COVID-19 ISO Insights

Updates in Alternative Energy: Microgrids, Nuclear Fusion, Energy Use Trends During COVID-19

May 11, 2020

By: David Geller, CPCU

Encouraging Results from Colorado Microgrid Experiment

Wired has reported on an ongoing electricity experiment in a small Colorado town that could have large implications for how energy is produced and consumed.

Right now, Wired notes that centralized utilities are struggling to manage electricity supply and demand as less predictable and more variable renewable generation sources have come into play.

However, an affordable housing project (known as the Basalt Vista) located in Basalt, Colorado, has essentially been converted into “a living laboratory to test advanced power grid technologies that could turn every home into an appendage of a centralized power plant.” Wired notes that each home comes equipped with, in part, the following:

  • An electric vehicle charger in the garage
  • A large battery pack in the basement
  • A roof covered with solar panels

Each of these homes are connected as part of a microgrid, which, per Wired, is “a self-contained electricity distribution network that can operate independently of the regional electric grid.” Microgrids reportedly are capable of addressing a key concern posed by the use of renewable energy: how can the variability of the power provided by distributed systems (solar, wind, etc.) be managed so homes and businesses always keep the lights on?

What makes this project particularly unique—and potentially quite impactful—is the means in which this energy is distributed across Basalt Vista: rather than using manual efforts, an autonomous system ensures that each home receives power. Wired explains:

There’s an internet-connected control box in the basement of each home running experimental software that continuously optimizes electricity distribution across the microgrid and the flow of energy to and from the larger regional grid. When one home produces more energy than it needs, it can autonomously make the decision to redistribute it to its neighbors or store it for later.

Per the article, this system is being labeled a “virtual power plant.” And it could address a major consideration when contemplating the potential scale of using renewable power sources, since manually ensuring that a high number of distributed energy sources would always allocate power may have been unfeasible. But an automated system could enable success.

It appears that this experiment in Basalt Vista is already achieving some level of success. And Wired also notes that the electric bills for residents there appear to be on pace to be significantly lower than usual.

The question is, could the technology be applied on a much larger scale?

Nuclear Fusion: An Update

We have posted about the tantalizing nature of nuclear fusion in recent years—if developed, The Guardian states that it “could unleash more energy than is likely to be needed by humanity.”

While considerable progress still needs to be made in order for nuclear fusion to be commercially viable, a recent story from Wired notes that the 25,000-ton International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), which reportedly has had $23.7 billion and nearly three decades of manpower dedicated to it, will be ready to flip on in 2025. Wired reports that this doesn’t necessarily mean that ITER will successfully reach its goal of achieving fusion by 2035, but this appears to be a step in the right direction for a potentially game changing technology.

How is Alternative Energy Being Used During the COVID-19 Outbreak?

There has reportedly been uncertainty pertaining to how the alternative energy landscape will be affected in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak. But some data has emerged indicating prominent use of these alternative energy sources in recent months, even as oil prices have reportedly crashed. Here are some notable findings:

  • According to Forbes, power produced by coal in the first three months of 2020, compared with the same period in 2019, fell by 25.5% across the EU and United Kingdom, while renewable energy increased to 43% of all power generation in this region.
  • Between March 10th and April 10th, which is reportedly when social distancing measures significantly increased, Forbes notes that coal production fell by 29% compared with 2019, and renewables accounted for 46% of all power generation.
  • Similar trends appear to have unfolded in the United States too. Per Axios, coal was reduced to 15% of the U.S. electricity mix (a decade ago, it was 50%).
  • Renewable use in Germany has reportedly increased to 60% of the overall share (see our post here for the transition risks Germany has faced as they have attempted to reduce their carbon footprint).

For the information above, Forbes reportedly sourced a database service called the Europe & Africa at Wärtsilä Energy Business. A vice president from that service commented in the article that the levels of renewable energy being used during the crisis are encouraging because it proves that contemporary energy systems can handle a significant influx of renewable power.