Clean & Clean-burn: Renewable Energy & Natural Gas powered Electricity Grids

by John Brian Shannon

Clean and Clean-Burn: Energy, the way it should be

Planetary energy graphic courtesy of Perez and Perez.
Planetary energy graphic courtesy of Perez and Perez.

Of all the energy that is available to us, solar energy is by far the most available and the most evenly distributed energy resource on planet Earth.

Wind and Solar + natural gas = Synergy

  • Solar is available all day every day. But not at night.
  • Wind is available day and night, but it can produce variable power levels as the wind blows over the landscape.
  • Meanwhile, offshore wind turbines produce constant power, spinning at constant speeds for years at a time — except when an operator locks the blades during large storms or during the annual maintenance inspection.

Both solar power and wind power face varying levels of ‘intermittency‘ — which requires the use of ‘peaking power plants‘ or ‘load-following’ power plants — to meet total demand.

‘Catch my Fall’ — All electrical power generators are interdependent

How electricity grids use different power generators to meet total and constantly changing electricity demand.

In the case of renewable energy, the negatives include some variability in the total output of solar power or wind power generation due to temporary cloud cover or storms. At such times, natural gas-fired generation can ramp-up to cover any shortfall.

Note: This is a common and daily energy grid practice whether renewable energy is involved or not. Some gas-fired power plants are called peaking power plants which quickly ramp-up to meet output shortfalls. In fact, peaking power plants (which are almost always gas-fired) were created to meet temporary shortfalls — and were in widespread use long before renewable energy ever hit the market.

Also in the case of renewable energy, another negative is that the Sun disappears at night and solar panels stop contributing to the grid. And unless you have offshore wind turbines to make up the shortfall, onshore wind turbines may fall short of total demand. So at night, you need reliable power to make up shortfalls in primary generation.

Note: This is a common and daily energy grid practice whether renewable energy is involved or not. To cover this situation load-following power plants were designed to meet larger output shortfalls. In fact, load-following power plants were created to meet larger, daily, shortfalls — and were in widespread use long before renewable energy ever hit the market.

In the case of natural gas, the negative is that gas is subject to wild price swings, thereby making gas-fired generation very expensive. Which is why it evolved into peaking power plants, less often in the load-following role and almost never as a baseload power generator.

The other negative associated with natural gas is of course, the fact that gas turbines put out plenty of CO2. That we can deal with. Unlike coal, where the CO2 portion of the airborne emissions are almost the least of our worries — as coal emissions are loaded with toxic heavy metals, soot and other airborne toxins.

How can we deal with the CO2 emitted by gas-fired power plants?

As gas-fired peaking power plants typically fire up anywhere from a couple of dozen hours annually, to a few hours of every day (usually to cover the additional load of many air conditioners suddenly switching on during hot summer days, for example) we aren’t talking about a whole lot of CO2.

Gas-fired load-following power plants typically run for a few hours every day and to cover demand in case of primary generator (like hydro-electric or nuclear power plant) maintenance. In the case of load-following plants, much more CO2 is produced annually.

Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS) of gas-fired CO2 emissions via tree planting

  • Peaking power plants operate for a few hours per year. We’re not talking that much CO2.
  • Load-following power plants operate for many hours per year. More CO2.

But still, each mature tree absorbs (a low average of) 1 ton of CO2 from the atmosphere and keeps it in storage for many decades. Some trees, like the ancient Sequoia trees in California, are 3700 years old and store 26 tons of CO2 each! Certain trees native to Australia store even more carbon and live longer than Sequoia trees.

And, as anyone who has worked in the forest industry knows; Once that first planting hits maturity (in about 10 years) they will begin dropping their yearly seeds. Some trees like the cottonwood tree produce 1 million seeds annually for the life of the tree. American Elm trees set 5 million seeds per year. More trees. Always good.

It’s an easy calculation: “How many tons of CO2 did ‘ABC’ gas-fired power plant output last year?”
Therefore: “How many trees do we need to plant, in order to cover those emissions?”

Simply plant a corresponding number of trees and presto! gas-fired generation is carbon neutral

By calculating how many tons each gas-fired peaking power plant contributes and planting enough trees each year to cover their CO2 contribution, tree planting could allow gas-fired power plants to become as carbon neutral as solar power or wind power.

The total number of trees that we would need to plant in order to draw gas-fired peaking power plant CO2 emissions down to zero would be a relatively small number, per local power plant.

