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Topic: Grid

[Episode #153] – Grid-forming Inverters

This one is for the power geeks!

As the energy transition proceeds, and grids have to accommodate more and more inverter-based generators like wind and solar systems, how will grid operators maintain system inertia? For that matter…what if we start operating grids without inertia?

One way to manage it is through “grid-forming inverters,” which can generate the necessary signals for conventional grid-following inverters and thus mimic the operation of synchronous generators.

In this episode, we “turn it up to 11” and speak with a researcher who has been exploring these questions at the University of Colorado in Boulder and at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), who explains how these resources might work at high penetrations of renewables on power grids, and what kinds of additional research are still needed to transform the grid to one that is friendly to inverter-based resources (or IBRs).

And if you’re not quite ready for such a technical deep dive, try listening to Episodes #119, #126, #94, and #55 (in that order) first, then try coming back to this one.

Geek rating: 11

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[Episode #71] – Australia at the Cutting Edge

Since we last covered Australia one year ago in Episode 39, a lot has changed…it has deployed the largest utility-scale battery system in the world, made numerous technical upgrades to prevent future outages, and placed some incredible leaders in key agencies where they are working hard to accelerate the country’s energy transition. It is also actively investing in new energy technologies that aren’t even commercial yet, to see how they can perform. In short, Australia is breaking new trail on multiple fronts in energy transition, and demonstrating some truly interesting findings to the rest of the world, for how a grid might function self-sufficiently, at scale, with significant shares of variable renewable power and large battery storage systems.

Our guide to the current state of affairs today is Ivor Frischknecht, a subscriber to this show and the CEO of the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA). A widely acknowledged expert and innovator in the energy industry, with deep knowledge of the grid’s needs in Australia, and a far-reaching vision for what it can become, he’s one of the top experts on the energy transition Down Under, and can explain it all in a very accessible way.

Geek rating: 6

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[Episode #70] – Who Should Control Wholesale Markets?

As older coal and nuclear generators are pushed off the grid by cheaper, nimbler, cleaner renewables and other technologies, the owners of conventional generators are becoming increasingly nervous about their futures, and seeking new ways to protect their legacy assets. From attempting to change market rules or simply pursuing new subsidies, the effort to retire dirty and unwanted old generators and replace them with newer, cleaner sources of electricity faces a series of challenges. And how those challenges are resolved will have broad implications for how the electric grid of the future will operate, and who will own it.

In this episode we take a deep dive into the intersections between federal authority, wholesale markets, and state policies, explore some of the legal questions therein, and try to understand what they suggest about the process of energy transition, and the pathways for unlocking new ways of using energy and designing electricity markets…and yes, this episode definitely deserves its Geek Rating!

Geek rating: 10

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[Episode #69] – Western Grid Regionalization

California and 12 other US states, plus parts of Canada and Mexico, are considering whether to expand the California wholesale grid and balancing area to include the entire region, in order to increase the flow of reliable, affordable, and renewable power across the West. This shift to a regional independent system operator, or ISO, would also expand resource flexibility, improve transmission planning and grid reliability, and enable a far larger share of renewable energy across the system. But it’s not without risk: Would a unified Western market kill the market for power projects sold under virtual PPAs outside its borders? Would it give project developers—or even coal plants—operating within the Western grid but outside California a competitive edge over California’s own renewable project developers? Would it become a loophole through which coal power starts being imported into California, after many years of effort trying to get rid of coal in the Golden State? Would California or any of the other Western states lose control over their own power production and consumption? And what about the five states that could join the Southwest Power Pool instead—what will they do?

These are complex questions with no easy answers, but our guest in this episode is an expert on the subject and ably walks us through all the pros and cons…and points the way to a potentially very different future for power markets in the American West.

Geek rating: 8

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[Episode #58] – Solar with Storage

Full Episode

Historically, thermal concentrating solar plants were the only type of solar power equipped with storage. But as cheaper PV systems became dominant, thermal solar plants fell into disfavor. Now solar PV systems are beginning to integrate storage based on lithium-ion batteries, and this storage isn't just used to supply power when the sun is down; it is providing grid stabilization services too, which only adds complexity to an already-complicated picture for the future of storage - confounding attempts to model how much storage we’ll need, and of what kind, and when will we need it. Is a large amount of seasonal storage required on a high-RE grid, as some analysts have suggested? Or will other technologies reduce the amount of storage we’ll need? And can we even forecast that need, years or decades in advance? We’ll delve into all those questions and more in this deep dive into combined solar and storage systems.

