Other goals will be to look into energy storage techniques, distributed generation and responsive loads.

  • Energy storage would allow, for instance, solar photovoltaic power collected during the day to be available at night.

  • Distributed generation refers to the move from a central power generation scheme to one in which power is generated at many, smaller production sites—like wind farms, solar arrays, wave power facilities and more.

  • Responsive loads refers to methods for reducing the power demand as needed when there's a supply shortage. This can be done in a number of ways, including the concept of a “smart grid.” An electrical system could be reconfigured to provide two-way communication. In one scenario, utility customers could identify in advance the loads (such as water heating or swimming pool motors) that could be turned off in a crisis, and the utility could then avoid system-wide blackouts or brownouts by shutting off the designated loads—leaving other functions like lighting and power for electronics, unaffected.

“The deployment of this distribution management system will benefit Hawai‘i by providing improved reliability and power quality by addressing concerns such as energy grid congestion, energy reserves and intermittent power supplies,” said a press release from Gov. Linda Lingle's office.

Lingle announced the new program last week, along with Ken Kolevar, Assistant Secretary for Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability with the U.S. Department of Energy.

“This is a groundbreaking project that again highlights Hawai‘i as a national center for new energy development. This project will help set the foundation to improve the reliability and efficiency of Hawai‘i’s electric grid system while allowing greater utilization of renewable energy sources,” Lingle said.

The effort is part of the new Hawai'i Clean Energy Initiative, announced in January 2008. HCEI is a partnership between the state and the Department of Energy, and seeks to move Hawai'i to have 70 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2030..

In a related issue, the Department of Energy recently announced that it will establish a research station at UPC Wind's Kaheawa Wind Farm on Maui. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory will collect data at the wind generation factility as a Remote Research Affiliate Partner Site.

© 2008 Jan W. TenBruggencate