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Renewable Energy Throws Power Grid Off Balance

 
 
Reply Mon 12 Mar, 2012 09:19 am
Renewable Energy Throws Power Grid Off Balance
by Christopher Joyce - NPR Morning Edition
March 12, 2012

The National Academy of Engineering in Washington, D.C., once asked its members to pick the greatest engineering achievement ever.

Wind power advocates say that even if wind is slightly more expensive than natural gas, utilities will still want it in their mix. Windmills aren't subject to variable fuel prices, so the cost of production is predictable, something that's not true for natural gas.

Energy

Their choice? The electrification of the country through what's known as "the grid."

Ernest Moniz, director of the Energy Institute at MIT, says they were right on the money.

"That reflects what an amazing machine this is, spread out geographically, always having to balance demand and supply because electricity is not stored," he says.

Every day, with the flick of a switch, millions of Americans tap into the electricity grid. It's a web of power stations, transformers and transmission lines that span the continent, distributing electricity like veins and arteries distribute blood.

Electricity has to keep flowing all the time. Grid operators constantly match what power plants are producing with what people and their TVs, microwaves and air conditioners need. It's the world's biggest balancing act.

Predicting The Unpredictable

That's doable largely because big power plants run almost constantly and produce a predictable amount of electricity.

So what happens when you add in unpredictable sources of electricity, like wind or solar power?

"The operator does not have control of when to turn it on and off," Moniz says. "It's a new challenge that we just have to meet, and we're not doing it at anything like the pace that I think we need."

That's the conclusion of a study that Moniz's group at MIT is issuing Monday. It's all about how the grid must change to handle the fickle flow of electrons from renewable energy.

Backing Up The Competition

California's grid, the California Independent System Operator, is trying to sort out how to handle this on-again, off-again source of electricity.

We have to have a backup. There are times when Mother Nature decides to bring in clouds or turn off the wind, but I think in that case everybody still wants to have power.

- Steve Berberich, California Independent System Operator

"We have to have a backup," says Steve Berberich, the grid's CEO. "There are times when Mother Nature decides to bring in clouds and turn off the wind, but I think everybody in that case still wants to have power."

In California, most of that backup power comes from plants that burn natural gas; they can switch on and off in a matter of minutes.

But, Berberich says, natural gas plants face some obstacles. Gas plants have to compete against the renewable energy sources they're supposed to back up.

"They're not getting as much revenue as they once did because they're not selling as much power because it's being displaced by wind and solar energy, which is exactly what we want," he says. "But we have to find a way to maintain those things."

Gas plants have to make money to survive. Keeping them idle until a rainy or cloudy day to back up renewables won't pay their bills.

Coal and nuclear plants — "thermal" plants, as Moniz calls them — are not a good option for backup. It's costly to start and stop them on short notice.

"Another set of costs is the additional operating costs and maintenance costs, wear and tear on some of these thermal plants that we may be asking to go up and down a lot more than they were planned for," Moniz says.

A Fair-Weather System

As the cost of solar and wind energy drops, though, the grid is going to use more of it: Many states demand it, so the grid must adapt.

Michael Goggin at the American Wind Energy Association, the biggest industry group for wind energy, is trying to figure out how to do that.

"We're adding new energy sources and obviously the old rules don't necessarily always work," he says.

Goggin says, however, solving this problem isn't as hard as MIT makes it out to be.

"I think there's a lot of misconceptions about backup power," he says. "The reality is that all power plants are backed up by all other power plants."

And he says grid operators could accommodate the vagaries of wind and solar if they moved power around the grid minute by minute, instead of hour by hour as they do now.

One thing the experts agree on: Since wind and solar energy are all about the weather, grid operators will need to hire a lot more weather forecasters.
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Reply Mon 12 Mar, 2012 09:22 am
@BumbleBeeBoogie,
Jobs Abound In Energy Industry's New Boom Time
by Kirk Siegler - NPR Morning Edition
March 12, 2012

Economists say many industries are looking up this year. But perhaps none has a better outlook than the energy sector.

New drilling technologies and rising fuel prices have generated a boom in drilling — and lots of high-paying jobs for people with the skills to work in the oil patch. On some college campuses, companies are so eager to find petroleum engineers that they are offering jobs to students even before they have graduated.

At the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Chris Enger is among the seniors who are being sought out by employers. "I feel very lucky and very glad I chose engineering," he says, "and specifically petroleum engineering."

Set to graduate with a bachelor's degree this May, Enger already has a job lined up with EOG Resources, a Texas-based oil and gas company.

"I've got friends on other campuses who may not have jobs and are considering pursuing a graduate degree, which seems to be a lot of people's options when they can't find a job," he says.

At the School of Mines, graduates in petroleum engineering don't have to run up debt in graduate school. Their average starting salary? Nearly $79,000.

Students are flocking to the field — and to colleges like this one, which has a nearly perfect job-placement rate for graduating seniors.

Professor Bill Eustes teaches a drilling class in which students learn how to design the piping in an oil and gas well to prevent explosions.

"I feel very lucky," says Colorado School of Mines student Chris Enger, who has a job as a petroleum engineer waiting on him in Texas.

A decade ago, there were only 21 students in his class. Today, there are about 160.

"When the [oil] prices climb, we typically see the number of students build also," he says. "Why? Because the jobs are there."

The need for young workers is especially intense now because many of the people who entered the oil business during the 1970s oil boom are retiring. At the same time, new drilling techniques are making it possible to get oil and gas from shale. That new supply is boosting demand for workers.

"If you would have told me 10 years ago that a shale would have been a gas reserve, I would have gone, 'You're crazy.' But they found a way to do it," Eustes says. "So we've got the technology improving; we've got these new reserves opening up; we've got this crew change coming up — all of these things have conspired to require people."

What's Behind These High Gas Prices?

GRAPHIC: What's Behind These High Gas Prices?

Jessica Lambdin is a recruiter for Encana Corp., which has traditionally been a natural-gas powerhouse. But because natural gas prices are down and oil prices are up, the company is now shifting its focus to recovering so-called unconventional oil.

The reason, she says, is that "we're really innovative, and students have a really strong desire to bring that to a corporation. And that's really important currently, in today's economy."

Encana is one of dozens of companies actively recruiting at the Colorado School of Mines and at similar schools from Texas to Montana. A recent career fair on the campus drew more than half the student body. Companies came back the next day and conducted 1,000 interviews.

Ali Amacki, a junior from Oman, says there's a buzz among his petroleum-engineering classmates. The new technology means the industry is no longer generating just traditional jobs involving oil derricks.

"Easy oil is gone," Amacki says. "People have been producing easy oil for decades now. Now we are the hard oil generation."
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