By Michael Kuser
POUGHKEEPSIE, N.Y. — Artificial intelligence, transmission needs and markets versus mandates topped the discussion at the Renewable Energy Conference hosted by the Business Council of New York State, the Hudson Renewable Energy Institute and Marist College’s School of Management.
AI will transform society and the energy sector, said John E. Kelly III, senior vice president for cognitive solutions and research at IBM.
“When I joined the company in 1980, my first job was to figure out how do we put 1,000 transistors on a tiny chip for our mainframes; today, we put 15 billion transistors on a chip the size of your fingernail,” Kelly said.
He shared how the benefits of AI stem from the exponential curve in data growth. He described how IBM’s Watson platform can absorb 30 years of data in a few minutes and then continue to “learn” as it interacts with people and individual case decisions, whether in health care or the energy industry.
The world’s fastest supercomputer requires 12 MW to mimic what the human brain performs on 20 W of electricity, Kelly said, but AI can spot what no human could. For example, when Australian energy giant Woodside adopted Watson, the computer determined that most hand injuries occurred around 11 a.m., so the company now sends text messages to rig workers at 10:45 a.m. to remind them to take a break or have a cup of coffee, reducing the accident rate.
“You are going to be disrupted and transformed by this technology,” Kelly said. “We’re finally going to be able to take advantage of the integration of renewable energy and traditional energy in ways that we couldn’t before.”
The industry spent many years talking about smart meters and gathering data, but not much was being done with the information, he said. AI can make sense of the high volumes of data produced by smart grids and distributed energy resource sensors, which can overwhelm the capabilities of human programmers.
“These machines will recognize patterns of disruption, predict capability for your equipment and your power lines, and I think ultimately it’s going to lead to a seamless distribution and storage of energy among all sources, and there will be very few humans involved in that real-time optimization and predictive capability,” Kelly said.
Darren Suarez, director of government affairs for the Business Council, asked whether the state will deliver on its energy policy promises, including 3 GW of solar by 2023; 1.5 GW of energy storage by 2025; and a 40% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, 2.4 GW of offshore wind and 50% of electricity coming from renewable sources by 2030. (See NY Releases ‘Roadmap’ for 1,500-MW Storage Goal.)
The council emphasizes the importance of relying on markets rather than mandates to achieve the state’s environmental goals, Suarez said.
The state’s many programs, such as Reforming the Energy Vision, have been driven by the executive branch, led by Gov. Andrew Cuomo since 2013, rather than the legislature, which entails risks for longevity, Suarez said.
The state’s environmental targets might “have no staying power” if another governor with contrary ideas comes to office, as has happened at the federal level with President Trump pulling out of the Paris Agreement on climate change, Suarez said.
Consolidated Edison’s consultant IHS anticipates U.S. renewable volumes will double by 2040, driven by solar and land-based wind, said Joseph P. Oates, chairman of Con Ed’s non-utility businesses.
Oates oversees 1,100 MW of renewable energy projects around the country, ranging from a 1-MW behind-the-meter solar project in Brooklyn to the 350-MW Copper Mountain 3 solar project near Las Vegas, which covers 8 square miles.
“If you were going to power New York City’s load just with solar, you’d have to cover the five boroughs with panels,” Oates said. Alternatively, relying solely on offshore wind would require more than 800 of the newest 12-MW turbines.
State and regional efforts to decarbonize the economy are driving renewable energy growth in the Northeast, but in New York, “you need to do some energy efficiency, and that’s really a key strategy because it is the least expensive way to decarbonize,” Oates said.
“Today we’re at a little over 1,700 MW of renewables in New York state,” NYISO CEO Brad Jones said. “We need to get to 17,000 more by 2030. We think about 14,000 of that is going to be solar and wind upstate because land is cheaper — and available.”
If that forecast is accurate, “we have got to make sure we have enough transmission available to move that energy downstate to our load centers; otherwise we won’t get the benefits of it,” Jones said, who noted the state is “making some good progress” on projects that improve transmission flows from the western to central part of the state. The ISO is also seeking board approval for another line that will approve transfer capability in the Lower Hudson Valley. (See NYISO MC Supports AC Transmission Projects.)
New York hasn’t built much transmission since the 1980s, with 80% of the state’s transmission assets built prior to 1980, he said.
“The system’s quite old, so we need to develop the system in order to bring more renewables downstate,” Jones said.
The 2,400 MW of offshore wind being planned in New York “comes in at a great location in the state, on the backside of our load, so it’s a fantastic location, but we have to figure out how to bring that wind onshore, how to distribute it appropriately, so we don’t have great impacts on the system,” Jones said.
