Rutgers Energy Institute talks 'watts' new with September lecture series


Solar energy has grown in leaps and bounds from where it began years ago.

Colin McCormick, a Washington, D.C.-based researcher at the World Resources Institute, is an energy technology analyst studying renewable solar power. He spoke at the first Energy Policy Series lecture hosted by the Rutgers Energy Institute last Friday.

“Solar and wind electric generation are growing as the costs come down, more and more solar and wind plants are being built,” McCormick said. “Unlike conventional plants like coal and gas, you can’t control when (renewables) generate power … so utilities are having to get a lot smarter about how to time and balance it.”

Robert Kopp, associate director of the Rutgers Energy Institute, organizes the lecture series. Bringing a wide range of perspectives on the energy field to a student audience is the main goal of the series, he said.

“Some of our speakers are on the forefront of this field and can give real-world, seasoned experience into this,” Kopp said. “Combine that with people who have served in academic activities.”

The Desert Sunlight Solar Farm in California’s Mojave Desert is one of the largest solar plants in the world, he said. It serves as a "brilliant" example of a major renewable power plant.

The talk highlighted the falling costs of renewables, especially photovoltaic solar power and concentrated solar power.

According to renewablegreenenergy.com, photovoltaic cells generate a direct current from sunlight while concentrated solar power uses the sun’s heat to power a generator by agitating liquids.

Kopp said a finding showed 30 countries have significant regions with solar grid parity, meaning solar power is as cost-competitive as conventional power sources in these regions.

McCormick said Europe’s March solar eclipse proves that an electric grid with solar power as a major source can be resilient, despite solar power’s variability.

Although the eclipse completely prevented solar power generation, European grid operators were able to successfully use other sources to make up for the lost solar power, he said.

Islands can serve as testing grounds for integrating renewable energy into the electric grid.

The Pacific island of Tokelau, a New Zealand territory, was once entirely dependent on diesel, but now 91 percent of its electricity is generated by solar power, McCormick said.

Tokelau received financial and technical support from outside agencies, including the New Zealand government, but the impetus to use solar power came from Tokelau, he said.

Tokelau was able to find the political will to switch because importing diesel is both expensive and unreliable in emergencies, he said. It is also close to sea level and sea level rise caused by climate change will have a major impact on the island.

Kodiak, Alaska is another island community that decided to switch to renewable energy.

This island was previously dependent on diesel and hydroelectric power. It now gets 99 percent of its power from renewables, due to installation of wind turbines and additional hydroelectric turbines, he said.

This has allowed the Kodiak salmon industry to market its products as produced in a sustainable way.

Hawaii has a much larger power grid than these two islands. McCormick said he examined some of the complexities and challenges of renewable energy in Hawaii.

Hawaii has the highest rooftop photovoltaic solar panel penetration rate in the country. Many households produce more electricity than they need and feed their surplus electricity into the grid, leaving them with no charges on their electric bill, he said.

Utility companies face a problem, because they must still maintain the power grid infrastructure but do not receive payment from many households, he said. This has led to a conflict between utility companies and solar developers.

Former New Jersey Gov. James Florio said many solar power systems in Hawaii are microgrids, or locally-based power grids.

Integrating renewables reduces dependence on large-scale power grids, he said.

“I have taught for about 20 years at the Bloustein School with a large focus on energy and the environment, so when I heard about this program I wanted to come listen,” Florio said.

One of the biggest issues in grid integration of renewable energy is forecasting load and generation, McCormick said. Load refers to electricity demand and generation refers to electricity produced and supplied to the grid.

Forecasting is important since most grid operators set their production level one day ahead.

Load is relatively predictable, but wind and solar generation introduce major supply uncertainty, he said. Producing too much electricity is a waste of money while producing too little leads to demand shortage and lost revenue.

Significant progress has been made in the area of wind and solar power forecasting, he said.

Xcel Energy, a utility company, has developed a state of the art wind power forecasting model with the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, he said. It has reduced forecasting error by 40 percent, leading to savings of $40 million over four years.

India is the world’s fifth largest wind market but it suffers serious issues in wind power forecasting, McCormick said. Most wind power plants in India have little to no forecasting, with many plants simply guessing. As a result, between 30 and 50 percent of wind power is wasted.

A pilot project to improve forecasting is being implemented in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu to improve the efficiency of wind power, he said.


George Xie

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