When the wind blows, or doesn't

Phil Carson | Jan 21, 2010


The wind seems to be blowing this week -- and it's not just hot air.

Specifically, I'm writing today on wind power forecasting and its efficient integration into the transmission and distribution grid of intelligent utilities.

Why today? I noted a few coincidental but related events and announcements this week that reflect more interest in, and progress on, this topic than I had previously grasped. There is a smart grid connection, so bear with me.

First, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) issued a report this week that found no technical barriers to integrating 20 percent wind power into the nation's electrical system.

Second, Commissioner Philip Moeller at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) yesterday announced that FERC will examine the difficulties of integrating "variable energy supplies" -- read: wind -- into the grid. "I am especially interested in the ability of the [electric power] industry to improve the supply forecast of these resources..." Moeller added.

Third, by sheer coincidence, this is the last day of a three-day workshop held by the Utility Wind Integration Group (UWIG) in Golden, Colo., in my neck of the woods. UWIG, with international membership by every stripe of electric utility, has been active for more than two decades.

This week's workshop introduced UWIG's Internet-based tools for assessing a distributed wind project's impact on the local distribution system. And on Feb. 10-11 in Albuquerque, N.M., UWIG will hold a workshop on "Wind Forecasting Applications to Utility Planning and Operations."

This flurry of related activity pushed me to dig into the topic. As I understand it, utility-scale wind farms already generate sufficient data to drive forecasting models -- although those models are, by nature, iterative and constantly improving. Looking ahead to when "intelligent utilities" really run "smart grids," the latter likely will need to handle the integration of a more complex source: wide-scale, distributed generation of wind power.

Wind power currently is the top renewable energy source available to utilities and, driven in part by mandates for renewable energy portfolios, utilities must look at integrating this resource without compromising reliability. Critics of utility-scale renewable power sources often cite their variability and intermittency as insurmountable hurdles. But we're closer to resolving those issues than most critics acknowledge.

"Wind generation is variable but not unpredictable," Bob Zavadil, an executive vice president at EnerNex Corp., told me yesterday. "We've got a ways to go. But there's some very hard science going on here. There are many entities in the U.S. right now doing this for real." (EnerNex is closely involved in UWIG's efforts.)

Utility-scale wind farms already generate sufficiently granular data to feed forecasting models today, Zavadil added. As widespread, distributed wind power comes online, smart grid technology will feed those forecasting models, he said.

Zavadil's view was echoed last year in congressional testimony before the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming by Allan Schurr, a vice president of strategy and development in IBM's global energy and utilities practice.

"The variability or intermittency of renewable energy output is often cited as a significant objection to growing the portion of renewable energy sources [used by electric utilities]," Schurr said. "To the degree that variable supply can be matched in time, quantity and location to variable loads, this concern is significantly mitigated."

"Smart grid technology can address this supply/demand imbalance by connecting the current and forecasted renewable output to available variable load," Schurr continued. "Such load control has been available for years. Utilizing these same techniques to modulate loads...is one strategy for reducing the need for spinning reserve to support renewables."

For example, Schurr said, "IBM is currently involved in related efforts in Europe to integrate wind generation to the smart charging of plug-in vehicles so that on-board battery storage can absorb excess wind energy during controlled charge cycles."

Sounds good on paper, you say? I think the depth and diversity of the players at this week's UWIG workshop demonstrate that, as Zavadil at EnerNex put it, "there's some very hard science going on here." I say that in the march of American-produced technology, where there's a will, there's a way.

My forecast? Keep an eye on renewable power forecasting as intelligent utilities go "smart." It's not just hot air.

Phil Carson
Intelligent Utility Daily



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