The promise to combine renewables, conventional sources and storage is attracting innovators from many markets.
A number of factors have created more favorable conditions for hybrid energy. Changing economics for renewables and fossil fuels alike, as well as the increasing application and development of energy storage, have provided a major boost to hybrid energy.
The growth of hybrid energy has also been closely connected with the rise of microgrids and distributed power in general. New business and financial business models are also gradually emerging to support the growth of the sector. Although the value of hybrid energy is still not widely documented, some high-profile installations, along with increasing research and development (R&D), are compiling a track record that will inform decisions on future hybrid energy use.
In many cases, hybrid energy epitomizes the advantages of additive power – combining different energy forms – in circumstances and environments where a single energy form is unable to provide sufficient, continuous power reliably or cost-effectively. This is most clearly underlined by the advantages of combining solar and wind – where solar performs best during the day and wind provides greater energy at night.
Peter Lilienthal, CEO of Colorado-based microgrid modeling firm HOMER Energy, highlights significant increases in the proportion of solar energy in hybrid microgrid systems in recent years. He notes that wind was much more cost-effective in hybrid microgrids up until four years ago, before major price declines in solar. He adds that solar is cost-effective against diesel in most areas, even with recent low oil prices.
According to Lilienthal, the viability of solar in microgrids varies considerably according to its penetration level – at low penetration, solar works well for reducing fuel costs, especially because storage and load constraints aren't significant issues. This market segment is thriving now, he says.
At medium penetration, solar requires some grid stability measures, such as small amounts of storage and/or load management. As storage prices decline further, Lilienthal expects more widespread and cost-efficient use in this market segment.
Jamaica Public Service has made a major commitment to hybrid energy. Daniel Harris, executive vice president of global sales for Indiana-based Windstream Technologies, says the utility is installing the company's hybrid wind and solar systems throughout the island nation. Harris sees a great opportunity for hybrid energy in space-constrained markets – such as Jamaica – in turning real estate into sites for energy production.
A long road to hybridization
Hybrid energy made some of its earliest inroads in the utility market for co-generation purposes – although it has had some struggles in that market. Most of those projects have used a combination of solar and natural gas, wind and diesel, solar and wind, and solar storage, to achieve greater cost-efficiencies, lower-carbon emissions, and greater energy security and resilience.
Buck Martinez, senior director of project development for Florida Power & Light (FPL), notes that his utility's natural gas combined-cycle and concentrating solar power plants comprising the Martin Next-Generation Solar Center were built as a hybrid energy facility at a time when natural gas and photovoltaic power were both significantly more expensive. Lower prices in both segments have made the economics argument for the hybrid co-generation plant more challenging.
At the same time, Martinez says the Martin facility was designed with an R&D role and that FPL has ‘learned a great deal and gained major engineering expertise’ from the project. NextEra Energy, which has purchased FPL, is ‘continuing to monitor new technologies and opportunities where technologies are being combined to generate power,’ he adds.
Martinez underlines the challenge of identifying viable new forms of hybrid energy where the cost of levelized energy for solar doesn't adversely impact customers. For the moment, much of the company's attention is focused on hybrid energy combining solar, natural gas, ocean currents and bio-renewables in various combinations that could become viable for the utility.
Looking for the mainstream
The commercial and industrial (C&I) markets are emerging as some of the strongest markets for hybrid energy. Dan Juhl, CEO of Juhl Energy, envisions a very large market for C&I applications of hybrid energy – particularly driven by a higher demand for energy and greater push to reduce long-term energy costs in that sector.
‘After discussing the value of hybrid energy for quite a while, C&I companies are starting to seriously pursue hybrid energy projects,’ Juhl says.
As a result, Juhl Energy is focusing on the C&I market for hybrid energy.
One of the company's signature projects in the hybrid energy area is a 3.4 MW wind farm the company installed in association with ConEdison Solutions at a Honda transmission factory in Russells Point, Ohio, last year. The system helped the factory achieve cost savings as high as 16%. In addition, the system played a key role in hedging against future energy costs.
Another promising market for hybrid energy is the ‘smart buildings’ sector. According to David Cohen, chief operating officer of Colorado-based GOe3, smart buildings will be a key market for integrated solar and energy storage due to the falling costs of stationary energy storage systems and demand created by related applications, such as electric vehicle recharging.
One of the most obvious and compelling markets for hybrid energy has been the resilience/backup power market. Power outages caused by such natural disasters as Hurricane Sandy have propelled alternative energy solutions, including hybrid energy, to the forefront.
David Droz, senior project manager for New York-based Urban Green Energy (UGE), sees major possibilities for hybrid energy domestically in remote microgrids using storage and notes that states such as California and New York have been expanding the use of such microgrids for backup power and resiliency.
For example, UGE developed a system combining solar and batteries with the grid for educational and backup power purposes in a Bronx high school as well as a hybrid energy project developed for a large restaurant chain that allowed it to maintain its inventory during outages.
Telecom and data storage also hold significant potential for hybrid energy. In Droz's view, telecom is a particularly promising market for hybrid energy because of that sector's high energy costs. In the telecom market, hybrid energy can provide a reliable energy source for both information technology and heating, cooling and ventilation systems.
Hybrid systems can also provide additional security in the case of possible grid failure. For example, hybrid energy systems using storage have also helped ensure the integrity of financial transactions for many businesses during power outages, Droz notes.
Michael Mascioni is a conference developer and freelance writer based in New York City.