Grid R&D must parallel expansion of renewable power -- report

The Energy Department should expand its research on energy storage, long-distance electricity transmission and short-term weather forecasting in order to support the growing use of renewable energy, the American Physical Society says in a report released today.

Research and development is needed to prepare the electric grid for the coming onslaught of new solar and wind power, in much the way farmers must prepare the ground before sowing a crop, said Kathryn Clay, vice president of research and technology policy with the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and a member of the committee that wrote the report, at a press event.

"This is actually taking it a step higher in terms of the technical sophistication of the national grid," Clay said, contrasting the proposed work with calls by other groups to build new transmission lines.

The American Physical Society (APS) said the intermittency of wind and solar supplies, the location of prime wind and solar sites far from population centers on the East and West coasts, and the fragmentation of the national energy grid present challenges to integrating renewable energy.

Those challenges will become increasingly significant as more states implement renewable portfolio standards, the report says, as 30 states and the District of Columbia have already done.


Jim Misewich, a co-chairman of the report committee and associate lab director for basic science at DOE's Brookhaven National Laboratory, said many of the state standards are aimed at providing 20 percent of their electricity from renewables by 2020. Integrating that degree of renewable power would be a challenge under current conditions, he said, which effectively sets a 10-year time frame to address the weaknesses.

While experts do not know the precise load of renewables that the grid can handle, Clay said, "We don't want to run that experiment" to see when it starts to break down.

The report calls for a series of federal actions to address the challenges.

For energy storage, DOE should increase its electrochemical research and re-examine the technology options for batteries in the context of large-scale use, it said. Misewich stressed the value of reconsidering approaches that were discarded during the 1980s and 1990s, when program managers had different applications in mind, in light of changing needs.

On long-distance transmission, APS urged DOE to extend its work on high-temperature superconductivity and increase R&D on power electronics that can control power flows over split-second time periods.

To make wind and solar forecasting more useful to utilities, it called for additional research by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Weather Service and National Center for Atmospheric Research, as well as private companies, to improve the accuracy of reports hours to days in advance. That would reduce the need for fossil fuel standby power, reducing cost and improving the environmental performance of power providers.

Misewich and Clay said regulatory reforms by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Electric Reliability Corp. could help by clarifying how utilities can pay for energy storage improvements.

Clay said some of the R&D work suggested by APS is already before Congress in some form, while much of it is new. She said the panel decided against estimating the cost of the recommended work.

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