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.

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Hitachi Unveils All-in-One Container Energy Storage System

by Zachary Shahan

Hitachi, a large, Tokyo-based global electronics company, has unveiled an energy storage system aimed at complementing solar and wind power developments — “CrystEna” (Crystal+Energy). CrystEna incorporates a wide range of electricity grid technologies from Hitachi.

It isn’t yet ready for the commercial market, however. Plans are to implement a demonstration project in the United States to evaluate its commercial competitiveness.

Hitachi Energy Storage System plugs into the larger grid, local solar or wind farms, or small-scale hydro power and stabilizes and modulates power loads, in addition to storing power in the massive battery.
Hitachi Energy Storage System plugs into the larger grid, local solar or wind farms, or small-scale hydro power and stabilizes and modulates power loads, in addition to storing power in the massive battery.

With several decades of energy storage experience, Hitachi could be a major player in this arena as the industry grows by leaps and bounds. CrystEna incorporates Hitachi Group technologies and expertise from the following fields: electricity generation, transmission and distribution, grid stabilization, batteries, power conditioning systems (PCS), control systems, and more.

The 1 MW lithium-ion battery energy storage system package announced today utilizes Hitachi Chemical’s lithium-ion batteries to raise system performance, such as extended expected battery lifetime, and realize high economic viability.

It was developed with an emphasis on maximizing the benefits to be obtained by customers during long-term use, Hitachi writes.

Initially, Hitachi will conduct field trials in the rapidly growing U.S. ancillary market and plans to accumulate know-how from testing battery capacity optimality and durability as well as the control algorithms written to maximize income from power sales.

This article, All-in-One Container-Type Energy Storage System From Hitachi Unveiled, is syndicated from Clean Technica and is posted here with permission.

About the Author

Zachary ShahanZachary Shahan is the director of CleanTechnica, the most popular cleantech-focused website in the world, and Planetsave, a world-leading green and science news site. He has been covering green news of various sorts since 2008, and he has been especially focused on solar energy, electric vehicles, and wind energy for the past four years or so. Aside from his work on CleanTechnica and Planetsave, he’s the Network Manager for their parent organization – Important Media – and he’s the Owner/Founder of Solar Love, EV Obsession, and Bikocity. To connect with Zach on some of your favorite social networks, go to ZacharyShahan.com and click on the relevant buttons.

Solar: The ‘No-Brainer’ That Could Take Suburbs Off Grid

by Giles Parkinson

Australia solar
Australia solar

Originally published on RenewEconomy

The installation of rooftop-solar has become such a “no brainer” for Australian households that whole suburbs could generate and store enough electricity to go-off grid.

That is the remarkable vision painted by Australian Renewable Energy Agency CEO Ivor Frischknecht last week in a keynote speech at the All Energy conference in Melbourne. Frischknecht told the conference that one-in-eight houses across the country had solar, and one-in-five houses in South Australia and Queensland. A recent survey found that 88 per cent of Australians support the idea of rooftop solar.

“(Support for solar) is a no-brainer in most respects,” Frischknecht told the conference. “Rooftop PV makes energy costs more predictable and increasingly saves money, which is particularly pertinent for low income earners.”

But to what extent will they take it up? As Frischneckt noted, the huge uptake of solar is having an impact on incumbent utilities, who are now struggling to recoup the billions invested in network upgrades and expansions, and who are looking to pass on those costs to other users.

That in turn is leaving to a vicious circle which is pushing electricity costs up even higher, and making rooftop solar, and new technologies such as battery storage, even more attractive.

Frischknect said he knew many examples of city folk who had gone off grid – including in Sydney’s North Bondi. He recalled that ARENA chairman Greg Bourne had told an energy conference in Canberra the previous week that in the not-too-distant-future whole suburbs could embrace distributed generation and, by generating their own power, have no need to be connected to the grid at all.

That, needless to say, is a shock to the system for the incumbents, although it shouldn’t come as a surprise. Even Ergon Energy, which delivers electricity to regional and remote users in Queensland, where distribution costs are higher, made the same prediction just over a week ago.

In Germany, thousands of towns and villages are looking to “buy back the grid” from the commercial operators, reasoning that the arrival of distributed energy solutions, including storage, means that they are probably better placed to look after their own needs. Cities such as Boulder in the US are looking to do the same thing.

Which would be the first suburb or township to do so in Australia? Most likely a regional centre where farmers make heavy use of energy, for irrigation for example. Robert Mierisch, the Australian co-founder of solar technology group Terrajoule bets it will be a regional town in regional NSW or Queensland that goes first.

“We’re at the stage now where a rural town in western NSW could decide to stop buying electricity from the grid, and do whatever is necessary to reduce consumption, install storage and local generation and buy the distribution network back from the operator,” he told RenewEconomy in a recent interview. (We’ll have more from that interview sometime soon).

