Posts Tagged ‘Renewable Energy’

Renewable energy’s mismatch with the grid

September 4, 2017

Falling cost of photovoltaic cells. Chart via QIC.

The existing U.S. electrical grid can’t handle too much solar and wind energy.   They’re too variable.   They can’t be counted on when they’re needed most.

Until this changes, electric utilities will continue to rely on their aging fossil fuel and nuclear power plants as certain sources of power.

The problem, as Gretchen Bakke describes it in The Grid: the Fraying Wires Between Americans and Our Energy Future, is in the unique nature of electricity as a commodity.   It is the only commodity that has to be used as soon as it is produced.

The historic economic problem of electric power utilities is that they have to be able to supply as much electric power as their customers need at any point in time, but that most of the time this capacity goes unused.   This is especially acute in the USA, Bakke wrote, because we Americans insist on being able to use as much electricity as we want, any time we want it.

The Public Utility Regulatory Power Act – PURPA – requires electric utilities to buy renewable energy at a price equal to their cost of making non-renewable energy.    Now wind and solar electricity are reaching the point in which they’re competitive with fossil fuels and nuclear energy.

Bakke reported that 7 percent of U.S. electricity is generated from renewables.   The percentage is bound to increase.   Denmark reportedly gets 40 percent of its energy just from wind.

The problem is that wind and solar power are not always available when and where they’re needed.  The windiest and sunniest parts of the North American continent are not necessarily where the population is concentrated.   And the windiest and sunniest times of day are not necessarily when energy is most needed.

So some utilities are faced with the problem of insufficient solar and wind energy during some hours of the day, and so much solar and wind energy at other times that managers have to scramble to prevent the grid from being fried.

Solar power, by definition, is only available during the daytime.   But electric power use peaks in the early afternoon.   Fossil fuel and nuclear energy, on the other hand, can be turned on at any time of the day.   Until this mismatch is eliminated, electric utilities can’t stop using non-renewable coal, oil, natural gas or uranium.

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The passing scene – October 12, 2015

October 12, 2015

From Donald Trump, Hints of a Campaign Exit Strategy by Maggie Haberman for The New York Times.

Donald Trump has not spent the money or done the organizing necessary for a serious presidential campaign.  He has made a stir and had a lot of fun precisely because he did care whether he won or lost.   Having gotten a lot of free publicity for the Trump businesses, I think he’ll step aside at some point and try to be the Republican kingmaker.

The Fight for $15 Is Raising Wages.  Now It’s Time for Step 2: Unions by David Moberg for In These Times.  (Hat tip to Bill Harvey)

Low-wage workers overwhelmingly want the right to organize unions.  A lot of them see the Fight for Fifteen movement as their union—a radically different kind than the historic AFL-CIO model.

GOP Probe Into Planned Parenthood Funding Comes Up Empty by Jennifer Bendery for the Huffington Post.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, chair of the House Oversight and Governmental Reform Committee, has found no evidence of wrongdoing.  He said he’ll keep looking.

What We Lose With a Privatized Postal Service by Katherine McFate for Other Words.

Solar & Wind Reach a Big Renewables Turning Point by Bill Randall for Bloomberg Business.  (Hat tip to Bill Harvey)

El Niño could leave 4 million people in Pacific without food or drinking water by Ben Doherty for The Guardian.  (Hat tip to my expatriate e-mail pen pal Jack)

President Obama’s modest Clean Power Plan

August 5, 2015

President Obama’s Clean Power Plan is a step in the right direction, which he advocates with his usual eloquence and which is blindly opposed by most of the Republican leaders.  Sadly it is insufficient to significantly mitigate global warming.

Source: Mother Jones

Source: Mother Jones

The plan is intended to reduce the burning of coal in electric power plants.  This is a good thing because, of all the possible sources of energy, coal is the most destructive to the environment, to the health and safety of workers and to public health, and is the worst contributor to greenhouse gasses.

