Sunday, May 10, 2009

Confusion about Renewables

The post carbon electrical system plays an important role role in the conceptual universe from which Nuclear Green emerged. Prior to creating Nuclear Green, I asked people who were posing as energy experts how a number of problems for the post-carbon grid could be solved. For example, if electricity is produced by solar sources, how are you going to get electricity at night?
The answer was some sort of energy or electrical storage, A number of storage schemes have been proposed to go along with renewables. These include Pumped Storage, Compressed Air Storage, and giant batteries. When I looked at these options, several issues emerged. For example if you were going to store energy from solar technology over night you would have to build bigger energy capture arrays. You would at least have to double the capture array, and to take into account that overnight energy storage facilities are inefficient, so you have to capture the energy that would be lost due to inefficiencies. Batteries are efficient but they are also expensive and they have to be replaced every now and then. Twenty-four hour solar generated electricity is going to be expensive, in fact more expensive than conventional nuclear power.

Conventional nuclear power is more flexible than solar. For example a cloudy day will cut the output of solar voltaic generators, and just plain stop Concentrated Solar Power facilities from generating electricity. The presence or absence of sunshine has no effect on nuclear power plants. Many areas of the country are very poor places for solar power generation. The same places may be excellent locations for nuclear power plants.

Solar advocates often point to the distributive generation model, and point to the value of rooftop solar module generated electricity. I began an investigation of this concept. Ownership is at present heavily subsidized, but quite obviously it would be impossible to subsidize solar installations on every roof top in the country. Roof top solar may hook up to the electrical grid, and dumps surplus power onto the grid during the daytime, while the household draws power from the grid at night. Such a system is not truly distributive and may be far from carbon free. If grid power comes from fossil fuels then night time household power is not carbon-free. Some renewables advocates suggest a hybrid solar wind system, and I will look at that shortly.

A distributionist approach would store PV produced electricity in batteries, and draw it from batteries during the night. Batteries don't last forever, and it is expensive to pay for them, but they will store all of the electricity the household needs over night, provided the electricity gets generated. Enough electricity might not get generated in northern states where winter days are short, and in areas where cloudy days are frequent. I looked for a do it yourself manual for installing a freestanding 24 hour a day, PV system. There were of course batteries and a considerable surplus of electrical capacity, but that was not enough. There was also a section that provided advice about what to do in case the sun did not shine enough to make the system work. The advice was simple. Buy a fossil fuel powered electrical generator, and store the electricity it generates in the back up batteries. So it seems that distributionist systems are still going to be dependent on fossil fuel powered generators to make sure that the electricity is there when it is wanted. Although renewables advocates tell us at every turn how much money photovoltaic generated electricity will save the household, in fact without subsidies PVs are very expensive, and the need to periodically replace batteries and run a fossil fuel generator makes distributive PV systems very expensive indeed.

Renewables advocates tell us that solar and wind energies compliment each other. The sun shines in the day time, they tell us, and the wind blows at night. Thus solar and wind systems can be matched to produce reliable electricity. Would a solar wind hybrid system work, and if so how well? First it should be noted that the sun does not shine at a constant rated during the day. PV electrical output is like a bell shaped curve that increases until noon, and then declines until night, Electrical demand does not closely match solar output, an may rise and solar output declines. So a hybrid solar wind system without storage is not going to closely match
day time electrical demand. Night winds are not always constant. Thus plenty of electricity may be available at 9:00 PM as the wind blows, but a sudden drop in wind 15 minutes later, would leave the grid starved for electricity. Mark Z. Jacobson a wind expert suggested hooking up wind mills from wide spread locations. If you hook up windmills from enough locations you can get reliable wind generated electricity 80% of the time, he found. The problem was that many of the windmills would not be producing much electricity for much of the time, so no more than 20% of the windmills could be counted on to produce reliable electricity. That meant that if you wanted a reliable thousand watts of wind generating capacity, you would have to buy 5000 watts of wind generating capacity.

If you are going to run the grid off of renewable electricity without storage, a great deal of redundant generating capacity would be required. All that redundancy would be expensive, and as it turns out it is cheaper to generate electricity with conventional nuclear power thn with redundant renewables.

Renewables advocates try to solve the problem by telling us that hydroelectric power and geothermal power can be added to he mix. Of course almost all of the good hydro sites have already been utilized. Environmentalists themselves objected to the unutilized sites. These are, the environmentalists told us, sites of great natural beauty, significant wildlife habitat, free flowing rivers, which offer there own recreational uses. they never should be dammed. Today, people who pretend to be environmentalists, tell us that the same sits should be used for the generation of electricity. In fact even if we abandoned environmental values completely and dammed every potential site no mater what its environmental value, we would still not put a dent into the demand for reliable electricity.

Geothermal technology has been tested in areas where there are active volcanoes. It works in Iceland, New Zealand, and California. We know much less about it in other areas, and many questions remain to be answered. Clearly geothermal technology cannot be counted on as an electrical sources in places where we don't have the answers, and that is almost all of the country.

