Navigant Research Blog

The FACTS about Distributed Wind and Renewable Generation

— March 4, 2014

Since the mid-1990s, during my annual pilgrimage to DistribuTECH, I’ve always picked up a new emerging trend or a newly released technology.  This year’s show in San Antonio, Texas was no different.  I went to Texas to learn more about flexible AC transmission system (FACTS) technologies and had the opportunity to talk to many of the major vendors and some interesting new companies.  My focus started with traditional FACTS technologies (i.e., series compensation [SCs], static VAR compensators [SVCs], and static synchronous compensators [STATCOMs]).  These are almost always complex engineered systems designed to correct voltage drops in long-distance, high-voltage AC lines to perform power factor correction in areas where generation stations have been retired.

Smaller-scale SVC and STATCOM technologies were typically used to correct voltage sag, power factor, and flicker at large industrial sites such as steel mills, large-scale mining, crushers, pumps, and other inductive loads.  At DistribuTECH, vendors like S&C Electric, ABB, and AMSC talked about the use of D-SVCs and D-STATCOMs to stabilize the megawatts produced by distributed renewable sources on the edge of the grid.  These new, downsized versions of transmission grid-scale SVC and STATCOM technologies are now being modularized in familiar 8’ x 40’ containers that can be delivered quickly for any application, sometimes coupled with modular battery storage, to smooth out the intermittency of distributed renewables.

Small and Scattered

This move to smaller-scale distributed FACTS solutions has other implications as well: they can be added quickly to both transmission and distribution substations, with minimal space requirements. They can also be deployed near the edge of the grid at distribution substations or even on local feeders where renewables and electric vehicle charging installations are stressing the local grid in ways that were not imagined when the distribution grid was originally installed.  Startup companies like Varentec Inc. are now introducing pole-mounted mini-FACTS systems.  These systems are wired into the transformer with wireless communications, enabling edge-of-grid corrections in near real-time, far beyond the local centrally controlled substation.

When I started my latest research on FACTS technologies, I imagined that they would be limited to the big iron at thousands of high-voltage transmission system substations where SC, SVC, and STATCOM technologies have been traditionally used.  It was eye-opening to see the emergence of FACTS technologies deployed on the distribution-level grid, where they are opening significant new markets for both traditional and emerging FACTS vendors.  Transmission system designs and technologies are covered in detail in Navigant Research’s report, High-Voltage Direct Current Transmission Systems.  In addition, recent Navigant Research reports, such as Emerging Wind Markets Assessment and Distributed Solar Energy Generation, cover the rapid adoption of distributed renewables in all regions of the world.  Over the next year, our Smart Utilities team will release a series of in-depth reports on the high-voltage transmission grid, starting with my upcoming report, Flexible AC Transmission Systems, which is expected to be released in 2Q 2014.


High-Voltage DC Unlocks Distant Offshore Wind Sites

— February 24, 2014

Germany is on track to commission close to 1 GW of offshore wind in 2014 and will follow up with another 3 GW between 2015 and 2016.  Goals have been revised downward recently, but the government still aims to bring 6.5 GW by 2020 and 15 GW by 2030.  These ambitious installation levels are driven by strong government-backed renewables goals and supportive incentives, but also by a novel solution to the challenge that most of Germany’s ideal offshore wind sites are very far from shore – most over 75 km.  At these distances, losses are so great over typical high-voltage alternating current (AC) subsea transmission cables that they can negate the construction of a wind plant.

The solution – a first in the offshore wind market – is the construction of a network of oversized high-voltage direct current (HVDC) converter stations and connecting cables that will allow much of Germany’s pipeline of offshore wind plants to efficiently deliver power to the mainland.  Direct current (DC) is neither new nor novel.  Its use fell out of favor many decades ago as AC power was cemented as the market standard.  But growing need for electricity and the increasing distances required for some generation projects has sparked a rebirth.  These factors have also sparked fierce innovation and competition among power giants such as ABB with its HVDC Light, Siemens’ HVDC Plus, and Alstom Grid’s MaxSine, each using advanced voltage source converter (VSC) technology.  Likewise, a relatively small number of companies provide large HVDC cables for subsea use, resulting in shortages and order backlogs.  This is prompting new entrants into the market and advances in cable technology, such as crosslinked polyethylene (XLPE) HVDC cable.

Towering Turbines

Offshore wind is a leading driver of the HVDC renaissance, and the scale of the effort is impressive.  The larger units look like offshore oil rigs, topping 93 meters in height and weighing upwards of 9,300 metric tons (not including foundation).  In the first German stages, the HVDC buildout is composed of four grid clusters in the North Sea known as SylWin, HelWin, BorWin, and DolWin. These initial phases combined provide around 5.9 GW of capacity and utilize around 800 km of undersea HVDC cable.  Multiple wind farms connect to the converter clusters in order to share and reduce the overall cost to build the HVDC network.

Germany is not alone.  The United Kingdom is also making enormous progress deploying offshore wind farms and will rely on HVDC for many new wind plants.  The first wind plants under the United Kingdom’s Round 3 offshore wind development are entering construction in 2014 at distances from shore that range from 30 km to 185 km. Close to 20 GW are located beyond 100 km and will rely on HVDC.  By 2020, as much as 30 GW of offshore wind will likely be connected by HVDC globally.  Corresponding HVDC export cable route lengths are expected to reach roughly 4,000 km.

