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A Profusion of Digital, Decentralized Renewable Power Systems is Emerging

image credit: Courtesy: SeaGen

In contrast to traditional ways and means, a new generation of renewable, digital power-driven power industry players, as well as growing numbers of incumbent electric utilities, are now taking a from-the-bottom-up approach to designing, engineering and deploying distributed renewable energy systems.

The goals and envisaged benefits are manifold: enhancing access to sustainable energy for socioeconomic development and growth, improving power grid reliability and resilience, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and pollution, and lowering and reduce the volatility and uncertainty of the cost of electricity.

For example, five smart, lithium-ion (Li) battery energy storage systems (BESS) are dispatching electricity on the Greek Cyclades island of Kythnos. The BESS form the foundation of an envisioned virtual power plant (VPP) that incorporates local solar and other renewable energy resources with demand-side resource management, including electric vehicle (EV) batteries.

Bypassing long-distance grids

The Kythnos island battery energy storage-grid stabilization project is part and parcel of the European Union's (EU) WiseGRID program, the aim of which is to develop new, value-added, consumer-oriented energy services that result in higher penetrations of local, renewable energy resources and electric mobility while at the same time strengthening and enhancing the overall performance of power grids, VARTA explains. Financed by the E.U. Horizon 2020 R&D program, three other WiseGRID projects— in Belgium, Italy and Spain— are being carried out.

"Grid electricity is being bypassed. Extension of national grids is nowhere near keeping up with population growth. The sheer cost of upgrading national grids and their vulnerability to terrorism and natural disasters is leading to clean off grid power. It will also replace 800 GW of diesel gensets," according to a recently released global market research report from IDTechEx entitled, "Distributed Generation: Minigrid Microgrid Zero Emission 2018-2038."

IDTechEx's research shapes up as a sort of techno-economic scouting report of bleeding and leading-edge, off-grid and distributed, digital renewable energy technology and systems.

"The hot area is not major grids, but avoiding them...There's lots to worry about with [traditional, centralized] grids. Cybersecurity and threats are a big worry. Then there are the impacts of natural disasters and climate change, aging grid infrastructure and a lack of funding for upgrades. All this makes putting in small, local power systems more attractive," Harrop said in an interview.

Casinos in Las Vegas are putting up their own solar farms in the desert and virtually cutting cables to the utility basically because of the unpredictability of costs and service, Harrop cited as an example. "Distributed near centers of demand, renewable energy microgrids and VPPs offer the advantages of stable prices and less risk," he said.

Offshore wind, tidal and wave power

The biggest markets are on the mainland of developing countries, but mini- and microgrids are cropping up in both developing and developed nation island states, IDTechEx researchers found.

"There are more than 10,000 inhabited islands around the world and an estimated 750 million islanders," according to the report, which profiles many that are developing off-grid power systems and networks. "In most cases, renewables are already a cost-effective replacement for their diesel generators and others benefit from solar panels taking much of their load," the report authors highlight.

A globe-spanning market and supply chain already exists for offshore wind power, the cost of which is moving downward sharply. Other types of marine power technologies are advancing towards economic viability, as well, Harrop highlighted.

Tidal power systems are up, running and producing emissions-free electricity at a growing variety of sites worldwide, including in Scotland, England's Thames River, the East River in New York City and the Yangtze River in China, for example, Harrop pointed out.

Tidal currents are strong and persistent at sites such as these, so the issue of intermittent power generation is "virtually zero," Harrop said. "They're silent and invisible, and there's no need for batteries, which wear out too soon and wind up costing too much. Basically, you can just drop a propeller on the sea floor and start producing electricity."

It's earlier in the game for wave and aerial wind power systems, but small-scale deployments are growing and costs declining, Harrop continued. Wave power systems are being, or have been tested, in Australia, Portugal, the U.K. and the U.S., among others.

Ghana's TC's Energy, for example, is working with international EPCs in a bid to develop as much as 1 GW of electrical power capable of serving as many as 1 million consumers from tides and waves in the Ada estuary, Harrop highlighted.

"Whereas they have done 100 MW of solar at $1 per MW, they paid double for Seabased to install [an initial] 100 megawatts of tidal turbines." The turbines are small, with each one capable of producing about 80 kilowatts of power, "but they produce electricity virtually continuously with no need for batteries. You just drop them in the water and they work," Harrop said.

The electrification of transportation

The electrification of transportation is another early-stage, but key facet of the evolution towards decentralized, digital renewable energy. Electric vehicles (EVs) and charging stations will come to store and dispatch emissions-free power as core elements of micro and mini grids, increasing numbers of which won't be connected to national grids, according to the IDTechEx report.

For example, "Tesla promises solar bodywork and Elon Musk says he will take all his intended 10 GW of charging stations worldwide off grid. There is a clear road map in the report showing 2.2 million larger vehicles becoming candidates for energy independence as clean off grid minigrids in 2028 including the largest ships having zero emission instead of each emitting NOx and particulates of millions of cars," the report authors highlight.

They go on to conclude that off-grid, renewable power systems are "a prudent diversification for utilities and fossil fuel companies now investing in it. The potential is considerable and for the first time it has now been fully scoped by this report, from single solar panels on huts in Africa to the 17 types of land vehicle, boat, ship and plane from 2014-2028 that will trend to being traveling minigrids with zero emissions."

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