Tag Archives: Electric Grid

The Energy Transition and the Question of Perfection

I just read an interesting piece on the widely influential VOX, by David Roberts, called “A beginner’s guide to the debate over 100% renewable energy.” It is worth a read, but I have some problems with it, and felt compelled to rant. No offense intended to David Roberts, but I run into certain malconstructed arguments so often that I feel compelled to promote a more careful thinking out of them, or at least, how they are presented. Roberts’ argument is not malconstructed, but the assumptions leading up to his key points include falsehoods.

I’m not going to explicitly disagree with the various elements of the solutions part of this article (the last parts). But the run-up to that discussion, in my opinion, reifies and supports a number of falsehoods, mainly the dramatic (and untrue) dichotomy between the perfect and wonderful large-plant mostly coal and petroleum sources of energy on one hand with alternatives fraught with All The Problems on the other. Since this VOX piece is a “beginner’s guide” I would hope we can stick a little more nuance into beginner’s thinking.

I choose to Fisk. Thusly:

“Doing that — using electricity to get around, heat our buildings, and run our factories — will increase demand for power. “

It decreases the demand for power, overall. Internal combustion engines are inefficient compared to electric, to such a degree that burning huge amounts of petroleum or coal in one place to ultimately power electric vehicles in a reasonable size region is more efficient than distributing burnable material to all those vehicles to run them. Electrification is inherently more efficient and lower maintenance.

“That means the electricity grid will have to get bigger,”

Our grid, in the US and generally, in the west, is fully embiggened. Globally, maybe. That depends on if a “big grid” is the best way to deliver power everywhere. It probably isn’t.

[The grid must become] “more sophisticated, more efficient, and more reliable — while it is decarbonizing. ”

This contrasts the improvement of the grid with decarbonizing as though they were opposites, but for most of the expected improvements of the grid, improvements of the grid and decarbonizing are the same actions. They are not in opposition to each other.

“On the other side are those who say that the primary goal should be zero carbon, not 100 percent renewables. They say that, in addition to wind, solar, and the rest of the technologies beloved by climate hawks, we’re also going to need a substantial amount of nuclear power and fossil fuel power with CCS.”

This is a false dichotomy in my opinion. There is uncertainty here, of course. But let’s try this. Let’s try decarbonizing 50% of our current power without nuclear. At that point we will know whether or not to invest trillions into an unpopular solution (and nuclear is unpopular). If we need to, we’ll do it. If we don’t, we won’t. Maybe something in between. But worrying about this now, and using uncertainty to argue one way or another, is a waste of conversational energy.

“(If you shrug and say, “it’s too early to know,” you’re correct, but you’re no fun to dispute with.)”

LOL. But no. Rather, I’m thinking that it is too early to know and, in contrast, you are hiding a pro-nuclear argument in a blanket of uncertainty! Maybe you are not, but this is what such arguments almost always look like. Beware the nuclear argument wearing sheep’s clothing. A greenish tinged sheep, yes, but still a sheep.

“The sun is not always shining; the wind is not always blowing.”

Another falsehood. Technically the sun is not always shining on us, true, but as sure as the Earth is spinning, the wind is always blowing. People who say this have never been to the Dakotas.

It does vary in intensity and by region. So does nuclear, by the way. Nuclear plants have to be shut down or slowed down regularly for refueling. When severe storms threaten, nuclear plants are often shut down, and that is not on a schedule. When any big power plant suffers a catastrophe there is a long term and catastrophic break in the grid, as compared to a cloudy day, or even, a broken windmill.

The sun is up during the day, and in may places and for many times, generally everywhere, the demand for power is greater during the day.

Overall, this is a falsehood because it attributes perfection to the traditional sources, especially to Nuclear, and great imperfection to the non-Carbon and non-Nuclear alternatives. That distinction is not nearly as clear and complete as generally stated.

“The fact that they are variable means that they are not dispatchable — the folks operating the power grid cannot turn them on and off as needed.”

Another falsehood. First, you can’t turn a major traditional power plant on or off as needed. Indeed, there are already major storage technologies and variation methodologies at work. There are high demand industries that are asked to increase or decrease their use, on the fly, to meet production variation on large grids. There are pumped storage systems. Etc. The fact is that there is variation and unpredictability in the current big-plant system, it is a problem, and it is a problem that has been quietly addressed. Quietly to the extent that people making comparisons between traditional big-plant electricity and clean energy systems often don’t even know about it.