The downside to HVDC is its high cost, driven by the large converter stations.  The challenge to the offshore wind industry, the hardware providers, and grid integrators is to bring costs down by standardizing hardware and voltages and by finding efficiencies of scale in converter component manufacturing and offshore construction.

More detailed information and analysis of the HVDC technology, deployments, cable providers, transmission integrators, and the pipeline of wind plants and their developers connecting to the systems are available through the following Navigant Research reports:  International Wind Energy Development: Offshore Report 2013, High Voltage Direct Current Transmission Systems, and Submarine Electricity Transmission.


Questions on “Dirty Energy” Highlight DC-Based Nanogrids

— February 7, 2014

The United States set a record in 2013 for billion-dollar disasters, according to the Annual Global Climate and Catastrophe Report.  Yet, the $41 billion in economic losses paled in comparison to those of 2012, the year of Tropical Cyclone Sandy ($65 billion in damage) and widespread drought ($30 billion in damage).

These disasters, and the power outages and demand for emergency energy services they entail, are fueling interest in microgrids not only in the United States, but also in the developing world.  But, what if these microgrids, so dependent upon smart inverters, were to accelerate the creation of a new form of dirty electricity – pulsing electromagnetic fields that could grow even more intense as power sources and control technologies increase radio frequencies (RFs)?

Such concerns led to a recent gathering at the prestigious Commonwealth Club of San Francisco, California, at which speakers attempted to articulate the different between a wise grid and a smart grid.  Among the panelists was Dr. Timothy Schoechle, the author of a recent paper entitled Getting Smarter about the Smart Grid and a guest on a radio show I was a part of on KWMR.

The RF Question

The discussion focused on utility deployments of smart meters, as Schoechle observed that these meters often rely on wireless communications that, according to some scientists, jeopardize the health of growing numbers of citizens who have no choice in the matter.  RF waves are ubiquitous, and smart meters are increasing the density of this RF blanket that envelops us – and that has not been subjected to sufficient scientific scrutiny, these critics argue.  At the same time, some assert that smart meters have failed to deliver the purported economic benefits to most consumers.

Ironically enough, during the same week, The World Bank hosted a webinar on the topic of rural electrification that extolled the virtue of wireless telecommunications as a driver of economic livelihood for those living at the bottom of the pyramid.  As pointed out in a previous blog of mine, among the chief drivers for providing more affordable electricity to the poor in the developing world is wireless cell phone technology.  In many places in Africa, Latin America, and Asia, millions of people are more likely to have a cell phone than access to reliable electricity.  Since banks will lend money to large multinationals installing cell phone towers in the middle of nowhere, small local entrepreneurs can then piggy-back on these investments to expand electricity service.

In a sense, this approach is working and is more often than not delivering direct current (DC), which, as Schoechle claimed in San Francisco, is the cleanest form of electricity from an electromagnetic point of view.  In fact, he argues, the best way to deliver what many consider to be the lifeblood of modern civilization is through DC nanogrids – a technology platform that is the subject of my next report.


2014 Will Be a Memorable Year for Cleantech

— January 13, 2014

Is January 13 too early to call 2014 a year to remember?

We have recently published our fifth annual white paper, Smart Utilities: 10 Trends to Watch in 2014 and Beyond.  The free white paper, more than past editions, details the massive transformations facing utilities and their business models.  Things are just so different now!

Navigant Research offers another peek into the future with our webinar, “The Year Ahead in Cleantech” on Tuesday, January 14 at 2 p.m. Eastern Standard Time.  I have dramatically titled the Smart Utilities section of the webinar, “Everything You Know is Wrong.”  Perhaps that’s overly dramatic, but so much is changing, it’s not far off.  Key trends that will be discussed include:

  • Distributed generation begins to rock utilities’ world: Utility business model are likely to change, perhaps dramatically, as they suffer the one-two punch of reduced energy revenue and increased payouts to distributed generators
  • Solar power generation’s impact on distribution grids will be enormous: Some governments have aggressively supported residential solar generation while others have not -  What happens in either case?
  • New grid-balancing technologies that deal with distributed inputs can make granular, automated decisions that enable utilities to run grids more efficiently while remaining within mandated voltage ranges
  • Energy efficiency may happen in our lifetimes: We have detected signs of life in the home energy market during 2013, with some encouraging pilot programs that may foretell new life for HEM, the forever stepchild of cleantech
  • Utilities are changing their view of the smart grid: We observed some interesting behavior changes during 2013, among both utilities and the vendors that sell to them
  • Smart grid applications continue their rise: Navigant Research has recently completed an examination of Smart Grid IT, and this seminar will discuss some of the leading applications

These topics and more are examined in the white paper.  Many of these issues are by no means resolved, nor is there any clear path to resolution.  But the time to start thinking about these issues, and how they will affect your business, is now.

For more, join us for “The Year Ahead in Cleantech,” which will also feature discussions on Smart Transportation and Smart Energy.  Click here to register.


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