Even so, under the plan, the United States would still be burning a lot of coal by 2030.  The chart at right is by Kevin Drum of Mother Jones, and it shows that the reduction of power plant emissions from 2005 to 2030 will be less than half.

The plan is intended to reduceincrease the use of renewable energy, which is a good thing.  Sadly it also is based on an energy strategy of fracking for natural gas and of Arctic and other ocean drilling for oil.  This is in the context of a national economic strategy based on exporting raw materials rather than reviving manufacturing.

Obama’s plan is intended to increase energy efficiency, which is a good thing.  The drawback is that making energy use more efficient makes it cheaper, and making it cheaper encourages people to use more.

The goals of the plan are to be achieved after Obama leaves office, so its success depends on whether his successors carry through with it.

I hate to think that Obama’s plan is the best that is economically and politically feasible, but maybe it is.  Too bad for future generations that we couldn’t do more.

LINKS

Here’s a 2-Minute Video Explaining Obama’s New Plan to Fight Global Warming by Tim McDonnell for Mother Jones.

Why Obama’s epic climate change plan isn’t such a big deal by Michael Grunwald for Politico.

Hidden in Obama’s new climate plan, a whack at red states by Michael Grunwald for Politico.

Obama climate change plan: The clean power plan is supposed to be bold, but it isn’t by Eric Holthaus for Slate.

The Last Defining Court Battle of Obama’s Presidency by Rebecca Leber for The New Republic.   The whole thing could be overturned by Chief Justice Roberts’ Supreme Court.

Could industrial civilization be rebuilt?

April 20, 2015

Our industrial civilization was made possible by easily available coal and then by easily available oil.

All the easy fossil fuels, not to mention the easy metal oils, have been used up, but advanced technology makes it possible to extract fuel from shale oil, shale gas and tar sands, drill in the Arctic and under the oceans and move whole mountains to get at coal.

collapse16-2But what if industrial civilization collapsed?  Do we have the knowledge to rebuild it without the resources available to the creators of the Industrial Revolution?

Lewis Dartnell, a UK Space Agency research fellow and author of The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Our World from Scratch, said it would be possible, but very, very difficult.

The most likely places for a rebirth of industrial civilization, he has written, are Norway and Labrador, which have forests for making charcoal and fast-flowing rivers for water power.  These pre-industrial sources of energy just might generate enough power to create the materials needed for solar panels, electrical generators and other alternate industrial technologies.

I know enough not to pretend to predict the future, but the continuation of our industrial civilization is not guaranteed.

A nuclear war between the USA and Russia is still possible.   Drug-resistant diseases such as Ebola could sweep the world.  Global climate change could prove even more catastrophic than most scientists think.

Dmitry Orlov on his blog foresees the collapse of industrial civilization, and John Michael Greer predicts its slow decline.  Maybe they’re right and maybe not, but neither scenario is impossible.

The moral I draw is that the time to turn to renewable energy is now.

LINKS

Can civilization reboot without fossil fuels? by Lewis Dartnell for Aeon.

Four surprising reasons why clean energy is gaining on fossil fuels by Michael T. Klare for TomDispatch (via Grist)

Can we do without nuclear power?

October 29, 2014

A lot of smart people think it is possible to eliminate or drastically reduce the use of fossil fuels while also eliminating nuclear power.  Maybe they’re right, but I don’t see it.

Presently New York’s electrical generating capacity is about one-third coal and oil, one-third natural gas, one-sixth nuclear power and most of the rest hydroelectric power.  Only about 3 percent is wind energy, and there is tiny plant powered by biomass.

nuclearplant1The burning of coal and oil, especially coal, creates greenhouse gasses, so ideally we’d eliminate coal and minimize oil.

Natural gas, in contrast, burns cleanly, which is why it is promoted as a “transition” fuel.  But unburned natural gas (methane) is one of the worst greenhouse gasses, and fracking releases methane into the atmosphere.  Fracked natural gas doesn’t help the climate, but, without fracking, natural gas would be scarce and expensive.

