Reader Opinion
Any opinions voiced below are those of the authors only, and not necessarily endorsed by Competitive Assets

November 3, 2017

Reducing Vulnerability of Electric Power Grid to Extreme Weather Events.

By Gavin Dillingham

This article originally appeared on the HARC Blog

The primary story line for Hurricane Harvey is the amount of rain that it dropped on southeast Texas. Some estimates have the total amount at about 27 trillion gallons of water, approximately 86,000 Astrodomes. Much of the region saw significant flooding and recovery will take some time. Fortunately, Hurricane Harvey did not cause significant, long-term power outages. There were a large number, estimates range up to 800,000 customers, but my no means the power outages that were seen during Hurricane Ike, where 2.1 million customers in CenterPoint’s territory alone lost power1. Many of these customers were without power for several weeks. Hurricane Irma looks to put millions of utility of customers in the dark, as well.

Hurricanes and tropical storms are just one of the increasing number of natural disaster events that are threatening our electric power system. Ice storms, tornadoes and wildfires in 2017 have also resulted in significant power outages for the state. To see the national extent of this disaster potential check out the DOE report titled “US Energy Sector Vulnerabilities to Climate Change and Extreme Weather.”2

Fortunately, the threat to our electric power system continues to be on many people’s agendas. The National Academies Press has just published a report titled “Enhancing the Resilience of the Nation’s Electric System3.” This report considers a multi-pronged threat to our system including cyber, physical and natural disaster threats. I will be in Washington DC this week discussing the natural disaster risk findings of this report with the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.

For all of the risks, there are a variety
of technology and data solutions that are actively being deployed that can minimize them.

Deploy Resilient Technologies
First, in light of our current situation, microgrids should be further deployed to reduce risk of hurricanes, tropical storms and flooding. Microgrids are mini-power systems for a building, campus, neighborhood, that typically have a variety of generation resources working together including a combined heat and power system, solar panels, and/or batteries. Microgrids and particularly microgrids with CHP are being considered more often to increase the resilience of critical infrastructure, including hospitals, wastewater and water treatment plants, police and fire stations, data centers, emergency centers, etc. It is estimated that approximately 3.7 GW of microgrid systems will be deployed by 2020.4 Small in comparison to other resources, but a very important resource as we look for systems that are resilient and have demonstrated their efficacy through a wide number of natural disaster events. To be resilient, these systems must be placed above predicted flood levels, have black start capability; must be able to operate independent from the grid, have appropriate switch gear controls and ample carrying capacity. An emerging funding mechanism to pay for these these systems may be resilience bonds. These bonds are to be issued to mitigate risk to critical infrastructure. This bond type has yet to be issued but has received a recent push by the insurance industry because of a desire reduce risk exposure to natural disasters. Technical resources also exist to help deploy CHP and microgrids. This includes DOE’s CHP Deployment program. Under this program, HARC has partnered with the DOE to operate the Southwest CHP Technical Assistance Partnership.

The second risk that is not so apparent now, but was a real problem a few years ago, is extreme drought and heat. Approximately 85% of power generation in the United States requires water for cooling. Due to drought risk, there should be greater emphasis on deploying systems that do not require water to operate5 . Water supply is a problem for states such as Texas that have been known to experience long-term droughts. The 2011 and 2012 Texas droughts resulted in the curtailment of power generation across the state. Besides drought, many western states see significant water risk due to growing demand for water by communities, agriculture and industry. Two generation systems that require no water to operate are PV solar6 and wind7 systems. These systems have been deployed at a growing rate, but will need financial resources and regulatory certainty to scale more quickly. A potential financial solution could be the master limited partnerships. This would put renewables on a more even playing field with fossil fuel assets that already use this funding mechanism. Green bonds are another possible solution that should receive further consideration.

Build to a Certain Standard
No matter what weather event is being prepared for, it is highly recommended that utilities and power system developers begin to design their power generation systems and transmission and distribution infrastructure to meet resilience standards like PEER (Performance Excellence in Electricity Renewal). PEER is a rating process designed to measure and improve sustainable power system performance. PEER is a voluntary program that utilities and power providers can work toward. A PEER rated power system meets strict criteria for reliability and resilience, operational effectiveness and environmental standards.

Improve Decision Making
It is difficult to determine the timing, the location and intensity of extreme weather events. With this level of uncertainty and when financial resources are limited, it is challenging to make the appropriate investment decisions. When decisions are not made, infrastructure is not built and our systems are not prepared. The result is significant damage and loss. However, recently there has been some progress in better understanding future climate patterns. Progress is being made with climate models that are greatly improving our understanding of the likelihood and intensity of future storms. Down-scaled regional climate models, developed by organizations like Texas Tech University’s Climate Science Center, are helping planners and decision makers to make more informed decisions. As our understanding improves better decisions can be made that will result in more resilient power infrastructure.