The reaction of many of Australia’s incumbent utilities – be they network providers or generators – has been to vilify solar and seek tariff changes to protect their business models. Frischknecht himself noted that some distributors were preventing further solar connections, particularly in regional and rural locations.

But while some of the problems are technical, the major threat is economic, as Energex and studies such as those done by the APVA on Magnetic Island have suggested.

ARENA, however, is looking for means to help continue the proliferation of rooftop solar.

It commissioned a study from ACIL Allen Consulting that supported other findings that it is not the “hip and wealthy” inner-urban residents who have solar on their roofs, but people who live in the outer suburbs and in regional areas (see map above). “This is a pattern we see repeated across Australia,” says Frischknecht.

Indeed, the most likely homeowner with solar on the roof lives in a rural town, is aged over 54 and earns around $77,000 a year. But as this next graph below illustrates, there is surprisingly little difference in penetration across the income groups.

arena-solar-income

Still, many people are missing out. Solar is put almost exclusively on the rooftops of owner occupier. That’s because they gain the benefits of lower energy bills.

ARENA is now looking to help support financing models that will help deliver rooftop solar to lower income families who cannot afford the up-front payments, and to provide the right incentives for those living in rental accommodation or in apartment blocks.

The first of these is to support the “leasing” model that allows households to install rooftop solar with no money down. This accounts for ¾ of installations in California, and while some firms have introduced this into Australia, Frischknecht says the take-up has been slow.

Part of the reason has been the cost of finance: bankers are applying “first of a kind” premiums, because they haven’t seen the business model before and don’t know for sure the key metrics – such as the default and loss rates. That premium creates extra cost and makes the leasing option less attractive.

ARENA is looking at a model and a mechanism that could provide that “first of a kind” financing, to prove the model, and allow financing costs to fall.

The second financial model is focused not on leasing modules, but on leasing roof-space. This could be applied to rental properties and apartment blocks, where developers pay “rent” for the use of a rooftop and sell the output to the residents or other local customers.  Frischknecht says it may be that ARENA will create a separate fund that could help finance such investment.

All of this will be of interest to the new federal Government, which as part of its “million solar roofs” program wants to focus on the lower income sector for any incentives. That program nominally has a $500 cash back subsidy, but it could be that the government will find the ARENA approach a lot more attractive.

The studies are part of a broader “integrating renewables’ project that ARENA is undertaking. This will include adding storage to solar, and looking to see where such installations would be a benefit to a network, and where they would not.

“There is much more to the PV story than just putting panels on a residential room” Frischknecht says. “It involves giving control to consumers, reducing user costs, development of a viable Australian industry bristling with technological know- how, and the creation of new jobs, skills and investment that will strengthen the Australian economy.

“And that’s just rooftop PV, from within the much larger suite of solar energy solutions.”

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This article, Solar: The ‘No-Brainer’ That Could Take Suburbs Off Grid, is syndicated from Clean Technica and is posted here with permission.

About the Author

Giles Parkinson is the founding editor of RenewEconomy.com.au, an Australian-based website that provides news and analysis on cleantech, carbon, and climate issues. Giles is based in Sydney and is watching the (slow, but quickening) transformation of Australia’s energy grid with great interest.

5 Barriers To and Solutions For — Community Renewable Energy

by John Farrell – Special to JBS News

Community renewable energy has significant political and economic benefits, but is often hindered by five major barriers. Read on for a summary of the five barriers, watch them in a 17-minute presentation, or check out the vividly illustrated slideshow.

Barrier one is tradition. Utilities are simply used to operating a grid in a 20th century model, where large-scale power plants are connected in a top-down, one-way grid to power consumers. Policies that have allowed for on-site solar and wind generation, for consumers to be instead producers, have nibbled at the margins of this tradition.  It’s only in the past year that utilities have realized how low-cost solar power can fundamentally up-end their entire business model. And the response has often been to entrench.

A second barrier facing community-based renewable energy is capital — upfront cash to buy a solar array or wind turbine. And the biggest cause is securities law and regulations, intended to prevent fraud like perpetrated by Bernie Madoff and others, that makes pooling capital very difficult for groups of interested local power investors. The federal or state rules often come with high compliance costs or significant limitations that hinder most efforts to raise community capital.

A third barrier is cash flow. American renewable energy policy is a byzantine array of tax incentives, rebates, and bill credits that can challenge a CPA. Figuring out how to pool all these revenue streams together to make a project with reasonable payback is a significant challenge.

A fourth barrier is legal, because of the mis-match between federal renewable energy incentives paid through the tax code and the non-taxable status of many of the logical entities for organizing community renewable energy projects. Want to use a city, county, cooperative, or non-profit structure for your community solar project?  Then you may have to forgo the 30% federal tax credit.  A level playing field for energy cooperatives is a major reason the Germans have such high levels of local ownership of their 63,000 MW renewable energy economy.

Finally, utilities themselves (as implied in #1) have acted as barriers to more community-based renewable energy.  In particular, policies like the “15% Rule” have set artificially (and arbitrarily) low limits on distributed generation under the guise of system safety.

