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Which do you feel is better, large Wind & Solar Farms? Or Localized Power Generation and why?!

The U.S. Department of Energy is currently pursuing a strategy to create a smart grid, an automated, cleaner and less-centralized means of meeting the nation's energy demands.

The idea of a localized power grid or microgrid fits into this overall strategy in several key ways.

First, the more power produced on a local level, the less a community will need to import from outside power plants or leech off the network. And there would be a reduction in transmission cost.

Many of the nation's energy woes are due to the electrical equivalency of a run on the bank. Temperatures suddenly skyrocket, so more people crank up the air conditioning -- which puts a huge drain on the grid. 

If there's not enough to go around, then not everyone gets power -- at least until sufficient energy becomes available elsewhere on the grid.

What direction should we be pursuing?! 🤔



Best Answer

Hi Andre,

The practical answer is that you do what you think is economically the best for you. The second consideration is that you do what you think is morally best. Many corporate entities have invested in renewables via Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs) or virtual PPAs for both economic and moral reasons. These investments are in large wind and solar facilities. On the small scale, many people find it economically a great idea to install solar on their roofs. They also like the moral choice. As the grid goes toward the direction of distributed energy resources, which includes both of your questions, utilities pursue the goal of grid resiliency and stability. For some, that means funding coal and nuclear power plants that have had a difficult economic time. For others, that means investing in new grid technology that supports distributed energy resources.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Oct 15, 2019 6:19 pm GMT

Charles, no corporation invests in renewable PPAs for moral reasons, nor should they. They invest in them for public relations, and they can be very effective in convincing potential customers they're doing something good for the environment.

Unfortunately, they're not. Renewable PPAs rely on unverifiable "Renewable Energy Certificates", which double-count the renewable energy contribution of a solar or wind plant by allowing a fossil fuel generator to count a corresponding quantity of gas-fired generation as "clean", too. Any business that operates on cloudy, windless days or nights and claims to be powered by "100% renewable" electricity is essentially a co-conspirator in this scam.

In years to come its immense ramifications will be understood by a gullible public, but by then it will be too late to matter.

"As the grid goes toward the direction of distributed energy resources, which includes both of your questions, utilities pursue the goal of grid resiliency and stability."

Or more correctly: "pursue the goal of re-establishing grid resiliency and stability", give both have suffered as a direct result of incorporating intermittent renewable electricity, If utilities billed customers for the cost of accommodating generation from wind and solar farms, it would make zero-carbon nuclear energy considerably more economical by comparison, wouldn't it?

Charles Botsford, PE's picture
Charles Botsford, PE on Oct 15, 2019 8:13 pm GMT

Hi Bob,

I stand by my answer -- it's about economics. If Google were to sign a renewables vPPA for 100% of GWh output from a wind farm and were to discover the wind farm output had been oversubscribed, say selling another 100% to Microsoft (like something out of The Producers), Google and Microsoft both would be very unhappy. Too, Google doesn't buy GWh only on public relations. The MWh cost has to be competitive.

You're right that public relations plays a part in a corporate economic decision, but so does a potential public relations fiasco, such as what you theoretically describe. I would bet Google and Microsoft attorneys have your theoretical risk covered.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Oct 15, 2019 9:48 pm GMT

This is a good point, Charles. The #1 is always economics and the #2 is doing the 'right' thing. The sweet spot, and much of the work in R&D and developing of clean energy, is ensuring that #1 and #2 overwhelmingly overlap. At that point, it won't even be news when the Google's and Microsoft's invest in bigger wind farms, it'll just be obvious!

André D. Henderson Sr.'s picture
André D. Henderson Sr. on Oct 27, 2019 1:24 pm GMT

I think Charles makes excellent points!

I prefer small size of wind and solar , supported by suitable size gas turbine or desiel engine as a backup. Also , one can think of starage battery as addition. Sizes will depend upon estemated load in the near future and metiorolgical conditions of the covered zone.

André D. Henderson Sr.'s picture
André D. Henderson Sr. on Oct 27, 2019 1:28 pm GMT

Thanks for your input... I happen to agree.

Although there are cases large scaled units are the best solution.

All: There is an important  and broader policy context associated with this question that we all need to grasp in thinking about the future of energy.  Although renewables at scale are presently beating the pants off the cost of any fossil fuel alternative, delivery of those renewables is dependent on our clogged and antiquated power grid which also happens to be subject to huge bureaucratic regulation.  Not to mention, their tendency to start fires, have power lines fall, and be subject to disruption through terrorism. With climate change, even hydro is going to take a whipping as rain patterns change and water availability becomes problematic.

