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Making Renewable Energy Practical

January 28, 2020 Grant Webster

These days, when the subject of renewable energy sources is discussed, the discussion is overwhelmingly positive and progressive. However, for those of us deep in the trenches of electrical power design and utilization, there’s another side to the debate that doesn’t get much airtime.

What are these problems that need to be addressed? They are continuity of power and a lack of adequate reactive power. And, as we’ll see, they’re currently standing in the way of wide-spread adoption of renewable energy sources on a much larger scale than we’re seeing today. 

Download this guide to learn everything you need to know about:

  • the surprising downside of renewable energy
  • the importance of continuity of power and reactive power
  • how these challenges are being addressed
  • potential innovative solutions

 

The 5 Most Common Renewable Energy Resources

These five renewable energy sources are the most commonly used around the world today. 

  1. Hydropower - By far the most widely used renewable energy source, hydropower comes from turbines or water wheels turned by naturally moving water in the form of rivers or waves.

  2. Wind - The oldest form of renewable energy, some form of windmills have been around for more than 7,000 years and were often used to power grinding wheels and other simple machinery. Today’s huge wind turbines generate electrical power across the globe.

  3. Solar - As solar cells and storage batteries have become more efficient and less expensive, the use of solar energy has exploded 4300% in a little over a decade. This renewable energy turns heat and light from the sun into electricity using photovoltaic cells.

  4. Biomass - Biomass refers to burnable fuels derived from plants (like corn ethanol), wood pellets, and biological waste (sewage). While it’s proven highly effective on a small scale, we don’t yet have the means to scale its use to the level of hydro, wind, or solar power. 

  5. Geothermal - By capturing and harnessing the Earth’s natural internal heat via miles-deep wells, geothermal power plants can generate electricity via steam turbines. Or, on a smaller scale, buildings can use geothermal heat pumps to supplement or replace heating and cooling systems that rely on energy derived from fossil fuels. The biggest challenge is that geothermal heat isn’t easily-accessible everywhere.

(Source: National Geographic)

 
 

Currently, two major challenges are standing in the way of wide-spread adoption of renewable energy sources. These challenges are continuity of power and a lack of adequate reactive power. 

Continuity of power

Continuity of power is a simple concept, and many people take it for granted at this point: When you flip the switch, the light comes on.

It means there’s always enough power coming to your house, factory, or data center to handle whatever it is you want to do, at all times. While it’s easy to explain in such simple terms, providing that level of reliability is anything but simple at the energy production and distribution level. In developing countries, the continuity of power is still a major problem. 

Renewable Energy World reports that the key barrier to achieving a reliable power supply is either an immature or an aging grid. As an example, they mentioned India as a country where more than 240 million people still lack access to power. Here, 50 percent of electricity generation is wasted due to poor transmission to rural areas, as well as power theft.

Still, for the last several decades, public and private utility companies in most developed countries have done a fair to excellent job ensuring local populations and businesses don’t have to be concerned about the load they’re putting on the local power grid… right? 

The same Renewable Energy World article noted that the reliability of power supply is a real — and growing — concern. A recent survey of 250 energy managers indicated that regular power outages are experienced by 25 percent of companies. These power disruptions can be costly: amongst the responding companies 18 percent had experienced an outage costing the equivalent of £70,000 or more.

With a more-than-adequate supply of coal, natural gas, and other fuels on hand to keep existing power plants running, solving this issue should be more a matter of effective management combined with proactive infrastructure maintenance and upgrade. These are daunting tasks, even for highly-developed economies. 

However, when it comes to renewable energy sources, the situation is very different. In most areas, there simply aren’t enough sources of renewable energy available to reliably generate enough power to meet even half the existing need. And, that need is constantly growing. 

As a result, most residential and commercial buildings worldwide simply don’t have access to enough power from strictly renewable sources to function. And, even with aggressive development plans for infrastructure and distribution, most people and businesses won’t have continuity of renewable power for several more years at the least. 

 

Lack of adequate reactive power

In the meantime, there’s an even more pressing issue facing people, companies, and even entire nations looking to decrease their reliance on fossil fuels in favor of renewable energy sources: a lack of adequate reactive power. 

For laymen outside electrical engineering and related fields, the concept of reactive power can get pretty complicated. One of our favorite analogies is a beer glass. This analogy likens active power (what actually powers a device) to the beer and reactive power (the power any electrical device needs to use to benefit from active power) to the foam on the top: it doesn’t quench your thirst, but it’s a necessary byproduct of pouring beer. 

While management of reactive power is handled quite well using traditional power generation and distribution models, the introduction of distributed generation and energy storage to the equation — necessary components of all renewable energy systems — seriously complicates reactive energy management. As a result, most grids currently relying on renewable energy sources face an inadequate supply of reactive power at least some of the time. 

While it’s separate from the active power that actually runs your blender and charges your laptop, reactive power, nonetheless, needs to be effectively managed to ensure the quality of that active power. In traditional power generation situations, reactive power is produced and distributed in a controlled way that’s both predictable and relied upon by end-user devices.

Learn how these issues are being addressed in our free guide Making Renewable Energy Practical.

About the Author

Grant Webster

Grant Webster is a senior electrical engineer and the Product Manager of Electrical Design Products at Trimble MEP with more than 17 years of experience in the industry. By contributing to Constructible he helps electrical engineers improve and learn the best way to achieve their goals.

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