By calculating how many tons each gas-fired load-following power plant contributes and planting enough trees annually to cover their CO2 contribution they too could become just as carbon neutral as solar panels or wind turbines. Many more trees, but still doable and a simple solution!

The total number of trees that we would need to plant in order to draw gas-fired load-following power plant CO2 emissions down to zero would be a much larger number. But not an impossible number.

So now is the time to get kids involved as part of their scholastic environmental studies, planting trees one day per month for the entire school year.

Let the gas-fired power plant operators contribute the tree seedlings as part of their media message that the local gas-fired power plant is completely carbon neutral (ta-da!) due to the combined forces of the power plant operator, the natural carbon storage attributes of trees, and students.

Up to one million trees could be planted annually if every school (all grades) in North America contributed to the effort — thereby sequestering an amount of CO2 equal to, or greater than, all gas-fired generation on the continent.

It’s so simple when you want something to work. Hallelujah!

Baseload, peaking, and load-following power plants

Historically, natural gas was too expensive to used in baseload power plants due to the wildly fluctuating natural gas pricing and high distribution costs, but it is in wide use around the world in the peaking power plant role, and less often, in the load following power plant role.

Renewable energy power plants can be linked to ‘peaking’ or ‘load-following’ natural gas-fired power plants to assure uninterrupted power flows.

Peaking power plants operate only during times of peak demand.

In countries with widespread air conditioning, demand peaks around the middle of the afternoon, so a typical peaking power plant may start up a couple of hours before this point and shut down a couple of hours after.

However, the duration of operation for peaking plants varies from a good portion of every day to a couple dozen hours per year.

Peaking power plants include hydroelectric and gas turbine power plants. Many gas turbine power plants can be fueled with natural gas or diesel. — Wikipedia

Using natural gas for baseload power

Natural gas has some strong points in its favour. Often it is the case that we can tap into existing underground gas reservoirs by simply drilling a pipe into naturally occurring caverns in the Earth which have filled with natural gas over many millions of years. In such cases, all that is required is some minor processing to remove impurities and adding some moisture and CO2 to enable safe transport (whether by pipeline, railway, or truck) to gas-fired power plants which may be located hundreds of miles away.

It is the natural gas market pricing system that prevents gas from becoming anything other than a stopgap energy generator (read: peaking or load-following) and almost never a baseload energy generator.

Let’s look at local solutions to that problem.

Waste-to-Fuels

Several corporations are working with local governments to find innovative ways to capture landfill methane gas to produce electricity from it.

Keep in mind that the methane gas that escapes from every single landfill in the world (whether still operating or having ceased operations long ago) is 23 times more damaging to the atmosphere than CO2.

Increasingly, landfills are now installing perforated pipes underground which draw the landfill gas (so-called ‘swamp methane’) to an on-site processing facility. It is a low-grade gas which is sometimes blended with conventional natural gas to create an effective transportation or power generation fuel. Visit the Caterpillar Gas Power Solutions website here.

Waste Management is a global leader in the implementation of this technology, using its own landfills and municipal landfills across North America to produce over 550 megawatts of electricity, which is enough to power more than 440,000 homes. This amount of energy is equivalent to offsetting over 2.2 million tons of coal per year. Many more similar operations are under construction as you read this. Read the Waste Management landfill bioreactor brochure (downloadable PDF) here.

Durban, South Africa, a city of 3.5 million people, has created a huge Waste-to-Fuel landfill power plant that provides electricity to more than 5000 nearby homes.

Durban Solid Waste receives 4000 tons of trash each weekday which produces some 2600 cubic metres of gas every day of the year.

The GE Clean Cycle Waste-to-Fuel power plant arrives in 4 large shipping containers, and once connected to the gas supply pipeline it is ready to power nearby buildings and to sell surplus power to the grid.

One GE Clean Cycle Waste-to-Fuel power plant unit can generate 1 million kWh per year from waste heat and avoid more than 350 metric tons of CO2 per year, equivalent to the emissions of almost 200 cars.

Blending Conventional Natural Gas with Landfill Gas

As conventional natural gas is expensive (and much of the cost is associated with transportation of the gas over long distances) when we blend it 50/50 with landfill gas, we drop the cost of the gas by half. Thereby making blended natural gas (from two very different sources) more competitive as a power generation fuel.