Geek rating: 7

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[Episode #56] – Blockchain in Energy Transition

The blockchain is one of the most discussed and hyped technologies, and it’s not just limited to crypto-currencies like Bitcoin. There are also plenty of serious people looking at how the tokens and distributed ledgers of blockchain technology might work in an energy context, and how they could help to enable new kinds of transactions and even whole new markets in energy - helping to accelerate energy transition by doing things cheaper, faster, and with greater security than conventional methods allow.

But these are very new ideas that are only just getting into the real development phase now, and understanding how they might work, and what their real potential is, is not easy. It’s a complex and largely abstract domain without much real-world experience to show for itself. And it has a dark side, too: The energy consumption alone of these new crypto-currencies is horrific. So is the blockchain going to turn out to be a huge new boon to energy transition, or will it turn out to be a bad idea that consumed a lot of energy without much tangible benefit?

To help us understand how the blockchain works and how it might actually benefit energy transition, our guest in this episode is enabling innovators to create new decentralized markets in energy, such as demand response, and creating new opportunities to bring low cost, low carbon and resilient energy to all. She is an expert in innovation, tech, communications, and environmental policy, and has a front-row seat in seeing how the blockchain is being integrated into energy markets.

Geek rating: 4

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[Episode #46] – Is 100% Renewables Realistic?

[This episode has been released ahead of schedule to coincide with the publication of the paper it covers. Enjoy! --Ed.]

Is it really feasible to run the world on 100% renewables, including supply and demand matching at all times and places? Would doing so require vast amounts of seasonal storage? Are exotic new technologies like next-generation flexible nuclear power plants or coal plants equipped with carbon capture and storage (CCS) equipment needed to balance out variable renewables at a reasonable cost?

In this episode, Dr. Christopher Clack offers a very detailed, deep critique of the 100% wind, water and solar model proposed by Stanford’s Mark Jacobson in 2015, and explains where the model falls short. We also discuss a recent paper by Jesse Jenkins from MIT and Samuel Thernstrom from the Energy Innovation Reform Project, which reviewed some recent papers on what “deep decarbonization” might imply for our future energy mix. This 90-minute, super-wonky chat over a few pints of IPA is guaranteed to leave you reeling…and hopefully, more informed about the best policy pathways to a mostly renewable future.

Geek rating: 9

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[Episode #44] – Different Strokes

One thing is sure about energy transition: There is no one-size-fits-all approach. As our previous episodes on individual countries showed, there are different opportunities and challenges in each place…even each US state has to find its own unique transition path. In this episode, we have a wide-ranging talk with Dr. Benjamin Sovacool of the University of Sussex about a tiny fraction of his voluminous research on energy transition topics, with a focus on the speed of energy transitions, the ways that the Nordic countries of Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Norway and Iceland are going about their transitions; his outlook for CCS technology and nuclear power; the potentials and pitfalls of nuclear power and the potential for distributed energy resources to displace nuclear; and we’ll surprise him with the first-ever Energy Transition Show lightning round, in which he’ll answer 15 key questions about energy transition (which were the subject of one of his books) in under two minutes!

Geek rating: 7

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[Episode #38] – Getting from Here to There

There’s nothing to give you a little perspective on what’s happening on planet Earth like getting off it and seeing its beauty—and it’s human-caused destruction—from space. In this wide-ranging interview, former astronaut Jay Apt, a professor of technology and business at Carnegie Mellon University, shares some insights from his voluminous body of research on energy transition topics, including: what the power grid of the future could look like; how we’ll balance it with increasing levels of renewable energy; how to smooth out the fluctuations in wind farm power output; utility business model evolution and resource adequacy planning; what the optimal amount of storage on the PJM Interconnection might be; the economics of behind-the-meter battery systems; the potential future for EVs providing services to the grid; whether carbon capture and sequestration technology and geoengineering can play significant roles in addressing climate change; the new era of electricity de- and re-regulation; and of course, what it’s like to look down on Earth from space. You’ll never see an hour go by as quickly as this one.

Geek rating: 8

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[Episode #24] – Starting Over

Full Episode

What if we didn’t have to work around the grid we have today, with all of its inertia and incumbents and inflexibility? If we could start over and design the grid from scratch, what would it look like? And once we understood that, how might it change the way we are going about energy transition now, in order to reach that goal more quickly and directly? If what we really want is a grid that is fair, equitable, reliable, efficient, resilient, sustainable, and which serves our climate and social goals, what are the first principles we might work from, and what mechanisms might get us where we want to go? This freewheeling conversation aims to help all of us “think outside the box” a bit more, and imagine what the possibilities might be if we could just start over.

Geek rating: 9

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