Navigant Research Blog

New Book on Renewables Integration Causes a Stir

— August 5, 2014

Having authored four books on energy topics in a previous life, I know how it feels to wonder if anyone is ever going to read a book once one hands over the draft to the book publisher.

That’s why I am happy to report that a new book authored by Dr. Lawrence Jones, vice president for utility innovation and infrastructure resilience for Alstom Grid Inc., is making waves.  Jones readily admits that his book, Renewable Energy Integration: Practical Management of Variability, Uncertainty and Flexibility in Power Grids, could not have been written a decade ago.

“10 years ago, when one would discuss renewable integration, there were nightmare scenarios by many skeptics.  Stories of how the entire grid was going to collapse due to renewables.  Literally, some people were saying it was going to be doomsday for the grid as we know it,” Jones reflected during a phone interview.

While one might still hear that solar and wind power are next-to-impossible to manage, “you don’t hear that from grid operators today,” Jones said.

Technical Yet Readable

Jones actually dedicated this book to grid operators around the globe, many of which contributed chapters.  “They really are the unsung heroes and heroines,” he said.

This book evolved out of the work Jones did for the U.S. Department of Energy, which surveyed the best practices of 33 grid operators from 18 countries that managed 72% of the world’s installed wind capacity.  Navigant Research drew on this survey in a report I authored in 2012 on smart grid renewables integration.

Jones found 60 volunteers, among them friends and colleagues at utilities and in academia, as well as analysts and consultants, to contribute chapters on topics such as:

  • Multi-dimensional, multi-scale modeling and algorithms for integrating variable energy resources in power networks: challenges and opportunities
  • Intentional islanding of distribution network operation with mini hydrogenation
  • Every moment counts: synchrophasors for distribution networks with variable resources

The Further Details

The book is not for the faint of heart, but you don’t have to be an engineer to understand it, either.  In fact, virtually every section of the book ends with a case study to provide real-world examples of what otherwise might seem to be theoretical or abstract engineering concepts that could make heads spin.

It’s rare that such a technical book would receive such rave reviews from industry leaders affiliated with organizations like the United Nations, the World Business Council on Sustainable Development, and the Center for Strategic & International Studies.  “There is already talk about a second edition, as we had to omit some key themes,” he enthused.  “For example, we never really got into the economics of renewable integration.  In 2 years’ time, we should have much better real world data on integration costs and benefits, for both utility scale and distributed wind and solar plants, and can therefore dive into those nitty-gritty details.”


Like Telecoms, Utilities Must Adapt or Perish

— February 25, 2014

I’ve read many articles from pundits that suggest the electric utility industry today is facing challenges similar to those the telecom industry faced 20 years ago.  Frequently, commenters vehemently disagree.  From where I’m sitting though – having spent 20 years as a telecom industry analyst – I see key similarities and some important takeaways for utility management teams.

Both industries operate in a critical infrastructure business that Uncle Sam long ago determined would best serve the American public in a regulated monopoly model – one designed to ensure availability of service to all, at a reasonable price, while allowing a fair return on investment to the utility/telecom.  Massive networks were built across the country and the farmer in Middleofnowhere, Iowa didn’t have to pay an order of magnitude more for his kilowatt-hours or voice minutes than the customer in downtown Des Moines.  Both businesses are subject to federal and state level oversight, and both have been deregulated in the last couple of decades.

Solar = Cellular

Both have also seen emergent technologies threaten their business model.  However, while electric utilities are still in the early days of grappling with the demands of distributed generation (mostly solar) and electric vehicles, the once-dominant landline telephone companies have struggled for years to reinvent themselves.  Today, wireless connections account for more than 80% of the voice market (ignoring VoIP, more on that below).

Telecom Providers: Then and Now

Telecom Providers Then and Now 2-20-14

(Sources: Navigant Research, Securities and Exchange Commission, AT&T, and Verizon)

The irony?  Incumbent telecoms were given wireless spectrum for free in the early days of cellular.  A lot of telecoms sold off their wireless divisions, plowing that money into their landline networks.  Still, as recently as 10 years ago, telecom valuations were strong and the deal market was hot.  Even as the Verizons of the world began selling off their regulated access lines to (later bankrupt) buyers like FairPoint Communications and Hawaiian Telcom, many companies firmly believed that cellular would never overtake the ubiquitous, five-9’s service provided by POTS – Plain Old Telephone Service.

