A smart, green grid is needed to enable a near-term renewable revolution

Technology Review has an excellent new article, Lifeline for Renewable Power: Without a radically expanded and smarter electrical grid, wind and solar will remain niche power sources.”

Control room of one of the two frequency converting stations of the HVDC transmission line (1 800 MW) covering 960 km between Tianshengqiao and Guangzhou in China.

It is by David Talbot, their Chief correspondent, so no surprise that it is an excellent introduction to the key regulatory and technological issues. There really aren’t any technological hurdles to the rapid growth of renewable power in this country. But we do need 2-way communications to maximize efficiency (by using IT to remotely optimize building energy use from a distance) and enable full use of plug-in hybrids as a load management and load shifting tool (see “Plug-in hybrids and electric cars — a core climate solution“).

What we most need is a major federal-led effort to put in place a 21st century grid with major transmission capability from the Midwest and Southwest. And that probably requires a new federal authority. Fortunately, 2009 is likely to see the mother of all energy bills, and, even more fortunately, next year, both Congress and the White House will be led by people who understand both the technological and regulatory issues.

The figures above (from here) are “Left: Control room of one of the two frequency converting stations of the HVDC transmission line (1 800 MW) covering 960 km between Tianshengqiao and Guangzhou in China. Right: Thyristor ventilators of an HVDC line in China. Source: Siemens AG.”

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16 Responses to A smart, green grid is needed to enable a near-term renewable revolution

  1. hapa says:

    it makes me wonder if there’s a way to integrate storage and thermoelectric generation. can we build a motion-based gizmo that can be spun by energy from the grid, for storage, and can also be spun (faster) by steam on-site? a hybrid.…

  2. Paul K says:

    Get ready for huge battles over grid redevelopment. Property rights, habitat, tourism and wilderness issues, layers of often conflicting local, state and federal interests and regulations and political hegemony all present potentially large obstacles.

  3. mark says:

    We need to take into consideration the impacts to wildlife. Transmission lines can have large impacts on wildlife if not properly sited or mitigated. We need far greater capacity at the state and federal level to review permits and develop and implement mitigation plans.

  4. David Lewis says:

    This is what has dawned on me as I try to study the relative costs of energy sources, i.e. that a more efficient grid is necessary if renewables are to displace more of the coal fired and nuclear powered baseload power required to run the US as it is running today. It seems at some point the cost of this grid has to be factored into consideration of what it would cost for renewables when making comparisons.

  5. Mike says:


    Sorry to be hijacking this thread, but I can’t help but notice that the guys over at Prometheus are now all worked up over conflicts of interest in medicine, while Pielke Jr. has spent years downplaying conflicts of interest in the climate change denialist crowd.

    Can you please explain the cognitive dissonance?

    Also, when will Roger Pielke Jr. come clean about how much money he was paid by Cato to write for their pseudo-journal “Regulation”?

    I realize that we are all trying to move past Pielke Jr. but this just seemed to be another shining example of Pielke contradiction.

  6. paulm says:

    er we have a problem…

    Winter’s Clean Energy Perils:
    Ice Chunks, Snow-Covered Panels


  7. Dan B says:

    In response to Paul K and Mark: High Voltage Direct Current (HVDC) lines are substantially smaller in size than our current long-distance AC lines. It takes one single line instead of 3 AC lines to carry the same load. Siting challenges should be substantially easier.

  8. hapa says:

    plus, per gore, they can be buried.

  9. jorleh says:

    Without the smart grid the new efficient energy, the greenest energy of all times, is impossible.

  10. Bob Wright says:

    Germany must have almost 20,000 wind turbines in place, and is placing (PV?) solar “everywhere”. There are plans in Europe for (CSP?) solar farms in the Sahara. France sells some excess nuclear power. Great Britain has plans for both renewables and nuclear. Spain and Portugal with lighter industry are even farther along the curve with renewables. I believe the EU plans to integrate all this. A lot of connectors are already in place. If these guys can do it, so can we. (They still have a lot of work to do.)

  11. john says:


    Your observation about factoring in the cost of grid upgrades into the cost of renewables would make sense but for two things:

    1) With or without renewables, we will need to upgrade the grid. Our current system is a hodge podge of local and state grids loosely and haphazardly linked together into a national grid. PNL estimated that we would need to spend upwards of a trillion dollars just to keep this system functioning. so, if we have to upgrade anyway, a substantial amount of this investment isn’t “additional”, it’s just reallocating money in a more rational way.