By blending conventional natural gas 50/50 with landfill gas; We could produce baseload power with it — but more likely than that, we could use it to produce reasonably-priced load-following or peaking power to augment existing and future renewable energy power plants — rather than allow all that raw methane from landfills to escape into the atmosphere.

Best of Both Worlds — Renewable Energy and Natural Gas

Partnering renewable energy with natural gas in this way allows each type of power generator to work to their best strength — while countering negatives associated with either renewable energy or natural gas.

Renewable power generation and lower cost natural gas can work together to make coal-fired electrical power generation obsolete and accelerate progress toward our clean air goals.

Related Articles:

new lens scenario
Royal Dutch Shell New Lens Scenarios
Our latest scenarios explore two possible versions of the future seen through fresh “lenses” to take us to the year 2100.

BP Energy Outlook 2035
BP Energy Outlook 2035
This edition updates our view of the likely path of global energy markets to 2035.

 

US Electricity Sector Gets Downgrade From Barclays

Originally published on Rocky Mountain Institute by James Mandel

Barclays recently downgraded the U.S. electricity sector. That’s right, the whole sector. It’s now listed as “underweight,” meaning that if you were to hold a full portfolio of bonds for the U.S. economy, you might want to be a bit light on U.S. electric utilities, as they might not keep up with the broader economic growth trends.

Why? One answer is the disruptive threat of solar-plus-battery systems.

From the Barclays report:

Over the next few years… we believe that a confluence of declining cost trends in distributed solar photovoltaic (PV) power generation and residential-scale power storage is likely to disrupt the status quo.

Based on our analysis, the cost of solar + storage for residential consumers of electricity is already competitive with the price of utility grid power in Hawaii.

Of the other major markets, California could follow in 2017, New York and Arizona in 2018, and many other states soon after.

In the 100+ year history of the electric utility industry, there has never before been a truly cost-competitive substitute available for grid power.

We believe that solar + storage could reconfigure the organization and regulation of the electric power business over the coming decade.

If that language sounds familiar, it’s because Barclays’ logic is very similar to that of our recent report, The Economics of Grid Defection, in which we forecasted the declining costs of solar plus storage and the time—coming soon—when those systems could reach parity with grid-sourced retail price electricity in a growing number of markets, including Hawaii, California, and New York.

In fact, the Barclays report cites RMI as a key source in several of its analyses that lead to this conclusion.

Barclays recently downgraded the entire U.S. electricity sector.
Barclays recently downgraded the entire U.S. electricity sector.

Barclays believes we’re entering a post-monopoly world in which distributed energy resources will take a place alongside large-scale central generation as a critical energy resource and a widely available and affordable customer option.

In a surprisingly strong prediction for analysts, Barclays views this transition as inevitable:

“Whatever roadblocks utilities try to toss up—and there’s already been plenty of tossing in the states most vulnerable to solar, further evidence of the pressures they’re facing—it’s already too late.”

If you’re a utility, or an investor who’s got money in utilities, that’s some ominous language. Admittedly, a downgrade suggests two possible outcomes in the near future: 1) analysts tend to move in herds, so expect more news on the U.S. electric sector soon, and 2) capital is likely to get a bit more expensive for utilities, as millions of dollars shift out of the sector.

It’s not all bad news. As we discussed recently in “Caveat Investor,” this should ultimately lead to a stronger, more resilient power sector with stronger overall valuations, but the transition is likely to be volatile. The Barclays report suggests we’re about to enter that volatile transition phase.

So, what are the major trends we can learn from this, and what does a utility downgrade mean for the future of distributed renewables?

1) Distributed energy is hitting the mainstream. Historically, it’s renewables’ creditworthiness that has been challenged (while utilities have been considered rock solid), but now this trend appears to be reversing. We’ve seen declining costs of capital in solar (as recent securitizations demonstrate), new financial instruments emerging for related technologies, and lower costs overall. Despite this progress, there is still a large gap between the market acceptance of renewables and the market acceptance of central, fossil-fueled generation. The recent downgrade suggests that people are starting to take distributed renewables seriously, and that utilities and renewables are entering a period of equal (or at least comparable) market strength.

2) Issuing new bonds for thermal fossil generation will become more expensive. While many people focus on the construction costs of new assets (central and distributed generation alike), it’s more often the cost of capital that determines project viability. Traditionally, utilities have almost always been the lowest-cost provider of new energy resources, and part of this advantage has rested on ready access to and favorable terms from the bond market. If that advantage is eroding, then expect new players to be able to compete for providing the nation’s energy, including providers of much smaller, distributed generation.