Solutions exists and new solutions are coming online to reduce the risk to our electric power systems. I discuss only a couple of options and their role in mitigating the risk of certain natural disaster events. For a resilient power system, there is not just one or two solutions, there are a number of solutions and combination of solutions that must be deployed. For example, utility scale wind is great for drought scenarios, but may be vulnerable to high wind events, tornadoes and ice storms.

To scale these solutions quickly will require political will and considerable funding. The funding is there, but due to the political environment, it is largely sitting on the sideline. The political will has been a bit slow catching up. Regulations and policies must catch up with the reality that power systems are facing. The way is clear, the political will is less certain.

6http://www.seia.org/research-resources/us-solar-market-insight 7https://energy.gov/eere/wind/maps/wind-vision


April 27, 2017

A Future Without Zero-Emission Electricity Generation

Close your eyes and imagine the world 75 years from today.

If you’re at all familiar with the sci-fi genre, you can probably imagine a society built on the standard retinue of flying cars, telepathic phone calls, and the like. After all, about the same amount of time passed from the Wright Brothers’ first flight to NASA’s launch of Space Shuttle Columbia—anything is possible.

Without a doubt, however, the future you’re imagining is an overwhelmingly clean one.

The idea that all of our pollution-related problems will somehow be resolved through technological advance is a very popular one.

The issue with this idea is that it effectively leaves the responsibility for those technologies up to other people—you don’t feel personally responsible for the quality of the air you breathe.

This shift in responsibility could deeply affect whether humanity thrives or barely survives as we barrel towards the 22nd century. Our global megacities could easily start to look more like New Delhi instead of any enlightened, hyper-clean sci-fi society.

What Could The Future Look Like Without Zero-Emission Technology?

In reality, if the move towards zero-emission electricity generation isn’t made on a large scale, future socio-economic classes will effectively be divided between two major categories of earners:

  • Those who make enough money to afford clean air;
  • Those for whom city living is equal to living in a coal mine.

In a small, yet not insignificant way, this is already happening. Companies around the world try their hand at commercializing clean air. A report by the New York Times identifies at least three businesses selling jars of unpolluted air for as much as $100 a piece.

If this is the beginning of a new market, it’s one that threatens to set a dangerous precedent and normalize our collective feelings about pollution.

There is a way out, however, and it relies on technology available today, not the exotic zero-emission technology of tomorrow. Wind energy is both renewable and pollution-free; all it needs is enough infrastructure and land to become our first-choice source of electrical power.

What You Can Do: Install a Zero-Emission Power Generator On Your Property

Wind farms are highly competitive power generators that produce zero emissions. Unlike nuclear power, they pose no health risks and generate no waste.

In many places around the globe, wind energy is already turning otherwise vacant land into profit—a school district in Lincolnview, Ohio is using wind energy to fund much-needed educational programs, for instance.

So what part can you play in the energy of the future?

If you own land in a windy area, you can earn passive income through partnership with a wind energy developer.

If you are an investor, you can take advantage of the increasing need for wind energy, riding the crest of this oncoming wave of investment and reaping considerable profits as it gains momentum.

Even if you are neither a landowner or an investor, you can take part in this budding global phenomenon by powering your home or business with renewable energy credits. The creation of a clean, thriving future depends on the adoption of zero-emission electricity generation—make your first step towards that future today.

Susy Bento
Alcen Renewable

Mar 7, 2017

Why We Need Microgrids With Storage In ERCOT

As renewables such as wind and solar continue to grow in ERCOT, there is an ever increasing mismatch between the production of renewable energy and the consumption of energy.  In the not too distant future ERCOT total system wind production will exceed the demand during some light load periods.  Storage could be used to capture the excess wind and make it available at other hours.  When ERCOT has a significant amount of solar, such as 20,000 MW, there will begin to be too much solar power produced at times.  Storage could be used to move the excess solar energy to night time and cloudy days.

ERCOT is implementing a market for fast response power (FAST), however the energy in this system is minuscule compared to what the system will actually need.  The FAST program will only be able to finance projects with short run times, minutes at the most.  What we will need is hours of storage.  The capital cost of hours of battery storage is very high.  The best price for large scale battery storage has been about $400/kWh.  Recently a salt water battery by Aquina is now offered at $250/kWh.  Tesla announced their own battery at $250/kWh, so the battery price war is now on.

