Thursday, November 26, 2009

Electrical Reliability and Wind Redundancy

I have an Internet friend, NT, who lives at the very southern tip of India. We frequently chat on line, our conversation are windows into life in India. Our conversations are frequently interrupted by power outages, which crash my friends computer. I had no idea why those outages occurred so frequently, until I recently learned that electricity for NT's community is generated by two small conventional power plants and a large wind farm. NT has electricity when the wind is blowing, but local electrical demand can overwhelm the output of the small electrical plants, in the absence of a brisk breeze. At periods of high electrical demand the result is a blackout that only is reversed when the wind starts blowing again. When NT's computer crashes because of an electrical blackout, that may be the end of our conversation for the rest of the day. According to NT outages could last for hours, and it was often impossible to predict when electrical services would resume.

People in the United States could adjust to such conditions, but would they want too? Until very recently I lived in Dallas, Texas. Summers in Dallas can be blisteringly hot. Hotter in fact than NT's home town of Kanyakumari, where the summer temperature seldom rises about 95 F. In contrast the average Dallas temperature in July and August is 96 F, with as many as 59 100 degree days having been observed. The Dallas heat can be a health hazard to older people with heart conditions. Thus air conditioning in Dallas is not a luxury, it is a matter of public health. In 2003 when Dallas like summer heat descended on Western Europe, 50,000 people died. Thus electrical reliability in Texas is not a matter of personal connivance, it is a matter of public health.

Thus when a famous energy expert claims
there is not and has never been a need for any particular plant or kind of plant to run all the time, . .
what is he really saying? Does our expert mean that reliability is not a desirable characteristic?

Our expert alleges,
All power plants fail, varying only in their failures’ size, duration, frequency, predictability, and cause. Solar cells’ and windpower’s variation with night and weather is no different from the intermittence of coal and nuclear plants, except that it affects less capacity at once, more briefly, far more predictably, and is no harder and probably easier and cheaper to manage. In short, the ability to serve steady loads is a statistical attribute of all plants on the grid, not an operational requirement for one plant. Variability (predictable failure) and intermittence (unpredictable failure) must be managed by diversifying type and location, forecasting, and integrating with other resources. Utilities do this every day, balancing diverse resources to meet fluctuating demand and offset outages. Even with a largely (or probably a wholly) renewable grid, this is not a significant problem or cost, either in theory or in practice—as illustrated by areas that are already 30-40% wind-powered.”
This is a very cleaver argument, but there is an error. What differentiates base load power from other generation sources in not a never fail reliability, but low generation cost. Base load power is low cost power, and the reason grid operators seek it out, is because it is available day in and day out at a low cost. Since the grid operator is interested in fulfilling customer demand at the lowest cost, the operator seeks to contract with the lowest cost power source for power as much time as possible. The fact that low cost power providers may be also highly reliable operators is a significant plus for the grid operators, because he or she does not does not have to contract with higher cost power providers at periods of high power demand.

The problem for the grid operator is that electricity must be provided, no matter the energy costs. Our way of life is dependent on reliable electricity, and not just for air conditioning. Consider the the great blackouts of 1965, 1977 and 2003. The August 14-15, 2003 blackout shut down many cities in the United States and Canada. Cost estimates vary, but the Ohio Manufacturers’ Association (OMA) estimated the direct costs of the blackout on Ohio manufacturers to be $1.08 billion. Numerous large manufacturing plants were shut down for a day. Ontario set asside $75 million to compensate local governments for their blackout related expenses, and lost revenue. Utilities lost between one and two billion dollars, and the total losses for the day long blackout may have been as high as $10 billion. Clearly then the electrical reliability problems which my friend NT experiences in India would not be considered acceptable in the United States.

The baseload issue then is the balance between grid reliability and low electrical cost. If the wind capacity factor were .30 and the capacity factor for nuclear is .90, at least 1000 MW wind farms would be required to produce as much electricity as one reactor 1000 MW reactor. But a wind system with three generator is not likely to be as reliable as the reactor. In Archer and Jacobson suggest that it would take at least five 1000 MW wind farms to begin to approach a reactor's reliability, and that a wind array containing seven wind farms would still not be as reliable as a single reactor. The seriousness of the redundancy problem is illustrated by Peter Hawkins' case study of German wind.
Germany’s 22,000 MW of wind, with a capital cost of about $40 billion, is really effectively a capacity of only about 4,000 MW in terms of production capability. As a result, the wind plants in Germany represent 16 per cent of the total capacity (MW), but only about 5 percent of the electricity production (MWh).
By increasing their wind capacity to 48,000 MW in 2020, the germans hope to be able to increase their wind generated electrical output to 13% of their generation total. But the added 26,000 MWs of wind capacity would cost at least $100 billion. actually it probably would cost more because in order to increase their wind capacity factor, the Germans would be required to build offshore wind generators, and German offshore wind is proving to be as expensive. The German Alpha Venture offshore project has a name plate generating capacity of 60 MW and cost $375 million to build. That is $6.25 watt, a cost that lands German wind squarely in the nuclear cost range for much less reliability and a far shorter life span. But from a carbon reduction standpoint the increase in German wind capacity will not lead to a decrease in German CO2 emissions. At least not if the German Left gets its way and shutdown all German reactors by 2020. The 26,000 MWs of German wind generators would not even begin to approach the displaced electrical generation of German reactors. No wonder German
wind integration study, which covers the period to 2020, did not project CO2 emissions beyond 2015.
The shutdown of German reactors would increase absolute amount of CO2 emitted in the generation of German electricity, That does not really matter to German Greens, whose insane hostility to nuclear power knows no bounds. The Greens would clearly prefer to destruction of human life on this planet to the toleration of nuclear power.

