Navigant Research Blog

Can Hybrid Projects Usher in the Next Generation of Renewable Energy?

— September 16, 2016

Wind and SolarIndia’s ambitious plans for renewable energy development are faced with a number of challenges. Chief among these challenges is the limited availability of land for wind and solar plants in the densely populated country, as well as the cost and technical challenges of interconnecting projects to the grid. These challenges have driven some developers and equipment manufacturers to explore hybrid renewable energy facilities, combining both wind and solar generation at a single site. This hybrid concept has been explored in other areas with limited land available for new development, most notably in Japan, where a 56 MW hybrid wind and solar project was commissioned in 2014.

Wind and solar development is often limited by the relatively high upfront costs for land acquisition, grid interconnection, and project development. The availability of grid interconnections can prohibit the development of many potential wind and solar sites, and the cost for interconnection often requires developers to build larger-than-ideal facilities. As a result, many of the optimal locations for wind and solar generation have already been developed, particularly in densely populated regions.

Hybrid Wind and Solar

The concept of a hybrid wind and solar project aims to eliminate many of the barriers to development by maximizing the value of a facility to overcome the costs for acquiring land and interconnecting to the grid compared to individual technologies. In the United States and other countries, select areas have already been set aside for renewables development. A hybrid system can allow developers to maximize the megawatts of capacity installed per each acre of available land. In addition to overcoming upfront costs, a hybrid project can take advantage of the complementary generation profiles of wind and solar. Wind is often most productive at night while solar power is naturally only generated during the day. By co-locating these generation sources at a single site, a project can more closely represent a baseload resource on the grid, facilitating easier integration and making the resource more valuable for grid operators. The improved predictability of generation output is further enhanced if an energy storage system is also combined at a single facility. This is exactly the aim of developer Windlab Ltd. for the Kennedy Energy Park it is developing in Queensland Australia. The project, scheduled to come online in 2018, will feature 30 MW of wind, 20 MW of solar PV, and 2 MW of battery energy storage capacity.

This hybrid power plant concept doesn’t stop on land, the Danish company Floating Power Plant is currently testing its hybrid wind and wave power generation platform known as Poseidon in the waters off of Northern Europe. While the concept of hybrid renewable plants holds significant potential, it will have to overcome the existing approach of both developers and utilities to typically work with only a single technology per project. However, as the industry matures and ideal sites become scarcer, the benefits of hybrid projects are likely to increase and these projects may eventually become the norm.


Do Water and Electricity Mix?

— July 21, 2016

Plant - WaterThe water-energy nexus is the interaction between energy, water, and all the aspects of generation and distribution that are involved with each. Many times, this nexus is used to describe the amount of energy used to distribute water and wastewater between water treatment facilities and end uses. This energy use is by no means small. In the United States, energy generated for water ranges from around 4% to 19%; California alone consumes 19% of its electricity for water and wastewater. Variations in energy generation are caused by geographic differences; hilly regions need to expend more energy to pump water across variations in altitude, and arid areas pump source water from aquifers deep underground.

Another aspect of the water-energy nexus is the amount of water it takes to produce electricity. Certain generation types (such as hydroelectric) have an obvious liquid component, but others are less apparent. New innovations in renewable energy, while still consuming water, help to preserve the resource by utilizing more region-specific energies.

A Flood of Electricity Generation

In Hawaii, an ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC) plant recently began operations. This OTEC plant draws in warm surface water from the ocean, vaporizing ammonia and spinning a turbine, which generates electricity. The ammonia is condensed by water extracted from deep in the ocean. Other types of OTEC plants do not use ammonia at all, but utilize vaporized ocean water to power the turbine. This is the first plant of its kind in the world, though it is worth noting that the United States has been researching OTEC technologies since 1974. Makai Ocean Engineering and the Hawaii Natural Energy Institute developed this 100 kW facility as a way to test the OTEC process, and the plant produces enough energy to power 120 Hawaiian homes for a year.

For cities farther from the water, solar power might seem like the way to go. However, to get the most out of solar, many plant operators are turning to auxiliary steam components. For example, the Ivanpah Solar Power Facility in the Mojave Desert of California utilizes heliostat mirrors to focus sunlight on solar power towers. These towers are heated by the solar energy, and steam is created to drive a steam turbine. The combination of steam power and photovoltaics makes this plant one of the largest solar installations at 377 MW capacity. In addition, its air cooling system means that other than the water used to generate energy, the plant uses 90% less water than other solar thermal technologies with wet cooling systems. However, there are drawbacks to solar power at this concentration. On May 19, 2016, one of the solar generating towers at Ivanpah caught fire due to improperly tracking mirrors that focused sunlight on the wrong part of the tower. There have also been reports of effects on wildlife, such as birds and tortoises. The issues in the development of high intensity renewable energy must be ironed out before these types of plants become widespread.