Batteries could be installed on the grid or at the end user’s homes.  Let’s assume the grid storage is for 1 million homes with each home having a 50 kWh EV.  50 kWh is about the amount of energy needed to fully charge an EV with 200 miles range.  On the grid this battery cost would be 50*250=$12,500 million to provide power for 1 million homes with EVs.

A $12.5 billion dollar battery storage system cannot be financed by ERCOT under the current rules.  It doesn’t even make sense to socialize this cost because it would impact people who do not own EVs or have their own solar panels.  We have to conclude from this example that ERCOT battery storage cannot be financed and thus will never happen unless rules are changes.  We need a new approach to make the batteries happen.  They definitely are needed on the grid from an electrical standpoint.

That same 50 kWh battery is $12,500 for a homeowner who owns a much more expensive EV and solar panels.  The homeowner could be given many incentives to purchase this battery for his home.  These incentives are not costs to other customers.  The microgrid owner would benefit in these ways;

1) operation independently off the grid during an extended outage (storms, hurricanes),
2) integration of solar panels, EVs, and battery with a smartgrid controller (anything else is not smart),
3) the smartgrid controller manages everything in the home locally, providing additional security,
4) peak demand side management avoids peak demand charges which the smart customer needs to be charged,
5) is given an opportunity to purchase low cost power at times of wind and solar over production,
6) provides an electronic quick EV charging system off the grid not possible using grid storage, and
7) allows microgrid owners to enter into sources of power that would not otherwise happen, such as nuclear power.

Grid storage is dead on arrival because it cannot be financed.  Microgrids could happen if sufficient incentives are provided to the developers and owners of microgrids.  The microgrid incentives are not costs to other customers.  More likely non microgrid customers will also see lower costs, such as not having to pay for expensive gas generators being on line during light load periods with poor heat rates as spinning reserve.  This cost can be avoided if 1 million 50 kWh batteries are out there on the grid to provide instant power.

Gene Preston PE PhD

Nov 2, 2015

Re: TEW: Oncor’s Storage Pilot

This is an important project and will put Oncor on the cutting technology edge of how to make a microgrid system work smoothly on and off the ERCOT grid.   ERCOT needs to be working with Oncor on how communications between this system and ERCOT operations can be performed since the microgrid offers advantages to the ERCOT system that ERCOT should begin planning to take advantage of. The ETWG needs to become more aware of these advantages.  I am scheduled to give a presentation to the ETWG at their next meeting, now scheduled for December, and I should include some bullet points at the end of my presentation on how microgrids can overcome the problems I will be talking about when wind and solar produce excessive amounts of power and at other times there is not enough power in ERCOT.  The microgrid can play an important role for both these future ERCOT problems.

Gene Preston PE, PhD
Austin, Texas

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April 29, 2015

Repatriating our tax dollars – an argument for an audacious Texas RPS

By Howard “Scot” Arey
Texas Solar Energy Society

“It’s the economy, stupid.”  How many times have we been reminded of that famous advice from a presidential candidate’s adviser in 1992 about keeping the campaign on message? Well, I have found reason to invoke that phrase once again! Policies matter with respect to economic growth. I’m going to explain how this is relevant to solar energy. Putting solar on Texas rooftops is an economic boon just waiting to happen. It will pay dividends to the state today, in the immediate years ahead, and most importantly for the decades ahead as Texas grows more than ever imagined. I recently had the privilege of testifying before Texas House and Senate committees regarding the closing of loopholes that allow developers to restrict solar during “development phases.” It was a productive day and I was impressed by the thoughtfulness of the questions from legislators. Still, I knew that my comments needed to hit a theme that was important to all the members of those committees. Well, here it comes: “It’s the economy, stupid.”

The financial math for solar is a no-brainer. 

Every solar system installed on a home or business is eligible for a 30% Federal tax credit.  At the hearings, I carefully chose my words: “Every local installation earns a 30% federal tax credit that keeps dollars from the IRS in Washington and instead puts those dollars into Texas consumers’ pockets–dollars they spend right here in this state.” It’s that simple. I tell my customers that this is the best way to pay their taxes. Put a solar system on your rooftop and the Federal government will give you back a substantial portion of the taxes you’ve paid. What could be more satisfying to any Texan!!

