Adopting Alternative Energy to Help Drive the Smart Grid

Kevin Parmenter, PSD Contributor



At present, the usage of alternative energy sources by major countries is: Spain, at an impressive 40.1%; Germany at 26.2%, Great Brittan at 19.4%, France at 16.1% (using hydro and nuclear for their entire remaining usage); and, finally, the US at 12.9% and Japan at 12.8%.  

Why are some countries good at adopting alternative energy while others, well, not so much? In the case of Japan, alternative energy other than nuclear has become a big focus after the Fukushima accident. But in other countries adoption is essentially, and primarily, driven by policy.  

Utilities themselves are in an interesting position; as businesses they need to sell more power to make money, but if they sell too much they have to build out the infrastructure to supply 100% of any possible projected worse case, 24X7 capacity load. Thus, since infrastructure is required, large capital outlays in generation and transmission resources must be added. 

Energy savings can reduce the necessary investments for increased service and alternative energy can augment them. Because economically viable alternative energy sources make sense, so does investment in smart grid technologies. In other words, it’s all about ROI and payback-period. If agencies, governmental and otherwise, fail to provide an environment where this savings can happen, then it simply won’t. Take Spain and France. Their leadership positions aren’t an accident; they made energy savings a matter of policy. 

The other factors driving energy usage are safety and the “three E’s” –namely, energy security, economic efficiency and environment. This means the source of power must be safe and reliable and immune from outages either man-made or from nature. It also must make economic sense from an ROI perspective. And, finally, the impact on the environment must be close to zero as possible. To meet these requirements, there are many safety and efficiency global standards place that must be adhered to in order to facilitate alternative energy adoption.

With current projections indicating that by 2030 the average global adoption of alternative energy is only at 22-24%, business and technology areas have a lot of work to do. As different sources of energy are added to the grid we will see more opportunity for energy measurement, metering and submetering. And opportunities for interconnected data sharing will enable the ability to analyze efficiency and reliably control and monitor new sources of energy, such as solar and wind.  

With the sources of energy that aren’t available 24x7, it will be necessary to add energy storage to the grid close to trunk transmission stations. This is leading to concepts like virtual power plants, which would utilize large battery banks or super capacitor banks to store energy and then deliver it, when needed, for leveling and to ride through peak load conditions. Another idea is converting power to hydrogen gas. In this case, power is used to make hydrogen gas when available. When the alternative energy source is not available, the hydrogen gas is used with fuel cells to provide energy back to the grid. 

Still, we are quite a way off from virtual power and being a hydrogen-based society. Even to reach the 2030 goal of having 22-24% of the global energy from renewables will require a massive investment in technology and infrastructure. But as long as alternative energy adoption makes sense from the standpoint of policy, safety and the three E’s, it will happen. But it needs to meet these criteria. As I said, we have a lot of work to do -- but the upside and benefits are substantial.