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Grid Integration of Renewable Energy

There has been significant development of green energy generation technologies in the past couple of years. The emphasis however has largely been on the “generation” aspect of energy and negligible in the “transportation” aspect. By transportation I refer to the process of delivering the energy across to a large number of consumers in an economical andefficient manner.

The transmission aspect of energy needs a thorough analysis of some of the fundamental aspects of energy generation. Renewable energy differs significantly from conventional fossil fuel power in a number of ways. Fossil fuels are in effect energy stockpiles (i.e. they contain energy that has been amassed over millions of years).  Such stockpiles provide high flexibility and the freedom to time the conversion process and place of conversion. In other words it is possible to have a power station and thus a corresponding power grid in the middle of nowhere provided there are associated benefits.

Renewable energy, particularly solar and wind are not conventional stockpiles. Solar energy is periodic, variable but consistently available over a period of time and is virtually inexhaustible. The same could be said for wind with much less consistency. The process of energy conversion, in the case of renewable sources is thus, a dynamic energy conversion process as opposed to a static stockpile conversion in the case of fossil fuels.  It’s not possible to have a wind or solar farm anywhere you want, so the creation of a successful grid for transmission of renewable power would need a paradigm shift in process planning.

Specifically, this process needs a focus on energy capture, storage and monitoring of the energy generation process. Since renewable energy is dynamic, research into the domains of weather forecasting and impact of geography on energy output would be critical in predicting the associated energy output over an extended period of time.  Finally, integration of disperse power sources into a central grid would pose a critical challenge because existing grid mechanisms that have been in place for decades would need an upgrade.  For instance the European Grid was installed in the 1950s and was not designed for two way traffic or specifically to take input form numerous dispersed sources.

A popular grid management process is the vehicle to grid (V2G), process. This technology allows for a method of integration of electric vehicles and plug in hybrids to the existing power grid. Essentially it allows for flow of electricity from car’s battery to power lines and vice versa. In a V2G mode, the car battery charge increases or decreases depending on the grids energy demand. Thus the battery acts as a “sponge “and provides an alternative to reduce utilities expense on generating stations for balancing the grid. Additionally the V2G technology allows for charging of the battery as well.

University of Delaware is investigating V2G concepts that would allow for mass adoption of the technology. Willett Kempton, UD associate professor of marine policy and a V2G pioneer says “A car sitting there with a tank of gasoline in it, that’s useless. If it’s a battery storing a lot of electricity and a big plug that allows moving power back and forth quickly, then it’s valuable.” And exactly how valuable is it ? Well it takes utilities an estimated $4000 an year to maintain grid balance. Utilizing car batteries, for grid management would mean saving on this expense partly and thus a fraction of the saving could be given to the car owner.

So in essence, if you have an electric car, you could get paid for charging its batteries!  It’s not without some challenges though. The biggest is having an efficient battery technology for electric cars. Additionally, integration of several localized batteries into a grid would be a huge process, the reliability of which is unclear.

There have been developments towards achieving a smart grid.  GridPoint , a leading clean tech company is engaged in providing smart grid platforms to optimize grid management. The platform offered by GridPoint leverages IT to provide utilities an efficient network of distributed energy sources. Additionally some countries are also progressing towards adoption of smart meters.  Countries such as Italy and Sweden anticipate a full installation of smart meters by year 2009.  This technology is also being introduced on a large scale in Denmark, Finland and Austria.

The future of smart grids would largely be IT driven. A smart grid would essentially allow for a dynamic two way interaction between power consumers and generators. The grid would also assimilate information regarding anticipated power generation as a function of local weather conditions and leverage heavily on the power of internet in the coming decade.

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