Renewable energy is important, and not just for the conservation of fossil fuels. Well-integrated renewable energy will utilize the natural resources of the region to produce sufficient electricity without wasting scarce ones. Traditional electricity production uses large quantities of water, but renewables (even those designed specifically to utilize water) can help conserve this. Producing energy may be a very water-intensive process, but many innovations in electricity production hold the promise that this market is becoming less thirsty.


Solar in the Sahara

— December 7, 2015

Set to become the largest concentrated solar power (CSP) plant in the world, Morocco commissioned the first phase of its Noor-Ouarzazate project in November 2015. This 160 MW installation is just the first of four projects that will constitute the larger 580 MW plant. Located on the edges of the Sahara Desert in Ouarzazate, this project aims to ultimately provide power to up to one million people. Large-scale solar projects such as this can provide an array of benefits to nations across the Middle East & Africa. Along with providing reliable electricity access to developing countries, these types of clean technology projects may help mitigate some of the tension and conflict that persists throughout the region.

Rather than utilizing traditional PV technology, the first three projects will use CSP through parabolic mirrors and a trough system to track the sun across the sky during the day. CSP also comes with the benefit of thermal storage, allowing for the prospect of 24/7 solar energy. This will be supported further by the second phase of the project, Noor 2 (200 MW) and Noor 3 (150 MW), set to come online in 2017. The third phase will consist of a PV power station. This complex will be largest CSP plant in the world upon completion, marking a significant milestone as countries in the region begin to adopt solar into their energy portfolios.

Morocco is taking advantage of any opportunities where the Sahara is concerned. The world’s deserts receive enough solar energy in 6 hours to meet the power demands of humanity for an entire year. How to harness and distribute this energy in a cost-effective manner is a significant challenge. Morocco has been able to pursue this project through a mix of political will and falling solar costs. The Moroccan government is choosing to view climate change as an opportunity and ultimately hopes to use the Noor complex as a means to export electricity across the Middle East and Europe. This path toward energy independence is critical in a region where climate security is expected to pose a major problem in the future. Should this project prove successful, it can provide a template for surrounding nations as they begin their forays into solar. According to the University of Oxford Middle East energy expert Justin Dargin, large-scale integration of renewable energy could significantly reduce the budgetary outlays of countries in the Middle East & Africa, allowing increased funding for social services, infrastructure, and more. This reallocation of funds could be used to address some of the socioeconomic demands highlighted during the Arab Spring.

Morocco has set an ambitious target of generating 42% of its electricity using clean energy sources by 2020. Whether fellow countries in the region will follow suit with similar environmental initiatives is yet to be seen, but the Noor complex is a significant step in advancing large-scale solar integration across the region.


Solar Lessons from the North of Chile

— October 30, 2015

Northern Chile is dominated by the Atacama Desert, and other than its large mining industry, the location is otherwise isolated. To supply this area with electricity, Chile established a local grid called Sistema Interconectado del Norte Grande (SING) that is segregated from the main grid, known as Sistema Interconectado Central (SIC).

Traditionally, electricity generation in the SING network relied on relatively expensive imports of coal, natural gas (NG), and diesel. Of the 4.97 GW of installed capacity in 2014, coal represented 42.2% and NG 47.5%. As solar energy prices dropped, the region became a hot spot for solar developers because it offered a perfect combination of high electricity prices in an area with the world’s leading insulation levels. A significant number of developers pulled the trigger and began the construction of their plants, planning to sign power purchase agreements once the project was commissioned.

The problem is that every company had the same idea at the same time. Solar projects have mushroomed in the past year. By October 2015, SING had 157 MW of installed solar capacity, 80% of which was commissioned in 2015. Solar now makes up 3% of the total generation capacity, and that was before the commissioning of First Solar’s 141 MW Luz del Norte plant, which will be the largest in Latin America. This plant is in the late stages of the construction process and it is expected to begin operations before the end of 2015.

Impact on Electricity Prices

The impact of new solar capacity on daytime wholesale electricity prices has been staggering. The average hourly wholesale electricity price in October 2015 dropped 42% between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m., whereas it fell only 10% in 2014 and 16% in 2013. In October 2014, prices averaged $54/MWh between 9 a.m. and 7 p.m. versus $67/MWh throughout the rest of the day. By October 2015, the average day-to-night differential widened to $48/MWh between 9 a.m. and 7 p.m. versus $78/MWh in the rest of the day.

Solar developers now find themselves in a predicament. Daytime electricity prices are expected to fall even further as the projects currently under construction come online, creating a death spiral that would threaten the economics of all plants and the sustainability of the whole industry. But no company wants to throw in the towel and write off all of its investment to date. The question is, who will move first?


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