Posts Tagged ‘Solar 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.


Paying the bill to stop climate change

October 28, 2014

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


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.


The dawn of practical solar energy?

October 5, 2013


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.