There are primarily three challenges to making the smart grid a reality: the economy; understanding the benefits of large-scale solar power; and how energy systems can be leveraged to deliver value well beyond the transmission of power.


Leo Casey

EarthToys Renewable Energy Article
There are primarily three challenges to making the smart grid a reality: the economy; understanding the benefits of large-scale solar power; and how energy systems can be leveraged to deliver value well beyond the transmission of power.
Smart Grid Solutions - Q&A With Dr. Leo Casey

Vice President and Chief Technology Officer Satcon Technology Corporation

What is Obama's vision to the smart grid?

The whole Smart Grid movement emanated from the 2003 big blackout, which proved how the current power distribution system is woefully inadequate and archaic. Most of the grid in place today across the country is un-instrumented and uncontrolled.

Up until the last two years, the renewables alternative was not on the table at all. The discussion circled primarily around distributed generation, which is all about controlling energy loads. Today, the majority of available resources remain unused -- only 40% most of the time. A lot of the Smart Grid dialog was about balancing capacity versus integrating cheaper renewables into the grid.

Taking into consideration better intelligence about renewable energy, President Obama’s new stimulus package allocated $11 billion toward the Smart Grid. There is great pressure to spend this money, however much is not yet ‘shovel ready’. People look to Smart Metering as an easy way to accelerate the program, but this does not fundamentally change the system. It does not enable a Smart Grid that would meet the renewable energy demands of the Administration and the country.

The Smart Grid focuses on the instrumentation needed to proliferate distributed generation (micro grid) that can control energy loads. The government is now pressuring utilities to incorporate renewable options into their systems. Utilities must examine the economics of how this will work, increase their understanding of technologies and solutions that will make this work.

What are the challenges and opportunities to making the smart grid a reality?

There are primarily three challenges to making the smart grid a reality: the economy; understanding the benefits of large-scale solar power; and how energy systems can be leveraged to deliver value well beyond the transmission of power.

On top of that, there are two different movements in the U.S.-- distributed generation versus the generalized power plant.

Distributed generation via wind or solar power works well from a computer model. While the wind model is inexpensive, it is more difficult to implement because generators can only be erected in low-population and outlying areas Solar energy fits well into the distribution model because it’s easy to open plants where people live and solar power can generate energy from roof tops.

The opportunity for distributed generation is tremendous. Many articles have been written about the need to create superhighways for electricity and the benefits of creating electricity closer to the load. We also know the infrastructure that it establishes can be leveraged as a distributed command and control network to improve quality and performance of the overall grid itself. This is a fundamental difference in the way that energy is currently being understood, processed, managed and controlled. That’s why we believe Satcon’s new architecture, Solstice, is a tremendous opportunity for utilities to make the smart grid a reality. The utilities that understand this will lead the way

How do you think the recent economic downturn will affect the progress we are making?

Certainly, the economic downturn isn’t helping. It may affect the demand for electricity and potentially delay capital projects.

That said, there are 29 states plus DC that will be at 20% renewable energy by 2020.

Responding to a command from the federal government to promote renewables, I would not be surprised to see a federal standard. The point is that the demand is there and will continue to grow. The organizations that have the experience, understanding of the utilities market and the technologies to make the smart grid a reality will prosper.

Do you think we are on the right track to growing alternative energy use and getting away from the carbon economies?

Yes, I do think we’re on the right track. I believe that putting electronics on the grid is an important part of the solution. Satcon has been putting switching electronics on the grid to control renewable electronics for many years. This movement will substantially change the grid by making it possible to immediately identify, track and manage system outages and failures due to catastrophes and natural disasters.

What is Solstice?

Solstice is a first-of-its kind architecture that offers the benefits of both the large-scale central inverter and the localized micro inverter. Solstice delivers centralized, intelligent management of the entire PV system along with the flexibility of localized control over every component in the array; from the panel, to a single string, to the inverter, to the grid. This combination of centralized total system management and control with agile localized speed and intelligence allows Solstice to deliver significantly more power, increase the understanding and prevention of energy disruptions and optimize the entire system and plant yield over the entire lifespan of the installation.

