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Distributed Energy Sources/Resources (DES/DER) – Some Reality Checks

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Alex Cannara's picture
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  • Oct 29, 2020

This item is part of the Distributed Energy Resources - Fall 2020 SPECIAL ISSUE, click here for more

Written by: Dr. Alexander Cannara & Paul Acchione, P. Eng., FCAE

Electricity is unique in that we can’t tell where the electric field at our home/commercial system interface comes from – electricity is a fungible resource, unlike water or other utilities and services that arrive with readable/testable tags or via traceable plumbing. 

Sadly, this natural anonymity serves the unscrupulous.  For instance, Berkshire-Hathaway Energy can serve far northern California and southern Oregon with wind, hydro and coal (via its Pacificorp subsidiary) power.  Those customers caring about their electricity-source mix have no idea of the true source(s) of their electricity.

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Subsidies and allowances of various kinds further benefit specific sources and owners, while distorting the markets that end-customers perceive.  Subsidies, depletion allowances and various regulations contribute to misperceptions of our various energy sources, thus hiding important environmental impacts we all must understand today. 

California Scheming…

A grand example is Los Angeles’ ‘personal’ coal mine and power plant at Delta, Utah.  LA has promised to convert it to gas, which may be little better, given the known level of methane GHG emissions from fracking, etc. 

A more recent LA project is a large, subsidized solar PV array coupled with impressive battery storage – except we learn they’re not “coupled” at all, except for making $.  The PV’s output goes into California’s daily excess of solar energy, which citizens may pay other states’ utilities to take, or which may just go unused (curtailed, below).  In any case, the new PV charges no battery, including the new, subsidized one loved by local & state politicos.  At night, when electricity is cheap, the battery is charged.  The next day, at peak price moments, the battery discharges into California’s loads, making $, not from solar energy, but mostly from California’s favorite source:  fracked gas


Alternatively, LA could have negotiated ownership change and repair of the San Onofre nuclear plant and thus reduced LA’s (and California’s) emissions and increased its power reliability.  LA could then stop depending on sources like Diablo Canyon to rescue it from familiar brownouts.  

CAISO has depended on nuclear’s ability to run beyond refueling dates in order to handle weather and other electricity-shortfall events…

Planned Maintenance at Diablo Canyon Unit 2 Delayed to Meet State Energy

Needs During Heat Wave” 9 Sep. 2015, CAISO: “Requests Both Units Operate at Full


No other sources save geothermal can do such, because nuclear fission and decay heat is ancient stellar-fusion energy stored in the heavy elements beyond lead.

The bottom line for large metro areas with large demands is that they need large, reliable, clean sources of electric power.  Subsidizing and curtailing unreliable sources needs to stop.  This may sound counter to the DER/DES mantra, but it is not, if we wish to deliver utility-grade electric service now and to our descendants, just as we deliver water/sewer/police/fire… services with utility-grade behavior.  In other words electricity delivery to all customers should be as reliable as their water and other services.  Society depends on reliable, utility-grade services.  Clean electricity is one of them.

Let’s remember KISS  (keep it simple, stupid).  Rube Goldberg did the opposite – for fun, or as a warning?  Because electricity is fungible, all manner of complex generation, delivery, accounting and pricing scams are suddenly possible, and we know what humans do with “possible” exploits.

Distributed energy sourcing can be exactly what the doctor ordered, or it can be exactly what the scammer (remember ENRON) loves.  In 2005, the US Bush administration repealed the 1935 PUHCA ( ) which had put our SEC in charge of monitoring what holding companies could do with their held utilities and their money.  The act corrected abuses that had contributed to the Great Depression.  Held utilities are no longer thus protected, nor are their customers.

So, depending on state regulators, utility holding companies can now contemplate many gambits that for about 70 years were unavailable to them.  Our new concerns about clean energy, plus the advent of wind/solar low power-density, high waste ‘renewable’ energy systems, offer a cornucopia of exploitations.  These come with abundant technical cover that disadvantages the voter, legislator, the energy customer, and even the environment we must clean up.  LA’s misrepresented PV+battery installation exemplifies this, as does the hugely overbuilt solar generation that presently saps about $1 billion/year from California electricity customers via curtailments – a techy way of saying “We waste your utility dollars bigly.”

A newish DER/DES example is Socal Edison’s inclusion of storage and controls for directional, “demand-response” power disposition at substations .  California plans to mandate that all new homes shall have rooftop PV, thus expanding what their substations’ equipment traditionally accomplished – power delivery to customers. The envisioned plan is that homes will also have EVs and those EVs will be line-connected whenever at home and subject to utility-directed remote charge/discharge. 

