A Look Back at Interconnect: Austin, a Path to 100% Forum

Interconnect Austin in Review

The first Path to 100 Forum, Interconnect Austin, campaign was held in Austin, Texas on the University of Texas campus on September 24, 2019. We had a diverse range of attendees from across city officials, utility professionals, IPP’s, academia, and students.

Two panels, both moderated by Richard Amato (Director or Energy & Mobility of the Austin Technology Incubator), each covered the challenges faced on a path to 100% renewables.  One panel looked at the challenges from a global viewpoint and the other from a Texas perspective – each of these panels was filled with a robust discussion on issues surrounding the renewables landscape then followed by a Q&A session fueled by questions from the audience and online via a Sli.Do link.


Panel 1

Our first panel, titled “Global Lessons from the Path”, was focused on global trends in renewable energy and clean technologies.

The panelists included:

Varun Rai is director of the Energy Institute (EI) at the University of Texas at AustinVarun Rai
Director at the Energy Institute (EI)
University of Texas at Austin


Petteri Laaksonen of LUT UniversityPetteri Laaksonen
Research Director of Energy Systems
Lappeenranta University of Technology


David Millar, Director of Resource Planning at Ascend Analytics
David Millar
Director of Energy Analytics
Ascend Analytics


The Path to 100% Forum panelists discussed their research, experience, and efforts in clean tech and high-renewable power systems and renewable fuels.  Each referenced cases and steps being taken to integrate high-renewable power systems and the technologies necessary to execute these systems today and in the future.

One item became which became the central topic of discussion with the first panel was the importance of rapidly reducing the use of fossil fuels; on this train of thought, flexible generation and storage were mentioned frequently as important ingredients in cooking up a realistic solution to enable the reduction of fossil use in maintaining a realistic path to 100% renewables.

Panel 2

Our second panel was titled “Bringing it Home for Texas” – as the name implied, the panelists took up the trends & tech highlighted in the global panel and applied them to Texas (specifically, the greater metropolitan region of the IH-35 Texas Corridor consisting of Austin, San Antonio and surrounding suburbs).

The panelists included:

Erika Biershbach Vice President of Energy Market Operations and Resource Planning with Austin EnergyErika Bierschbach
Vice President of Energy Market Operations
and Resource Planning
Austin Energy (Municipal Utility of Austin)


Frank Almaraz - Chief Administrative & Business Development Officer for CPS EnergyFrank Almaraz
Chief Administrative and
Business Development Officer
CPS Energy (San Antonio Municipal Utility)


Cheryl Mele - Sr. Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT)
Cheryl Mele
Senior Vice President and
Chief Operating Officer
Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT).

Our second group of Path to 100% Forum panelists discussed the current situation in Texas, including the high electricity prices in August this year, and their impact on market players and new investments. During the discussion, the trend of non-investment in inflexible generation assets received a lot of attention – mostly because panelists expressed a need to create an environmentally, operationally, economically viable path to 100% renewables.

Furthermore, the utilities panelists expressed that whichever path we take has to be both clean and affordable for their customers.

Video Recording of the Event



We’re happy to report that audience feedback during the luncheon held after the second panel was highly positive – attendees said they found the event an engaging success, they enjoyed both the content and how Path To 100% panelists were able to compare & contrast along international discussions and their realistic application at a local level.  We will be using lessons learned from this Interconnect Forum in our future forums, such as one we will be hosting in California in late 2019, and we will also be leveraging survey response data for continuous improvement at each event.

A Warm Thanks to the Austin Technology Incubator

Path To 100% would like to give a big shout-out to the team at the Austin Technology Incubator at the University of Texas.  With their guidance, support, and marketing collaboration, we were able to move this Interconnect Forum from a whiteboard wish-list to a renewables discussion reality.  In short, because of their team – passionate experts such as Richard Amato (who served as our moderator) and Mitch Jacobson (Director, Austin Technology Incubator & Blackstone LaunchPad at the University of Texas at Austin) – we were able to truly deliver a forum worthy of the importance surrounding the road to renewables.

The Duck Curve Part 2: Smoothing Out the Curve

 As mentioned in our previous post The Duck Curve Part 1: The Challenges of Demand Flexibility,” the Duck Curve is a result of when large amounts of renewables, particularly solar, are added to a power system. Now, let’s build on what we learned in Part 1 and discuss ways in which we can possibly “smooth” out the Duck Curve.

