Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Distributive generation

In my prior post on Distributionism, I noted that a normative model of society grew out of the Roman Catholic Church's attempt to come to terms with modern social conditions. That model in the hands of British Catholic intellectuals evolved into a concept called Distributionism. This concept focuses on two classes of people, prosperous peasants, and skilled workmen, and imagines that an ideal society would be dominated by these social type. The model rejects both capitalism and socialism as models of society, and offers a picture of a strong, free, and self reliant people.

The conflict between Distributionism and 2000th century capitalism is between two competing models of distribution. The Distributionism model requires that both ownership and production are distributed and that the owners also be the primary producers. The primary economic unit of society, in distributionist thought, and the family is also the primary unit of production and decision making. Distributionism forstalls economic development. The distributionist model is of a static society. 20th century capitalism utilizes the limited liability joint stock corporation to widely distribute ownership of capitalist enterprises throughout society.

Thus the difference between Distributionism and the standard view of capitalism has to do with the the split between ownership and production in the capitalist model. Thus the ideal organization for distributionism would be for each family unit to be also the primary production and consumption unit. This is the model practices in what economists call underdeveloped societies.

Rigorously applied to energy generation, the distributionism model would require that each household would generate its own electricity. There is however a paradox in Lovins model. The distributive generation facilities themselves would have to be a product of a capitalist economy. Lovins required that the plants be very well designed and built. in fact so well designed and built that they would require virtually no maintenance. The design and building of low cost high quality material objects is what capitalism does best. But capitalism typically builds material objects that require maintenance. Low maintenance usually means extra cost. But capitalism is capable of turning out high quality low maintenance goods for thosewho are willing to pay for the quality. There would seem to be, however, no way to produce micro generators in a strictly distributive economy.

In practice distributive electrical systems designed for household use are expensive as well as having maintenance issues. Distributive generation fans point to microhydropower as an exception to this rule, but microhydropower use is limited to households living next to flowing rivers and streams, and is subject to seasonal and climatic variations in water flow.

It practice distributive generation schemes are not economically competitive with central generation. Amory Lovins advocates energy efficiency in order to limit central generation, but distributive generation systems as a rule are less efficient than than central systems, and the relitiveefficiency can be explained in three words, "economies of scale."

Lovins talks of distributive co-generation, but that model has limitations. First, it is carbon friemdly rather than post-carbon. co-generation requires the burning of natural gas, a fossil fuels. Secondly, if heat is used for space heat, it should be noted that electricity would be only produced on a seasonable basis. If electricity is producedon a year round basis much of the efficiency gains of cogeneration is lost. If heat is used for water heating, then co-generation compets with solar water heating, a post-carbon technology. The co-generation would appear to be a very limited concept, that would be of no value in a post carbon economy.

Combined cycle generation is a second efficiency producing economy. But here the capital cost of combined cycle generation is beyond the economic reach of most household economy. Thus we note a disconect between the concept of Distributionism and Distributive generation. Distributionism is an attempt to bring peoples lives out of the capitalist economy. Distributive generation depends on capitalism, andcan only function within a capitalist system.

Amory Lovins also talks about "distributive renewable". These would include fuel cells, biomass, PV generation, wind generation. Each technology has serious drawbacks, drawbacks that are rarely elaborated by "distributive renewables" advocates. Photo voltaic produces electricity less than 1/4th of the time. Distributive PV systems need battery back up as well as secondary backup. Secondary back up can come from the grid, or from fossil fuel powered generators. Thus PV systems are carbon friendly, and the place of PV technology is a post carbon world is very questionable.

Biomass is not sustainable, because it mines the soil. It is also carbon friendly, because it extracts CO2 from storage in livving tissue, and returns it to the air. Finally, biomass is practical only in areas where a large number of trees or other vegitable materials are avaliable for harvesting. Thus the use of biomass in electrical generation is not truly renewable, and it has a negative impact on climate change.