All the good hydroelectric sites in New York are already used, so there’s little potential to increase hydro.  So you would have to step up production of wind energy by a factor of 25 or more.

I don’t see how it is possible do do without nuclear power and still maintain a dependable electricity supply.  I think nuclear power is a dangerous technology which nevertheless can be operated safely, provided the industry uses the best practices and the best technology.

This would mean phasing out existing U.S. nuclear power plants, most of which are past their scheduled decommissioning dates and some of which are located on earthquake fault zones, and building a new generation of nuclear power plants using the newest and best technology.

I will change my mind about this if Germany is able to stick to its moratorium on nuclear power without increasing its use of coal-fired and oil-fired power.  But as I see it, nuclear and coal are the only alternatives for increasing electric power generation.

The United States happens to have ample supplies of coal at current rates of use, as does China, but coal is the worst fuel in terms of effects on human health, the environment and climate change.  Maybe someday the USA and China can invent a way to burn coal cleanly, but otherwise I see no alternative to nuclear.

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Can Europe keep the lights on this winter? by Mark Gilbert for Bloomberg View.  [added 10/30/14].  Another example of the problem of trying to do without both fossil fuels and nuclear power.

Paying the bill to stop climate change

October 28, 2014

This Moyers & Company broadcast was aired about a year ago.

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Naomi Klein’s THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING: Capitalism vs The Climate has convinced me that, in order to maintain a habitable planet, it’s necessary to limit and maybe eliminate the burning of coal, oil and gas, and that energy companies will never do this unless they are forced to do so.

What I’m not convinced of is that it is possible to painlessly transition to some green utopia, in which everybody’s material standard of living is the same as it is now, except for a small group of plutocrats.

naomi-klein.book0coverMy house is heated with natural gas, and my gas bills lately have been low, due to an abundance of gas supplied by hydraulic fracturing (of which I disapprove).   My car runs on gasoline, and the computer on which I write this post is powered by electricity.

Over the years I’ve read books by Lester R. Brown, George Monbiot , and Al Gore making the case that with smart technology, I can heat my house with solar energy and better insulation, I can ride a streetcar that is almost as convenient as a private automobile, and that electricity can be provided by windmills, solar panels, other innovative sources of energy and a smart electrical grid that eliminates waste in the system.

I don’t have the knowledge to question their proposals on technical grounds.  I agree with Arthur C. Clarke—that the only way to test the limits of the possible is to venture a little way into the impossible.   And the alternative to trying is to accept the “long emergency” foretold by James Howard Kunstler.

But even at best, the transition will cost enormous sums of money.  Who would pay?  Naomi Klein says that rich people in rich countries should pay, especially countries that enjoy a high level of consumption based on fossil fuels.   This means first and foremost the USA.

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The passing scene: Links & comments 10/6/14

October 6, 2014

Populist Former Senator Jim Webb Could Give Hillary Clinton Major Headaches in 2016 by Lynn Stuart Parramore for Alternet.

I’ve long admired Senator James Webb, the former Senator from Virginia.  A Vietnam veteran and Secretary of the Navy in the Reagan administration, he switched from the Republican to the Democratic party out of disgust for the Bush administration’s subservience to Wall Street.  He has criticized the Obama administration on the same grounds.

Webb is an opponent of reckless military intervention abroad, a critic of the “war on drugs” and mass incarceration and a friend of working people.

I admire Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts for the way she stands up to Wall Street, but I agree with Webb on a broader range of issues than I do with her (for example, she goes along with the administration’s war policies).

Tech gives the rich new toys while perpetuating the criminalization of poverty by Nathaniel Mott for Pando Daily (via Naked Capitalism)

A new device allows subprime auto lenders to track the location of a debtor’s car and to disable the car if the debtor falls behind on payments.  The New York Times reported this has happened when the car is in motion.

