Wait, renewables can be bad for the grid and the grid can be bad for renewables?

October 19, 2020
Dennis Kontorovich

Most people agree that generating our electricity from renewable sources, such as wind and solar, is the smart thing to do if we want to preserve our planet for future generations. It’s also true that generating energy from renewable sources is becoming just as cheap, or cheaper, than energy from traditional fossil fuels. So, other than the entrenched interests of big oil companies, why aren’t we as a society adopting renewable energy more rapidly?

The answer is the grid, inadequate storage, and the intermittency problems of renewable energy resources. We can tackle these issues one at a time to see how when combined, they create what is known in the industry as the duck curve problem. For an explanation of exactly what the Duck Curve is, check out this great video from the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

Our grid is the world’s largest man made structure. It spans from New York to California and reliably carries electricity 365 days a year. So, why does the grid create problems for the adoption of renewable energy? Because while there are wires that run from coast to coast, we don’t have the infrastructure to move large amounts of energy vast distances. This means that solar energy produced in the deserts of Nevada can’t be used in New York, even if it’s needed there. This is a major problem for renewables because they can only be cost effective under the right conditions. Solar panels in the desert in Nevada are going to produce more energy throughout the year than solar panels in New York given the number of sunny days each state gets annually. So, New York may want cleaner energy sources, but they have no way to get clean energy in an economically viable way simply based on where the state is located. Unfortunately, this lack of proper infrastructure doesn’t just hurt New York, it hurts Nevada as well. The inability to export energy to where it is needed means that sunny states like Nevada sometimes have to curb their solar generation, because they have no use for the power. Curbing generation is a fancy way to say that they turn the solar farms off. The act of curbing solar production makes the economics of solar farms more difficult to justify.

When a project is being considered, the main two pieces that matter are how much energy will the solar farm produce and how much will it cost. Basically, if the total production divided by the total cost is less than that of traditional fossil fuel generation, then it makes sense to build the farm. This is different from the math for fossil fuel generators, when the costs of the fuel need to be considered; as the wind and the sun are free, there are virtually no on-going input costs for solar and wind farms.

So, back to curbing generation, doing so makes the solar/wind farm seem more expensive on a per kWh basis than it really is because it looks like the farm produced less energy for the period that curbing was required, even though its up-front costs didn’t change. All of this means that the lack of long distance electricity transportation infrastructure, i.e. the current grid, limits the adoption of renewable resources because they don’t look as financially attractive.

The second problem for renewables and the grid is the combination of a lack of economically viable, large scale storage for renewable energy and the intermittent nature of renewables. As discussed in an earlier article about how the grid works, electricity is complex because it is very difficult and very expensive to store large amounts of it. Additionally, renewable generation depends on the sun shining or the wind blowing, so there are times when supply will drop as clouds move over solar panels, the sun sets, or the wind stops. These factors introduce grid instability as the supply of electricity is less certain from renewables than it is from fossil fuel based generators. Put simply, grid operators (and utility companies) can 100% rely on a coal plant to produce the desired amount of electricity based on how much coal they feed the plant. Renewables on the other hand, aren’t nearly as predictable, so grid operators are hesitant to truly rely on them because they are concerned about what could happen if the wind suddenly stops in the middle of the day. Given the lack of storage capacity, this situation would likely result in a power outage, which is a grid operator’s worst nightmare.

So, now that we understand all of the problems that the grid and renewables impose on each other, what can we do about it? At a high level, we need to do two things. First, we need to improve grid infrastructure to allow energy to be shared across regions in our country. Imagine solar energy from California, which would otherwise be curbed, power A/C units on the east coast even after the sun has gone down in that region. Second, we need to rapidly add storage capacity to the grid to provide grid operators and utilities more certainty that they will have electricity exactly when they need it, even if the sun isn’t shining.

At blip, we seek to solve the intermittency issue by creating thousands of pockets of small scale energy storage (blipone) in apartment units across the country. Utilities will be able to manage unexpected gaps in generation (i.e. clouds over panels) because they can simply call on the fleet of blipone’s to use their stored energy when most helpful, thereby decreasing the amount of energy that needs to be generated at that very moment. By enabling every renter to store just a little bit of power, we can provide utilities with the certainty they need to begin really investing in renewable energy generators. Ultimately, this will reduce everyone’s electricity costs, as these sources are cheaper than fossil fuels, while maintaining the grid reliability that we have come to expect.

If you have any questions or wish to inquire further about blip, please contact Hello@blipenergy.com.

blip is a residential energy storage company focused on expanding access to the benefits of energy storage