Michael Davidson: Wind Integration Challenges in Northeastern China

Jan 02, 2012
Michael Davidson: Wind Integration Challenges in Northeastern China

Early in his academic career, Michael Davidson recognized the importance of understanding both the science and policy of energy technologies. As a student at Case Western Reserve, Davidson researched alternative energy materials while studying physics and math. He then spent a summer in Washington, D.C., using his knowledge of Japanese to work on international relations legislation for a small think tank.

“When I left undergrad I was looking for opportunities to explore the intersections of these topics,” explains Davidson, who earned a Master's Degree from MIT's Technology and Policy Program (TPP) in the spring. This fall, Davidson will begin coursework toward a PhD in MIT's Engineering Systems Division. 

After undergrad, Davidson went to China on a Fulbright Scholarship and studied the development impacts of energy access policies. This experience began a commitment to researching the challenges of renewable energy policy for the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter—leading him to MIT, where Davidson is now a Research Assistant for the MIT-Tsinghua China Energy and Climate Project.

“I wouldn’t have come to MIT if I wasn’t able to be on the China Project because it is a unique combination of this broad focus on technology and policy, but also a dedicated focus on China, which is pretty rare in this field,” Davidson says.

He believes renewables are the major game-changer in efforts to reduce carbon emissions around the world. In particular, he says most future climate projections rely on estimates of renewable power utilization, while there is still so much unknown on how to successfully bring these resources to scale. China plays a vital role in this effort.

“China is obviously the most important actor from the perspective of long-term climate change, and this plays out in foreign policy, its economy, as well as the scaling up of renewable energy,” says Davidson. “If you can’t get renewables to work in China, it will matter much less what you can accomplish elsewhere to mitigate carbon emissions.”

Davidson focuses his research on wind resources in northeastern China, where about 20–30 percent of wind resources are being wasted because of a host of technical and regulatory barriers to integrating wind power.

“It involves a whole mess of different stakeholders—the grid, other generators, governments, consumers, industry. It’s just a lot of different players. It’s actually a really technical and complicated modeling challenge.”  This challenge was very appealing to Davidson—who likes thinking about complex systems.

Coal is the major energy source in the northeast, which has led to significant air pollution challenges. Because of technical constraints, coal-fired plants are not able to transition fast enough to meet the variability of wind. Other barriers to integration include co-generation power and heat plants, policies guaranteeing coal plants a certain percentage of the power sector, and other historical policies that benefit incumbent generators. As a result, this region has lost out on the benefits of wind power, despite abundant wind resources.

To tackle this challenge, Davidson built an operational power systems model where he is able to simulate what each generator is doing every hour—turning on, turning off, ramping up, ramping down. He then added a layer simulating wind power generation using data from NASA’s MERRA data set, which is gives hourly data for a 31-year timespan. 

Once he built the model, Davidson was able to model the optimal amount of wind energy that the power system could produce and compare that to the actual amount of wind power generated over a year.

Davidson’s research demonstrates that technical constraints alone cannot explain the high rates of curtailment seen in the northeastern region of China. In addition, he is able to dig deeper and quantify how each policy is affecting wind generation. 

“This research will have important implications for policymakers who are looking to decarbonize and reduce China’s dependence on coal,” says Davidson, who hopes his findings will provide recommendations for ways to reform the power sector in both the short and long term.

Davidson will completed his Master's thesis in May, 2014, and presented the research at the third annual CECP stakeholders’ meeting in June. He is continuing his studies with the China Project and while pursuing his PhD in MIT's Engineering Systems Division.