Electricity is an increasingly complex industry in the midst of transition to renewables and decarbonization. Using my 25 years’ experience as an engineer, policy analyst, and academic, I help my consulting clients think through their toughest technical challenges and formulate their best business strategies.

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John Goodenough, batteries, and steam trains

Ross Baldick Consulting

John Goodenough

My wife and I often enjoy BBC documentaries, and historian Dan Snow is a favorite host.  In his series about the history of railways in England, he observed that, as the industrial revolution increased manufacturing in England, there was a need to move product around more cheaply, which in turn encouraged transportation innovations such as the steam train.

In a previous post, I’ve talked about the fraught nature of technical predictions. The same applies to predictions about costs, but the history of railways suggests that invention will be applied to reduce the costs of parts of the supply chain that are growing relatively more significant. For example, as relative costs reduce for any one particular contributor to electricity production, attention turns to bringing down the costs of other components.

In the context of renewables, we have seen ongoing reduction in the cost of wind and solar. To support the utilization of that energy, various ancillary services are required, including “regulation ancillary service.” If you had asked me a decade ago about renewable integration, I would have predicted that regulation ancillary service would become an increasingly significant part of the cost of renewable integration. However, in recent work  with Juan Andrade and Yingzhang Dong, we investigated why, in fact, the amounts (and costs) of regulation ancillary service have not increased in the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), despite a huge increase in renewable penetration.

The fundamental answer is that there have been a multitude of changes to the ERCOT market design that has allowed the generation capacity for regulation to be utilized more effectively. The biggest change was the move from the zonal to the nodal market, but other changes have also contributed. These changes have enabled significantly more wind power to be utilized without increasing the cost of regulation ancillary service needed.

As with locomotives and manufacturing, as the need and costs of ancillary services seemed to be looming larger, imagination and innovation have resulted in better ways to utilize ancillary services to complement the production of renewable energy.

As many of the contributors to costs of renewables decrease, the issue of intermittency and the need for storage becomes more significant. Battery storage is currently too high-cost for bulk storage. But John Goodenough, inventor of the lithium-ion battery and my colleague in mechanical engineering, has recently published a paper describing a solid-state lithium-ion battery that may significantly improve the economics of battery storage. Lower cost batteries may be the new locomotive of renewable development.

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“Smart Grid” highlights

Guest lecturer Andres Carvallo (L) and Ross Baldick. Photo by Hunyoung Shin.

Guest lecturer Andres Carvallo (L) and Ross Baldick. Photo by Hunyoung Shin.

My “Smart Grid” course continues apace. Highlights have included lectures by Andres Carvallo on the architecture of the grid, and several lectures on existing and upcoming “smarts” at the wholesale generation and transmission level, including wholesale operations by Dave Maggio, new transmission technologies by Brad Bell, and human factors by Mike Leggatt.

Guest lecturer Scott Hinson (L) and Ross Baldick. Photo by Hunyoung Shin.

Guest lecturer Scott Hinson (L) and Ross Baldick. Photo by Hunyoung Shin.

The class has now shifted to topics at the heart of the “conventional” smart grid, namely distribution and end use, including smart grid ecosystem analysis by Ingmar Sterzing and residential power quality by Scott Hinson. Oh, and yes, we just had a midterm.

To access any of the lectures to date, click here.

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“Smart Grids” course features industry experts

Ross Baldick Consulting

Dr. Ross Baldick hosts industry experts for his new UT course, “Smart Grids.”

I’ve been in the thick of it recently, putting the finishing touches on a new course I’ve designed about smart grids for my students at UT Austin. “Smart Grids” begins in less than two weeks.

Back story: During more than a year of preparation, I could not find any text suitable for engineering students. That’s when I started enlisting the help of colleagues, who generously agreed to serve as the “text” for the course. Fortunately for us, we have a wealth of expertise in Austin and Texas. More than a dozen industry guests, including Brewster McCracken of Pecan Street and Bill Muston of Oncor, will lecture on topics from generation and transmission to end-use. We will be asking: What is a smart grid? What does a self-healing grid mean? What are the costs and benefits of a smart grid?

Each lecturer has assembled slides, and each one will be made publicly available on the course webpage: http://users.ece.utexas.edu/~baldick/classes/379K/EE379K.html

So far, the webpage features only my course introduction, but you can see the topic headings laid out for the whole semester. You’re invited to check back for the slide presentations as they become available throughout the semester.

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How much storage is even feasible?

Ross Baldick ConsultingIn response to my last post, about the challenges of wind integration, a reader asked: “Is building storage of this scale even feasible?”

If you had asked me in 2000, “Could wind get to 18GW wind in ERCOT by 2016?” I would have answered no!

I would have been concerned about technical feasibility as well as cost. Technical feasibility has not turned out to be a  problem at that level of penetration, so I would now shy away from claiming technical non-feasibility for storage.

Indeed, I think one can contemplate large-scale dispatched storage (end even some way to dispatch small scale distributed storage) that would make it compatible with existing grid control paradigms at even very high penetrations of storage. Certainly, the battery regulation AS providers are taking ISO signals that look like standard dispatch signals.

The big stopping point continues to be cost. If Elon Musk can make it cheap, and can add some dispatchability, there could be a lot of storage. However, I’d prefer to first wring out from the thermal generators as much controlability as we can get before we blow a lot of money on storage.

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