Kevin T. Knobloch, president of New York OceanGrid, owned by Anbaric Development Partners, made a case for planning “open access” offshore wind energy transmission before the first turbines go in the water.
Anbaric has filed HVDC interconnection requests for 800 MW into the Farragut substation in Brooklyn and for 800 MW into the Ruland Road substation on Long Island for its hoped-for offshore wind grid.
Knobloch, who served as chief of staff at the U.S. Department of Energy from 2013 to 2017 and is a former president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, said, “New York can and should design and build a planned open-access offshore wind transmission system in which generation and transmission are separately constructed and owned.
“There’s a concern that if you follow our recommendation and plan it out from the start, that will slow down the process. We disagree and believe there’s a missed opportunity if regulators ask the first offshore wind generation developers … to also build transmission and run their own direct cables to shore,” Knobloch said.
Long-term planning from the start not only minimizes environmental impacts of laying unnecessary cables but also sends a signal to investors that the state is serious about this new multibillion dollar industry, he said.
Order 888 in 1996 showed that “FERC, from a public policy perspective, has long had concerns about monopolistic disincentives that don’t necessarily align with the public interest, or frankly, that of the grid operators,” Knobloch said.
“It’s no accident that Texas has the greatest amount of installed wind capacity in the country, and it has a lot to do with Competitive Renewable Energy Zones,” Knobloch said. “They figured out pretty early on that we have a good sense of where our wind resources are. We have a pretty good sense of where we need to deliver that clean electricity to the demand zones — let’s map it out, let’s plan it ahead of time, and the wind generators get to plug into this backbone.”
Dennis Phayre, business development director for EnterSolar, a commercial and industrial solar developer based in New York City, said, “Most of the generation that’s going to need to get built in order to reach these goals is going to be utility-scale, and it’s going to be upstate, so the need for transmission does not go away with renewables.”
The intermittency of wind and solar has become much less unpredictable, with new tools like Watson allowing forecasts of output 24 — or even 48 — hours in advance with up to 97% accuracy, so the “problem” of intermittency has largely been solved, Phayre said.
“There’s certainly some tension between transmission and renewables, but there’s probably more complement than there is tension,” Phayre said. “The question is, what complementary value does on-site generation provide at the right locations?”
“There’s no doubt that transmission infrastructure is required, which is easier to say than do,” said Craig Orchant, managing partner of investment banking firm Ansonia Partners. “The challenge is, you really can’t invest money in power generation unless you know you can deliver it. Transmission is a huge requirement, and it’s been to a large degree unanswered, not just in New York state, but across the region, throughout New England and a lot of other places throughout the U.S. Horror stories you read in PJM in terms of how they’re trying to allocate transmission improvement charges to individual participants in the market is a good example.”
On the plus side, energy projects “have a tremendous amount of capital looking to go to work in them,” Orchant said. “The amount of money that has been raised, and the knowledge base of institutional capital to invest in this industry is really phenomenal. I’ve been doing this for 30 years … and there’s never been so much money looking to go to work.”
Couch White attorney Michael Mager, who represents a coalition of large industrial, commercial and institutional energy customers, said many of the state’s programs and mandates require long-term commitments of customer money.
“For large-scale renewables, we’re looking at 20-year contracts, for offshore wind we’ve been talking about 25-year contracts,” Mager said. “The programs continue going to 2030, so we’re potentially making commitments now to go to 2050 or 2055, so we are making decisions that our grandchildren will be paying for.
“This is not to knock any specific program,” many of which have a lot of benefits, Mager said. “On an individual basis you could probably make a case for every single one of them, including what they may or may not cost, but no one is looking at the total costs.
“Even though we have more and more renewables, and we have a lot of nuclear, the marginal unit for the vast majority of hours is gas-fired, so right now we have low electricity prices primarily because we have low gas prices,” he said. “When we have higher gas prices at some point in the future, then the impacts of all of these programs and long-term commitments layered on top of that, we are concerned it will not be a pretty picture,” Mager said.
Mager was also concerned that every program relies on mandatory customer payments.
“When the Public Service Commission adopted the renewable portfolio standard in 2004, the order said, ‘We believe an important part of the RPS program is to stimulate and complement voluntary, competitive renewable energy sales and purchases, or free markets, so that these competitive markets, not government mandates, sustain renewable activity after the RPS program ends,’” Mager said.
“The RPS program ended a while ago, and we have more mandates than ever before.”