3) Distributed storage, when combined with already mature trends in generation and energy efficiency, compounds the disruptive threat of consumer-scale investments in energy. Many people have worried that declining demand (through energy efficiency) and distributed generation are putting enormous stress on the traditional business model for investments in central generation. That has not changed at all. So why does the emergence of storage, something that doesn’t reduce consumption or increase generation, suddenly give the markets concern? Simply put, the addition of storage gives customers the option to entirely disengage from their relationship with the utility. While most customers won’t choose to leave, and for good reasons, the threat of grid defection creates consumer leverage that will slow recent upward trends in utility rates out of competitive necessity.

4) These trends are likely to accelerate. As capital shifts from central to distributed generation, this just improves the economics of distributed resources even further, through scale benefits as well as lower cost of capital. Few people would say that we’ve even come close to market saturation for any customer segment for renewables and efficiency. As the traditional electric sector becomes a more challenging place to park capital (or even just a less certain place), more investors will start to notice that investments in distributed resources have similar risk-reward profiles, and this movement of capital will be self-reinforcing.

Barclays took a fairly surprising stance for an industry not traditionally known for looking years into the future. That’s a great sign for the markets, which need to start responding to global, long-term trends. And while the Barclays report isn’t likely to move markets in the next 6 or 12 months, it does signal an important shift under way—distributed generation is likely to be an affordable and accessible choice for more and more customers alongside traditional utility-provided electricity. More options means more competition and increased relevance of the customer. And that’s an upgrade for users of electricity everywhere.

Image Credit: pcruciatti / Shutterstock.com

This article, US Electricity Sector Gets Downgrade From Barclays, US Consumers Get Upgrade, is syndicated from Clean Technica and is posted here with permission.

By 2026, America’s Largest Grid Could Reach 30% Renewable Energy

by Silvio Marcacci

A new study reveals America’s largest grid operator could exponentially increase the amount of solar and wind electricity on its system, while lowering consumer costs and emissions, without negative effects on reliability.

JBS News Renewable Energy. PJM Interconnection footprint image via CleanTechnica
PJM Interconnection footprint image via CleanTechnica

The PJM Renewable Integration Study, prepared for PJM Interconnection by General Electric Energy Consulting, concludes renewables could provide up to 30% of the electricity across PJM’s 13-state footprint by 2026.

While PJM’s report is great news for the rapid power section decarbonization needed to slow climate change and could outline a path forward for other grids, it’s not without any negative outlook — in every modeled scenario, revenue for conventional generation sources like coal, natural gas, nuclear, or hydropower falls.

30% Renewable Energy With No Reliability Concerns

PJM commissioned the study in 2011 to better understand how the grid would be affected if the renewable energy targets of the states within its footprint were achieved or exceeded. Since PJM’s main concern is maintaining reliable and adequate power supplies and all but two of its member states have some form of renewable targets, it’s a valid concern.

GE Energy and a team of other industry experts modeled ten scenarios, ranging from maintaining the current 2% renewables penetration all the way up to obtaining 30% electricity from wind and solar. The study examined expected power demand growth, wind and solar output, required transmission upgrades, emissions, the value of wind and solar versus conventional baseload, and operational costs, among other factors.

JBS News Renewable Energy. Renewables addition potential in PJM. Image via PJM Interconnection
Renewables addition potential in PJM. Image via PJM Interconnection

And the results? In every scenario, PJM’s geographic footprint could accommodate a larger percentage of electricity supply from wind and solar without significant reliability issues, so long as adequate transmission expansion (up to $13.7 billion) happens across the system.

Wider Geographic Area, More Clean Energy

Once again, GE’s analysis shows the benefits of integrating renewables over a large geographic area. “Given the large PJM footprint…the impacts of short-term variability in wind and solar production is greatly reduced by aggregation and geographic diversity.” Put another way, if the sun stops shining or the wind stops blowing in one location, other renewables from across the system can fill the gap.

JBS News Renewable Energy. Renewable energy curtailment in PJM image via PJM Interconnection
Renewable energy curtailment in PJM. Image via PJM Interconnection

In fact, as more and more renewables were added to the PJM system in various modeling scenarios, their efficiency increased while peak demand fell. Curtailment of renewable generators (“turning off” a power system when it could run) was minimal and resulted from localized congestion instead of overall system constraints. Higher renewable generation also shifted consumer demand, with solar “significantly” reducing net demand during peak demand hours.