In my opinion, it is time to move to a 100% distributed system that incorporates every form of renewable energy generation supported by a very robust behind the meter energy storage technology that can ultimately make each energy user independent and resilient and 100% reliable in the face of the inevitable climate change induced disruption to our power systems.  Every roof top and every parking lot needs to be utilized for energy production in one form or another (solar, wind, solar thermal. etc.)  Every window needs to produce electricity (Energy Glass, Onyx - check it out).  Every new building needs to be built to a net zero energy standard. 

The corporate utility model needs to be changed to support a 100% distributed model.  Edison whatever should own the energy producing technology on my roof and the storage system in my garage. All of their trained union maintenance guys can come to my house and maintain their system when there is need.  The idea of investing trillions of dollars to rebuild and maintain an electrical distribution system that is an old idea that deserves to be put out of its misery is a bad idea.

Private sector dollars are readily available to implement this model if we can just move past "this is the way it has always been done."  A clean 100% renewable energy future awaits and we need to begin immediately or whatever else we do will not really matter very much. Mother Nature is talking. Time to listen.



Dr. Amal Khashab's picture
Dr. Amal Khashab on Oct 21, 2019 9:09 pm GMT


Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Oct 21, 2019 9:44 pm GMT

Can you share a little bit more, Dr. Khashab? Is it entirely unrealistic in your view, is it unrealistic because of technology shortcomings? Economics not working out? 

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Oct 21, 2019 9:46 pm GMT

The corporate utility model needs to be changed to support a 100% distributed model

Larry-- do you see this as a 'if we could tear it down and start over' type of goal, or do you think it's something we could get to in our lifetimes? I wonder if it would be something politicians and regulators could get behind (perhaps rough because of the political influence many utilities do have) and if end users would be willing to tolerate the hiccups (to say the least) during such a large-scale transition. 

Larry Eisenberg's picture
Larry Eisenberg on Oct 23, 2019 6:26 pm GMT

I do not view the solution as a tear down, but rather as an incremental shift that needs to begin immediately. That national electrical grid is old and congested. Spending a vast sum of public or private dollars to upgrade and replace the grid in its present form is not solid long term thinking.  I think the solution is an immediate shift to focus on a distributed solution. 

Building large renewable energy projects that do not incorporate a full storage component to create a 100% dispatachable capability from renewables is an example of head in the sand thinking. I understand the strong profit motive that drives the present effort to build major utility scale renewable energy systems, but we need to truly take advantage of the available and new to the market technologies that make a 100% reliable distributed eminently possible.  The other issue to recognize with distant large scale renewable energy projects is the basic issue of line loss.  We invest a huge amount fo money to build a large scale only to deliver a fraction of the power produced to the ultimate user. The question in my mind is whether the same large scale investment put into distributed projects delivers a better ultimate value to society, and accelerates our ability to impact climate change.

André D. Henderson Sr.'s picture
André D. Henderson Sr. on Oct 27, 2019 1:33 pm GMT

Interesting feedback... But a Smart Grid is the best solution!

Andre - once communities and individuals become involved, the decision process can become very complex.  If individuals want to make that decision - why not, a home solar system is cheaper than a high end automobile.   Companies and communities in areas with low power reliability may choose local generation, they will need more than simple panels to obtain this - batteries, controls to allow operations without the grid.  

From a societal point, costs should drive the answers.  Lazard did a comprehensive cost of electricity analsyis in 2018 ($/MWH) and the cost savings associated with large scale solar PV makes that choice pretty easy.  

As you can see the large scale solar PV is 2-3 X less expensive than commercial, community or residential PV.  Here in Texas, there are many new utility scale projects coming on line in the next 18 months and the targeted rates are in the $25/MWH range.  There is some added costs associated with T&D but even if that is $20-30/MWH, utility scale still wins.  

My bottomline is that if individuals, communities or corporations can afford to invest in their own local system and it meets their needs - great, but the experts need to make sure that they understand the actual costs and make their recommendations on those facts. 

An interesting data point from ERCOT is that during our peak demand periods this summer (2019), solar generation delivered at its peak daily capacity for that day.  This will be an interesting change in ERCOT as in the past many renewable resources have not been aligned with peak load periods.    

André D. Henderson Sr.'s picture
André D. Henderson Sr. on Oct 27, 2019 1:35 pm GMT

ERCOT is obviously against solar...

But a Smart Grid addresses our needs!

Gary Hilberg's picture
Gary Hilberg on Oct 30, 2019 1:54 pm GMT

Andre - your data is a bit old, look at the current ERCOT generation connection queue - solar is largest than gas - almost 30 GW, not all will be built, but it is expected that over 4 GW will be added to the system by summer 2020.  In summer 2019, Solar provided almost 2 GW during peak demand period.  Also the retail solar companies are highly engaged now - installations are growing rapidly.  Summer 2020 will be very interesting with the ERCOT energy only market - Solar at $20-25/MWH should drive peak pricing down dramatically.  Even the Oil & Gas companies in West Texas are building solar farms!

