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A satellite night view taken during the Northeast Blackout of 2003. The blackout caused 50 million people in northeastern USA and central Canada to lose power, and much of the blame has since been assigned to the aging grid.  (Source: NOAA)

The Maple Ridge Wind Farm, located in Lowville, N.Y., has had to shut down multiple times during windy periods, due to congestions on the decrepit grid in the area.  (Source: AP)
While costs are dropping for alternative energy production, difficulty in bring it to market is not

The news here at DailyTech is filled with lots of good news on breakthroughs in efficiency and costs for solar and wind technology, particularly advances in solar cells.  Yet today, these forms of power are still more expensive than fossil fuel energy.  If there's so much good news, why can't these alternative energy sources hold their own?

Part of the problem, of course, is that some of these technologies remain years away from the market and need new manufacturing processes.  However, the fact of the matter is that production and installation costs are falling dramatically, and with it costs per kWh for all these energy sources.  So why are they still not on par with fossil fuels?

A key problem, according to recent reports is location.  There's plentiful, free land that's an ideal spot for alternative energy sources.  From mountainsides getting gusty winds to sunny swatches of desert, there are plenty of possibilities.  Better yet, many of these areas have relatively low wildlife and little human habitation, eliminating key concerns.  However, one critical problem is crippling power in these regions and slowing expansion according to the New York Times -- the aging power grid.

The power grid is the system conceived by utilities a century ago, which pumps power from plants to cities and towns along a series of power lines similar to the road system in the U.S.  There are big lines and small lines just as there are highways, surface streets, and dirt roads.  The grid has for many years allowed small scale sharing of power, and prevents blackouts. 

However, experts say today the grid's infrastructure is aging badly, not only jeopardizing alternative energy, but building a risk of brownouts, under the country's increasing energy demands.  Suedeen G. Kelly, a member of the Federal Energy Regulation Commission, states, "We need an interstate transmission superhighway system."

While today, wind power only provides 1 percent of the country's electricity, that's expected to grow to as much as 20 percent within a couple decades.  Even today, wind farms, such as the Maple Ridge Wind farm -- a 200 turbine, $320M USD installation -- have been forced to shut down on windy days, due to the grid being overwhelmed.  And the problems are only expected to get worse.

Horizon Wind Energy, which owns the Maple Ridge Wind farm, says that areas of Wyoming could generate 50 percent more electricity than turbines in New York or Texas, the current wind leader of the U.S.  However, much of Wyoming is off the grid or lightly covered, making such projects impractical.  Gabriel Alonso, chief development officer of the company states, "The windiest sites have not been built, because there is no way to move that electricity from there to the load centers."

Companies currently have to pay fees to pump power into the power lines, due to the lines being overwhelmed by traffic.  The problem is there, but no one wants to do anything about it.  State governments don't want to spend large amounts of money to push grid updates that would benefit their neighbors.  And the national government, which acknowledges the grid problems, doesn't want to pull rank on the state governments. 

T. Boone Pickens, an oil billionaire investing massively in green gold -- wind -- wants to use a right of way he obtained for a water pipeline between Texas and the Florida panhandle to develop a massive high-power transmission line to carry power from his wind farms.  He is urging the national government to act to help his project.  He states, "If you want to do it on a national scale, where the transmission line distances will be much longer, and utility regulations are different, Congress must act."

One problem is the feudal state of the grid.  The grid's 200,000 miles of power lines are divided among 500 different owners.  To advance a project, typically the approval of multiple companies, many state governments and numerous permits must be obtained.  The situation is so awkward, after a series of brownouts, Congress in 2005 passed the energy law which gives the federal Energy Department the right to step in if the states are not acting.  It designated two areas -- the Middle Atlantic States and one in the Southwest -- as critical action areas, at risk of failure.

Kevin M. Kolevar, assistant secretary for electricity delivery and energy reliability stated in a speech last year, "Modernizing the electric infrastructure is an urgent national problem, and one we all share."

In order to achieve 20 percent wind capacity, 2,100 miles of new high voltage lines would be needed.  While this is not a huge amount compared to the national grid, it would cost nearly $60B USD.  However, the states are unwilling to cooperate or invest in such a multi-state initiative, largely.

A few state leaders are calling for change and cohesive leadership, though. Bill Richardson, the governor of New Mexico and a former energy secretary under President Bill Clinton states, "We still have a third-world grid.  With the federal government not investing, not setting good regulatory mechanisms, and basically taking a back seat on everything except drilling and fossil fuels, the grid has not been modernized, especially for wind energy."

While Mr. Pickens and Mr. Richardson seem to be in the minority, demanding immediate action, most seem to agree that the state of the grid is a problem.  Between threatening consumer prosperity via power outages to blocking the expansion of alternative energy expansion, the elderly grid is a serious concern, but a difficult problem to fix.  According to reports, it may require national level intervention, to fix this complex system before it collapse under its own weight.





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