Wind and Solar Not Steady Enough for the National Grid

Tom Johnson | August 17, 2011 | Energy & Environment
New Jersey makes devising a storage system for intermittent sources of power a priority

There’s lot to like about solar and wind energy, if you discount the higher cost. They’re clean, with no greenhouse gas emissions, and they’re powered by resources that cost nothing when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing.

Therein lies the problem. As intermittent sources of power, wind and solar pose challenges to the operators of the nation’s regional power grids, whose highest priority is maintaining the reliability of a system that is the envy of the rest of the world for delivering electricity virtually all of the time.

If renewable energy is really going to take off, then the nation needs to develop a reliable system of storing the power produced by solar farms and wind turbines, a priority of the federal government and now the government of New Jersey.

In a solicitation offered by the New Jersey Office of Clean Energy, the agency is seeking applicants who have developed renewable energy storage projects, provided the venures have long-term contracts with renewable energy facilities. The office, a part of the Board of Public Utilities (BPU), is offering up to $7.4 million in incentives.

The solicitation also is seeking interest from developers of onshore wind and biomass projects greater than 1 megawatt, which have connected to the regional grid. Biomass includes burning crops, trees, wood and animal wastes to produce electricity. One megawatt produces enough electricity to power about 800 homes.

The proposal is part of the state’s effort to develop alternative forms of energy, particularly renewable sources and distributed generation. Distributed generation — power plants that serve a localized need –reduce congestion on the electric grid, which drives up the cost of electricity for consumers.

In its proposal, the state agency says it will give preference to projects that ease congestion on the grid. It also is interested in hearing from developers of energy storage.

“Energy storage is needed to balance out the system when you have intermittent resources, like solar and wind,” said Michael Winka, director of the Office of Clean Energy.

Energy storage, however, remains a challenge.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has given $185 million in funding to 16 projects around the country to research utility-scale energy storage.

Nonetheless, the Electric Power Research Institute noted that “despite the large need for energy storage solutions, very few grid-integrate storage installations are in actual operation in the U.S.” The institute, however, said that could change around 2012, when a host of new storage options supported by federal stimulus funding begins to emerge.

The new solicitation represents the state’s latest efforts to develop alternative energy projects. Its financial incentives helped the Atlantic County Utilities Authority develop the 7.5 megawatt wind farm in Atlantic City and also gave a financial boost to number of counties to extract methane from old garbage dumps to produce electricity.

New Jersey hopes to have 22.5 percent of the electricity used by customers in the state to be produced by renewable energy by 2020, a goal it has set in a draft energy master plan released by the Christie administration in June. The plan has come under fire from clean energy advocates who say it retreats from a 30 percent goal established under the Corzine administration.