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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 new report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration shows that utility-scale solar has grown rapidly over the past five years in the U.S. Utility-scale installations, including both PV and thermal technologies, grew at an average rate of 72% per year between 2010 and 2016, faster than any other generating technologies. As of December 2016, more than 21.5 GW of utility-scale generating capacity was in operation in the U.S.
 
The penetration of solar generation is so high that system operators in the U.S. are preparing for the upcoming solar eclipse due to cross the U.S. on August 21, 2017. As the shadow of the moon passes over North America, the eclipse is expected to reduce output by 70 MW per minute, reports the California Independent System Operator. This drop is two to three times faster than the typical daily decline, and the rebound will be even faster, so U.S. utilities are preparing by reserving spare capacity from gas and hydroelectric power plants, as well as coordinating with industrial consumers to temporarily curb demand.
 
Solar is not alone in terms of its rapid growth in the U.S., as wind power is accelerating at a near-record pace in the country. An annual report from the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) found first quarter U.S. installations reached 2,000 MW, quadruple the capacity from one year ago. Texas, the top oil producing state in the U.S., is leading the way with the most installed wind power capacity on the grid and the most in the first quarter of 2017 with 724 MW. This growth is already having an impact on shifting grid infrastructure in the country, as Energy Business Review reports that a new 644-km HVDC transmission line is planned to connect excess and cost-competitive wind energy in Texas to the transmission grid and customers in the Southeast. Construction on Pattern Energy’s Southern Cross transmission project will start in 2018 and is slated to be operational by 2021.
 
Wind power’s growth has been remarkable in Denmark, and after more than four decades of relying on subsidies, the country’s renewable energy industry is close to surviving on its own. The Danish energy minister in an interview last Monday claimed that in just a few years, renewable energy providers will no longer require state support. This development comes much sooner than anyone expected and marks a milestone demonstrating that coal is no longer cheaper to produce than renewable energy.  
 
A report released on Thursday at the World Economic Forum by the UN Environment Programme and African Development Bank shows that investments in green energy infrastructure can bolster Africa’s economic development and bring it closer to achieving sustainable development goals. The new Atlas of Africa Energy Resources includes data that show Africa’s per capita energy consumption—the lowest in the world—has barely changed since 2000. The Atlas also highlights that Africa’s renewable energy reserves are diverse, unevenly distributed and enormous, including almost unlimited solar potential (10 TW), as well as abundant hydro (350 GW), wind (110 GW), and geothermal energy sources (15 GW).

Energy storage

The growth of the “micro-hybrid” vehicle market will likely benefit from advances in storage technology, including the use of ultracapacitors alongside vehicle batteries. Ultracapacitor manufacturers such as Maxwell Technologies and CAP-XX are targeting the growing micro-hybrid market rather than plug-in electric vehicles because using ultracaps could help overcome several shortcomings of battery-only micro-hybrids. These shortcomings include poor charging efficiencies at low temperatures, which ultracaps can overcome because their performance does not degrade at low temperatures. Ultracaps could also prolong micro-hybrid battery life by handling engine-cranking functions, which wear batteries out quickly because of high current requirements.
 
Another innovative energy storage solution using sulfur-based technology is being planned for development by researchers at Germany’s Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) and their European partners. The technology aims to achieve large-scale chemical storage of solar power and its overnight use as a fuel by means of a closed sulfur-sulfuric acid cycle, which might in the long term be the basis of an economically efficient renewable source capable of providing base-load power. The research is funded under the EU’s PEGASUS project and will be tested under real conditions at the Jülich Solar Power Tower Facility in Germany.
 
As new forms of energy storage become viable and the cost of lithium-ion batteries continues to decline, one of the biggest open questions for energy storage is how much and where the market will grow in coming years. The importance of battery storage in the renewable energy revolution is evident, but as hydrogen storage, molten salt and other technologies receive significant investment, there is uncertainty surrounding whether lithium-ion batteries will keep their place as the top method of storing electricity.

Smart community microgrids

Though Texas is planning to address its rapid growth in renewable energy capacity by building transmission lines over long distances, the state may be better served by thinking smaller and supporting local microgrids. Similar to what Brooklyn Microgrid is testing in New York, a peer-to-peer energy market in Texas could help in both balancing the grid and avoiding some challenges associated with HVDC transmission lines, such as risks from extreme weather and long permitting and build times.
 
As microgrids become more common in the U.S. and elsewhere, a new debate over who can own and operate microgrids is heating up. The question of whether utility ownership of microgrids is permissible on legal and competitive grounds is currently being debated before the District of Columbia Public Service Commission. Two of the biggest utilities in the U.S.—Exelon and NRG Energy—squared off on the issue, with Exelon advocating for a utility role in ownership and NRG Energy urging the commission to ban utilities from owning and building microgrids and other forms of distributed energy.
 
Regardless of who owns and operates future local microgrids, the future of decentralised generation will likely embrace the power of cloud computing technology to optimise performance and ensure reliability of the power system. A new report from Navigant Research says the global smart grid as a service (SGaaS) market, including data services, cloud-based software, and fully managed services, is expected to increase from $1.3 billion in 2016 to $6 billion in 2025.
 
In the U.S. the digitisation trend in energy services has significant potential that has not been tapped on the consumer side, according to a report from Parks Research. The report shows that in 2016, 100 million of the 117 million or so U.S. households did not have a single smart device, including smart thermostats. The firm predicts that by 2020, however, 40 million will have smart thermostats and 50 million homes will have at least some smart light bulbs.
 
Despite these trends, there remain obstacles to fully realising smart community microgrids, including safety and security concerns. Progress on Brooklyn’s landmark community microgrid project has stalled due to fire code issues with lithium-ion batteries. The project includes a 300 kW, 1.2 MWh behind-the-meter lithium-ion battery, so working to integrate such a project within existing fire codes requires more work to get approval from New York safety officials. With the city’s Mayor announcing a 100 MWh by 2020 solar-plus-storage target, it is important to take first steps to address fire and other safety concerns, which the Marcus Garvey Village microgrid project in Brooklyn has started to do.

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