André D. Henderson Sr.'s picture
André D. Henderson Sr. on Oct 30, 2019 11:09 pm GMT

Gary yes that information is from 2017 but it was still a negative blow to residential solar.

As for ERCOT... Of the 3,204 MW of generation canceled in September, 2,491 MW was solar.


Gary Hilberg's picture
Gary Hilberg on Nov 6, 2019 4:43 pm GMT

Andrew - cancellation of projects in the queue is very common, projects not getting all the necessary permits, locations, funding, etc..  Recently the excitment and investment in solar PV in Texas has been off the charts.  Oil producers are installing MW scale plants (Oxy has 14MW) and signing large PPA's - even ExxonMobil.  The pricing is very competitive, around $20/MWH and peak delivery is coincident many of our peak demand periods which is not the same for wind.  Also it appears that transmission capacity will be available due to non-alignment of wind and solar generation.  Many factors that should benefit solar in Texas.  The lower price of bulk power has kept retail prices lower and this can make residential solar less competitive.  

As with most energy production machines, bigger is more efficient and more cost effective.
Renewable energy does have another consideration. Because the resource is so diffuse and erratic, large areas are required to produce any significant amounts of energy. Also, favorable locations for green energy are generally not near major load centers. As a rule of thumb, a 245 KV transmission system has about a 5% energy loss for every 100 miles.

Going back to the question, the answer is put a gas turbine power plant near the load center. Land requirements are inconsequential, build costs are exceptionally low, the power distribution system is already in place, and the cost of energy is significantly lower than any other power source.

Small scale distributed generation is too expensive.

André D. Henderson Sr.'s picture
André D. Henderson Sr. on Oct 27, 2019 1:38 pm GMT

I believe a Smart Grid addresses both large scale and localized generation and it should be up to the end user as to how they want to acquire their energy.

There is no simple answer to this question, I am afraid.  The most appropriate answer in my opinion is that “it depends”!.

Large power generation facilities and small power generation facilities do not necessarily stand in opposition to each other.  As currently structured, they complement each other in ensuring that electricity requirements are met in a least-cost and environmentally sustainable manner.  That is the essence of generation planning.  Note that the resources for cost-competitive generation facilities may not always be available in certain jurisdictions, which will require then that they are exploited and transported significant distances to the user (eg. Large hydro plants).  That was the reason for the development of transmission grid systems which at suitable transmission voltages allow huge amounts of power to be transmitted from the source of generation to where demand is located.  It is important, in accessing the cost-effectiveness of supply to take into account the costs of generation, transmission and delivery.  If the analyses, establish the cost-effectiveness of supply, taking generation, transmission and delivery costs in consideration, then that would be the better choice.  Obviously, with improved technologies, it is becoming increasingly viable to put in place decentralized facilities closer to the demand source.  That said,  the cost-effectiveness of these systems need to be assessed and compared with the alternative costs, especially given cases where transmission facilities are available and  not constrained.  At the end of the day, the key metric for the better choice is cost-effectiveness (which should include supply reliability requirements).

André D. Henderson Sr.'s picture
André D. Henderson Sr. on Oct 27, 2019 1:40 pm GMT

And a Smart Grid should be in place to allow the end user the choice of localized generation or obtaining from larger generation systems.

You may have missed development in the US markets in the last couple of years. Wind has gone large and is likely to stay large. That’s a good thing as we know with good certainty where and when the wind blows in the US (today). That may change as the climate changes. Solar, however has trended quickly to smaller distributed projects. That too is a good thing as the variability of solar output caused by clouds floating past is distributed, minimizing the impact on the grid.

Your questions seem to imply the choice is large scale RE or distributed generation. I just don’t get the last paragraph of the question. There is enough power to go around and will be for a while. The risk is that if we bet too much on RE without storage there won’t be enough on cloudy days after the hurricane. That is the essential issue in the natural gas arguments that have emerged. Some are suggesting all new power should be RE and storage, no new natural gas. However, there is no large commercial storage solution to protect us for days, YET. If you want RE and storage today be ready for some times the lights will be out. If. The people of Puerto Rico are currently inundated with similar concepts.

Bottom line is that is appears that localized generation on a smart grid has already won the day. More and more utilities are planning for lots of localized solar/storage that must be integrated with large wind, fossil and nuclear resources int order to maintain out quality of life. US DoE is right! All that money spent on PhD’s is working out.

