Watt’s Happening: Greening the grid

Monday, May 26th, 2014

By Don Pettit

GREENING THE GRID

Readers may be expecting, as promised, an update on my recently completed 5.6 kilowatt solar power array that is sitting up on my roof waiting for an electrical inspection. Well, I’m still waiting, but it is close. Very close.

After inspection, a simple one-page form is filled out and emailed, with the electrical approval, to the grid-tie office of BC Hydro, and my system approved for connection within a day or two (I am told). Then my solar power system will begin powering my business building and feeding the excess into the grid. Patience Don, patience.

Meanwhile I offer you an overview of some of the truly amazing changes that are happening around the world as we move into the biggest and most important Power Shift in human history: the move to renewables.

Solar power panels like the ones on my roof (photovoltaic or PV panels) have plummeted in price due to world-wide mass production and huge demand. (wind power did the same about a decade ago). Thus the renewable energies of wind and solar are moving aggressively into the mainstream power market. This is good news.

Existing utilities have mixed feelings about it, however. Existing grids were designed (using 1960’s technology) for the more steady flow of power from highly centralized coal and hydroelectric stations. Renewables are more variable and much more distributed across the landscape, requiring what is being called a “smart grid” that uses modern technology to deal with this distributed, more variable power. The switch to smart grids will be expensive.

Everyone agrees that this is the way to go, however, because you not only get a very long-lasting fuel source (renewables last forever) that doesn’t cost anything and produces no pollution, you also get a much more efficient system that actually needs a lot less power because it wastes less. Texas is a “smart grid” leader in the US, and developing nations will be quick to follow because they don’t have an old grid to replace. They can go directly to smart renewables. India and China are leading here.

FEED-IN TARIFFS WORK

Renewables are often encouraged in a given state, province or country with a technique pioneered in Germany: the “feed-in tariff.” This is a special rate paid to producers of renewable energy that is designed to shorten the pay-back time on renewable investment. The utility can gain huge power generating capacity with no investment in infrastructure, simply by paying a bit more for the power for a while.  Properly done, it’s a genuine win-win.

Feed-in tariffs really work. Thanks to their innovative feed-in tariff, Germany is now a global leader in both wind and solar power technologies. (Once the industry is well-established, feed-in tariffs are phased out. Germany is beginning to do that now.)

Ontario is now a renewable leader in Canada thanks to their feed-in tariff. This has attracted investment, built factories, created jobs and diversified rural economies across the province. Thanks to new wind facilities in Ontario and Quebec, Canada is on track to install a record 1,600 megawatts of new wind power this year.

Japan has just broken all records with their new post-Fukushima feed-in tariff. The Rising Sun Revolution added an amazing 3,666 megawatts of clean renewable energy to their grid in just ONE YEAR, the equivalent of almost four nuclear reactors!

Meanwhile, BC and Alberta are lagging behind, no doubt distracted by their highly-controversial fossil fuel resources. Economists are warning that heavy investment in fossils could result in hundreds of billions of dollars worth of “stranded assets” as fossils fall away and renewables take their place. A new report by banking giant Citi notes that of the $9.7 trillion of global investment in power generation expected between now and 2035, 71% will be in renewables.  When it comes to fossils, says Citi, plan for “lower demand than might be expected.”

Thanks to its short-term and confused energy policies, BC is losing its “green veneer” with no feed-in tariff in sight. It would be great to get some help from our leaders, but personally I’m moving ahead with renewables anyway, along with the rest of the world. There are just far too many good reasons not to.

Don Pettit is a director of the board of Peace Energy Cooperative.

Image caption: (PV installers on roof)
Feed-in tariffs can encourage investment in renewable energy, increasing energy production with little cost to utilities, while diversifying local economies, providing jobs and greening the grid.