With its sophisticated central command and control center, Solstice reacts to changing conditions—often in only milliseconds—and delivers a level of performance that would prevent what we would consider catastrophic occurrences.

Solstice(TM) is the industry's first complete utility grade DC architecture solution for highly efficient power conversion for large scale solar power plants. Solstice revolutionizes energy production, while utilizing traditional solar design. It delivers fine grained power harvesting and control with critical utility ready grid interconnection, and will boost total power production by 5-12 percent over designs using standard inverters.

How is Solstice relevant to Obama's energy platform and needs?

Obama and the Administration want the U.S. to be more dependent on renewables and less dependent on dictators. They want the smart grid and recognize its importance.

The Solstice architecture answers this call. The key will be educating the utilities about how an increase in renewables does not mean a decrease in performance. In fact, in the case of the North East blackouts a few years ago, our contention is the blackout could have been prevented if only 5% of the system was dependent on renewables.

What is the difference between today's grid architecture and the grid architecture of Solstice?

Solstice is extremely compatible with today’s grid architecture. It offers fine-grained power conversion and instrumentation implemented at a level that enhances the production and instrumentation of that system.. It’s easily integrated into current systems, which is an advantage that no other company is offering today.

When will it be available?

We are currently in discussions with a number of potential and existing customers about beta testing and designing the architecture. We anticipate it will be more widely available in the spring of 2009.

What are the benefits and challenges to adoption?

Very conservatively, if PV can reach 20% of new renewables, it will be a $12 billion per year/ 120,000 job industry.

The benefits are significant:

  • Enhanced yield - buy the system, make more energy.

  • Tolerant of failure

  • Works with completely different technologies side by side (no one knows how to do this in the PV industry)

  • Easy to install, easy to operate, easy to repair

Can you give us an idea of other products and services that we will be seeing in the near future?

The United States is about to see a huge change on how we transmit and generate electricity. Today, the story is about growth and proliferation based on electronics.

As solar installations continue to increase in scale, so will the complexities of harvesting and managing power. The industry has reached an inflection point. In order for large-scale installations to achieve a sustainable and profitable levelized cost of energy, a fundamental shift in array design parameters and energy management is required.

With this in mind, Satcon is extremely excited about our Micro Grid solutions which, more than a through-put device, are the distributed renewable energy building blocks for the future Smart Grid. In this design, Satcon Micro Grids become the Smart Grid framework, enhancing network-wide quality and performance by localizing speed, control and intelligence through renewable power conditioning.

By changing the paradigm of how energy is managed—making it smart enough to monitor and control the entire PV system, agile enough to optimize, constantly changing variables, and flexible enough to take advantage of new, more affordable technologies throughout its lifespan—total cost of ownership is lowered and profitability is raised conceivably for years to come. Satcon believes this is the future.

Dr. Leo Casey
Vice President and Chief Technology Officer
Satcon Technology Corporation
Dr. Casey joined Satcon in June 2000 and is Vice President and Chief Technology Officer. He is a Power Electronics Practitioner with experience in power systems, power circuit topologies, analog and digital circuit design, power device technology, control techniques along with manufacturing, packaging and thermal expertise. 
Leo CaseyAt Satcon, Dr. Casey is involved with the design and development of electronic power products including grid-connected inverters, Uninterruptible Power Supplies (UPS), and most recently systems based on Silicon Carbide (SiC) Semiconductor Technology.. Previously, he developed high frequency (1-10 MHz) DC-DC converters, inverters and controls for high-torque, direct-drive, induction and variable reluctance motors, very high-voltage switching converter designs, solid state lamp ballasts, telemetry systems. 
Dr. Casey was educated at the University of Auckland in New Zealand and then MIT, coming to the US as a Fulbright Scholar. He has worked in this industry since completing his graduate education and is an Editor of the Energy Conversion Transactions of the Power Engineering Society of the IEEE.

The content & opinions in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of AltEnergyMag

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