With renewables infusion, grid security becomes investment priority — reports

E&E • Posted: Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Electric utilities and transmission owners are expected to make significant investments in technologies to protect the grid against ebbs and flows in current caused by the addition of intermittent power sources such as wind and solar power, two new reports predict.

Between 2012 and 2020, investment in “switchgear” technologies, which protect high-voltage equipment from power surges and outages, will approach nearly $20 billion, an almost fourfold increase over 2010 levels, according to findings from the British consulting firm GlobalData.

Meanwhile, a separate report from market research firm Pike Research indicates that “spinning reserves,” or power that can be quickly dispatched to the grid to meet changing conditions, will also see a robust rise in demand, from a current 86 gigawatts to more than 148 GW.

“Grid systems are facing more instability as energy mixes change rapidly — particularly as intermittent renewable energy systems come online — and load profiles also become more unpredictable,” said Pike analyst Anissa Dehamna in a statement.

The two reports, issued yesterday, reflect the electric power sector’s growing awareness of the challenges of building a 21st-century electricity generation system around a transmission grid that in many places has not been significantly improved since the early 20th century.

According to GlobalData, expansion and upgrades of the global transmission system will propel new investment in switchgear equipment like circuit breakers, transformers and lightning arrestors that are used to protect essential pieces of equipment from stressors such as spikes in current.

China and the United States are the world’s leading markets for switchgear, consuming roughly 21 percent and 7 percent, respectively, of all switchgear equipment sold. But Russia is expected to emerge as a major market for such equipment as the nation’s Federal Grid Co. prepares to spend more than $21 billion on grid improvements, the report states.

By comparison, the United States expects to invest $12 billion to $14 billion annually over the next decade to expand and upgrade the domestic grid, in part to accommodate renewables generation that is coming online, according to the Edison Electric Institute. The Chinese Electricity Council, meanwhile, has allocated around $390 billion to be spent on grid construction by 2015, according to GlobalData.

In its report, Pike Research estimates that the global market for spinning reserves will expand from $261 million in 2012 to $534 million by 2021, reflecting population growth, rising energy consumption and greater demand on transmission systems.

Coal-fired power plants currently account for more than half the world’s spinning reserves capacity, but natural gas is expected to overtake coal as the primary fuel source for spinning reserves by 2021. Stored energy capacity will account for 8 percent of all spinning reserves by the same date, Pike said, up from 6 percent currently.