Wednesday, November 30, 2016

How a Data Tweak Could Rock Tomorrow's Grid

The Department of Energy last month embraced a change in how it calculates the value of renewable energy, such as wind power, on the electric grid. (Photo Credit: OLC Fiber/Flickr) Click to Enlarge.
In October, the Department of Energy made a little change to how it values renewable energy on the electric grid.  It immediately resolved a tussle between the electric grid and the natural gas grid over efficiency standards, with the electric utilities scoring a strategic win.

But that's just the start of its consequences.

Decades from now, if renewable energy like wind and solar keeps up its rapid growth, it could make electricity more appealing than gas as a means to curb carbon emissions and boost the electrification of all kinds of appliances.  It could make the economic case for renewable energy stronger, while also boosting technologies and techniques that lower emissions, like energy storage and efficiency.

And it could prompt a fundamental rethinking of the United States' energy math, in ways that could have the country legitimately claim a big rise in energy productivity and an even more dramatic drop in energy use.

At issue is a little-known metric — the source-to-site ratio — that calculates how much energy goes into making electricity.  The ratio compares the amount of energy from a power plant (the source) to the electricity actually received at a building (the site).  Four decades ago, during the energy crisis of the 1970s, energy planners made a sweeping assumption about the source-to-site ratio for renewable energy, like hydro, wind and solar power.

Their curious answer:  exactly as much as an average power plant running on fossil fuels.

That assumption, called fossil-fuel equivalency, made sense in the 1970s, when the goal was to get the United States off oil.  But it seems out of place today, when oil is plentiful and one of the main advantages of renewable energy is that it burns no fuel and causes no carbon emissions.

"It's a really, really important number," said Keith Dennis, a senior principal at the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, which, along with other electric utility lobbying groups, asked DOE to take a hard look at the issue.

How the government values one energy source versus another is crucial for every player on the electric grid, from nuclear to coal to solar power, and the source-to-site metric is just one way to do it.  But this particular version of it has woken up from a decades long slumber and into a lively debate over the future of electricity, natural gas and carbon emissions.

The fact that the electric utility industry put a unified lobbying effort behind the change is itself significant.  Utilities for years have been reluctant to embrace renewable energy.  But now, as the pull toward wind and solar becomes irresistible, it has realized that correcting DOE's 1970s assumption could be a boon.  Using the new ratio, its products look better from an emissions perspective compared with appliances that can also be powered by natural gas, like furnaces and water heaters.  And the more renewables the industry adopts, the bigger the advantage will become. 

How a Data Tweak Could Rock Tomorrow's Grid

No comments:

Post a Comment