Tuesday 3 February 2015

How These Energy Geeks Are Re-imagining an Old School Utility

Utility Research Team – Testing Charging - Power by Solar Panels

A non-descript, 53,500 square foot building with a $12 billion utility research team are planning in testing everything from charging electronic vehicles through cell phones to devices that can smooth out the power created by rooftop solar panels.

There are around 60 projects in the works at Edison’s Advanced Technology division having a small annual budget of $19 million though its influence goes beyond that. Engineers from California’s largest utility are planning to insure the survival of it and also the survival of the nations’ other big utilities which are closely monitoring the project.

The lab was formed by Southern California Edison in 2009 after California had passed a landmark law, to lower its greenhouse gas emission to 1990 levels, sourcing one third of its electricity from renewable source by 2020. This resulted in more electric vehicles in the Golden State together with more solar as well as wind power that has got the state’s utilities and nationwide,trying to adapt to it.Power from solar and wind sources, unlike traditional electricity tend to fluctuate depending on the weather thus making it difficult to manage on the grid. Moreover, the cost of the solar power has reduced so much that several homeowners are now producing their own power thereby paying less to their utility.

Utility Death Spiral

California’s largest three utilities sourced around twenty three percent of their power from renewable sources in 2013 and Gov. Jerry Brown called for a target of fifty percent by 2030.According to North Carolina State University’s database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency, twenty nine states have laws needing more renewables.

Accenture states that with plenty of distributed energy on the grid, mainly from solar panels, the utility industry would foresee revenues fall between $18 billion and $48 billion per year by 2025 which is the reason why some have called it the utility death spiral. The reason for the lab’s work getting plenty of attention is that it is producing results as well as sharing the work with utility officials as well as researchers from faraway places like China.

Edison’s work designing cyber security systems and developing used for advance energy meters, for instances, have received high rating from other utilities according to Mark McGranaghan, Vice President at the Electric Power Research Institute.

Focus – Edison is Energy Storage

Moreover, the lab has also been a model for the others as well and the National Renewable energy Laboratory, wherein in 2013, itopened a $135 billion Energy Systems Integration Facility that complements Edison’s research. Besides this, the New York Power Authority has also been working in establishing a similar lab.

The focus of Edison is energy storage, automation and digital communication which could improve the efficiency as well as the reliability of the grid and the utility speculating that it will result in new revenue as the power demand flattens with more energy-efficient home and rooftop solar is on the rise. Ted Craver, CEO of Edison International, the utility’s parent company, states that `they are the only provider of the wires and these technologies will become more prevalent and feels that they are on the cutting edge’. Several of the technologies are yet to be commercialized though the market is growing.

 According to Navigant Research, smart grid spending would reach to $70.2 billion by 2023 from $44.1 billion in 2014, the reason for Edison in building nine labs here. Edison researchers replicated a complete power grid in one room which was used to troubleshoot while Edison had been working on new transmission line in order to connect its grid with other huge utility of California, Pacific Gas & Electric.

Edison to make Recommendation on Smart Grid Technologies 

While in another lab `smart’ inverters are testing the capabilities of smoothing out the voltage sent to the grid by solar panels and these devices are common in Europe though have yet to be rolled out in the United States.

The Advanced Technology group seeks project proposals every year, from the utility and one worth mentioning is a project which studied how the amount of wind and solar power could affect power restoration at the time of blackouts, while another, tested the different types of batteries to check on their performance while storing energy along the grid. Several of the updated technologies were taken for a test drive at the University of California, Irvine faculty housing – `The Irvine Smart Grid Demonstration’, which is a $79 million project that was launched and funded in part by the U.S Department of Energy in 2010 and will probably wrap up somewhere later this year.

Computer science professor, Crista Lopes, commented that the project cuts down her electric bill to zero in summer and the utility at her house with solar panels has around 50 LED light bulbs with new appliances such as smart refrigerator and she can track its power usage. The conclusion drawn is that Edison would make recommendation on smart grid technologies to the industry and the utility would then take the testing to bigger area probably to various homes.

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