Renewables Bring Communities Together

July 1, 2012
Renewable energy has become a polarizing topic. Everyone has an opinion and is passionate about that opinion. It is paradoxical, too. Environmental groups

Renewable energy has become a polarizing topic. Everyone has an opinion and is passionate about that opinion. It is paradoxical, too. Environmental groups are pushing to go green. According to them, renewables are the silver bullet, yet these groups do not support the needed infrastructure. Regulators push renewable requirements, but they make permitting across regional boundaries a nightmare. Governments support tariffs to encourage renewable installations and then change, cancel or drag their feet on extensions.

Whether talking with a colleague or the general public, renewable energy is a hot topic with a lot of myths, folklore and facts intermixed. As Transmission & Distribution World's technical writer, anytime I write about wind or solar I know I will get a response, which is not always the case with any other topic I write about. I once wrote that wind needed storage because of its variable nature. I had engineers tracking me down at conferences for years after that story went to print to give me their pointed opinion of my statement.

Last year, Rick Bush, T&D World editorial director, gave me an assignment to write another supplement on renewable energy, “Big Solar, Big Wind.” The content highlighted the trend of building huge wind and solar farms and the problems encountered. The supplement became one of three finalists in its category for a prestigious Jesse H. Neal award. This is a pretty big deal in the publishing world.

As a result, Rick and I went to New York City for the awards ceremony. The supplement did not win; however, it was truly amazing to be included in this event. We rubbed shoulders with the Who's Who of the publishing industry, and it gave us some time for reflection.

Returning to the Scene

Rick and I met in 1994 in Times Square (which is another story altogether). He had just become editor-in-chief of T&D World and was in New York for the IEEE Power Engineering Society's winter meeting. I was a utility engineer attending the same meeting. We did not meet at the conference, that would have been too normal (and the Rick and Gene team has never been accused of being anything close to normal). We hit it off and have been the best of friends ever since.

A week after the meeting, Rick called to ask if I would write a substation article for T&D World (foolishly, I had told him I could write). Apparently, he had an author who wasn't able to deliver a promised article. I agreed. And then the other shoe fell. It was Friday afternoon when Rick called, and he needed the article first thing Monday morning. I sure am glad I never ran from a challenge. To paraphrase from Casablanca, that article was the beginning of a beautiful relationship.

Time Well Spent

Here we were, 17 years later, back in the Big Apple because of a writing assignment. The Neal Awards gave us a great opportunity to visit some old friends at Long Island Power Authority and to see their 32-MW solar farm on Brookhaven National Laboratory property, which is the largest photovoltaic array in the Eastern United States. Funny thing, it was a cloudy day with pending rain, and the solar farm was still producing about 7 MW — dispelling the myth that solar only works when the sun is shining.

It also gave us a chance to catch up. Rick and I had been out of the country on separate trips since our last meeting. It was just plain fun having a face-to-face get-together, not to mention the fact we were in New York City one more time.

It seemed natural to sit down for a late-night dinner and kick around some alternative ideas for the next renewables supplement. Some folks might question the hour or doing it at my favorite deli on Seventh Avenue. Of course, ideas start flowing when mixing kosher dills and pastrami on rye with New York cheesecake, or maybe it was too much coffee and not enough sleep, or maybe it was that second dessert. Who knows, but it was a great way to discuss what we had seen taking place in the world of renewable energy.

We talked about developments, trends and technologies. We both had noticed the emergence of smaller installations of wind and solar that could be tied to the distribution system, albeit often with the need to invest and upgrade the main circuits. We decided to focus a portion of this supplement on this emerging market.

We found distributed wind and solar making an impact on both utilities and customers worldwide. This smaller-scale renewable sector is like its larger utility-scale cousins but with more benefits. Few, if any, permits are required for installations. They are located in the heart of the load centers. Perhaps most important, they are recognized as a community resource, which is a huge plus for industry.

Distributed renewables are not a replacement for centralized generation, bulk transmission or distribution facilities. They are another tool in our toolbox to meet customers' demand for power. With about 25% of the world's population without access to electricity, these smaller renewable applications offer electricity now where it is needed until we can expand the grid to reach them. These distributed resources may be small scale, but they are growing, and millions of kilowatt installations do add up to gigawatts.

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