Five Interesting Energy Stories – March 2019

From Scott Carlberg

ECC has a quick round-up of energy activities and people in the Carolinas and around us to help our readers see the big picture of energy.

Coal Country Energy Without the Coal

Here’s one way to look at an existing energy asset in a new way. “Southwest Virginia lawmakers are looking to pumped-storage hydro and renewables to make the state’s coalfields an energy hotbed again.” (Source)

The idea is that pumped storage hydro power can be upfitted in old coal mines as the coal business declines. That means that water from a higher location could be released to a lower reservoir and run through a turbine to make electricity. The higher reservoir would be refilled with pumps run on renewable energy in low-demand times.

The Virginia legislature is looking at a bill to get moving. “The legislation specifically names as priorities pumped-storage hydro power — a clear reference to Dominion Energy’s plans to build such a facility at former underground coal mines either in Tazewell or Wise counties.” (Source) This power could be dispatched within minutes of a high power demand. It is carbon-free, too.

Duke Energy has used pumped hydro lakes for decades in Upstate South Carolina. Here’s a story about the Bad Creek facility. The Keowee-Toxaway Project from Duke is also in that pumped hydro category.

Pumped hydro has to do with peak energy much of the time. ECC wrote about peak energy a few months ago, check it out here. ECC also wrote about the importance of the ability to “dispatch” electricity last July.

A Bright Sunshiny Day

Yes, this is a reference to the Johnny Nash song even though the song has nothing to with energy. Like the song.

North Carolina’s annual solar output was up 36 percent in 2018 according to the Energy Information Agency. Now NC is #2 in solar production in the US. “By comparison, California’s annual solar production rose 15 percent; Arizona’s and Nevada’s outputs each grew 10 percent in 2018. At year-end 2018, [the Energy Information Agency] EIA reported North Carolina produced 7.2 million MWh (megawatt hours) of solar generation – enough to power more than 600,000 homes. North Carolina was third in the nation for connecting new solar projects in 2018. Most solar energy produced in North Carolina is owned or purchased by Duke Energy,” said Electric Light and Power magazine.

Solar power should be matched with overall smart energy planning. Energy technologies do not exist in a vacuum; they work together. ECC wrote about the way that NC is part of a national electric task force for planning. Check it out.

Energy Storage – New Ideas

Since we discussed electricity storage, here are a few unusual ideas about it according to a magazine called Clean Technica: “There are many other ways to store electricity ranging from the dead simple to the extremely complex. A California company proposes to build a railroad to nowhere. A train of electrically powered boxcars filled with cement would churn their way uphill in the day time using excess electrical energy. At night when the supply of solar power decreases, the train would roll back downhill. At that point, the electric motors that pushed it uphill during the day would reverse their role and generate electricity on the way down.

Other ideas include a tower that stacks concrete filled barrels on an elevated platform during the day. Later, lowering them back to ground level would generate more electricity.

Both systems use sound scientific principles that convert energy into work and then later reverse the process to make more electricity. Despite being possible, neither has shown itself to be price competitive with battery storage.”

State or Feds in the Energy Lead?

Looks like states, not feds, may be taking the lead on energy policy to advance carbon-free energy. A sticky point is energy storage. Meaning, electricity can be produced by solar and wind, but what if that electricity is not needed at that time? There needs to be a way to store the energy for use later. (One way to store energy is pumped storage hydro — see the first story.)

Bloomberg News said, “New Mexico on March 12 became the third state after Hawaii and California to pass legislation setting a 100 percent zero-carbon electricity mandate. … New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D), who supports nuclear as a source of carbon-free energy, signed an executive order in 2018 setting a 100-percent clean energy target for 2050.”

When it comes to committing to carbon-free power, check this: “As two Connecticut utilities sign a contract assuring the continued operation of the Millstone nuclear power plant, the governors of the six states making up the region of New England have issued a document outlining their commitment to cooperate to maintain clean energy facilities including nuclear.” (Source) ECC has a future blog noting the central role some people see for nuclear in the decarbonization push.

Interesting goals. Lofty, too, when we need it as a society. Remember, though, new technology and discovery do not happen with the swipe of a legislator’s pen. It takes research, planning, pilot testing and implementation.

Carolina Leadership in the News Again

Last week ECC noted that Roanoke Electric Cooperative’s CEO is going to serve a two year term as president of the National Rural Electric Cooperative. Now, California’s PG&E Corporation looks like it may tap Bill Johnson, retiring head of the Tennessee Valley Authority, as its new CEO. Johnson led Progress Energy here in the Carolinas. It is not final, but the press is buzzing. PG&E is currently in federal bankruptcy protection because of liabilities from California wildfires. (One source here)

ECC‘s takeaway: There is a lot of energy news. The Carolinas are in a good position in many ways, though we have some challenges to get right. (Just read ECC‘s other blogs!)