Fewer Fossil Fuels, Lower Costs, Less Emissions

As additional renewables come online, dirtier forms of energy were replaced. On average, 36% of added renewables displaced coal and 39% displaced natural gas, mainly on a cost basis. In fact, lower coal and natural gas generation occurs under every scenario, as “wind and solar resources are effectively price-takers and therefore replace more expensive generation resources.”

But perhaps most promising of all, every scenario created lower consumer costs across the system while cutting emissions. GE’s analysis found PJM fuel costs, variable operations and maintenance costs, and lower locational marginal prices all decline as the amount of renewables increase, with an average production cost savings of around $63 per megawatt-hour.

JBS News Renewable Energy. Renewables cost savings in PJM image via PJM Interconnection
Renewables cost savings in PJM. Image via PJM Interconnection

At the same time, carbon dioxide emissions fall drastically in every modeled scenario, ranging from a low of 12% all the way up to a high of 41% compared to a business-as-usual scenario where PJM maintains the current 2% renewables mix. The report also notes that a $40 per ton carbon tax, if instituted, would push coal generation down even further than modeled in any scenario.

JBS News Renewable Energy. CO2 emission reductions in PJM. Image via PJM Interconnection
CO2 emissions reductions in PJM. Image via PJM Interconnection

So Is The Future This Bright?

As with any long-term outlook, GE’s analysis is not without potential pitfalls. For instance, many of the PJM scenarios assume offshore wind development in Mid-Atlantic states like Maryland and Virginia along with improvements in renewable forecasting accuracy and growth in energy storage capacity.

But even considering all these challenges, the PJM renewables outlook shows that the transition to a clean energy system isn’t only possible, but it is likely to come with economic and environmental benefits.

This article, America’s Largest Grid System Could Reach 30% Renewable Energy By 2026, is syndicated from Clean Technica and is posted here with permission.

About the Author

JBS News Renewable Energy. Silvio MarcacciSilvio Marcacci is Principal at Marcacci Communications, a full-service clean energy and climate-focused public relations company based in Washington, D.C.

100% Renewable Energy Is Goal For Philippines Province Palawan

by Jake Richardson

Palawan, Philippines. Image: Andrew Lillis
Palawan, Philippines. Image Credit: Andrew Lillis

Palawan is one of the Philippines natural wonders, with many tourists visiting every year. The island province is not connected to the national grid and is completely dependent upon imported diesel and bunker fuel to generate electricity.

These fuels are known to have significant emissions and can contribute to noxious air pollution. Additionally, blackouts and brownouts have been too common, and some residents don’t have access to reliable electricity sources. Power also costs about twice much in Palawan as it does in Manila.

So, moving towards being energy independent by using renewable sources is a great new direction. “Palawan is so much better off than the rest of the Philippines. Palawan is the last ecological frontier. It can prove if we can live sustainably. It can be a model to follow,” explained World Wide Fund for Nature Philippines leader Lory Tan. (Source: Rappler)

Currently, a proposed hydropower plant would partially help them reach their renewable energy goals, and create jobs. It would save money by generating power that would not need to be produced by burning imported fossil fuels and it would reduce CO2 emissions.

Palawan is a long, thin island province measuring about 280 miles long and 31 miles wide, with a human population of 771,000. There are well over 1,000 miles of coastline, mountainous areas, virgin forests, and clear waters for diving and snorkeling. There are also about 11,000 square kilometers of coral reefs. Over two hundred endemic species live there as well.

Agriculture and fishing are two of the economic staples, with a growing tourism industry due to the idyllic natural resources. So, switching to renewable energy sources makes good sense both for public health and ecological reasons. When Palawan becomes a green province, it will probably become an effective selling point for tourism. Currently, the Philippines employs geothermal and biomass as their top renewables.

Repost.Us - Republish This Article

This article, 100% Renewable Energy Is Goal For Philippines Province Palawan, is syndicated from Clean Technica and is posted here with permission.

About the Author

Jake Richardson Hello, I have been writing online for some time, and enjoy the outdoors. If you like, you can follow me on Google Plus: https://plus.google.com/u/0/103554956530757893412/

.

Related Posts