Decentralized power, microgrids and EVs

Readers straighten us out on the real issues

Phil Carson | Jan 12, 2012


The beauty of publishing in a digital environment is that a writer essentially goes fishing. You never know what you're going to catch, but if you use a barbed hook, reeling in some flak is likely.

Time to review a week's worth of bold statements and the bracing zingers that came from those who took the bait. (I've edited for length and clarity.)

In "Decentralized Power and Smart Grids" I referenced an analyst's remarks that distributed generation technologies offer 90 percent efficiencies while base-load, coal-fired generation offers only 35 percent and that transmission lines taking renewable energy to load centers suffer 10 percent to 15 percent losses. I typed quickly, while the conversation was fresh in mind. I did not research the numbers.

"You missed the mark," wrote one reader, who provided a chart from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology report "The Future of the Electric Grid."

The chart showed transmission and distribution losses plummeting from about 16 percent in the 1920s to about 6 percent in recent years. Our correspondent also questioned the 90 percent efficiency claimed for distribution generation, asserting that it's much lower due to variability and capacity factors for renewables and that microturbines are in the 25 percent to 35 percent efficiency range.

"I'm a big proponent of microgrids and distributed generation, but we as an industry have a long way to go to make the cost for small generation systems compete with the economies of scale achieved through base generation," this reader wrote. "Let's be careful to under-promise and over-deliver."

I continued my blithe journey in "Grid-tied Microgrids: A Utility's Best Friend?" having considered the symbiotic relationship between San Diego Gas & Electric and the University of California at San Diego, which runs a campus-wide microgrid. (During a wildfire emergency in 2007, UCSD cut significant load, aiding SDG&E.)

Not so fast, a reader cautioned. For many utilities, control and/or ownership of the microgrid in question is critical to their acceptance of them.

"Investor-owned utilities will continue to resist microgrids unless they can own them, because to do otherwise is tantamount to allowing unfettered competition, loss of market share and a process of voluntarily shrinking the regulated business," this correspondent wrote. "What are regulators likely to do? Candidates for microgrids may also want to own them because doing so is clearly cost-effective, but allowing unfettered private ownership affects not only the utility, but potentially customers that do not choose the microgrid option."

The same column inspired another query on microgrid economics.

"I understand that utilities are now saying that microgrids could be a 'secure' form of demand response," wrote another reader. "Can someone explain the economics to me? In what cases do microgrids make economic sense to end-users?

"It's virtually impossible to beat  $0.12/kWh when you're using small, locally operated generation units. T&D costs and efficiency losses are minimal compared to generation and operation and maintenance costs. I'm not aware of many places in the U.S. where power reliability is so poor and the economic cost of outages so great that people wouldn't instead opt for a UPS (uninterruptible power system) solution instead of a microgrid."

(We'll attempt to bring readers an answer to this basic question in a future column.)

In "Electric Vehicles: Rorschach Card for Election Year?" I asked how EVs will fare in a year that sees certain subsidies and tax incentives come up for renewal while presidential candidates debate the role of government in incentivizing new markets.

Two readers took a decidedly brass tacks approach, both based on price issues.

"A column that discusses battery technology and manufacturing hurdles, and a roadmap for surmounting them, would be useful," wrote one reader. "Batteries that are cheaper, lighter and have more storage capacity aren't going to magically appear. What's the plan for getting there?"

Another reader gave one obvious forecast but added a little-discussed, sobering thought.

"There is probably a role for EVs but it is not the consumer market," this reader wrote. "Rather, it is more likely to be various fleet applications such as delivery vehicles or limited urban transit applications.

"Cost and performance aside, there is another difficulty ... that few seem to speak about," our correspondent continued. "If you loved Big Oil, you will really love Big Monopoly Electric Utility extending its dominance to the transportation sector.  Consumers [should] pause over whether they want to be held hostage to their local electric utility for necessities such as driving to work. Gasoline prices ... [are] sufficiently elastic that they respond to consumer demand. Consumers still have a choice of providers. Hence, there is at least some semblance of a free market at play, even if it is an oligopoly. In contrast, a consumer's only choice for recharging that overpriced EV is the local monopoly utility and to pay whatever its regulator-approved rate is. Good luck there."

Good points, all. Unfortunately, we're out of space to run excerpts from the vitriol I received from smart meter opponents, but rest assured I've managed to get the cream pie out of my hair. Til next time.

Phil Carson
Intelligent Utility Daily






Related Topics


THe disorgnization in Devices and Information

Top most problem is disorganization in Devices and required Utility Information.In the first place none of the technologies that are being proposed are new.They have been there for last fifteen years.Meter is just modern and not smart and There is nothing like smart rid it is only modern grid.If utilities have not used these technologies till date then it is their fault.Now nobody is sure all this is going to lower the carbon, It is not going to do that!We put more and more cars every day than we put up solar etc.Cities produce more and more garbage every day and hence methane.Sp all this will go up in smoke finally.Now we do not have one Distribution generation technology that can produce power at the same rate as big plants.Micro Grids have been in existence in each and every utility around the world ask any planning engineer.So what is the fuss about.We have better automation technologies developed or to be developed so we are going to use them.Are we still flying the planes that was flown in 1514?So it is all a natural process . Let us delink it from all this talk of carbon once for all.New large scale technologies that reduce carbon should be focused along with Renewables. Let Solar be reserved for poor in India because they see the sun and lights but have not got it in 65 years.Let bio mass energy be reserved for farmers of India who can not get the right price for their produce.Provide them Bio mass generators for free so that they feed their hungry children.Shale gas will probably bring distributed generation cost almost equal to cost from big plants. Concentrate on it.And get rid of this linking to Carbon up in atmosphere. This year the temp of Northern part of India went down to one degree Centrigade.THey say it was climate change.If this was so why it was at the same level in 1952?This is a cyclical change.true it is good to reduce carbon but how effective will be what we are planning right now?

V2G is DOA

John, I might buy off on the idea that an EV could provide backup power for a home.  I might even consider the idea that an EV could provide grid services in a place like Japan where the culture is very different.  However in the US it's just not going to happen, especially given the current command-and-control mindset among grid operators.  No EV owner wants to find out their battery has been discharged by the local utility, and no utility or regulator I've talked with has the first inkling about how to make V2G work in a consumer-friendly way.

On the other hand, I agree with you completely that we need to be thinking more outside the existing paradigms.  That requires imagination, and few people have it.

Jack Ellis, Tahoe City, CA

Time for Creativity and Paradigm Shifts

First, to assess economics, we should compare distributed energy resources (DER) acting as a demand response resource to peak power, not baseload power.The idea is that solar PV, CHP, or microgrids that substitute for peaking capacity are economically viable given the high price of peaking resources (virtual power plant concept). This may only apply to certain regions or certain circumstances, but as grid parity approaches, the comparison gets beetter and better.

Second, EVs are generally compared to internal combustion vehicles as if their only function were as transportation substitutes. In fact, an EV is a multifunction resource that can provide ancillary services to a utility (Vehicle to Grid) and can act as a storage facility to a household in the event of an outage (Vehicle to Home). When combined with a solar panel carport, for instance, an EV draws its power from a distributed generation resource, not the utility. And when combined with both solar panels and batteries, remote stations can replenish EVs without grid connectivity (as planned in Japan).

We must be more creative in considering new resources and not simply plug them into our old paradigms to support our old ideas.

John Cooper

President, Ecomergence