Posts Tagged ‘The Grid’

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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America’s electrical grid is extremely insecure

August 31, 2017

Electricity gives us Americans a material standard of living that, a century ago, would have seemed like a utopia imagined by H.G. Wells.

Most of us have access to air conditioning, thermostat-controlled heat, electric clothes washers and dryers, electric dishwashers, cable television,  home computers, cell phones and Internet access.

This is made possible by one of the world’s most complex machines—a continent-spanning system of interconnected generators, transformers and 300,000 miles of wires.

 We take this for granted—until the electric grid fails.  Unfortunately, failures are becoming more frequent and longer-lasting.

Source: OilPrice

Some of the reasons are found The Grid: the Fraying Wires Between Americans and Our Energy Future by Gretchen Bakke (2016).

The average American is without electric power six hours a year, compared to 51 minutes in Italy, 16 minutes in Korea, 15 minutes in Germany and 11 minutes in Japan, Bakke wrote.  The White House itself lost power twice during the George W. Bush administration and twice more during the Obama administration.

Our electrical grid is aging and, in many places, poorly maintained.  About 70 percent of the grid’s transformers and transmission lines are more than 25 years old.   In 2005, one fifth of generating plants were more than 50 years old.   Just as with an automobile, the older electrical equipment is, the most it costs to keep it going.

The main reason for this is the change in the way electric power is regulated.   Before the Energy Policy Act, which was enacted in 1992 and went into effect in 2001, electric utilities were regulated monopolies, with a legal responsibility to guarantee availability of electricity, in return for a guaranteed profit.   There was no reason for a utility not to spend all the money necessary to keep the grid in tip-top shape because they were sure to get it back.

The EPA broke up the grid into (1) producers of electricity, (2) long-distance transmitters of electricity and (3) distributors of electricity.   Supply and demand, not regulators, determined electricity prices.  The idea was that this would open up the grid to new and creative sources of energy.

Suddenly it was possible for a U.S. electric company to go broke.   There was an incentive to cut costs, including maintenance costs.

The most common cause of power outages in foliage—usually in the form of wires coming in contact with tree limbs.   Another common cause is squirrels.   Both the New York Stock Exchange and the NASDAQ exchange have been shut down by squirrels chewing on wires.

After EPA, many utilities stretched out their tree-trimming schedules to save money.  FirstEnergy, an Ohio utility, drastically cut back on its tree-trimming schedule, didn’t even come close to meeting the new schedule and laid off 500 skilled maintenance workers.

The following year three FirstEnergy power lines sagged onto treetops.   That, and a computer bug, created a spreading power outage that left 50 million people in eight states without power for three days.   Bakke described in detail how this happened.   Economists estimate that the outage subtracted $6 billion from the U.S. Gross Domestic Product for that year.

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