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The dawn of practical solar energy?

October 5, 2013

solar-costs-dropping

Over time and all other things being equal, the cost of fossil fuels goes up and the cost of technology goes down.  Meanwhile the Fukushima disaster reminds us of the dangers of keeping aging nuclear power plants in operation. Over time, solar electricity will look better and better.   It is necessary to keep in mind, though, that there are other costs in generating solar electricity besides the photovoltaic cells, and their price is not falling as fast.

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Methane hydrate and the future of fossil fuels

May 1, 2013

The word may be on the brink of a new era of cheap natural gas, made possible by hydraulic fracturing and development of a new fuel methane hydrate, according to Charles C. Mann in this month’s issue of The Atlantic Monthly.  Methane hydrate is a product of organic decay trapped in ice crystals, and is found in potentially enormous quantities in the ocean’s depths.  View the video for a better explanation.  Click on What If We Never Run Out of Oil? to read Mann’s article, which I highly recommend.

What Mann reported is interesting and significant, and his prediction may be correct.  But then again, maybe not.

“Never run out” means something different to economists from what it means to me and probably to you.  In a free-market, capitalistic economy, you never run out of anything.  What happens is that the scarce resource becomes increasingly more expensive, people use less of it, and eventually a substitute is found.   The question is just what that substitute is—an equivalent resource, a more expensive resource or acceptance of doing without.

I long thought that the rising price of fossil fuels would result in a transition to solar, wind and other renewable sources of energy.   Over time, I reasoned, the cost of nonrenewable resources are goes up, while the cost of technology goes down.  Sooner or later, I believed, these two lines must cross.

I still believe that this will happen someday. but in the short run, just the opposite is happening.  The petroleum industry has found ways to extract fossil fuels that never were dreamed of when King Hubbert made his predictions about peak oil.   Methane hydrate may or may not emerge as an important energy source.   I wouldn’t bet against it.  But even if it doesn’t, hydraulic fracturing has already transformed the world market for natural gas.  Melting of the polar ice cap will open the Arctic to oil exploration and development.   Someday these sources, too, may peak but not anytime soon.

The question about hydraulic fracturing is how low it will last.  Oil wells in Texas and Saudi Arabia produced oil for decades.  How long will the hydrofracking wells produce?  My guess is that their usefulness will be relatively short-lived, while leaving behind a long-term mess for local communities to clean up.

Experts quoted by Mann say that methane hydrate could provide fuel to keep our industrial civilization going for centuries and perhaps indefinitely.   These predictions usually come with a footnote, which says “at current rates of use.”  No matter how abundant a resource is, it will be quickly exhausted if you use it up at a steadily increasing rate.  I don’t see energy use stabilizing until the world’s population stabilizes, and a majority of the world’s population are not in poverty.   What is poverty?  At a minimum, it is having enough to sustain life and health and, beyond that, it is whatever people think it is.

Then there is the question of global climate change.   Natural gas (methane) is a clean-burning fuel, but in its natural state is a worse greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.  In theory, natural gas can be extracted in such a way that it is not released into the atmosphere.  In practice, it might not be.

The more fossil fuels we burn up, the more fragile our civilization becomes.  We depend on increasingly complex systems that are increasingly vulnerable to failure.   I realize this every time there is a severe ice storm that causes electric power failures here in Rochester.  As I sit in the dark, I wonder what I would do if the failure were universal rather than local, and lasted indefinitely rather than a few days or weeks.

Back in 1954, Harrison S. Brown wrote in The Challenge of Man’s Future about how our industrialization was made possible by the availability of coal and oil, and of metal ores that were easy to process.   If for some reason industrial civilization should collapse, it would not be possible to rebuild it using the methods by which the original industrial civilization was created.  The resources would not be there.   That is still true, and the more nonrenewable resources we use up, the more true it becomes.

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