The Renewables Cliché

Part III of an energy and research discussion for my parents (part I & part II)

Who hasn’t heard the cliché renewable energy complaint, “the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow”? Solar and wind energy operate in stark contrast to the mechanical predictability of a natural gas power plant. Grid operators can not request a solar power plant to produce more electricity, only the sun can do that.

The biggest challenge for carbon-free, renewable energy technologies, like solar and wind, are their variability and intermittency. What does this actually look like and why does it matter?

Variability refers to the predictable changes in renewable energy output throughout the day and seasons. For example, solar power very predictably drops to zero every night. Solar output is also higher during the summer months because we have more hours of daylight.

Intermittency refers to the less predictable changes in renewable energy output. These can result from clouds passing over solar panels or from storm fronts rolling through and increasing the power output of wind turbines. In general, intermittency is caused by weather events. With improved forecasting, we can more easily predict and plan for intermittency.

Renewable Electricity Output

An installations of solar panels or wind turbines will provide a changing amount of power to the grid throughout the day.

This chart shows the availability of solar and wind energy over three October days in 2017.

To estimate the power output of a solar installation at any moment, multiply the output rating of the system by the availability (a.k.a. capacity factor). For example, a 10 Megawatt (MW) solar installation would produce 7.5 MW of power at 10:00am, which is indicated by the arrow above. Predictably, the solar capacity factor plummets to zero overnight.

The wind energy availability fluctuates up and down. It lacks a simple pattern like solar and is a great example of intermittency.

Renewables on the Grid

Wind and solar power never perfectly align with electricity demand. Because of this, they add complexity to operating the grid. Let’s take an example from one of the demand curves in the previous post for a small utility in Florida. I will use a few fictitious scenarios to illustrate some interesting points without getting bogged down in the details.

  1. their only power source is a natural gas plant
  2. they have a solar installation rated at 20 MW and natural gas provides the rest of their power
  3. same as 2) except 40 MW of solar
  4. same as 2) except 100 MW of solar

How large must a natural gas power plant be to satisfy all of the demand?

In scenario 1, the natural gas plant must provide power to meet the demand peak of 80 MW. So, the utility needs to build at least an 80 MW natural gas plant.

How much demand is satisfied by solar power in scenario 2? The yellow shaded region answers this question. It is the product of the 20 MW solar rating times the solar capacity factor. The solar output is slightly less than 20 MW at its peak and zero at night.

The remaining demand in scenario 2 must be covered by the natural gas plant. To calculate this, subtract the generated solar power from the demand curve as is shown by the orange dashed line. Therefore, a smaller, 65 MW natural gas facility will suffice.

In scenario 3, one of the challenges of solar power is apparent. Despite adding more solar, the required natural gas plant is still approximately 65 MW. There is a new “peak” in the remaining demand. And, it can not be addressed by simply building more solar.

If we continue to build even more solar as in 4, then we arrive at a situation where the generated solar power is greater than demanded. In a real-life situation, overproduction could either be: sent to an adjacent region if the transmission lines are capable of this, stored in batteries for use later, or “curtailed” which essentially means it is wasted.

I’ll have more discussions on curtailment, energy storage, and ways researchers and utilities are approaching these issues soon.