“As VRE capacity increases, grid operators increasingly have to deal with large spikes in power (say, on a sunny, windy day), sometimes well above 100 percent of demand. “

Yes indeed, and this is the challenge being addressed as we speak. Enlarging grid balancing systems, increasing storage, developing tunable high energy industries, and so on. This is the challenge, it is being met as we speak.

“They also have to deal with large dips in VRE. It happens every day when the sun sets, but variations in VRE supply can also take place over weekly, monthly, seasonal, and even decadal time frames.”

Yes indeed, and this is the challenge being addressed as we speak. Enlarging grid balancing systems, increasing storage, developing tunable high energy industries, and so on. This is the challenge, it is being met as we speak.

“And finally, grid operators have to deal with rapid ramps, i.e., VRE going from producing almost no energy to producing a ton, or vice versa, over a short period of time. That requires rapid, flexible short-term resources that can ramp up or down in response.”

Yes indeed, and this is the challenge being addressed as we speak. Enlarging grid balancing systems, increasing storage, developing tunable high energy industries, and so on. This is the challenge, it is being met as we speak.

The article mentions the economic problems. I don’t see those as difficult to solve but they are important, but I’ve got no comments on that at the moment. Read the article.

“The last 10 to 20 percent of decarbonization is the hardest”

Absolutely. And, know what? The first 25% will be the easiest. Do that now, and we’ll know a LOT more about the next 25% and maybe it won’t seem so hard after all. Maybe a major technological solution will come along before we get to that last 10%, maybe society will change enough that people will simply agree to having occasional reductions in energy availability. But certainly, the greatest difficulty and uncertainty is linked to that last 10%.

Our goal should be to have that problem soon.

“A great deal can be accomplished just by substituting natural gas combined cycle power plants for coal plants.”

Yes, if by “a great deal” you mean the release of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. Before extolling the virtues of methane, do check into it further. I once thought methane as a bridge was a good idea too, until I learned about what it involves, about leaking methane, etc. No, not really a good idea for the most part.

“Natural gas is cleaner than coal (by roughly half, depending on how you measure methane leakage), but it’s still a fossil fuel.”

My impression is that every time we learn something new about leakage, it is that the leakage is worse than we previously thought.

“If you build out a bunch of natural gas plants to get to 60 percent, then you’re stuck shutting them down to get past 60 percent.”

Well put.

Do read the article, but please, keep in mind that it is unfair (in the context of an argument) to attribute undue perfection to one option while emphasizing uncertain problems with the other. We need to forge ahead into that uncertainty and speed up this whole process. Everybody get to work on this please!

An Excellent Book on Energy: Before the Lights Go Out…

On Sunday, I interviewed Maggie Koerth-Baker, the author of Before the Lights Go Out: Conquering the Energy Crisis Before It Conquers Us. The interview was live on radio, but you can listen to it here as a podcast.

Maggie is the science editor at Boing Boing, a journalist, and has had an interest in energy and the related science and engineering for some time. Her book is an overview, historical account, and detailed description of the energy systems that we use in the United States, outlining the flow of watts, CO2 emissions, methods of making more watts, what we use it all for, and more. Maggie focuses on the electrical power grid, which is actually responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than internal combustion powered transport (cars, trucks, etc.), but she does touch on the latter. She focuses on the US but she draws from overseas examples in discussing what is normally done, what is not normally done, and what we might do in the future. She develops compelling and sometimes startling imagery and provides interesting and lively metaphors useful in describing and understanding sometimes very abstract problems related to making, delivering, and using energy.

Here’s the bottom line. If you want to have an intelligent conversation about energy, especially related to current problems and needs in the US and especially related to the electrical grid, you have to either know all the stuff that is in Before the Lights Go Out, or read the book before you engage in that conversation, or, if you can’t manage either of those, then maybe you should just shut up. Seriously.

I’ve been engaged in conversations about energy at a significantly heightened pace over the last several months, for various reasons, and I’ve found that the stuff that comes out of people’s mouths (my own included) is very often either very out of date or was never very correct to begin with. Maggie’s book is a very engaging way of fixing that. If you read the book, you will be caught up.

I caution those of you who might listen to the podcast that we only touched on part of what is covered in the book! You can’t just listen to the interview and skip reading the source material! Having said that, I’m not going to go into great detail here either. Listen to the podcast, get the book, read it, and report back. You will probably have interesting questions and additions to add to the comment section.