Thus, SoCal Edison (and others in the future) will be able to greatly expand their local (substation-level) services and rate structures, while taking advantage of CCR (capital cost recovery) through increased PUC rate approvals triggered by massive new capital investments in their distribution systems, all in the name of accessing customer-level generation (PV) and storage (EV batteries).  The hope is reduction of emissions, particularly from California’s gas and inefficient ‘peaker-plant’ dependence.

Of course, there’s a far simpler, more reliable and lasting solution, as offered by the California Commission on Science and Technology in 2011*.   But we should realize that most of what is now being attempted via distributed PV generation plus EV storage was already accomplished in Israel and Denmark via – cellular-connected batteries owned and maintained by the car vendor.  Car owners simply used a phone to contact the company with a trip they planned and the company would contact the battery in their EV to assess its charge prior to departure, then provide route advice to the driver on where to stop, if necessary, for a battery swap -- certainly a convenient system in small countries.   BetterPlace swap stations contracted with local utilities to provide load/source services via remote utility control.  Perhaps SoCal Edison can expand into the EV, battery and trip-enabling business?

The complexity of any such a system is large, as is its security and reliability exposure.  Many components must work securely and beyond utility-grade reliability.  It is also capital intensive, from startup and beyond. 

For example, SoCal Edison’s incorporation of mandated rooftop PV generation demands considerable local component upgrading.  A neighborhood typically has a handful of  100Amp home service drops per pole transformer.  Homes don’t max out their electricity demands at once.  But, near noon, mandated PV on all their roofs puts out full power.  The pole transformers and upstream substation gear better be able to handle that, regardless of the outdoor temperature.  The capital cost just to allow local PV output into the utility’s distribution system is large, and made larger by bidirectional substation storage and remote control. 

System-engineering realities apply:  a system that depends on a set of components all working is represented by “and” relationships among those components; a system’s failure modes are related by “ors”.   An aircraft can fly if its airframe is sound “and” its engines are operational.  The plane will crash if its airframe “or” its engines fail.  To protect linemen, home PV inverters cannot drive power into the utility’s wires if those wires otherwise have no voltage.  This means that all connected PV installations must at all times be working and able to make that assessment within speed and accuracy standards.  In Socal Edison’s ‘smart’ substations, a large number of and/or evaluations must be determined before a local power loss is restored, or the substation’s battery is drained or charged, or a customer’s EV battery is charged/discharged, or the customer’s PV output is accepted.

The amount of gear and money needed to simply accommodate a few hours of solar energy onto SoCal Edison’s system is large, but so is the PV’s waste – the most efficient commercial PV wastes about 80% of incoming solar energy as heat -- >2MW/acre of PV.   And PV itself degrades by ½-1% each year, making its manufacturing and recycling waste a big part of achieving any environmental benefit.  Furthermore, PV is typically backed up by inefficient but flexible natural-gas generation which emits greenhouse gases and particulates.  Support of PV for distributed generation is thus not actually addressing a main concern like global warming.  And the cost of doing so, as SoCal Edison and California are planning, leads directly to higher customer costs.   California electricity already costs about twice that in other states.

The added utility complexity and remote controls obviously raise intrusion security concerns, but natural ones as well – the 11-year solar-activity cycle is now rising again.  We’ve not experienced a major solar storm event since 1859, when the telegraph constituted our electric sophistication, but then its wires started fires in its gear and shocked operators  ( ).  The far weaker 1989 solar storm wreaked serious damage in Canada and the northeast US  ( ).  Events like this can also be triggered by an adversary with orbital spacecraft capability.  Those “ands” in a power-system’s dependencies and the “ors” in its failure modes endanger society.   KISS advice is clear – DER/DES requires considerable thought, even in its simplest forms.

Texas and ERCOT…

Texas deserves a brief note because its electrical system is so different, even disconnected, from the rest of America.  ERCOT is not a utility regulator and new power sources are much like wild-catted oil wells – put up a generator on some land and try to get its power into Texas’ demand market.  ERCOT has the strongest line building program in the US, subsidized by all electric customers.  The problem is that ‘renewables’ growth is faster than transmission planners and builders can keep up with.

The easiest generation to add that way is wind, followed by PV.  The biggest problem is that they do best in West Texas, but the power demand is in the large cities, which are far away.  Transmission lines must be upgraded/added to handle any new power now coming from a new location that used to be just a modest load. 

