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Welcome to the weekly roundup from the Oxford Martin Programme on Integrating Renewable Energy.
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Clean energy around the globe

A UK windfarm with the world’s largest wind turbines is now officially operational. DONG Energy’s Burbo Bank Extension wind farm off the coast of Liverpool Bay is the first commercial deployment of the 8 MW MHI Vestas turbines, which are each 195 metres tall with blades that are 80 metres long. The wind farm has 32 turbines in total and generates enough power for 230,000 homes. The project is a joint venture between DONG Energy, the Danish pension fund PKA, and the LEGO Group, which marked the milestone by constructing a Guinness World Record-breaking 7.5 metre-high LEGO wind turbine made with 146,251 bricks and took a team of 15 people more than 600 hours to complete.
 
According to a new report from the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), the renewable energy industry employed 9.8 million people around the world in 2016, a 1.1% increase from 2015. Renewable Energy and Jobs – Annual Review 2017 presents the status of renewable energy employment by technology and in selected countries, and in this year’s report solar photovoltaic power was the largest employer, with 3.1 million jobs, followed by wind with 1.2 million. The growth came primarily from China, the United States, and India, whereas solar jobs began to decrease for the first time in Japan and continued their decline in the European Union. The report expects employment in renewables could reach 24 million by 2030.
 
The solar industry is becoming increasingly important as an economic driver in countries such as China and the U.S., and its potential to transform our energy and economic future is the subject of a new book by Peter Varadi and a team of internationally-recognised contributors. The book suggests that solar might eventually contribute 20% of the world’s energy capacity but would at best be available 15% of the time at full equivalent power given intermittency issues.
 
The transformative nature of renewable energy technologies has driven the development of smarter grid infrastructure, including intelligent inverters. Traditional inverters have been used by the solar industry for decades to convert DC electricity generated by solar installations into AC power, but these have previously lacked the bidirectional capability needed to both take power from the grid and feed power back into it. Intelligent inverters make possible a self-sustaining microgrid by maintaining voltage and frequency to handle load requirements when the grid is experiencing troubles. Instead of just shutting down all renewable energy during a time of grid instability, intelligent inverters can provide another option.  
 
In the U.S., utilities are becoming important players in the rapid scale-up of renewable energy to serve corporate purchasers. As customer demand for renewables has increased, traditional utilities have created 13 green tariff options in 10 U.S. states, and states with renewable energy options are better able to attract high-growth corporate business. The World Resources Institute (WRI) has produced an interactive U.S. Renewable Energy Map: A Guide for Corporate Buyers, which shows all the green tariffs that utilities offer across the U.S.

Energy storage & demand response

The U.S. Energy Information Administration has estimated that after excluding hydro, wind, and solar, other renewable fuels and energy storage together provide 4% of electric capacity in the U.S. Hydroelectric pumped storage makes up the majority of this storage capacity, but other technologies, including batteries and flywheels are also growing in capacity.
 
High-profile research centres such as Argonne National Laboratory and those at Harvard University and MIT are engaged in the equivalent of a “moonshot project” to invent more powerful and cheaper batteries. For instance, Argonne’s goal is to create a commercially reproducible battery that is five times as powerful as today’s batteries at one-fifth the cost. The implications of reaching that goal would be enormous, as utilities could economically capture and store an entire season’s worth of renewable energy during low-demand periods, and in the transportation sector, electric vehicles could run 400 to 500 miles on a single charge.
 
Earlier this week, PJM—the entity responsible for transmission grids from the mid-Atlantic coast to Lake Michigan in the U.S.—announced that its Base Residual Auction for capacity for the 2020-2021 period cleared a price of $76.53 per megawatt-day. This clearing price was well below the prices of $80 to $100 from last year’s auction, and both nuclear and demand response displayed a poor showing in the auction. 7.8 GW of demand response cleared in Tuesday’s auction, down from 10.3 GW last year, and Exelon announced that its Three Mile Island and Quad Cities nuclear facilities didn’t clear the auction, in part due to a lack of incentives for their zero-carbon energy. Questions about the direction of future power grids were also debated at PJM’s Annual Meeting held last week.
 
Though Australia has long been a global leader for residential PV adoption and more recently has been a leader for battery storage, the country has been much slower than others with its approach to demand response. That may be changing, however, as Australia has recently announced a pilot demand response programme to manage extreme summer peaks.
 
In the U.S., several utilities are testing new opportunities to keep customers from leaving demand response programmes, which has been a growing pain for burgeoning demand response programmes. Southern California Edison (SCE) has implemented programmes such as a demand response mobile app that notifies customers up to 30 minutes prior to a demand response event being launched. And behavioural demand response is growing in influence, as programmes such as those managed by Opower can reduce peak loads by almost 20% and save customers between $5 and $8 per event. Given how much time and money utilities have spent building potential demand response resources, they will need to figure out how to better leverage demand response in day-to-day operations.

Gas and diesel engines in renewable grids

Germany has ambitious goals to increase overall energy efficiency by 27% and decrease CO2 emissions by 40% by 2020. Since 2010, the country’s renewable energy capacity has more than doubled and now accounts for nearly 33% of electrical power generation, but during this same time, CO2 emissions have only decreased 4% in comparison to 1990 levels. Germany’s pathway for achieving its targets include an exit from coal and increasing the share of combined heat and power (CHP) technologies in Germany’s power mix to 18% by 2020. Both gas turbines and large piston engines burning natural gas and other fuels at high efficiency represent a large opportunity to increase overall energy efficiency, reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and raw noxious emissions, and provide flexible backup power for intermittent renewable energy sources.  
 
Several trends in the U.S. energy sector have begun to affect utilities’ choices for low-cost sources of power. These include decommissioning of small and medium coal-fired units, natural gas-fired power generation for peaking and base-load capacity, and the rapid growth of renewables. Reciprocating engines that primarily burn natural gas are increasingly being selected as the solution to these challenges in places such as Alexandria, Louisiana, Tallahassee, Florida, and Palmer, Alaska. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, reciprocating engines are the fastest-selling, least expensive distributed generation technology in the world today, and while they do not fit well into larger applications, their efficiency and reliability may make them a go-to choice for energy utilities in transition.

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