The Distributed Generation Revolution

The evolution of energy generation and distribution in the Pacific Northwest

By Linda Barney, Barney and Associates – 7/13/2015

The last few years in the power industry has seen an accelerating proliferation of energy generating assets and smart end-use applications at the edge of the grid. This grid edge is the new hot spot for building out extensive amounts of intelligence and functionality as new distributed resources come online. In an effort to better understand the grid edge, this year’s annual Smart Grid Northwest meeting had leaders from utilities and companies describe how they see the distributed generation revolution evolving and the positive impacts it will have on utilities, companies and customers.

Building a Smart Grid designed for the Pacific Northwest

The Smart Grid Northwest panel provided an overview of changes they see in areas of the smart grid, solar energy, home and building energy management, energy storage and demand response. Larry Bekkedahl, VP Transmission & Distribution, Portland General Electric (PGE) indicates, “The Pacific Northwest is blessed with abundant resources to generate power, from our hydro-electric dam power facilities, through solar, wind and other energy sources. We need a grid that can respond to customer load and sales. Energy load and generation takes different modelling but will require a digital world with lots of communication. We can work together here to develop a smart grid in a smart way.”

Solar energy market is booming

The panel also spoke about solar power and how it is growing despite some of the financial incentive programs expiring in 2016. Ardes Johnson, VP Sales & Marketing at SolarWorld USA states, “The solar market is booming, with residential solar panel installations growing over 70 percent between the first quarters of this and last year.” Panelists indicate that there is more acceptance of solar technology, that banks now make loans of over 20 years for solar panel installations and solar power is now viewed as trendy. “Washington state has incentives for community solar that allow customers to subscribe to 450 kW community solar panels while still saving money,” states Heather Rosentrator, Director of Engineering and Systems Operations at Avista Utilities.

Energy storage—the missing link in the energy puzzle

Being able to store energy has been described as a major missing link for smart grid implementation. Gabe Schwartz, Marketing Director, STEM believes “Storage today is like it was in 2005—storage has a real place to solve some of the problems in smart grid.” His company makes sophisticated software that runs behind the meter to help consumers save energy as well as manage advanced energy storage that can aggregate energy and provide services to the grid.

Two of the Pacific Northwest’s largest utilities have taken distributed generation and smart grid technologies to the next level: Avista with their recent installation of UniEnergy Technologies (UET) batteries at the SEL campus, and Portland General Electric (PGE) with their Salem Smart Power Project. Both of these projects are in a class of their own and are improving our understanding of smart grid potentials.

Avista installed a 1 MW, 4 MWh UET flow battery at the Turner Substation in Pullman, Washington to support Washington State University’s smart campus operations. “We are doing testing on this system to measure voltage, reliability and controls of the system. Possible use cases being considered include turning on the storage system when bad weather is predicted to be ready for possible power outages,” states Rosentrator.

PGE’s Salem Smart Power Project, part of Pacific Northwest Smart Grid Demonstration Project, is testing how to store and better integrate variable renewable energy sources like solar and wind into the electrical grid. Bekkedahl indicates that this project is helping PGE determine “what to do if you have more energy dumped into the electric grid than you can handle- this project is helping us learn how to control the issue and we are now moving into managing energy generation as part of the project.”

Distributed energy management required in the next-generation smart grid

Panelists agreed that it is critical to have communication between systems and distributed management controls to help monitor the electric grid. Jeff Gleeson, Nest Labs, Head of West Coast Energy stated, “While being able to give customers energy usage information is very important, the future is not just about Nest thermostats. We need to be able to provide electric utilities with distributed management information and they need to be able to turn power on and off depending on demand. We need intelligent controls to work together. Companies need to work with utilities and not look at energy as just 10 MW access in the field but rather a number of small storage devices that can interact with each other to provide energy information and flow. We can’t go back to the old way electricity was distributed.”

“Grid operators and energy users in the Pacific Northwest have much to gain from a system with smart and resilient distributed energy resources. There is no turning back from a future grid with more connected assets—on both the supply and demand side,” states Bryce Yonker, Smart Grid Northwest Executive Director.

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Linda Barney is the founder and owner of Barney and Associates, a technical / marketing writing, training and web design firm in Beaverton, Oregon that provides writing, training and web content for the energy, high-tech, government, biotechnology, medical, sustainability and scientific communities. Linda has written articles for a variety of clients as well as the Software Association of Oregon, the Oregon Bioscience Association, the Clean Technology Alliance, CitizenTekk, Innotech, EclipseCon, OSCON, Smart Grid Transactive Energy and Supercomputing Conferences. She has acted as editor of the Microsoft Application Development Resources ezine and the Oregon Bioscience Association newsletter. Contact Linda at linda@barneyassoc.com.


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