Grid vulnerabilities — an opportunity for alternatives

By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President, Illinois Renewable Energy Association

Storms such as Hurricane Sandy remind us of the vulnerability of the electric grid, which was not designed to withstand storms. Burying electric lines underground offers considerable protection against damage, but is a costly solution.

According to a recent issue of The New York Times, costs for repairing only grid damage in and around New York would be passed on to consumers and could raise residential electric rates 3 percent for the next three years. Burying all the lines has been estimated to triple rates for at least a decade.

Examples of reliable electric service in spite of the storm were facilities that burned natural gas to produce electricity and heat or used fuel cells to provide electrical service. Multiple buildings at New York University continued to secure electricity and heat from combined heat and power units, burning natural gas. Other facilities using fuel cells also had a secure supply of electricity.

While disrupted electrical service from storms has been limited in this area, a local business has seen a dramatic increase in demand for backup electrical service from generators using natural gas or propane. The low price of natural gas has stimulated home owners, small business and larger operations to install such systems.

Examples of what are known as mini-grids in the area provide electrical service to large, self-contained operations. They can operate independently if grid service is lost. One is at the Rockford Sanitary District, and another is the demonstration renewable energy project known as Freedom Field on Sanitary District property.

Our combined home solar/wind and battery backup system provides us with electric power when the grid goes down. Our system is targeted to power a limited number of appliances, including our water pump, freezer, refrigerator, microwave oven, furnace fan and a few lights. Over the last decade, the greatest amount of time we were without grid service was four hours.

As the use of natural gas expands, it is being touted as a bridge fuel to use to cut carbon emissions from burning coal as we transition to a renewable energy future. While burning natural gas is less environmentally harmful than coal combustion, in the journal Climate Change, Michael Leve points out that the intensive use of natural gas will fail to provide us with an adequate level of climate safety. While acknowledging benefits from using natural gas, David Roberts suggests we move directly to renewable energy sources.

A peer-reviewed study published in the Journal of Power Sources predicts that existing wind and photovoltaic power sources with limited electrochemical storage capacity will be able to economically meet a grid’s power requirements in a cost-effective manner 99.9 percent of the time by 2030. The system would be designed to meet peak demand to minimize costly storage capacity. Excess electrical production could be used to provide heat and displace natural gas consumption.

Moving directly to renewables would cut carbon emissions, but if they remain grid connected, the problem of reliability would not be solved without a standby system.

Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl are founders and officers of the Illinois Renewable Energy Association (IREA).

From the Jan. 16-22, 2013, issue

Enjoy The Rock River Times? Help spread the word!