US President* Donald Trump forged a path to the Oval Office on a pledge to support coal miners, their families, and their communities. With friends like this, who needs enemies? Under his watch the domestic coal industry has been withering away. In fact, the Trump administration is poised to give coal one last push into the dustbin of history. In the latest development, the Department of Energy has been working on a new “grid of the future” that accommodates renewable energy, decentralized power systems, and smart devices.
What Are Autonomous Energy Grids?
So, what about this grid of the future? DOE has been continuing work on its ongoing Grid Modernization Initiative all throughout the President’s term in office. The aim is to improve resiliency, security, and affordability. Among other elements, that means integrating more renewables and distributed energy resources into the grid.
If you think this spells bad news for coal, run right out and buy yourself a cigar.
This grid of the future idea spells even worse news. As part of the grid modernization R&D effort, NREL is developing the technological platform for networks of “Autonomous Energy Grids” that can efficiently manage smart devices, renewables, and advanced controls.
Got all that? There’s more (much more) in a long form article about decentralized power systems that popped up on the NREL website just yesterday. The lab explains why a next-level approach is needed:
“The future grid will be much more distributed [and] too complex to control with today’s techniques and technologies. We need a path to get there—to reach the potential of all these new technologies integrating into the power system.”
NREL calls Autonomous Energy Grids a “hard pivot” away from centralized control systems, in which controllers at central power plants send electricity to consumers along power lines. In contrast, bi-direction capability will be the foundational difference between tomorrow’s grid management systems and today’s.
The devil is in the details, but the general idea is to break the grid down into fractions that each perform at their personal bests:
“Sections, or ‘cells’ of AEG use pervasive communication and controllability to continually pursue their best operating conditions, which adjust to the temperament of customer demand, available generation, and pricing.”
For more of those details, look for “From the Bottom Up: Designing a Decentralized Power System — Cross-Discipline Team Envisions the Grid of the Future” on the NREL website.
Coal Makes Way For The Grid Of The Future
NREL is looking at a 10-year development period for Automated Energy Grids, but in some ways the grid of the future is already emerging.
Two areas under active development are autonomous wind farms and automated control systems in buildings. The lab is also working on next-level solutions for renewable energy through projects in California and Hawaii. Blockchain software will have a part to play, too.
Private sector partners are also picking up the ball. NREL cites its work with Siemens on distributed control systems for solar power, and Eaton for autonomous electric mobility.
NREL is anticipating that Autonomous Energy Grids will initially enter the marketplace through campus-like settings like schools, hospitals, and planned communities.
On a rather chilling note for coal stakeholders, part of NREL’s aim is to provide affordable control systems and grid modernization solutions for small municipal utilities and rural electric cooperatives.
In the not too distant past, rural cooperatives were a staunch ally of coal. Though some are still bound by long term contracts, others are joining the rush to renewables as a matter of fulfilling their public benefit mission.
NREL already has one such grid modernization project already under way. It involves advanced control systems for the Colorado cooperative Holy Cross Energy, in partnership with the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.
Coal Down But Not Out, But Still Down
The US still has a long way to go towards a fossil free energy future, but the pace of the transition is accelerating.
For example, last year word surfaced that a massive coal power plant in Pennsylvania would close in 2021, even though it has many more years left on its operating permit. In a surprise move last week, the plant’s owner pushed up the closure to November of this year.
For a long term perspective, last month the US Energy Information Agency toted up the decommissioning damage between 2010 and 2019, arriving at a figure of 546 coal-fired units retired.
EIA also teased out an important difference between the first and second halves of that 10-year time frame.
Up to 2015, retired coal power plants tended to be smaller and older. Among other factors, new air pollution standards under President Obama’s proposed Clean Power Plan may have helped motivate plant owners to transition to natural gas or shut down altogether, rather than installing pricey pollution control equipment.
The Clean Power Plan never went into effect, but EIA’s summary indicates that market forces are doing a good job of crushing coal on their own. According to EIA’s data, after 2015 coal retirements have tended to focus on larger, newer units. EIA elaborates:
The U.S. coal units that retired in 2018 had an average capacity of 350 megawatts (MW) and an average age of 46 years, compared with an average capacity of 129 MW and average age of 56 years for the coal units that retired in 2015.
Interesting, right? Competition from natural gas was a major factor before 2015. Since then, low cost wind and solar are also coming into play.
That dynamic also shows up in the annual data for coal retirements in terms of gigawatts. The high mark was 15 gigawatts retired in 2015, when planners and policy makers anticipated that the Clean Power Plan would be implemented.
The pace did slow in the following two years, but retirements in 2018 came alarmingly close, at 13 gigawatts.
If you have any more thoughts about what that larger/newer trend means, drop us a note in the comment thread.
As for the grid of the future, EIA painted a gloomy picture for coal stakeholders:
Coal-fired power plants in the United States remain under significant economic pressure. Many plant owners have retired their coal-fired units because of relatively flat electricity demand growth and increased competition from natural gas and renewables.
CleanTechnica is reaching out to NREL for more details on that Holy Cross demo project, so stay tuned for more on that.
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Image (screenshot): Via NREL.