Friday, November 20, 2009

Solar's Rapid Evolution Makes Energy Planners Re-Think the Grid

With the rapid rise and proliferation of solar technologies, could cities become generators of electricity rather than consumers of power?

If we put solar panels on the untold millions of acres of roof-tops that are essentially wasted space right now, can we dramatically reduce our need to spend $billions of taxpayer dollars on new power lines that transport electricity from the Mojave desert to urban centers?

Apparently, according to this Grist article, the answers to these questions are "Yes" and "Yes".

..the rapidly evolving solar photovoltaic market may moot the need for some of those expensive and contentious transmission lines, requiring transmission planners to rethink their long-term plans, according to Black & Veatch, the giant consulting and engineering firm that does economic analysis for RETI (Renewable Energy Transmission Initiative).

In short, solar panel prices have plummeted so much as to make viable the prospect of generating gigawatts of electricity from rooftops and photovoltaic farms built near cities.

“This has pretty significant implications in terms of transmission planning,” Ryan Pletka, Black & Veatch’s renewable energy project manager, told me last week. “What we thought would happen in a five-year time frame has happened in one year.”

That’s prompted Pletka to radically revise the potential for so-called distributed generation—solar systems that can plug into the existing grid without the construction of new transmission lines—to contribute to California’s need for 60,000 gigawatt hours of renewable electricity by 2020.

When Black & Veatch did its initial analysis last year, it predicted that photovoltaic solar could contribute 2,000 gigawatt hours, given the high cost of conventional solar modules and the fact that a next-generation technology, thin-film solar, had yet to make a big commercial breakthrough.

Pletka’s new number is a bit of a shocker: Distributed generation could potentially provide up to 40,000 gigawatt hours of electricity, or two-thirds of projected demand.

“Certainly some of the new transmission lines will be needed but not as many as before,” he says.

That analysis also calls into question the need for as many large-scale solar power plants. Currently there are about 35 Big Solar projects planned for California that would generate more than 12,000 megawatts of electricity.

“I’ve worked in renewables since the ‘90s and I myself had written off solar PV for years and years and years,” Pletka says. “That’s a firmly rooted mindset among everyone who works from a traditional utility planning perspective.”

“We present this new information on photovoltaics to people and it’s still not sinking in,” he adds. “It would cause a major shift in how we plan.”

“It brings up questions people haven’t had to talk about before,” says Pletka.

Get the feeling that change is happening fast on the clean energy front, whether Congress can keep up or not?

I've long asked many of these same questions that this article addresses, and noted that going in the direction of distributed generation would help reduce the major economic and security risks posed by, for example, terrorist attacks on major power plants.  But I've been told it's simply not a viable solution for meeting the bulk of our power needs.

We're getting into times where the inconceivable is happening -- both on the bad news front of climate change (which is getting worse much faster than expected), and on the good news front of solutions -- as described here.

Let's do our best to focus on the solutions, and do whatever we can to create the world we'd like to see!  I think I can, I think I can...

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