1. Improving Power System Flexibility

When a Duck Curve begins to take shape its important to start looking at the overall “flexibility” of the power system that is responsible for generating electricity. We define power system flexibility as the ability of a generating or storage technology in a power system to ramp up and down to meet demand.

If a technology is flexible (think batteries or some advanced thermal technologies) then that equipment could turn on and off and cycle power outputs up and down extremely fast.

If a technology is inflexible (think coal, nuclear or large gas plants) then there is no magic “on/off switch.” With inflexible technologies you have to literally wait for the science of physics & thermodynamics to do their work first to get your plant to a point where you can control your power output.

Turning off and on quickly and fluctuating generating output up and down is operationally and economically unviable. Inflexible or traditional power plant technologies attempting to operate this way will cause equipment to be damaged and emissions to increase. The excerpt below from Part 1 emphasize the challenge that system inflexibility creates;

“Plant operators are forced to keep inflexible plants that run on coal, oil, and gas operating all day, still burning fuels and producing emissions even though there is no demand need because they have to be ready to ramp up their generation when the sun goes down and the demand goes up”

So, if a system is made up of enough flexible technologies then plant operators can properly utilize the renewable energy .Which means no wasting (often called “curtailing”) of energy that was generated from renewables. This is because flexible technologies are able to turn completely off and then quickly turned back on to meet the evening ramp caused by our Duck Curve. If the goal is enabling renewables while flattening the curve, a power system could add advanced storage systems and modern cleaner thermal technologies.

2. Storing as Much Excess Energy as Possible

Though the deployment of an adequate amount of large storage assets isn’t economically viable today, it has a vital role to play in smoothing out the Duck Curve.

Even states leading the charge in energy storage – like California – are struggling with the economies scale in addressing the challenges the duck curve is causing. According The University of Michigan 2018 U.S Grid Energy Facts Sheet “California leads the U.S. in energy storage with 220 operational projects (4.2 GW), followed by Virginia and South Carolina”. This is not to say that California must stop investing in storage, in fact as storage assets become more cost effective over time, California should add more to reap the benefits of the energy produced in the day. Then, as the sun goes down discharge that stored energy to offset the afternoon ramp.

benchmarks of battery storage for power system flexibility

As you can see from the above graph from GTM, storage will continue to become more and more cost competitive and will play a vital role in high renewable power systems of the future.

3. Improving Energy Efficiency

Everyone should play a part in helping to achieve 100% renewables while flattening the Duck Curve. That means re-thinking the old ways of how we handled the idea of energy efficiency.

One example of how an entity can play their part comes from the Alabama Smart website. Author Daniel Tate writes that one of the more viable methods for smoothing out the duck curve is for utilities to commit “to the storage of energy generated by solar and wind, instead of immediately sending that energy directly to the grid.” He goes on to explain, “The energy can then be ‘dispatched’ when it’s needed and would almost definitely flatten the curve.” (Energy Alabama, May 2017)

Another solution targets energy efficiency in the building sector. University of Berkeley Lab physicist Dr. Mary Ann Piette notes that buildings use more energy than any other sector and so they produce more greenhouse gases. The solution she and her colleagues are developing technology to see energy use at the equipment or appliance level—rather than at the household level as we do today. With this innovative technology, we enable “smart buildings” – meaning that the entire building would communicate with the power grid and respond to generation and price signals automatically. Systems could self-regulate: lower air conditioning use after sunset, recharge electric vehicles during peak wind generation, and so on.

Dr. Pette notes, “The belly of the duck means that there is a lot of electricity available, and it’s becoming cheaper in the middle of the day. For decades we’ve been concerned about time of use, and we tried to use less in the middle of the day and more at night. But we’re actually now very interested in using more during certain times of the day.” (Berkeley News, January 2018)

The Duck Waddles On…

The challenges of the Duck Curve will have to be addressed over time – and we will find that facing these challenges gets easier as both generating and storage technologies continue develop and improve. In the here and now, however, we can make incremental steps such as adding flexible technologies or by avoiding the building of traditional inflexible power plants. Such steps should all be made in parallel with finding ways to reduce curtailing (wasting) of plentiful energy during key hours – by focus on technologies at the building level, for example.

