Chinadialogue reminds us that those countries that are trying to transition to renewable energies as rapidly as possible face a major challenge with their electrical transmission systems.  And it will be their grid operators who will have to overcome this challenge if they are to succeed.

Germany‘s recent decision to abandon nuclear power puts that country at the lead of the pack.  California is also at the forefront as it has set a goal of 33% of its electricity from renewables by 2020.  The world will be watching very closely to see how successful they are and what can be learned from their experiences.

Renewable energy has to be generated wherever there is a lot of sun or wind or waves.  Quite often this is located in remote areas such as off-shore or in deserts or sparsely populated rural areas.  The only way to get that energy to customers is via an expensive capital-intensive infrastructure of high powered transmission lines constructed over long distances.  In countries like Canada, the United States, China and Russia these distances can be vast.  In addition, the electric grid must be able to handle sudden fluctuations in energy production when the wind starts and stops or whenever the Sun goes dark on cloudy days and at night.  This intermittent energy must be stored or managed with other generation sources (nuclear, hydro, coal, natural gas)  to provide a stable and reliable service to consumers.  In this way low production in one location can be balanced by high production in another.

Hence the need for intelligent grid operation and smart grids.

Grid operators try to cope with intermittent power in different ways.  They can source it from multiple renewable sources in a wide area in hope that some energy is being produced somewhere.   They can manage the customer demand by arranging to disconnect large users for a few hours. Or they can arrange for backup power generation by a controllable power source like hydro or natural gas turbines (nuclear and coal generation is more costly to vary over the day.)

The first option, relying on renewables only, requires a lot of strong, tightly integrated grid capacity between regions.  At the same time it necessitates very precise weather forecasts, particularly 24 hours in advance.  Accurate weather forecasts allow the grid operator to plan on receiving at least a minimum amount of renewable power to meet the expected customer needs.  This allows the operators to choose the preferable energy source for each hour of the day and limits the need for more costly or CO2-emitting back-up power.  Additionally, the smooth operation of the grid is dependent on government policy and regulatory decisions regarding the geographical location of renewable energy sites and the ease and cost of connecting those sites to the grid.

See also High Wire Act: Electricity Transmission Infrastructure and its Impact on the Renewable Energy Market.


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