Renewables advocates argue that the limitations of wind can be countered by adding solar generation to the renewables mix. But given the limitations of renewables, renewable advocates have found only three methods of making renewables reliable:
1. Burn a lot of natural gas whenever renewable generated electricity is in short supply.

2. When renewable output is high, save the surplus in some form of energy storage.

3. Build transmission systems from areas where surplus generation is possible, to areas where electrical supplies would be inadequate due to the limitations of local renewable resources.
Each of these approaches has serious flaws. The first approach is unsatisfactory because it fails to eliminate carbon emissions from the electrical generation system.

The second approach is advocated by a report titled Energy Self Reliant States. The word storage is repeated over and over in this report:
Very high penetration rates will require new developments in electricity storage. . . .
establish a system of widely distributed and abundant storage that would change the very underpinnings and assumptions of an electricity system designed without storage in mind. . . .
Some renewable fuels, like sunlight and wind, are variable. Thus the estimates, especially for wind, assume a significant level of storage or on-demand distributed generation. . . .
sufficient electricity storage . . .
sufficient electricity storage . . .
These investments should be designed to allow the integration of many variable and dispersed generators as well as growing amounts of distributed storage. . . .
To achieve very high proportions of our electricity from variable renewable energy sources will require very significant amounts of storage and/or a restructuring of our electricity system to rely on more natural gas-fired distributed backup generators. The electricity storage sector has seen many technological and commercial developments. This report does not examine storage and its implications but in our analysis of variable renewable energy potential we assume sufficient storage is available. . . .
The report argues:
that a new extra high voltage inter-regional transmission network may not be needed to improve network reliability, relieve congestion and expand renewable energy. The focus should be on upgrading the transmission, subtransmission and distribution systems inside states. These investments should be designed to allow the integration of many variable and dispersed generators as well as growing amounts of distributed storage. New in-state transmission lines may well be needed but these will probably be lower voltage lines. In any event, they should be built only after maximizing energy efficiency and the use of existing transmission capacity.
Energy efficiency and demand reduction, as well as the use of distributed generation, can free up significant amounts of distribution and transmission capacity.
But what would such a storage system cost? Tom Konrad. a renewables advocate suggests that
On a national basis, such storage would cost an estimated $13 Trillion, or over 65 times the cost of the transmission investments they oppose.
Konrad argues that by connecting low renewable resource states with electricity produced in high resource states, much of the cost of storage could be avoided. Konrad argues that a $700 billion transmission system could be substituted for the $13 trillion storage system. However, Konrad's estimate is presented with out the sort of detailed analysis that would back up his claims. Before the $700 Billion estimate is accepted, it would have to be tested against a worst case scenario.

Even if we accept Konrad's cost estimate for the total transmission package, we have to weigh that against lower cost alternatives. The Babcock & Wilcox, small mPower reactor is expected to cost less than $3500 per kW. MPower reactors can be located on the grounds of old coal fired power plants. close to target electrical markets, eliminating the need to expand the current grid, or alternatively add very large and hugely expensive grid storage components. A $700 Billion investment in mPower reactors would buy half of the current generation demand. Given that practically immortal reactors now produce about 20% of our electricity, the other 30% of the electricity could be had for another reactor investment of $400 billion or less. Furthermore, reactors can be situated close to the sea coast, where their now wasted heat can be set to work producing massive amounts of fresh water. The sale of water thus would add to the nuclear revenue stream, while adding little to nuclear costs. The $400 billion reactor investment would end the necessity of investing several trillion dollars in renewable generation capacity, and the all nuclear system would be be far more reliable than either renewables plus storage or renewables plus new long distance transmission. In addition the nuclear system would offer significant new water source for areas now experiencing water shortages.

Thus the fallacy in the "base load fallacy" argument is its failure to acknowledge the relationship between electrical reliability and electrical costs. The name plate capacity costs of renewable electricity means little. What will matter in a post carbon grid is the cost of reliable electricity, and nuclear generated electricity, even conventional nuclear generated electricity would cost far less than a renewables plus storage or a renewables plus transmission approach. The only other renewables reliability approach would involve the unacceptable emissions of large amounts of CO2. Thus, nuclear power can supply reliable electricity at a far lower cost than renewables, and would not extract a carbon penalty.


Frank Jablonski said...

Charles -

What areas are "30% to 40%" wind powered right now as Lovins claims? Do you know of any?

Charles Barton said...

Ya sone sites in West Texas and both the Southern and northern Great planes are calmed to have 40% + capacity factors. I am not sure if this has been demonstrated by actual output, however. My policy is to assume it is true unless i know otherwise. Unfortunately otherwise frequently proves the case with claims made about wind.

Soylent said...

He betrays a deep-seated ignorance.

Wind turbines and solar panels are not independent. At any one time Europe is covered by only a handful of high and low pressure zones. Wind and sunshine is frequently correlated over scales as large as central Europe.

The generators in Germany act in unison like one extremely unreliable, monolithic 20 GW plant.


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