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Integrating Renewables

Opportunity for advancement or exercise in futility?

Fortnightly Magazine - March 2010

both in quantity and complexity, forcing utilities to think of new ways to deliver increased load without the added costs or difficulty associated with new generation.

The electric utility industry has accepted these facts and is attempting to increase its emphasis on developing and deploying new and alternative forms of energy generation and storage. In order to come to fruition, the challenge of renewable integration will need to be addressed as a key science and technology issue.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has recognized these needs as a priority for its National Labs and, in an attempt to hasten development, has tasked them with investigating renewable integration and energy storage options, in cooperation with the private energy industry.

As new energy sources become essential to overall energy production and availability, the associated technologies and the ability to integrate them into the electric transmission and distribution grid becomes critical.

Renewable Characteristics

An energy resource qualifies as renewable if it is replenished by natural processes at a rate comparable to, or faster than, its rate of consumption by humans. This definition highlights two major dimensions of renewable energy:

• Sustainability: From an energy perspective, sustainability refers to a resource’s ability to be replenished at a rate comparable to, or greater than, the level at which it is used. By this definition, energy derived from traditional sources like coal and oil can’t be considered sustainable because at some point in the future they no longer will be available.

• Reduced Environmental Footprint: Renewable energy resources should, ideally, significantly reduce the emission of greenhouse gases (GHG) into the atmosphere, reduce the need for limited resources such as water, and avoid the creation of other waste products ( e.g., fly ash) that cannot be recycled easily. Reduction of waste and disposing of waste harmlessly also are areas of increased focus.

While both traditional and renewable sources of energy require financial investments, the former creates a situation in which the commodity costs of the fuel required to produce the energy will continue to increase ( i.e., as evidenced by the cost of gasoline last year), when at the same time, the potential of finding new sources of inexpensive fuels diminishes over time. A renewable resource, on the other hand, will continue delivering power over a much longer period of time at a consistent or reduced cost. Renewable resources will require a vastly different restriction on the generation of power. Fossil fuel-based generation ( e.g., coal, natural gas and oil) also creates GHG as a byproduct. Newly conceived financial systems are being developed ( e.g., carbon tax, cap and trade, etc.) to deal with the broader societal costs of these emissions, which also will result in increased costs for GHG-producing generation. The renewable sources of energy largely would be immune to these taxes because they don’t release GHG. As some of these programs are very aggressive, certain countries, as well as many U.S. states, have developed renewable portfolio standards (RPS) to promote development. Implementation of a national RPS standard currently is under debate