Thus when I began to investigate the possibility of replacing fossil fuel electrical generation technology with renewable technology, I found that simply building windmills, putting up rooftop solar modules, and building some solar thermal facilities in the Southwestern desert would not do the trick. In order to make renewable generating technology work, duplicate facilities had to be built, and perhaps expensive energy or electrical storage facilities as well. When all was said and done, replacing fossil fuels with renewable generation technology is going to be more expensive than replacing it with electricity generated by conventional nuclear reactors. This story is not being told, and when I pointed out the facts to renewable energy advocates, they simply denied reality. There was always some straw for which the renewables folks would grasp, in order to explain why despite the facts and contrary analysis, renewables would work and be far less expensive than nuclear generated electricity. Wen confronted with unfavorable facts, renewable advocates will say things like energy storage, the smart grid, efficiency, or diversified generating sources.

We are of course dealing with people who are lost in a dream world. People who are unwilling to think straight about how much the future electrical generation would cost given the limitations of renewable generating systems. Before we get over this confusion people are going to have to wake up, set aside their dreams, and focus on what is real, on what is not derived from a world of dreams. The problem is of course a question of tribal identity. In order to give up the dream world of renewable energy, you also have to give up the tribal shibboleths of the Green tribe. And of course once you pronounce the fatal word shibbolith instead of shibboleth, members of the tribe will do their best to kill you, or at least your reputation. To repudiate the impractical dreams of renewable energy will require acts of courage by many people, lets hope that a lot of people are willing to wake up and stop confusing dreams with the possible.


DV8 2XL said...

One is forced to come to the conclusion that these people do not even understand simple arithmetic let alone the power situation in a Western industrial nation or, heaven forbid, the world.

The big issue is that one cannot, practically speaking, aggregate lots of very small flows of electricity into one big one. It’s not just total volume of energy production that matters, but the energy density available to high-volume consumers at a given place at and at a given time.

Personally I am getting more and more annoyed at being told that this is just a dry technical point, because it has huge and nasty implications. Lacking good ways to time-shift and aggregate electricity, means you can’t count on wind and solar to run factories and hospitals and computer server farms. The best you can hope for is that they can partially address low-density usage, running climate control and appliances for certain homes and some purpose-designed office buildings. The most mendacious rating used to describe renewables is the 'number of homes' value, which is not only useless in determining what sort of load these facilities can assume, (because homes exist in communities that need other services) but the numbers are almost always over inflated.

The other great lie is that somehow this can all me made to work if everyone just practices good conservation as a part of their daily lives. Household energy conservation is mainly a way for wealthy Westerners to feel virtuous rather than an actual attack on energy consumption. Household conservation slightly decreases the maximum capacity needed locally where the conservation is being practiced, but has little impact further away, where demand has to be supplied by different plants. Industrial efficiency gains are far less visible; but, because the scale of industrial energy use is so much larger, they matter a lot more. Unfortunately even a savings of an order of magnitude (if it were possible) of the electricity consumed by even a small commercial foundry would not lower it into the range were its energy needs could be met with windmills.

From a dialectic standpoint we are working out of a hole however because the aforementioned beliefs have been deeply ingrained, both by the propaganda of the other side, and because they appeal to a residual Calvinism that the English-speaking West can't seem to shake. Combined with the fantasy that one can someday achieve individual energy independence with a wind turbine on the roof of your home, and solar cells on the roof of your car, we often sound like naysayers who lack the imagination to see the glorious new future spreading before us.

Where we have to focus our arguments is on the inability of renewables to power industry. The industrial base load is the life blood of technological civilization; without it, we’d have a hideous global population crash, and then revert to pre-1750 conditions in which the economy is almost entirely subsistence farming and life is nasty, brutish, and short. The question we have to push in any energy-policy debate must be to address how is any scheme going to sustain an industrial base load equivalent to today’s — much higher than today’s actually, if we don’t want to condemn the Third World to perpetual poverty. Most advocates of “alternative energy” evade this question, because they don’t like the answers they get when they look at it squarely. Thus this is the soft weak spot we have to stick our rhetorical knives into as often as we can.

People will suspend disbelief when thinking about their homes and their cars to some extent because it seems plausible that renewable energy can address those needs. Most will recognize, if shown, that their jobs depend on available energy several magnitudes higher than their private consumption. Here is where we have an opening to make our point.

Sorry this seemed to turn into a bit of a rant, but you hit a nerve.

donb said...

Seems to me that what is needed is an "ecotopia simulator". While still connected to the grid, the simulator would demonstrate to the renewable energy supporter what the reality of his ideas would be. This would be a device installed at the power entrance to the house. The user selects the various power sources (wind, solar, etc.), and can also select things like energy storage devices. Using data obtained from sensors at the locations of the sources, power is (or is not!) delivered to the user. If the user selected battery energy storage, the battery would also be simulated, so that if the battery was fully drained at say 10 PM, the willing participant would need to wait until the next morning for power from the simulated solar panels.

Even more fun would be the billing part. Of course, the fuel is free. Print that on the bill. All the user needs to pay for it the cost of the equipment. The more clever users who selected energy from widely dispered sources get to pay extra for the transmission equipment.

I think the billing should be done at delivered energy cost for that month, that is, equipment cost divided by kilowatt-hours delivered. This way, if the user selects solar, he get to pay an exhorbitant rate for the small amount of energy delivered on cloudy winter days, as the equipment cost is more or less constant, but in this case little energy is delivered. This is a good aid to the memory and a challenge to one's judgement.

One last feature: a "panic button". This switches the user who is freezing in the dark back to standard grid power. The simulator display lights up saying "You lose", and a form appears to enter lessons learned.


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