Electric grid will need advancements to keep pace with consumption

America’s increasing thirst for energy will bring about more power plants and wind farms, but it will also create major challenges for moving and balancing power on electric grid systems, experts said at a Houston convention Wednesday.

“When I look at the expansion of how we use information, whether it’s cloud computing, parallel processing over the cloud, or sending movies over the Internet … I don’t see that slowing down,” said Michael Howard, president and CEO of the industry-backed Electric Power Research Institute, speaking at the Total Energy USA Conference at George R. Brown Convention Center. “When I look at the future and see how we’re going to be interacting with electricity and using electricity, I only see an increase. And it’s not just the iPads or the smartphones. It’s the electric cars.”

While growing electricity usage will likely be matched with new power generation, it will also require advancements in grid management to effectively move and balance resources depending on energy demand, Howard said.

A part of the solution might very well be sensors that will better monitor demand and manage the movement of energy, he said.

“We’re going to have millions and millions of sensors that are constantly looking at the data in real time,” Howard said.

By having such a system that could “visualize” how power is moved and needs to be moved, the country’s resource mix will be more efficiently used, he said.

“What we really have to do is to optimize the resources … to make sure that the system as a whole is resilient and also cyber secure and also constantly re-balances,” Howard said.

One major component will be more advanced transmission lines that can efficiently move large amounts of electricity over long distances, said Jayshree Desai, executive vice president of Clean Line Energy.

Clean Line Energy is working to build new transmission lines that will be able to transport hundreds of megawatts of electricity across half the country.
The goal is to harness abundant wind resource potential across the plains in the middle of the nation, an area Desai referenced as “the Saudi Arabia of wind.”

“If we could capture that resource … and get that energy to where people need it, then you could really deliver wind at a very low cost and abundant supply,” Desai said.

But that is currently not possible, she said, and Clean Line Energy is still years away from building its first of four planned transmission lines because of lengthy permitting and siting processes.

Advances in transmission will help boost supplies of power from renewable resources, which are often located far from population centers, putting them out of reach for some areas that could need and use the power.

The other challenge is low-cost natural gas, which has transformed the energy landscape and forced reconsideration related to future electric generation plans, Desai said.

Desai echoed other experts and executives who have spoken about competition from natural gas affecting developments with various electricity production, transmission and storage options.

“Shale gas is a game changer and renewable energy has got to be able to compete in that environment,” Desai said. “The most cost effective technology we use, the more likely we can compete with those other resources.”

Advances in turbine technology are helping to cut down the cost of wind to make it an increasingly attractive option, she said.