New Energy Storage and Grid Technologies Essential to Renewables, Report Says

Tom Johnson | November 18, 2010 | Energy & Environment
Scientists say this is the time to start integrating renewable energy into the nation's long-distance transmission grid

The sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow, although, happily, both did yesterday.

But that basic fact underscores one of the great challenges in ending the nation’s and New Jersey’s heavy reliance on fossil fuels to generate electricity. Doing so depends on renewable energy, primarily solar and wind.

Unless the nation focuses more closely on developing energy storage technologies and modernizing its long-distance transmission system, it will be difficult for New Jersey and 29 other states to meet tough renewable energy targets, such as the 30 percent by 2020 goal the Garden State has set.

That’s one of the conclusions of “Integrating Renewable Electricity on the Grid,” a 36-page report released this week by the American Physical Society Panel on Public Affairs. The research recommends government agencies begin to take steps now to integrate renewable energy into the nation’s transmission grids.

Picking Up the Pace

“We need to move faster to have storage ready to accommodate, for example, 20 percent of renewable electricity on the grid by 2020,” said George Crabtree, co-chairman of the study panel and a senior scientist at Argonne National Laboratory. “By devoting the necessary resources to the problem, I am confident that we can solve it.’’

The report, however, fails to address the cost of developing the storage to accommodate a greater reliance on renewables. It also does not calculate the cost of modernizing the grid to shunt power from places rich in wind and solar potential — the Midwest and Southwestern states — to areas where electricity demand is greatest, on both coasts.

“That was not in the scope of our charge,” said Jim Misewich, associate lab director at the Brookhaven National Laboratory, a co-author of the report, who is optimistic the task can be done.

“I’m not saying we’re going to solve these things in the next decade. There is a lot to do,” Misewich said. “But we are getting to a point where we have to face the challenges.”

Overhauling the Grid

Those challenges are not only technological and financial, but involve overhauling, and, perhaps, unifying the nation’s transmission grid. They also entail determining the right regulatory framework that will spur utilities and others to invest and receive an adequate return on their investment in the storage technology needed to bolster renewable energy, according to the report.

“Although small penetrations of renewable generation on the grid can be smoothly integrated, accommodating more than approximately 30 percent of electricity generation from these renewable energy sources will require new approaches to extending and operating the grid,” the report said.

Here’s why: Weather fluctuations can cause uncertainty in generation output on the scale of seconds, hours and days, the report said. Those fluctuations affect up to 70 percent of daytime solar capacity due to passing clouds and 100 percent of wind capacity on calm days for individual generation assets.

These issues hardly have been raised in New Jersey, where policymakers are pushing solar and offshore wind projects to replace conventional generation. That effort comes amid rising concern from business interests over how much the shift will increase already high energy bills. The Division of Rate Counsel recently projected consumers will pay up to $5 billion in subsidies to achieve the state’s offshore wind and solar targets over the next few decades.

The report recommends the U.S. Department of Energy increase research on materials to develop energy storage devices, an endeavor private companies and industry groups, like the Electric Power Research Institute, are already pursuing. It also suggested the federal agency focus on long-distance superconductivity cable to transfer renewable energy to areas of high demand.

Matt Elliott, clean energy advocate for Environment New Jersey, a group that has lobbied aggressively to increase the state’s renewable energy goals, said the report’s recommendations ought to be followed, but noted “we have a long way to go before we need wide-scale energy storage.’’

Before New Jersey has to worry about energy storage and modernizing the grid, the state should focus on reducing energy consumption and, then, promoting offshore wind and solar energy, two energy sources that can be developed locally, without the need for other improvements, Elliott said.