Finally wind generation has limited potential in much of the country. In many areas wind generators operate at 10% of capacity or less. Winds vary according to time of day, the season of the year, geographic location, and changes in microclimatic conditions. Most of the population of the United States live in areas that are relatively unfavorable to wind generation.
More favorable locations include off shore sites, and the sparsely populated great plains of the United States. For this reason wind advocates favor building massive wind arrays in wind favorable localities and building grid extentions to the wind farms. Distributive advocates would argue that this system is distributive because wind generation depends on large numbers of small wind generators that are dispersed over a wide geographic area. But the
system is capital intensive, and relatively centralized, and in a way it is even less distributive than the traditional "centralized" system of electrical generation that brought the generators close to people. Wind generation is also carbon friendly, in that it depends on fossil fuel powered electrical back up. Thus wind systems do not fit the distributionism model, and there role in a post-carbon energy economy is open to question.

Similr considerations might be mentioned for solar thermal. Even with thermal backup, most areas of the United States are unsuited for solar thermal generation. A day of cloud cover would be disaster our for a thermal storage system. Thus solar thermal systems rely for any sort of reliability on areas of the country where there are almost never cloudy days. In practive this would restrict solar thermal electrical generation to the south west. A national system of solar thermal electrical generation would require massive additions to the national grid, and a huge capital investment. It would be absurd to classify the resulting system as distributive generation. Indeed the ST national system would be the anthesis of distributive generation.

Finally I should brieflty mention fuel cells. Despite devlopment for over a generation, fuel cell technology has not yet reached maturity, and its limitations suggest that it may well never do so. Despite large investments in fuel cell development for transportation, no practical fuel cell system for transportation has yet to imerge, and there is much pessimism about the future of fuel cells in transportation. No fuel cell system for distributive generation is likely to emerge if fuel cells for transportation are not possible.

There is then a tension between the distribution model dictated by Distributionism and what amory Lovins wishes to include in the distributive generation concept.

Amory Lovins distributive generation model is not distributive at all. In California distributionists are starting to rebel agains the massive grid expantion required to bring "renewable" electricity to consumers. "Why the heck should we pay for this line when we can use rooftop solar and get the energy we need?" asked Denis Trafecanty, a distributionist activest who is fighting big capital renewables related grid expantion. Needless to say, Amory Lovins is not supporting the distributionist. T'hey do not pay his hugh consulting fees.

Local distributionist would like to put money into local distributive generation projects rather than grid expantion. But David Hawkins, who is the lead renewable power engineer with the California Independent System Operator points to the flaw of the distributionists approach. "You're just not going to get enough power out of rooftops and parking lots," Hawkins says.

The ever zanny Sierra Club is fighting against power lines routes for environmental reasons, but they also suspect that San Diego Gas & Electric wants to hook the expanded grid up to coal fired power plants in Mexico. "Our concern all along about this project has been that it's a bait and switch," said Micah Mitrosky, a Sierra Club's organizer. One thing is sure, those Mexican Power plants will be a whole lot more reliable than California renewanles. The temptation for the capacity starved California electrical industry may prove irresistible.


donb said...

I am of (at least!) two minds with regards to Distributionism. I like the idea of being self-reliant, but I also recognize the limitations. For example, I enjoy gardening, and so provide some of my own food, but I know I cannot provide all of it. I like doing the maintenance on my cars myself, but know I cannot replace a transmission. My snow blower literally fell apart last week, so I got out my welder and put it back together. But I have no illusions that I could build such a machine from scratch.

I think the proper focus is to be self-reliant when possible, but admit that there are many things beyond one's personal capability. In those cases, first try to solve the problem using local talent. If that fails, then expand the search for the solution as wide as necessary. I don't think that Distributionism excludes the cooperation of the community to solve large-scale problems.

How does all this relate to nuclear energy? I think Charles Barton has stated it (at least indirectly) many times: Truck- or barge-transportable, factory built reactors, safe enough to be placed close to load centers, and easy to operate. Charles has noted that a number of newly planned light-water-reactor nuke plants are massive in scale. While such large scale plants may be appropriate for some situations, smaller reactors produced inexpensively in high volume (grouped together as necessary) allows for more flexible generation solutions.

We need to have (for example) electric cooperatives that presently have fossil fuel generation switch to nuclear. The way to do this is small, inexpensive, safe, simple to run reactors. I think this is practical Distributionism. Impractical Distributionism is every family generating their own power.