André D. Henderson Sr.'s picture
André D. Henderson Sr. on Oct 27, 2019 1:44 pm GMT

My question was simple and it's about choice and direction!

And a Smart Grid addresses meeting the needs of the end user to determine what's the most cost effective for them!

I lean more toward Micro Grids and more localized generation!

Your question presumes they should go either with large scale renewables or smart grid.  I see no reason why they would constrain themselves to one or the other., and hitorically i believe they've invested in R&D for technologies that benefit either Large scale renewables or micro-grids. 

That said, large scale renewables are faily well established as a technology.  The midwest currently dominates with land based wind, and the northeast is poised to have a building bonanza of off shore wind over the next 10+ years.  These technologies fit well into the existing grid paradigm that's largely been in place since the days of Edison (big power plants = cheap power) and have flourished where they have because state policies, utility markets and other factors meant investors could make a favorable return. 

The success of these large scale reewable developments heightens the need for greater levels of control on the demand side.  If the sun don't shine or the wind don't blow you'll still need to rely on fossil fueled generators to get by, or worse, if you get too much renewable generation and suddenly need to switch to traditional fossil fuel sources, you get the infamous duck curve in California.   

Marrying an approach of investments in large scale renewables with increased demand side capabilities (e.g. microgrids, non wires alternatives, distributed solar, community choice aggregation, etc.) reduces the burden on the local grid, and helps you better integrate all the intermittent large scale renewable energy expected over the next 30 years. 

The better you can control how customers are using energy, the more flexibility there is in how they use it, the better the system will operate as a whole during the best of times.

And during the worst of times, microgrids can keep critical infradtructure (e.g. hospitals, military bases, telecom, police, etc.) operational.  

Bottom line, the electric grid across the U.S. will benefit from either of these approaches. 

André D. Henderson Sr.'s picture
André D. Henderson Sr. on Oct 27, 2019 1:48 pm GMT

Presumes to you I guess... To me it was a simple question about choices and direction!

I believe Microgrids and more localized generation is better.

But there are uses that are better suited for larger generation systems.

But a Smart Grid should be in place to allow the end users the most cost effective solution for them! 

Across the globe, the energy industry is witnessing increased penetration of distributed generation resources, such as rooftop solar PV, energy storage, and microgrids – which are small-scale versions of a centralised electricity system.

For most of the past century, electricity systems have experienced gradual change. Electricity has flowed in one direction from centralised utility scale fossil fuelled generation to consumers. Electricity systems were predominantly comprised of long lived and expensive generation and network assets. However, over the past 10 years, those same electricity systems have been forced to confront a transformational period of change. The widespread adoption of distributed energy resources (DER) such as rooftop solar PV and small scale energy storage and energy-efficiency efforts have led to declining asset utilization rates. This has forced the traditional electricity industry to re-evaluate the way it manages and invests in the electricity network.

Given the anticipated growth rate of DER, within the next five years, whole regions of a traditional electricity system will need to be transformed such that they are capable of operating securely, reliably and efficiently with conceivably 100% of instantaneous demand met by DERs. While central generation is expected to continue to provide supply at higher voltage transmission levels, DERs located at the opposite end of the power lines, and even behind electric meters will more than provide for the energy needs of distribution connected residential customers. Given the need to also maintain the whole system with it’s technical operating limitations (e.​g.​ voltage and frequency), this presents monumental technical challenges for systems that were designed and built for an entirely different purpose.

As utilities introduce technology that balances DER management and optimize those resources against their traditional supply (generators or transmission), the best place to focus the optimization scheme is at the distribution substation. If energy balancing is occurring from the substation down to the customers, the distribution system appears more closely resembling a microgrid than it does a central grid. Assuming substations are interconnected via transmission lines, each distribution microgrid becomes part of a federated scheme which can share resources across the many. Some of these microgrids could be operated by other utilities, third-party aggregators or other customer-owned DERs. Therefore, DER management schemes organize its optimization at various spheres of control: circuit level, neighborhood level, microgrid level, substation level and then the whole system.

We believe microgrids become a better solution for the utility than bulk power when contending with DER.

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Oct 29, 2019 7:13 pm GMT

Seems to me the key is whether or not the micro grids help reduce the collective cost of energy.
In passing, strikes me that the purpose of the grid is to provide reliable, reasonably priced energy, as opposed to exclusively serving the needs of one class of generators or one class of users at the expense of everyone else.

André D. Henderson Sr.'s picture
André D. Henderson Sr. on Oct 29, 2019 11:14 pm GMT

We agree Microgrids and a Smart Grid arecthe optimum solutions that meets the needs of each individual user regardless to residential or commercial.

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