I’ve read reports that Texas has nearly 30,000 homes with solar right now.  Let’s say we double this next year – not impossible and perhaps conservative based on the exponential rate of growth of residential solar.  If each of these homes installed a system with an average value of $20,000 (about a 6KW project, producing roughly 10,000kwh of electricity), that would be…

…$180,000,000 of federal taxes that stayed in Texas

Here is where any policy wonks out there reading should pay attention. I’m no economist but I’m intrigued by the multiplying effect of dollars in a local economy. I was first introduced to it in real life when we were estimating the local value of a solar manufacturing plant in San Antonio. A term that is used on the consumer side is “marginal propensity to consume” and it refers to how locally retained dollars (that is, the money the consumer does not have pay for the installation due to the tax credit) will be spent on other products and services. Imagine what $180 million looks like spent though the Texas economy many times over. Add in the now-avoided electric utility costs and the economic impact further increases. (Note to some graduate student – make yourself famous and write a thesis on this subject).

Of course it’s not just the federal tax cut that we give ourselves.  Every solar installation is subject to state and local sales taxes for the material portion.  I know my company, Solar CenTex, has performed enough installations to offset the annual pay of a couple of teachers in the Killeen school district. More specifically to our example, the 30,000 homes with solar could generate nearly $34 million (30,000 homes times material cost of system, times about 8%) in state and local taxes that would certainly help our communities.

Finally, imagine the jobs created! Texas has been gaining in this area, but despite our vast solar resources we are only sixth nationally in this category.  Last year, I wrote a Solar Reflector article that pondered how cloudy Massachusetts could ever rank higher than Texas for solar jobs. The answer is that Massachusetts has very supportive pro-solar policies and that has sent a clear message to consumers and industry alike: it was eager for solar energy and wants the jobs that come with it.

Words matter. So does the perceived message that is sent by our leaders’ comments and legislative policy. Political leaders must embrace the direction that consumers wish to go and that leads to long-term economic growth. The Texas Renewable Portfolio Standard, originally passed in 1998 and increased since then, obtained for our state a number 1 position in wind energy. Now is not the time, when the nation is on the cusp of a solar revolution, to ditch that commitment, saying that it already “accomplished its mission.” What does that say to industry and consumers about the future and about Texas’ tradition of energy leadership?

Instead of abandoning the field to the policies of other states, imagine if our leaders said something like this:

“Texas has met its original Renewable Portfolio Standard many years ahead of schedule. The RPS is a how we set big, audacious goals for our state. This session, we’re raising the bar with the goal of 300,000 Texas homeowners installing distributed solar at their homes, farms, ranches, and businesses by 2025 to ensure that Texas dollars stay right here in Texas, to build our economy with well-paying jobs while helping us address the electricity challenges we’ll face in the decades ahead.”

I bet that bill might change some national perceptions and industry investment.


March 26, 2015

Re: Energy Department Releases New Wind Report, Examines Future of Industry

On 3/12/15 the Texas Electric News noted that the Department of Energy (DOE) released a new report Wind Vision: A New Era for Wind Power in the United States. I have reviewed the DOE vision for wind through 2050.  Thanks for the web link.  The study’s wind energy penetration to 35% by 2050 seems achievable.  The transmission map on page 180 seems a bit short on new lines to me.  I would estimate maybe twice as many new lines are needed by 2050 as shown in the diagrams based on my own wind ATC studies and experience.  The study lacks certain things such as: 1) a loss of load study, 2) the cost of the plan compared to alternative plans, 3) an overdependence on natural gas in 2050 (creating a new kind of reliability problem) and no good way to pay for that new gas plant capacity that runs for fewer and fewer hours each year as wind and solar are increased, 4) a too light treatment of wind maintenance issues, 5) no mention of public opposition to new power lines, 6) an assumption that nuclear plants are going to be retired without giving a reason why, 7) no discussion on how to transition off transportation fossil fuels, and 8) other issues.  The plan also lacks a vision of where we go after 2050.  There is still a lot of fossil fuel energy being used after 2050 in this plan.  In my opinion it’s an incomplete plan that fails to get us off fossil fuels by 2050.  You may publish this commentary on your website if you wish.

Gene Preston PE, PhD
Austin, Texas

Dec 17, 2014

Re: TEW: Tesla’s Batteries Deepen Utility Worries

The battery fears are overblown, sort of reminds me of y2k fears. Utilities will be able to take advantage of batteries if they truly are affordable.  ERCOT could use about 10 gigawatts of storage with an 8 hour capacity and be able to shave off about 10 GW of peaking  generation capacity.  I don’t think the market in ERCOT will support it even if simulation of the system shows it would save everyone money. The market is just too messed up to work on high capital cost projects.  Maybe the batteries can be a sort of CREZ project subsidized by all of us, but do we want to spend billions more?  That might drive customers to disconnect from the grid, just what the utilities fear most if rates get too high. Certainly if we had Germany’s residential rates of 35 cents per kwh a home off the grid with solar panels and batteries may look attractive.

Gene Preston
Austin, Texas

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