Germany’s Grid: Renewables-Rich and Rock-Solid

Grid graph German Energy TransitionLast Friday Germany’s grid regulator released the 2013 data for grid reliability, and the figures have renewable energy advocates crowing. The latest numbers (released in German) reveal no sign of growing instability despite record levels of renewable energy on the grid — 28.5 percent of the power supplied in the first half of 2014. In fact, Germany’s grid is one of the world’s most reliable.

According to the Bundesnetzagentur, unplanned outages left the average German consumer without electricity for 15.32 minutes in 2013, down from 15.91 minutes in 2012 and 21.53 minutes in 2006. The performance, using the power industry’s System Average Interruption Duration Index (SAIDI), affirms Germany’s place in the top five for grid reliability for European countries.

German grid reliability, meanwhile, far outstrips the best SAIDI results delivered by U.S. and Canadian utilities. The top quartile of SAIDI results captured by last year’s North American reliability benchmarking exercise by the IEEE Power & Energy Society, for example, had consumers without power for an average of 93 minutes — six times longer than outages experienced by the average German consumer.

What makes Germany’s grid reliability notable is the repeated insistence by critics of renewable energy that blackout risk is rising under the German Energiewende or ‘energy transition’. As Craig Morris, lead author of the Berlin-based German Energy Transition, writes this week: “The news may come as a surprise to international critics of the Energiewende.”

Morris highlights one critical piece published by the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Energy Research on the day that the Bundesnetzagentur released its data. The free market, fossil fuel-oriented group argues that German laws driving the installation of relatively clean but intermittent energy sources such as wind turbines and solar panels have already caused a “destabilization of the grid.”

The outcome of the Energiewende, predicts the group, will be “a higher potential for blackouts.” As Morris’ post this week notes, the most likely reason for Germany’s grid reliability is the preponderance of underground lines in the distribution networks. Over 80 percent of Germany’s low-voltage lines and over 90 percent of its medium-voltage lines are underground. Other European countries scoring high on SAIDI have similar preponderance of underground distribution, including Denmark, Switzerland and the Netherlands, according to a December 2013 reliability assessment from the Brussels-based Council of European Energy Regulators.

For Germany to maintain its reliability, it may ultimately need a lot more lines. A December 2012 study by the Berlin-based German Energy Agency or DENA found that continued growth in renewables would require 135,000-193,000 kilometers of new lines by 2030, and the upgrading of another 21,000-25,000 km. Stephan Kohler, DENA’s CEO, raised doubts that distributors could handle that €27.5-42.5 billion investment, despite financing mechanisms provided by the Bundesnetzagentur to spur investment: “The Federal Network Agency legally mandated an attractive profit. However, our study reveals that in practice the profits from increasing integration of renewable energy systems … are not adequate for the distribution grid operators to survive.”

Upgrades are, however, proceeding at the transmission level. Germany’s transmission operators are planning a set of internal high-voltage direct current (HVDC) lines that are expected to help distribute wind power generated in the North to consumers in the South, and to help push excess solar generation in the opposite direction.

The controllability of those HVDC lines should also be a boon for Germany’s neighbors. North-South power flows regularly loop out of Germany’s grid and hitch a ride over neighboring transmission grids instead. That’s an added burden that Poland, in particular, doesn’t need. While German consumers enjoy the highest levels of reliability, those in neighboring Poland suffered through an average of 254 minutes of unplanned outages in 2012. In other words, Poland’s grid operators have all the work they need just managing their internal system challenges.

This post was created for Energywise, IEEE Spectrum’s blog on green power, cars and climate

Amid Blackouts, India’s New Leader Vows 24-7 Power for All

Blackouts this week in New Delhi and surrounding states are providing a dramatic backdrop for a bold promise by India’s new prime minister, Narendra Modi, whose Hindu nationalist party swept to power in a landslide election last month. As a scorching heatwave drove power consumption beyond the grid’s capacity, Modi’s government vowed to deliver “round-the-clock power for all by 2022,” reports the Wall Street Journal.

That will be an awesome task. Nearly one-quarter of India’s 1.26 billion citizens lack grid access. And India’s utilities have struggled to keep up with demand from those who are connected. Power cuts are frequent. Continue reading

Seattle’s Bullitt Center Shines

Online at Architectural Record:

The designers of Seattle’s Bullitt Center have overachieved. The designers set out to demonstrate that a six-story office building could generate all of the energy it needs, but after one year of operation, it is sending a sizable energy surplus to the local power grid, according to data released by its developer, the Bullitt Foundation.

Consumption is simply far lower than what its architects and engineers projected for the 52,000-square-foot building. Instead of using 16kBtu per square foot—half the energy-use intensity (EUI) of Seattle’s best-performing office building—consumption during its first year was just 10kBtu/sf …

read on

Minnesota Finds Net Metering Undervalues Rooftop Solar

Utilities should be paying more for their customers’ surplus solar power generation according to a solar pricing scheme approved by Minnesota’s Public Utility Commission last month and expected to be finalized in early April. Minnesota’s move marks the first state-level application of the ‘value of solar’ approach, which sets a price by accounting for rooftop solar power’s net benefits, pioneered by the municipal utility in Austin, TX.

Minnesota is one of 43 U.S. states that requires utilities to pay retail rates for surplus solar power that their customers put on the grid. Utilities across the U.S. are fighting such net metering rules, arguing that they fail to compensate the utility for services that their grid provides to the distributed generator. So last year pro-solar activists and politicians in Minnesota called the utilities’ bluff, passing legislation tasking the state’s Department of Commerce with calculating the true value of rooftop solar power. Continue reading

AC/DC 101

Much of your editor’s reporting in 2012 focused on the re-emergence of direct current or DC power — through pieces in IEEE Spectrum, Technology Review, and Power & Energy Magazine — and there is more in the works. Some of you, however, may still be wondering what DC power is and how it differs from the alternating current or AC power flowing from most electrical sockets. So here are some answers.

The questions were posed by Andrew Huang, a 9th grader at High Technology High School in Lincroft, NJ, who recently interviewed me for a history project on Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison’s late-19th Century War of Currents. (Check out The Oatmeal’s Why Nikola Tesla was the greatest geek who ever lived for a rather tilted yet entertaining take on a key combattant in this epic tech tussle.)

What are some differences between the physics of AC and DC? Continue reading

The Debate: Fracking and the Future of Energy

France 24 Energy in 2013 DebateThe Arctic is melting faster than predicted. Is now the time to shut down the low-carbon nuclear power plants in France — the 20th Century’s staunchest proponent of nuclear energy? Is natural gas produced via hydraulic fracturing or ‘fracking’ a gift that is buying time for a transition to renewable energy or a curse that reinforces fossil fuel dependence? Will carbon belching heavyweights such as the U.S. and China ever get serious about cleaning up their energy systems?

Such questions are top order in France, whose President kicked off a Grand Débat on energy this month Continue reading

Electrical Upgrade Prescribed for Japan’s Crimped Grid

An advisory body for Japan’s powerful Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) has endorsed a tripling of the capacity to pass power between Japan’s otherwise estranged AC power grids: the 50-hertz AC grid that serves Tokyo and northeastern Japan, and the 60-hertz grid that serves western Japan. This frequency divide hascomplicated efforts to keep Japan powered since the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami — a task that keeps getting harder with the inexorable decline in nuclear power generation (at present just one of Japan’s 54 reactors is operating). Continue reading