By Jeff Postelwait
Tulsa, Okla., October 7, 2009 — Supply and demand, regulatory challenges and transmission were all issues discussed by panelists and speakers at the University of Tulsa, where the National Energy Policy Institute presented its conference on the national energy grid.
The conference, titled “Power for the 21st Century: Reinventing America’s Energy Grid” was held October 7 at the TU campus.
NEPI is a non-profit organization founded by the George Kaiser Family Foundation with the goal of providing energy analysis and reducing the country’s dependence on foreign oil.
Keynote speaker and research director of the Harvard Energy Policy Group, Professor William W. Hogan said he believes the energy sector and all companies supporting it are facing serious problems.
“We’re dealing with a long-term problem,” Hogan said. “I’m always surprised at how long it will take to deal with these problems – 100 to 1,000 years to deal with changes in climate – these are not just marginal changes we need to make.”
Energy independence for the U.S. has been a stated goal of every U.S. president since Richard Nixon, Hogan said, adding that the current administration is no different in this respect.
Hogan said that while he believes change is needed, he cautioned his audience to be aware of problems that may not be as significant as they appear.
“Nuclear power, at one point, was supposed to be the salvation” Then we were sure we were going to run out of natural gas,” Hogan said. “Do I think a low-carbon future is a fad? My expectation is no – partly because of some of the depressing meetings I’ve had with scientists lately.”
Putting a price on carbon dioxide emissions, Hogan said, is the largest fundamental step to addressing the problem, and is more important even than how it is done.
“Whether it is cap and trade or a carbon tax is important, but it’s secondary,” Hogan said, adding that the climate bill passed by the House of Representatives has good aspects and bad, but that a good consensus would eventually be reached.
The first panel session centered on the industry’s shift to alternative fuels and renewable energy, and was chaired by Michael Moffet, commissioner for the Kansas Corporation Commission.
Matt Baker, commissioner for the Colorado Public Utilities Commission, presented an overview on Colorado’s expansion of its renewable energy generation capacity.
“We’ve come farther and faster than any other state and we’ve seen job growth as a result,” Baker said.
Baker also praised utility Xcel Energy for putting forward a plan that could move Colorado to making 22 percent of its energy from renewable sources.
At the same panel, Bobby Wegener, Oklahoma’s secretary of energy, said he envisioned a partnership between demand side management and natural gas expansion to meet that state’s electricity needs.
“We’re going to need energy in all forms: natural gas, nuclear energy and renewables,” Wegener said, adding that regulatory uncertainty and the high capital cost of large generation assets limited Oklahoma’s options somewhat.
“Natural gas is underutilized in Oklahoma, even though it is a revenue producer in the state,” he said. “It is the cleanest fossil fuel, and it’s the only clean baseload backup for renewables like wind and solar.”
Rich Sedano, director of the Regulatory Assistance Project, presented information on energy efficiency, demand-side management and conservation.
“The recession has presented us with an opportunity to think about making changes in the way things are organized with respect to energy efficiency,” Sedano said.
Demand-side management may be a strange idea to many utilities, he said, but the idea could catch on once some changes in the policy structure are made.
“Policy impacts the ease of participation here. We can make this easy or we can make this hard,” Sedano said.
In particular, a friendlier policy environment could be the key to making distributed generation a cost-practical solution for helping utilities have to generate and transmit more power.
Les Dillahunty, senior vice president of engineering and regulatory policy for the Southwest Power Pool said his territory’s footprint is known as the Saudi Arabia of wind power.
“Some of this wind potential is speculative and may never be realized, but if we choose the best wind, we can do the same with 50 percent fewer turbines as we could if we chose the second-best wind,” Dillahunty said.
Dillahunty encouraged his audience to take an active role in advocating for improved transmission rather than waiting for any kind of federal action.
“President Obama said during the campaign that he would provide change we can believe in, and that may hold true for transmission, but the cost of doing nothing is too high. We need not wait on Washington” We know enough right now to know that now is the time to move forward with transmission,” he said.
Rich Lordan, technical director, power and delivery markets with the Electric Power Research Institute spoke on the need for improved transmission.
“I can’t see a way to get to 20 percent non-hydro renewable energy federally without a lot of AC/DC transmission upgrades,” Lordan said.
Integrating more wind and solar power onto the grid presents its own set of problems, Lordan said.
“Wind and solar give me headaches and they give operators headaches because they don’t behave like fossil power,” he said, referring to the intermittency problems of both types of renewable generation.
“The operator has to balance generation and load every second of every year, and with more wind and solar, this becomes harder and harder,” he said.
Carl Huslig, president of ITC Great Plains, an independent transmission company, said the transmission system in the U.S. was built with borders in mind.
“Now we need to design our transmission system outside our territories because we need a regional transmission grid,” Huslig said.
Transmission should be given careful attention because none of the solutions being put forward — renewable energy, the smart grid, etc. — are possible without more investment in transmission, he said.
“Transmission truly is the facilitator and should be at the center of this debate,” he said.