Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Power Grid Unable to Meet Our Needs

Wind energy is undoubtedly a flourishing alternative energy that will see much more growth, especially as it's cost-per-watt continues to become more and more competitive with fossil fuels and other alternative energy sources. It is without a doubt that wind energy is going to play a major role in electricity generation in our society. People like T. Boone Pickens are major supporters of wind energy. Pickens wants to build the largest wind energy farm in the world in west Texas, but without some investments into the power grid, major wind energy farms, like the one Pickens wants to build, will be delayed or never built. The power grid gridlock is not only going to effect T. Boone Pickens monstrous wind farm, it will effect many newly proposed wind farms and it is already effecting currently operating wind farms like the Maple Ridge wind farm in upstate New York. The Maple Ridge farm has had to stop electricity production several times because the power grid was unable to properly distribute electricity. So what are we going to do if we are going to continue building solar and wind farms? Our only option is to upgrade the power grid so that it can properly distribute the electricity we generate.

The power grid is a large connection of electrical lines that is intended to keep electrical outages at a minimal and to maintain smooth, steady flow of electricity throughout the grid. Power companies can route electricity to different portions of the national grid in order to meet energy demand. The problem with the grid is that it is very outdated and is reaching it's maximum capacities because America's demand for electricity continues to grow. Both wind and solar energy plants are typically built in secluded areas with smaller populations because the power grid is so outdated it is becoming very difficult to route this power back to the populated areas of the country. The power grid is often described as a highway system. Like a highway system there are major highways, called backbones, smaller highways and "normal" roads. The power grid lacks "smarts", and because of this, it is running into trouble with properly routing electricity correctly and proportionately. With the extra power generation from wind and solar many of the grid backbones (major highways) are becoming congested with an excess of electricity. This is forcing some alternative energy sources to have to shut down and halt their production of energy; a good example of this is the Maple Ridge wind farm in New York state (Source Link).

The power grid is in need of substantial amounts of investment in order to adequately handle new forms of energy generation. Modernization is absolutely necessary if we are to increase the use of wind and solar energy in our country. Many companies are looking into ways to make the grid "smarter". Many argue that the biggest downfall to the power grid currently is the lack of an operating system, maintaining and monitoring the power grid. With the use of advanced monitoring devices for the home consumers can monitor their power usage and costs. These type of monitoring feedback systems can be implemented into the power grid by the utility companies themselves, which gives them better feedback of the actual electricity demands. Many utility companies offer this type of system currently and some utilities are offering discounts if you install this type of system. The need for this type of bidirectional communication within the power grid is completely necessary in order to improve efficient and distribution.

Another major component of the power grid is to maintain a smooth, steady flow of electricity at all times. With the increased use of solar, wind and even wave power, the electrical grid's power generation can experience greater fluctuations. In portions of the country, days may go by where there is little sun. With very little sun comes very little electricity from solar plants. In order to combat this several companies are looking into different methods that can be used to store energy for usage at a later date. Energy can be stored using: batteries, hydrogen, compressed-air, flywheels, magnetically and pumping water. One storage method that seems to be gaining a lot of speed is compressed-air. Compressed-air allows utilities to store energy during off-peak times and then to use that compressed air at a later date to generate electricity. Several methods are used for storing the compressed air, one method is to use underground caverns and another such method is to use storage tanks. The beauty of compressing air for storage is it doesn't use a valuable resource like water that is in very limited supply. Air is available in any location and an air-compressor storage can be relatively efficient at roughly 70%, if properly maintained. Superconducting magnetic energy storage and thermal energy storage both are expected to have efficiency ratings of above 95%. Thermal energy also has a very high efficiency rating and is getting a lot of attention because unlike superconducting magnetic energy storage is a much less complex storage system. Thermal designs typically use molten salt to store heat that can later be used to generate electricity. The other major player in energy storage is battery storage. Batteries can achieve efficiency ratings of 90% or greater, but batteries typically have a relatively short lifespan and producing batteries can be an energy intensive process. Batteries are readily available and functional. Because of the longevity of batteries and the amount of energy needed to produce and dispose of it, it makes them a poor long term storage choice unless improvements can be made in these areas. Personally if I had to choose, I would place my bets on thermal and compressed-air storage systems, they offer high efficiency ratings and are rather simplistic systems.

Another major step in upgrading the power grid is updating the electrical lines. Many areas of the country are experiencing bottlenecks due to electrical lines having reached their maximum capacity. This is similar to the problem that T. Boone Pickens is experiencing in Texas. Pickens though is offering to invest in a portion of the cost to upgrade the power grid in order to get his massive wind farms built and online. With the use of a smart power grid, electrical storage methods and improved transmission lines we will see a much more efficient and scalable national power grid.

1 comment:

Alex Fisher said...

This is interesting... I never knew anything about this.