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What Are The Roadblocks To More Renewables?

Originally published on ABB Conversations.

Consumers and providers are eager for more renewable power. What’s standing in the way?

The following is a commentary from Bob Stojanovic and Dennis McKinley, Business Development Managers for Solar and Wind, respectively, at ABB in the United States.

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Bringing more renewable power to the grid is hot. We know this for sure after attending Automation & Power World in March. We arranged a session featuring CEOs from the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) and Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA). People were lined up along the back wall and out the door to hear what they had to say.

They talked about the perfect power world where solar energy takes you through the day, wind shoulders the load through the evening, and stored energy or other resources come online until morning. Repeat. This isn’t a blue-sky scenario. In areas where conditions are favourable, it’s being done now.

Technology isn’t the roadblock

We have the technology to successfully integrate distributed, renewable energy with the grid to provide a reliable, seamless power source. That includes software that helps renewable-power providers better predict their output throughout the day and feed that information upstream to utilities so they can blend that power with their traditional generation portfolio.

Energy storage technology is still one of the stumbling blocks to greater reliance on renewables, but people are finding ways to overcome that issue. Battery technology continues to improve, and organizations are deploying larger-scale battery storage facilities. There are also less traditional approaches like using excess electricity to produce hydrogen to later produce heat or power.

Technology vs. Philosophy

The real barrier to greater renewable use is less technological and more philosophical. People worry that that connecting all these renewable sources to the grid will bring it down. The word “grid” typically conjures up an image of a logically arranged mesh of interconnected nodes of generation or consumption. In fact, our grid is a series of spider webs that have been overlaid and interconnected over the decades. It’s a complex network that is desperately in need of significant upgrades. Still, we have the technology, and the grid has both the capacity and the resiliency to absorb all the renewable power we can currently throw at it.

Wrong-headed rate structures

Beyond overcoming our fear of overloading the grid, we also need a more logical approach to rate structures. In the US, we have a matrix of 50 sets of state regulations combined with thousands of rate structures for the many utilities, co-ops, and independent power providers that make up the power industry. The result is a complex and uncoordinated approach to power pricing that often creates disincentives for renewables.

Organizations that provide traditional power see more of their customers’ power demands being met by non-traditional generation. That reduces the utilities’ revenues but not the need or the cost to maintain the infrastructure for delivering that last mile of power to all customers when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow. Ultimately, we will need a mechanism to pay for grid upgrades and maintenance that is not based on volumetric sales of power.

Renewables outlook

The technology will continue to improve, attitudes and regulations will continue to change, and interest in bringing more renewable resources online will only grow in the coming years. It’s a great time to be part of the renewable-energy business.

Image Credit: Homeandgardners via flickr.com 

 
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