We must then take all of these incremental steps and execute them in combination with increased deployment of energy storage and new energy efficiency programs.

Only then can we smooth out the Duck Curve.

Fact Checking Four Renewable Energy Myths

With any new technology or industry disruption there are myths that sprout up and need to be addressed. Here are explanations that dive deeper into four of the more prevalent renewable energy myths raised by those who are anti-renewable energy. (Yale Climate Connections, February 2019)

Myth #1: Wind and solar are more expensive ways to generate electricity than fossil fuels.

Fact Check:
When comparing prices on generation, it’s important to compare apples to apples.

The industry uses a measure called the “LCOE” which stands for Levelized Cost of Electricity: this metric compares the costs of building and operating solar and wind plants which have no fuel costs once built, with the costs of building and running gas and coal plants with ongoing fuel costs.

Levelized cost of electricity explained, a formula from Wikipedia
Levelized Cost of Electricity formula from Wikipedia

Over the lifetime of the plant, the costs for each type of plant are divided by the energy produced and a levelized cost per megawatt hour is produced. Bottom line: the price of renewables is now cheaper than conventional fossil fuels. Solar photovoltaic equipment has seen the greatest drop in price over the last 10 years, so much so that it ties wind for the lowest cost of unsubsidized electricity for new power generation.

For more info on LCOE, check out this piece from Forbes from the end of 2018: Plunging Prices Mean Building New Renewable Energy Is Cheaper Than Running Existing Coal

Levelized Cost of Energy Analysis over time for Unsubsidized Solar PV from LAZARD
Levelized Cost of Energy for Wind Unsubsidized
Historical LCOE comparison shows declines for solar & wind by Lazard (on Forbes)


Myth #2: Wind turbines use more energy to build than they produce.

Fact Check:
As noted above, wind energy is an economical choice when considering the total life cycle costs of wind farm construction and maintenance. The industry looks at the ratio of energy generated by a plant compared to the energy used to create it. It’s called the Energy Return on Investment (EROI).

Energy Return on Investment Formula, also known as energy returned on energy invested (EROEI or ERoEI)
EROI formula from Wikipedia

Wind turbines generate 20-25 times the amount of energy that goes into making them. Wind has an EROI of between 18-20. Coal’s EROI is around 18, while natural gas is in the range of 7-15. Coal and natural gas are less effective because a great deal of energy is used to transport the fuel via rail or pipeline to the plants. Solar and wind is on location! Also, 30-45 percent of energy is lost as heat in the fossil fuel electricity generation process. Not so with solar and wind.

Myth #3: Renewable energy isn’t reliable.

Fact Check:
There’s no denying “when the sun isn’t shining or the wind stops blowing, energy production stops”; however, it’s also true that renewables are able to generate at lower financial and environmental costs in place of fossil fuel when the sun is shining, and while the wind is blowing. And the industry is on the cusp of finding several new cost-effective ways to store power from these renewables to meet later demand.

It’s an engineering challenge that includes everything from commercial scale batteries to concentrated solar power stored in molten salt which can spin steam-powered turbines at any time.

An even more efficient storage method involves pumping water uphill using surplus wind energy and then releasing it downhill to spin turbines and generate electricity. Pumped hydro systems can respond nearly instantly to fluctuating energy demands across the grid. It uses gravity as a giant battery.

How the Pump Hydro Storage System WorksAbove image from Solar Quotes


Myth #4: Renewables use a lot of land.

Fact Check:
Like all forms of generation, renewables have some upsides and downsides. One of those is land use, because it varies.

Wind farms on average leave up to 98% of the land undisturbed which is important to farmers and ranchers continuing operations. (Schneider Electric, October 2018) Many landowners appreciate land use payments as a great source of secondary revenue.

Surface Area Required to Power the World on Zero Carbon Emissions Alone and with Solar Alone
Land use overview for Zero Carbon Emissions from landartgenerator.org

Solar generation is most efficient at commercial scale and in arid regions like the Southwest US where land is unsuitable for other uses. However, the amount of land use needed is significant and concerns remain about how the large farms affect sensitive ecosystems. That’s a topic we’ll address in a blog post soon and will soon be covered in a curated article on how some solar farms become areas to repopulate the bees.