The good news is that the barriers are being broken. 

Tradition has been tossed as utilities have had to grapple with state policies encouraging distributed generation and solar power and others have embraced pro-active measures to accommodate more local renewable energy. Crowdfunding opportunities like those offered by Mosaic are giving people an unprecedented opportunity to pool their money to go renewable. The falling cost of solar is rapidly making incentives unimportant in many areas, reducing the problems caused by half baked, tax-based federal policy.

Most importantly, utilities, regulators, and policy makers are recognizing that the 20th century model of concentrated power and capital doesn’t serve a distributed, 21st century grid.  And as that aging paradigm crumbles, community renewable energy will grow up through the cracks.

This article, 5 Barriers To And Solutions For Community Renewable Energy, is syndicated from Clean Technica and is posted here with permission.

About the Author

John Farrell directs the Energy Self-Reliant States and Communities program at ILSR and he focuses on energy policy developments that best expand the benefits of local ownership and dispersed generation of renewable energy. His latest paper, Democratizing the Electricity System, describes how to blast the roadblocks to distributed renewable energy generation, and how such small-scale renewable energy projects are the key to the biggest strides in renewable energy development. Farrell also authored the landmark report Energy Self-Reliant States, which serves as the definitive energy atlas for the United States, detailing the state-by-state renewable electricity generation potential. Farrell regularly provides discussion and analysis of distributed renewable energy policy on his blog, Energy Self-Reliant States (energyselfreliantstates.org), and articles are regularly syndicated on Grist and Renewable Energy World.

John Farrell can also be found on Twitter @johnffarrell, or at jfarrell@ilsr.org.

Making Solar Affordable To Those Who Cant Afford

By Katie Valentine – Special to JBS News

Originally published on Climate Progress.

Rick Lopez said he felt like he’d won the lottery.

Lopez, a 63-year-old Vietnam veteran and Denver, CO resident, had a 3-kilowatt solar system installed on his house by a group of volunteers on Wednesday, completely free of charge. The project was initiated by GRID Alternatives, a nonprofit organization whose story was highlighted in the Denver Post this week. Lopez’s new system should provide power for 60 to 100 percent of his home’s electricity, and will save him hundreds of dollars in electricity costs each year.

“We would never have been able to do this on our own,” Rick’s wife Roberta Lopez told the Denver Business Journal. “We take it as a blessing.”

California-based GRID Alternatives installs solar systems on low-income households in California, Colorado and soon, in New York and New Jersey. The organization has installed 3,500 solar systems in California so far, projects that according to the organization have saved the homeowners $80 million in energy costs and will result in the reduction of 250,000 tons of greenhouse gasses over their lifetimes.

Once the solar system is installed, the homeowner pays GRID two cents for every kilowatt-hour that the solar panels produce, which typically results in energy bill savings of 80 percent. If the system produces all the household’s energy, a homeowner in Colorado would pay just $13 per month to GRID, compared to the state’s average $75.67 electricity bill.

“It’s really just a huge relief for those families,” Julian Foley, GRID Alternative’s communication manager told Denver Westword. “They can spend money on other things they need… That’s spending money that goes back to the community.”

And the free installation is key — though the price of installing solar in the U.S. has fallen to record lows, it’s still out of reach for many Americans. The solar systems GRID installs can cost up to $17,000, but grants bring the cost down to about $5,000.

GRID depends on volunteers to complete the installations, a setup which, along with donated equipment and corporate backing, helps make the organization’s work possible. But job trainees also work on installations — the organization partners with local community colleges and organizations like Veterans Green Jobs to provide job training for the clean energy sector. Through these partnerships, the organization also finds people who are eligible to receive free solar systems — those at an income level of 80 percent or below their area’s median level.

In California, the work GRID does also gets state funding through the Single-family Affordable Solar Homes Program (SASH). The program provides up-front rebates for low-income families who want to install solar systems, and GRID is the program manager for SASH’s $108 million in funds. The program will run until December 2015 or until the funding runs out — and as the demand for SASH and its counterpart, the Multi-family Affordable Solar Homes Program, which provides rebates for affordable housing projects, grows, the second scenario is looking more realistic. A bill has been taken up in the California Assembly to extend funding of the program to 2021.

Though it might be one of the most extensive, GRID isn’t the only group that aims to bring clean energy and energy efficiency to low-income Americans. Washington, D.C. provides a low-income option for its renewable energy incentive program, and in New York City, Enterprise Community Partners is building super-efficient affordable housing buildings — a new 197-unit development New York City is LEED and Energy Star certified and has 214-kilowatt solar system on its roof. A New York state program provides free insulation, draft reduction, high efficiency lighting and appliance upgrades to low-income residents, and Vermont has a similar program.

This article, Making Solar Affordable To Those Who Can’t Afford, is syndicated from Clean Technica and is posted here with permission.