climate, cop26, climate change

US President Joe Biden today signed the Inflation Reduction Act into law, and that’s going to give the transition of the United States to clean energy a big boost. According to the American Clean Power Association, the new law could add up to an additional 550 gigawatts (GW) of electricity from wind, solar, and other clean energy sources. Electrek spoke with Enrico Viale, head of renewable energy company Enel North America, about the challenges that states face as they move away from fossil fuels, and how Enel is working with states to help them deploy clean energy, distributed energy resources, and energy storage.

Electrek: What do you think are the biggest hurdles that states must overcome in order to reach net zero by 2050 at the latest? 

Enrico Viale: The global climate crisis is the most pressing challenge of our lifetimes, and the next decade will be crucial to achieving decarbonization targets set by the Paris Agreement in 2015. It is imperative that we transition from a reliance on fossil fuels to a sustainable, electrified economy powered by clean energy sources. 

Luckily, most of the solutions we need to decarbonize our economy already exist today. So, the challenge for states is scaling – building more projects and developing their clean energy workforce.

In order to achieve a low-carbon future in the US, first, we must decarbonize the energy supply. This means states need to continue to encourage large, utility-scale clean energy projects like solar and wind to replace carbon-emitting energy sources like fossil fuel power plants. 

Second, we must modernize our energy infrastructure, which is aging and outdated. It’s critical we build out transmission and modernize the electric grid to work as a resilient, distributed, smart system delivering clean electricity to every corner of the US. That also includes participating in regional transmission organizations. 

Third, we must electrify our economy. Today, it’s technologically possible for industries and residents to electrify much of their operations and needs. We can replace gas cars with electric cars, gas furnaces with heat pumps, and diesel generators with renewable energy paired with a battery storage system. We also have demand response and demand management technologies to reduce energy use during times of high demand. The best option is no longer to burn fossil fuels onsite. We need to plug in.

Together, these moves will allow states to decarbonize the electricity supply feeding our power grids, modernize the energy infrastructure carrying this electricity, and clean up the demand for energy by electrifying the economy to run on clean power. 

Electrek: What specific projects is Enel North America working on right now to help states transition to clean energy? 

Enrico Viale: In the past few months, we’ve launched several innovative projects that are moving the industry forward. 

First, we are focused on pairing large-scale renewable energy projects with battery storage. For North America and the rest of the world, reaching renewable energy targets depends on “hybrid power plants,” which often combine an energy source with battery storage. In Texas, we recently brought our first global large-scale wind and storage project online, Azure Sky wind + storage. The 350 megawatt wind project joins five other hybrid power plants we have in operation or under construction in the state, helping to increase resiliency in the ERCOT grid. 

The second is innovation in microgrids. Near our headquarters in Massachusetts, we recently launched a first-of-its-kind service station microgrid, which incorporates rooftop solar arrays, battery storage, and EV charging. The microgrid delivers an integrated power supply for the service station and a DC fast charger behind one utility meter. The goal of this microgrid is to build layers of resiliency to help the facility save money on energy bills and provide critical support to first responders and utility crews during a weather emergency. 

Finally, we’re continuing strong partnerships with utilities across the country to increase EV adoption supported by managed EV charging. Enel’s smart home charger can automatically charge an EV during off-peak hours, reducing strain on the grid and lowering energy costs for the consumer. Within the last few months, our team has partnered with several utilities, including Salt River Project [in Arizona], to bring EV charging infrastructure to consumers at a low cost. 

Electrek: Let’s look at Texas as a state case study. Texas is a clean energy leader, yet it’s having trouble with its grid due to extreme temperatures. What do you think Texas needs to do in order to stabilize its grid and better support its clean energy transition? 

Enrico Viale: Texas has an ever-growing population and increasingly hot summers, both of which are factors that have contributed to a significant increase in electricity demand that the state has experienced over the past year. An increase in demand at that rate would be a challenge for any state.

Enel has more than 3.5 GW of renewable energy projects in operation or under construction there, so we’re playing an important role in Texas’ clean energy transition and understands what it will take to build a resilient grid.

Right now, renewable energy projects are concentrated in western Texas, but the majority of the population, and therefore the majority of energy demand, is concentrated in the central and eastern parts of the state. As such, energy must travel across the state, on aging transmission infrastructure, to reach where it’s needed most. Ensuring power plants are distributed across the state and supported by a modern energy grid will ensure a more resilient energy supply. 

Texas also needs to further diversify its portfolio of resources and increase and accelerate battery storage deployments. Diversification provides some insulation against significant loss of generation either by type or geography. So, if there’s geographic and technological diversification in generation sources, the potential for large outages is limited. And battery storage can fill the gaps when wind and solar are not generating enough to support the grid. 

Lastly, the cheapest, cleanest, and most resilient kilowatt-hour of electricity is the one you don’t use. Enel manages more than 100 MW of demand response in Texas, and time and time again we see the benefits of paying businesses to curb their energy usage. The Texas Public Utility Commission recognizes the value of demand response and recently approved a budget increase of $75 million for Emergency Response Service. As demand for electricity increases in ERCOT, encouraging more customer participation in demand response programs will be a critical component for grid resiliency.

Photo: Enel North America

Enrico Viale was appointed head of North America at Enel Group in July 2019. He previously served as the Enel Group’s head of global generation and head of global thermal generation. After nine years at Ansaldo Energia in Italy and eight years at ABB in Italy and Switzerland, Viale, an engineer, joined Enel in 2003 as country manager of Southeastern Europe and CEO of Enel Maritza East 3. There he led a number of development projects and operational activities in conventional and renewable energy generation, as well as in distribution in Bulgaria, Romania, and Greece.

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