To reduce U.S. emissions by 80% by 2050 using solar alone, it would take an acreage about the size of South Carolina. That’s why it’s important that we embrace a mixed portfolio of clean energy generation to meet electricity demand.

Siting solar on land already in use helps, too. Solar structures over landfills, parking structures and on rooftops are employed by more and more communities and businesses in partnership with their local utilities. Another advantage of locating the power closer to homes and businesses that need it, is a reduced need for new poles and wires.


A Balanced Approach

It’s important to be realistic about the challenges of introducing clean energy into our electricity system. Now that 100% renewable goals are being set, our best and brightest are finding solutions to bring us power that is affordable, reliable, environmentally friendly and sustainable.

The Duck Curve Part 1: A Challenge of Overbuilding Renewables

Part 1 of a 2-Part Series
Read Part 2: “Smoothing Out the Curve”

What is a Duck Curve, and what does it have to do with renewable energy?

One of the more interesting terms unique to the energy industry is the ‘Duck Curve’ – when taken at first glance one wonders what a duck, an electric grid, demand flexibility, and renewable energy all have in common.

The ‘Duck Curve’ is a term used to describe the shape of the demand curve (which displays how much electricity is needed from the power grid to meet fluctuating customer demand throughout a 24-hour period) when a large amount of renewables, particularly solar, are part of the power system.

To understand where the Duck Curve graph comes from, it’s important to know what factors go into shaping it. Let’s start with the concept of Net Load. Net Load is the difference between the amount of electricity we predict to use and how much electricity we end up producing from renewables. Thus, the Net Load will tell us how much power needs to come from traditional power plants; like those running on coal, gas, nuclear, etc.

The below graph comes from California Independent System Operator (ISO)

The Duck Curve graph shows the need for energy demand flexibility.

(Chart from Energy Alabama, May 2017)

How does the Duck Curve happen?

Look first at the line in 2012, above – this line shows a more traditional demand curve. To be clear, this is what energy system operators in the past would use as a baseline forecast when scheduling the amount of electricity their power plants would need to generate every day.

Before the introduction of variable resources (like renewable energy), the forecasted Net Load was fairly accurate and easy to predict. Over the years, however, the amount of renewable generation has increased significantly and the ability to forecast and predict demand has become increasingly difficult. The need for demand flexibility is higher than ever. This is clear when observing the Net Load for other years on the above graph.

The decrease in Net Load for 2014 and onward is a result of introducing of more and more renewables (particularly solar) into the system. You’ll immediately notice that there is minimal, if any, of the load that needs to be met by power plants during the middle hours of the day. However, as the sun goes down and evening demand begins to increase (people going home, cooking, turning on their TVs, charging their phones, cars, etc.) there is a tremendous amount of strain on the system as plant operators must ramp up all available power plants to keep the lights on.

Still don’t see a duck? How about now?

Duck superimposed on a duck curve

(Chart from Berkeley News, January 2018)

The shape of the power demand curve has changed to the sinking curve in the middle of the day because more power is being met by solar or wind generation. As a result, less power is needed from utility fossil fuel or nuclear power plants as the sun shines and the wind blows.

On the flip side, as we get into the evening hours, more power from coal, oil, gas and nuclear plants is required—and required quickly—to ramp up to meet peaking customer demand as the sun goes down.

Why is this steep ramping every day a problem?

If we stick with the California ISO example from earlier, we see that California over the last decade has been, hands down, the leader of solar installations in the U.S.: as a whole, the state surpassed 11.2 GW of installed solar capacity by the end of 2017. Introducing this large amount of solar energy is what causes the “Duck Curve” along with the evening ramp-up challenges utilities face when the sun sets each day in states like California.

The key here is to keep in mind that traditional power plants (those running on fossil fuels) are not very flexible and cannot just be “switched on” like a light switch every evening to meet this increased demand.

The end result? Plant operators are forced to keep inflexible plants that run on coal, oil, and gas operating all day, so they’re still burning fuels and producing emissions in order to be ready to ramp-up their generation when the sun goes down. This inflexibility is why California’s traditional fossil fuel plants are forced to run as much as they are in spite of all the solar.