Today, wireless spectrum is worth billions; Verizon is paying Vodafone $120 billion for the 45% of Verizon Wireless that it doesn’t already own.  Meanwhile, telecoms like CenturyLink, which acquired the former Qwest in 2011, have seen their share prices fall as much as 20% in the last year.  CenturyLink, which sold its wireless division to Alltel in 2002, has focused on broadband, data/business services, and fiber.  And guess what?  Broadband and business services are going wireless too.

The point is, old school technology companies need to embrace the disruptors, not fight them – especially not via lawyers and regulatory restrictions, which is what electric utilities seem to be trying when it comes to the solar industry.  In the end, technology advances get cheaper and better, and consumers change their behavior and their spending habits.  As detailed in Navigant Research’s report, Solar PV Market Forecasts, solar is expected to reach grid parity without subsidies in a few years.

In other words, you’re not going to beat ‘em, so you’d best join ‘em.  In my next blog I’ll describe a few fledgling efforts on the part of electric utilities to enter the solar installation and electric vehicle charging businesses and explain why more should do so.


Futuristic Glass Spurs Solar Innovations

— January 31, 2014

First invented in the Bronze Age, 5,000 years or so ago, glass is such an integral part of modern life that we rarely give much thought as to how it performs or is produced.  Today, though, the development of novel forms of glass promises to bring high-tech, low-cost advances to a range of applications, including solar power.

Glass has many advantageous qualities and one major disadvantage: it’s brittle.  It shatters on impact.  We long ago mastered the art of molding glass into many different curves and fantastical shapes, but once it’s set, it’s set until you take a hammer to it.

That is changing, as researchers at McGill University in Montreal have adapted structural characteristics from the shells of mollusks to give glass new resilience and flexibility.  The scientists found that the extremely tough and bendable nacre, or mother-of-pearl, that coats the inner shells of the creatures is made up not of an unbroken surface, but of millions of microscopic components or “tablets.”  When the shell is bent or deformed, the cracks between the tablets allow it to bend, yet remain intact.  Think of blocks of sea ice floating on a moving water surface; they rise and fall and compress and spread, but the overall surface of the ice remains the same.

Fractured Yet Flexible

In the same way, the McGill researchers found that they can pre-crack glass with lasers to create a puzzle-piece design.  The resultant microfractures are filled with polyurethane, creating a material that is weak at the boundaries of the tiny fragments, but resilient as a whole.  Flexible glass.

The immediate applications envisioned include less breakable smartphones, for instance.  But advances in making glass more flexible, resilient, and versatile will likely have implications for solar power, as well.

When a technology is as commoditized as solar panels, with prices halving in just the last few years, the tendency is to think that innovation in the materials has reached an apex; the only further development needed is to squeeze more cost out of the manufacturing process.  Solar panels with next-generation glass, however, could help drive the Murphy’s Law process of price reductions in solar technology while also producing panels with a wider range of possible applications.  Crystalline silicon solar modules, which require the rigid protection provided by glass, are more efficient than amorphous silicon modules.  Amorphous silicon (often used in thin-film solar coatings) has the benefit, however, of being flexible, making it applicable in a host of environments where conventional glass is less robust.

Spray On, Not Tan

Developed at the University of South Florida in alliance with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and being commercialized under the mark SolarWindow by New Energy Technologies, a new glass with tiny transparent solar cells integrated is due to reach the market this year.  New Energy produces both flat glass for windows and structural glass walls and curtains for tall structures that have all the usual qualities of glass and also act as solar panels.  Made of organic polymers (thus grown, not manufactured), the transparent solar cells are the world’s smallest, the company says, measuring less than one-fourth the size of a grain of rice.  They are sprayed onto the glass in a novel process that does not require the high temperatures and vacuum chambers of other spray-on solar technologies.

Meanwhile, building off of NASA’s R&D on solar panels for deep space satellites, Entech Solar has developed a concentrating solar system called SolarVolt that uses tiny versions of Fresnel lenses – originally developed in the 19th century to focus the beams of lighthouses for many miles out to sea.  The miniature photovoltaic array has achieved a 20X concentration of the sun’s rays, enabling much smaller-sized systems per unit of energy captured.

These advances in the structure of glass, a 5-millenium-old invention, could help accelerate the solar revolution and bring closer the day when renewable energy is less expensive, by any measure, than fossil fuels.


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