The Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) asserts in a study released last month that the power grid for five western states – Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Wyoming – the WestConnect territory – could operate on as much as 30 percent wind and 5 percent solar without the construction of extensive new infrastructure.

WestConnect System Map. Click image for the largest view.

The wind is packed with kinetic energy – molecules in motion that can be used to make other molecules move such as commonly seen windmill water pumps, or used to compress gas and converted into electricity.  When it blows.  When the wind is becalmed, there isn’t any energy other than the latent heat. When the NREL made its assertion one had to read the study.

Dr. Debra Lew, project manager for the study, said in her statement, “If key changes can be made to standard operating procedures, our research shows that large amounts of wind and solar can be incorporated onto the grid without a lot of backup generation.”

The situation now has it that large coal, natural gas or nuclear plants would always need to stand ready to provide backup power whenever the wind ceased to blow or clouds blocked the sun.

The NREL scientists looked at that supposition head on and found that ‘stand ready’ would be largely baseless when the parameters were optimized.  It concluded that in the West, a broad distribution of wind turbines and solar generation would essentially smooth out the supply of renewable power.  Lew explained simply, “When you coordinate the operations between utilities across a large geographic area, you decrease the effect of the variability of wind and solar energy sources, mitigating the unpredictability of Mother Nature.”

Called ‘The Western Wind and Solar Integration Study” it examines the benefits and challenges of integrating enough wind and solar energy capacity into the grid to produce 35 percent of its electricity by 2017. The study finds that this target is technically feasible and does not necessitate extensive additional infrastructure, but does require key changes to current operational practice. The results offer a first look at the issue of adding significant amount of variable renewable energy in the West and will help utilities across the region plan how to ramp up their production of renewable energy as they incorporate more wind and solar energy plants into the power grid. (Pdf download – 20.6MB)

The technical analysis performed in the study shows that it is operationally possible to accommodate 30 percent wind and 5 percent solar energy penetration. To accomplish such an increase, utilities will have to substantially increase their coordination of operations over wider geographic areas and schedule their generation deliveries, or sales, on a more frequent basis. Currently generators provide a schedule for a specific amount of power they will provide in the next hour. More frequent scheduling would allow generators to adjust that amount of power based on changes in system conditions such as increases or decreases in wind or solar generation.

Being a government animal the NREL looks at the policy issues rather than the costs to the ratepayers.  But one can infer some significant fuel costs will be taken out from the calculation when the study says integrating wind as suggested “would also decrease fuel and emissions costs by 40 percent.”  That assertion deserves some testing considering the governments record in making predictions.

The study suggests the results would come with other benefits.  Existing transmission capacity can be more fully utilized to reduce the amount of new transmission that needs to be built.   Coordinating the operations of utilities to facilitate the integration of wind and solar energy can provide substantial savings by reducing the need for additional back-up generation, such as instant on natural gas-burning plants.

And the fly in the thinking is that use of wind and solar forecasts in utility operations to predict when and where it will be windy and sunny is essential for cost-effectively integrating these renewable energy sources. Yet the meteorologists are getting quite good when only looking hours out.

When one looks at a map of the territory involved it doesn’t seem farfetched at all.  While not using the deep resources of the Midwest or the Northwest the five states when combined for managing intermittency do have what looks like a solid 35 percent or better power resource potential.

Event though the study is from a government agency, the study was undertaken by a team of wind, solar and power systems experts across both the private and public sectors.  It’s a long list of contributors.  The work is mainly an operations study, rather than a transmission study, although different scenarios model different transmission build-outs to deliver power. Using a detailed power system production simulation model, the study identifies operational impacts and challenges of wind energy penetration up to 30% of annual electricity consumption.

The NREL page links to the pdf as well as the earlier Eastern Wind Integration and Transmissions study page with a pdf link to the 17.8 MB download.

Many thoughtful people discount wind for valid reasons.  But the fact remains the energy in moving air is significant and one way to overcome the intermittency issue without having massive electron storage is to well, get organized.

Getting organized and planning things out over a big resource base has great potential that mustn’t be overlooked.


15 Comments so far

  1. Al Fin on June 21, 2010 5:58 AM

    Why doesn’t someone ask the grid managers what they think about the idea?

    If the government forces them to incorporate wind as a large percentage of their power mix, they will do so if they wish to keep their job — just like the executives of BP.

    We could all sleep on a bed of nails if we had to, but it would not be our choice, and most of us would be much healthier and happier on a perfect sleeper.

    Think of it as yet another unfunded mandate coming from a government that will soon be unable to afford to pay for anything except entitlements, bailouts for large campaign contributors, and interest on the national debt. Any other expenses require massive borrowing, which drives up the debt plus interest, which drives up borrowing which drives up . . . .

    So they are down to unfunded mandates to force society to adapt to a climate catastrophe which is not actually happening.

    With this type of government, who needs enemies?

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