    2) If you want to get into the external costs of investments, fine, but then you’d have to factor in the costs of NOT investing in upgrading the grid to enable renewables — which of course would be more climate change. these costs would be little things like: loss of the Outer Banks, most of the Atlantic seaboard, loss of 75% of all species; loss of agricultural land and the resultant starvation it would cause; forest fires of unprecedented frequency and magnitude; tropical diseases and parasites as far north as Washington DC … etc. etc…

    So, yes, by all means, let’s do full costing of our options. But it must cut both ways.

  12. john says:


    You’re kidding right? It’s a trivial matter to remove snow from panels — there are already systems in place that do that automatically.

    This is a shibboleth.

  13. paulm says:

    john, Well the unit cost goes up though … so ultimately it is even more expensive that you think at first.

    Kevin Devlin, the vice president for operations of Iberdrola Renewables, a wind developer, said that winter was probably the hardest time of year to maintain turbines, because workers must go out in snow and ice. Occasionally, he said, the turbines will shut down or set off alarms if it is too cold, and workers must brave the elements to fix them.

  14. Bob Wallace says:

    There are problems, there are difficult problems, and there are unsurmountable problems.

    Snow and ice can be cleaned off panels. I do it manually, sometimes more than 1x per day. It is easy to imagine a simple thermal system (heating coils/hot water pipe) that would do the same. Perhaps manually would be the most cost efficient method. Perhaps doing nothing in some circumstances would be the best solution. Energy gained might not replace energy expended in some circumstances.

    Some turbines might shut down in extremely cold weather. Fine, one does the math. Build fewer in those locales or pay higher costs to create ways to get them back on line. (If cold is the issue, use some of the power generated to warm them up.)

    Upgrading the grid. When I’ve looked at the existing US grid it appears to me that everywhere is more or less connected to everywhere else. To some extent the real estate is already set aside. The routes may not be the most efficient, but they are there. The math will tell whether it makes more sense to use existing right of ways or purchase new. (“Purchase” includes not only dollars but environmental damage, etc.)

    Too often people seem to throw up simple problems and difficult problems as if they are unsurmountable problems. That approach is not productive.


  15. msn nickleri says:

    Get ready for huge battles over grid redevelopment. Property rights, habitat, tourism and wilderness issues, layers of often conflicting local, state and federal interests and regulations and political hegemony all present potentially large obstacles.

  16. F David Doty says:

    There are limits to what a smart grid can accomplish because there are limits to the demand for off-peak energy until there is a storage solution. The batteries in electric vehicles aren’t going to solve the storage problem – because there won’t be enough plug-in vehicles sold in America to make much of a difference for at least 25 years. The grid stability problem is more immediate, and a more immediate solution is required. Fortunately, a solution could quickly be developed with adequate funding.

    Scientists have recently shown that off-peak wind energy can be used to recycle CO2 into ethanol, gasoline, and jet fuel at up to 60% efficiency. Using off-peak renewable energy to recycle CO2 into transportation fuels addresses both the oil and the climate challenges, and it completely stabilizes the power grid, no matter how much wind and solar are added. These wind-generated carbon-neutral fuels, dubbed WindFuels, will compete when oil is above $40 to $90/bbl, depending mostly on the price of the off-peak low-carbon energy. Detailed scientific, engineering, and economics analyses are available at .

    The seriousness of the grid stability challenge is best understood by looking at the off-peak problem. In 2006 power producers had to start paying people to take their excess off-peak grid energy for the first time. During 2008 the energy sold had negative value ~3% of the time throughout the wind corridor. Some regions were seeing months with negative priced energy ~20% of the time. Our only hope for addressing all of these challenges is to begin now with a plan that can simultaneously address the energy storage, climate change, and transportation fuels challenges.

    The essence of the grid problem is that electrical energy must be used when it is produced. To get rid of excess off-peak energy, the producers have been paying users to take it – up to $200/MWhr! Negative-price, low-carbon, off-peak energy will become increasingly available as long as wind is added more quickly than long-distance transmission capacity is expanded – or until many WindFuels plants start coming online.

    The challenge with wind has been getting wind energy from good sites to where and when it is needed. Efficient conversion of off-peak wind energy and waste CO2 into standard liquid fuels solves these problems. Annual WindFuels production per land area in good wind regions will exceed biofuels production density in fertile farming areas by a factor of 4 to 30.

    The cost of producing ethanol and gasoline from CO2 and wind energy will depend mostly on the cost of the off-peak wind energy. In some areas, the cost of off-peak wind energy is already below 2 cents/kWhr and it continues to drop as more wind is added. At this rate, the cost of ethanol and even gasoline from wind and CO2 can be below $1.50/gal. There is no net carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere from gasoline or ethanol that has been made from waste CO2.