The result in Texas is that power sources are not always where they’d best be to serve demand, and the vagaries of wind itself challenges the reliability of power all over Texas, particularly in hot weather, when airconditioning is on 24/7 and wind ebbs.  About 10 years ago, the situation looked like... 

It’s worse now:   ( )

Nuclear Power…

Jesse Jenkins, now at Princeton and beneficiary of ‘renewables’ industry funding, has done the best job of squeezing as much intermittent wind/solar sources into his modeling of our power choices…

Yet, he concludes that most power must be generated by “firm” sources.  That means hydro, nuclear and geothermal.  “Firm” means reliably available almost always – utility-grade.  And, it means resistant to weather and, from now on, climate change.  Hydro has yearly weather dependence.  Geothermal/nuclear stations are rarely so affected.

If our goal is to provide our descendants with utility-grade clean electricity, we should expand those forms.  The World Bank goes even further, pointing out that we cannot even come close to meeting IPCC targets for global warming with ‘renewables’; we can only do it as have some other countries already, via great nuclear power expansion… 

Note the slim green column on the nuclear side is Canada, but really Ontario, which per-capita puts Ontario well above the IPCC target line, primarily due to its massive nuclear power deployments.

Ontario, Canada…

Based on our experiences in Ontario, we have seen rising electricity prices and greater curtailment of clean generation after intermittent ‘renewable’ DERs (mainly wind and solar) were added too aggressively without sufficient hourly analysis of their energy production compared to consumers' hourly demand.

The public is strongly in favour of intermittent renewables like wind and solar.  Unfortunately the public is not aware of their low capacity factors, high natural resource requirements and inability to consistently align maximum rated output with peak consumer power demand.  

There is a place for all clean, intermittent generation technologies in the power system.  However, the important thing is to select an appropriate mix and location for each generation technology that collectively aligns with the power/energy demand requirements of the consumer loads.  This also includes transmission and distribution requirements. Distributed solar and wind can be cost effective if their energy is produced in close proximity to the loads and the energy is allocated primarily to flexible loads.  Flexible loads include electric vehicle charging, partial displacement of fossil fuels used for heating and hydrogen production.

Intermittent ‘renewables’ like wind and solar don’t need costly storage systems if we align their production with the needs of flexible loads like electric vehicle (EV) charging.  The EVs bring their own storage with them, so linking wind/solar production with EV charging requirements using smarter grid controls creates more room for intermittent wind/solar capacity and lowers costs for the power system.  The current practice of trying to make intermittent ‘renewable’ production dependable in order to supply base-load demand is very expensive, based on experience in other jurisdictions (e.g.: Germany and Ontario).

If we are serious about achieving long term emission reduction targets, intermittent ‘renewables’ like wind and solar should never be used to supply inflexible base-loads unless the jurisdiction is blessed with massive amounts of cheap storage and the transmission capacity to link that generation with the storage.

Hopefully in the future (10 to 20 years) we will have commercially available new advanced small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs).  These will be passively safe reactors operating at low pressure and they should be able to be distributed, initially at least, near industrial parks.  They will then be able to supply both electricity and steam/hot water that is zero-emission.  Currently we do not have a cost effective source of zero-emission heat to displace natural gas, propane and heating oil.  These distributed SMRs can provide plentiful energy to support our high standard of living and affordably achieve economy-wide emission reductions.

Nuclear energy offers communities other benefits including many types of highly skilled jobs, high salaries, long duration employment and excellent employee benefits/pensions compared to other energy production technologies.  Only jurisdictions that have deployed significant amounts of nuclear (France & Sweden), or hydroelectric (Quebec), or both (Ontario) for their electricity needs have already met their IPCC 2040 emission-reduction targets for their electric power systems at an affordable price of energy.  Those jurisdictions with low emission electricity can now begin the process of electrification of transportation, and eventually heating, when distributed SMRs become available.  The World Bank makes clear that such is the path to meeting the world’s environmental targets and needs.

And DoE (2015 Quadrennial Review Table 10.4) makes clear that the raw materials requirements for large-scale wind/solar are unrealistic and un-environmental – wind/solar demand >10 times the raw materials (red totals below) as nuclear power, and further demand critical materials that nuclear doesn’t…

Nuclear also has impressive environmental characteristics:  the least amount of natural resources, the largest emission reductions, the smallest land footprint and species impact, the highest dependability, and the largest energy output per energy input for each installed kW of power capacity.  Nuclear also has the best safety records per kWh of energy output. Even nuclear spent fuel ‘waste’ can be recycled and stored safely if we look at the technology rationally  ( ).

* Calif. issues…

** Nuclear safety…

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