The second American Revolution — the one about renewable energy — is steamrolling along, regardless of the views expressed by President* Trump. Leading US corporations are firmly behind the clean power trend, along with hundreds of local and state policy makers. What should alarm fossil fuel stakeholders even more is the latest news from the Commander-in-Chief’s own Department of Energy.
Behind-the Scenes News About Renewable Energy
The Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado came out with three new reports last week that should give fossil fuel stakeholders the willies.
Big new solar arrays and wind farms have been making big headlines, but these reports deal with behind-the-scenes research initiatives that carry more weight than any one wind or solar project.
NREL identifies challenges along with opportunities, so the three reports are not all hearts and flowers. Nevertheless, they provide a platform for strong renewable energy growth in the coming years.
Renewable Energy, Onshore & Off
First up is wind energy, which is especially interesting on account of the current occupant of the Oval Office not being a big fan of wind energy, to put it mildly.
More to the point, the US has barely scratched the surface of its wind energy potential. Aside from massive land-based wind farms, there is plenty of room for growth in the small scale distributed wind sector, and the mighty offshore wind sector is just beginning to power up.
Last week NREL reviewed the top news from its wind energy programs and came up with some behind-the-scenes reasons why the US wind industry is poised for acceleration.
One is a visualization tool for power grid operators, who need to anticipate changes in wind turbine output. Here’s the explainer from NREL:
“WindView, an open source software developed by NREL, Argonne National Laboratory, and the University of Texas at Dallas, meets this need by visualizing wind power forecasts—allowing operators to make faster, more intuitive decisions about power generation”
This year, NREL also developed a next-generation version of software that helps turbines in a wind farm interact with each other to optimize output.
In addition, the lab is developing a new pathway for optimizing wind farm output by enabling turbines in wind farms to exercise something called “collective consensus control.”
Also on the table are wind workforce development strategies and improved methods for reducing impacts on wildlife, among other initiatives.
What To Do When There Is Too Much Renewable Energy
The second NREL report covers another behind-the-scenes issue for renewable energy, which is what happens when a wind or solar farm produces too much electricity for the local grid to absorb at certain times.
The practice at hand is to curtail the output, so then the challenge is how to engineer systems that allow for a lot of bouncing-around between renewables and other energy resources.
NREL ran the numbers for solar power in a newly published article in the journal iScience under the title, “Sunny with a Chance of Curtailment: Operating the US Grid with Very High Levels of Solar Photovoltaics.”
The question is, how much solar can the US grid integrate before running into trouble?
NREL looked at a 2050 scenario under which the nation’s three main power grids operate on 55% solar PV. The researchers concluded that “a system with 55% PV could plausibly support all U.S. energy needs,” as long as there are correspondingly high levels of curtailment and energy storage systems.
Curtailment is currently viewed as a bug, but under the 55% scenario it would act as a feature.
“While curtailment is often seen as a barrier for integrating solar into today’s power system, it would be the ‘new normal’ in this future,” NREL concludes. “Even with high levels of storage, model results showed significant curtailment during many spring days—and showed that curtailment could actually increase system flexibility.”
For that matter, over in the Netherlands they are looking at opportunities for monetizing output that would otherwise be curtailed, namely, by using renewable energy to “split” hydrogen from water. As a zero emission energy carrier, hydrogen can be transported and stored indefinitely.
CleanTechnica is reaching out to the NREL curtailment team for some insights on that score, so stay tuned.
Solar PV In Every Pot
The third new report is a recap of NREL’s “wildly popular” PVWatts free online photovoltaic system performance and cost calculator.
PVWatts launched back in 1999, when the rooftop solar panel field was populated mainly by off-gridders and do-it-yourselfers, and GIS was just a twinkle in somebody’s eye.
Here’s the rundown from NREL:
“The PVWatts Calculator estimates the energy production and basic value of energy from grid-connected PV energy systems throughout the world. It enables homeowners, small building owners, installers, and manufacturers to easily develop estimates of the performance of potential PV installations.
“The user-friendly PVWatts Calculator empowers homeowners and others to estimate the performance of potential PV installations for a given location.”
As NREL notes, from its humble beginnings the app has hit the mainstream in recent years.
Its current iteration is the sixth update since the 1990s. Today it reflects the needs and capabilities of a thriving, mature solar industry as well as individual users:
“Last year alone, the PVWatts website tallied more than two million hits—and the underlying web service more than 100 million hits—while worldwide PV capacity grew to more than 480 gigawatts in 2018 (a more than 59,000% increase since 1999).”
So, what are you waiting for? Go find the PVWatts calculator online and join the next American Revolution.
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Photo: “Growth forecasts indicate 11-16 gigawatts of offshore wind energy capacity additions in the United States by 2030. Photo by Dennis Schroeder, NREL.”