Charles Barton said...

donb, self reliance is an American virtue. My parents kept a garden for years, and there is nothing like freshly picked corn and tomatoes for supper on a summer evening. Would we be better of is that self-reliance meant that we could not have air conditioning? I think not.

DV8 2XL said...

A key element in the general definition of distributed generation is that described as power that is generated and consumed within the same distribution network. How anyone thought that this could be accomplished without complex power flow analysis and with the fact that these generation units are beyond control of grid operators is indication enough that this whole thing was misconceived from the start.

Somehow the idea that the grid could act as some sort of a communal bank account that people could make deposits and withdrawals at will took hold with absolutely no forethought or questioning, and now truth is coming home after a number of home owners were sucked into investing in these systems. The only thing that I can think is that the power companies were complicit in conspiring to defraud their own clients, as I cannot believe that their engineering staffs were not aware of this from the beginning.

George Carty said...

Do some people mistakenly liken the electricity grid to the Internet?

(Think about it - wouldn't an Internet with cables and router but no servers be almost useless?)

miggs said...

"It practice distributive generation schemes are not economically competitive with central generation. Amory Lovins advocates energy efficiency in order to limit central generation, but distributive generation systems as a rule are less efficient than than central systems..."

That's a misconception. The biggest problem with central generation is that it wastes so much heat. Heat doesn't travel well -- it turns cold pretty fast -- so the only way to use it efficiently is to place it near the consumer rather than miles and miles away. Central power plants waste two-thirds of their fuel in the form of excess heat. Distributed power generation can be 70-90% efficient. That's why it costs so much less.

I'm associated with Recycled Energy Development, a company that does CHP and waste heat recovery, among other things. The worst plant that our principals have ever built is twice as efficient as a typical central plant. Public policy needs to start allowing more of this to happen. Heck, if it's not profitable, fine; let the market weed it out. But right now, regulations are keeping central plants in power. If they're so economical, why would they need the protections?

Charles Barton said...

miggs 70% to 90% efficiency? Please! What happened to the laws of thermaldynamics? Thisa is n exampleof the utter intellectual incompetence of the followers of the Amery Lovins cult. you guys think that if you just follow Amory Lovins suggestions that the Laws of Nature will be repealed, It just is not so. Lovins schemes for supernatural efficiency break down for just such reasons.

donb said...

Charles Barton wrote:
miggs 70% to 90% efficiency? Please! What happened to the laws of thermaldynamics?

What migg meant, but didn't state clearly, is that 70% to 90% of the heat energy can be used. Of course, this is not the same as stating that the thermodynamic conversion efficiency is 70% to 90%.

This is true as far as it goes. But this needs to be viewed as primarily a heat system, with electrical output as a bonus. One of the main problems is that the most electricity is available when the demand for heat is the highest, but the demand for electricity may not match the demand for heat.

In industrial processes where heat is needed on an ongoing basis (and the highest temperatures are not needed), adding a co-generation step can make a lot of sense to supply (partially or totally) the electrical demands of the operation. I have seen systems in petroleum refineries where this works well. On the domestic level, the best example I have seen was (is?) a gas forced air furnace (made by GE?) that generates its own power for the blower so that heat is available even if electrical power is lost. I believe the system can even provide about 400 watts of electrical power beyond that needed by the furnace.

But combined heat and power is no cure-all, especially if the system still depends on grid power to make up for lack of capacity in electrical generation.

Charles Barton said...

donb Small low cost Generation IV reactors can be used for process hear, and power generation. The available heat can be used just as efficiently as heat from carbon based sources can. There is no reason why nuclear power cannot be used in the same fashion.

DV8 2XL said...

donb has a point, there are some instances where co-gen is viable, but as he points out the electricity is a bonus. The best example is the burning of bagasse in sugar refining.

But these are very site/application specific and it is nonsense to claim that co-gen can make any serious contribution to out total energy needs.

Alex De Maida said...

There is a point I want to deal with, regarding distributive generation. In every electrical system a little of gas with combined cycle gas turbines is always needed for load following (I know it's a very small fraction of power generation)

So why don' t bother combined and heat power plants to produce low temperature heat for district heating systems and with the main role of load following for the power genenration ?

The base load would come from nuclear and renewable energy can do the remaining part...what do youn think about ?


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