This is the solar power dilemma that California is facing. This same challenge is seen in other places, like Hawaii, where a large amount of solar generation has been installed into a power system that is made up of inflexible fossil fuel plants.

Drilling down by the hour: how power is generated to meet customer demand.

People use the most electricity from 6-9 a.m. and 2-7 p.m.

When you think about this, it makes sense because most households need their homes warm in the winter and cool in the summer when they are preparing for work or school from 6-9 a.m. The second peak is when they return from work and school between 2-7 p.m. Most businesses and plants require the bulk of their power during the day, so residential demands are dropping off as solar input is going up.

Traditional oil, gas, and coal power plants are cycled up and down throughout the day to meet demand. It puts wear and tear on the plant equipment and adds pollution to the environment. Some may say “just add storage” – and while yes, some of this commercial power storage technology does exist, it has not progressed to a point that it solves all the problems. Given the current technology of storage as it is, it doesn’t make economic sense to install at a scale that would be necessary to cover the gap.

The Duck Curve highlights how, when we add solar and wind energy to the mix, we must rethink how we meet fluctuating demand in the smartest way possible. The goals we must shoot for are

  1. keeping energy costs affordable,
  2. maintaining system reliability and
  3. minimizing the need for fossil fuel power generation and resulting environmental effects.

Continue reading in Part 2, where we explore some steps we can take to smooth out the Duck Curve.

The Carbon Balancing Act: Defining Carbon Neutral Terms

Commitments to more renewable forms of electricity generation are made for greater sustainability, to reduce costs, and to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gas emissions, key contributors to global warming. (Annenberg Learner)

Understanding Renewable Industry Terms

It’s important to understand the differences between energy industry descriptors like carbon neutral, zero net carbon, carbon free, carbon negative, and 100% renewable. These terms can be overwhelming to everyone because they sound alike. Voters, ratepayers, regulators, elected officials, and power companies must use the same set of definitions when speaking the language of renewables so that all parties are heard clearly and effectively.

Carbon Neutral

New Oxford American Dictionary’s word of the year in 2006. However, most of us haven’t used it until the last few years. It describes power generation that releases net zero carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions into the atmosphere. (Fast Company, 2018)

Power generation considered carbon neutral would include wind, solar, geothermal, micro-hydro, synthetic fuels and wave energy. (Nature.org, May 2013) Interestingly, biofuels are not included in a zero carbon category (Study.com) because producing biofuels contributes more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere than it displaces in energy generation.

Take wind generation as an example. The total carbon footprint of wind generation can be calculated by comparing the following:

  1. How much CO2 is added to the atmosphere to manufacture the wind turbines and transport them many miles to wind farm locations.
  2. The amount of CO2 emissions that would occur to produce the same amount of electricity the wind turbines produce, only using fossil fuel generation.

If that comparison shows no increase in CO2 added to the atmosphere, then the power generation method is considered to be carbon neutral.

Zero Net Carbon or Net Zero Carbon

These have the same meaning as Carbon Neutral.

Carbon Free or Zero-Emission

This refers to one part of the carbon footprint calculation: describing power generation which does not emit greenhouse gas into the atmosphere (such as nuclear or renewables). However, it does not address CO2 emissions from fossil fuels used to source, produce and distribute generation.

Carbon Negative and Climate Positive

These terms are interchangeable even though they seem contradictory. Both describe activities that remove additional CO2 from the atmosphere (as opposed to simply “netting-out” carbon emissions).

100% Renewable

This is a claim communities can make if they have power purchasing agreements for 100% renewable generation.

One key thing to remember is that 100% Renewable doesn’t mean the electricity generated by a wind farm or solar farm is going directly to the homes and businesses of customers within a community.

Instead, the claim means that communities with 100% renewable contracts are paying for renewable generation on the grid, and they may be doing so alongside other communities on that same grid who are paying for electricity generated by fossil fuels and/or nuclear. It doesn’t matter who consumes the electricity from the renewables or thermal generation, because an electron is an electron.

What matters most is that more renewable energy is generated because of these agreements. Commitments to 100% renewable power will reduce the reliance on fossil fuel generation, transition communities to a more sustainable power supply and in many cases will result in lower power prices. (Forbes 2018)

Have other power industry terms you’d like to know more about? Check out our Path to 100% Renewables Energy Glossary.