Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Renewable Energy: Not in Your Lifetime

Stoneleigh of the Automatic Earth blog has graciously granted me permission to reprint in its entirety her July 1 post, "Renewable Energy: Not in Your Lifetime." I have read hundreds of articles on various forms of renewable or "green" energy generation, including articles in scientific journals, but nothing I have read so clarifies the enormous complexity and technical challenges of energy generation and how extraordinarily challenging, and likely impossible, it will be to integrate the intermittent, diffuse, low-output, low EROEI forms of electrical power generation the Green movement is promoting, with our strained grid and the need for steady, high output. Everyone who has an interest in and a stake in the future of power generation needs to read this short article, which by itself does a better job of illustrating the difficulties in front of us than hundreds of other books and articles combined.

Here is Stoneleigh's view of the future of the electrical grid in connection with "alternative" energy forms such as wind and solar:

"Since it is the major world conundrum with the shortest timescale, I usually focus on finance here, but alternative energy sources and power systems are my day job. Ilargi suggested that, in response to a question about the potential for renewable energy and electric vehicles (EVs), I write an article on the future of power systems.

With people hanging so many of their hopes on an electric future, it seems timely to inject a dose of reality. This is meant as a cursory overview of some of the difficulties we are facing with regard to electrical power in the future. The extraordinary technical and organizational complexity of power systems is difficult to convey, and there is far more to it than I am attempting to address here.

First off: As we are entering a depression, within a few years hardly anyone will have the money to buy an EV. Second: the grid could not come close to handling the current transportation load even if EVs could become common. An economy based on EV transportation would have to be fueled by base-load nuclear that doesn't currently exist and would take decades to build, and no one builds anything in a depression.

What they do is mount a losing battle to maintain existing infrastructure and hope they don't lose too much before better times return. This depression will last long enough that the infrastructure degradation will be enormous, even without the impact of above ground events resulting from serious societal unrest. Attempts at recovery after deleveraging are going to hit a hard energy ceiling. Power systems are critical to the functioning of a modern economy, but are almost completely taken for granted. That will not be the case in a few short years.

Here in Ontario, Canada (pop.13 million), the provincial government has just passed the Green Energy Act, and renewable energy proponents are queuing up to sign 20-year feed-in tariff contracts for power generation at a premium rate per kWh (varying by technology and reaching a maximum of 80 cents/kWh for small-scale roof-top solar).

The general assumption is that we are well on our way to building a future of renewable energy powered smart grids that will be able to accommodate not only our current demand, but much of our transportation load as well, thanks to EVs.

Unfortunately, much of this techno-positivist vision is nothing but pie-in-the-sky, thanks to the limitations of the electrical grid, as well as the low EROEI of renewable energy, the effect of receding horizons on the prospects for scaling up renewable energy development and the impending deflationary collapse of the money supply.

Investment in grid infrastructure, as with public infrastructure of most other kinds, has been sadly neglected for a long time. Much of the existing grid equipment is at or near the end of its design life, as are many of the power plants we depend on. (For instance, in Ontario we haven't got around to paying for the last set of nuclear power plants we built, that are now approaching the end of design life and have had to be very expensively re-tubed in recent years.

The outstanding debt is some $40 billion, and the debt retirement charge we pay doesn't even cover the interest.) Liberalization in the electricity sector has led to a relentless whittling away of safety margins in many places. Where we once had a system with a great deal of resilience through redundancy, that is generally no longer the case. In North America we now have an aging system with a very limited capacity for accommodating either new generation or new load, and we have great difficulty building any new lines.

As the power system was designed under a central station model to carry power in one direction only, with high voltage transmission and low voltage distribution, the modifications that would be required to enable two-way traffic, especially at the distribution level, are very substantial. Comprehensive monitoring and two-way communication would be required down to the distribution level, with central control (dispatchability, or at least the power to disconnect) of large numbers of very small generators.

The level of complexity would be vastly higher than the existing system, where there are relatively few generators to control in order to balance supply and demand in real time, and maintain system parameters such a frequency and voltage within acceptable limits.

The image above conveys by analogy the essence of power system frequency control - the easiest parameter to visualize. Frequency must be maintained at a set level by balancing supply and demand over the entire AC system. There are 4 such systems in North America - the east, the west, Texas and Quebec - and each functions as a single giant machine. The trucks in the image are generators and the boulder they tow up the uneven hill represents variable load. The trucks must pull the boulder at an even speed despite the bumps.

For a more accurate representation, one would actually need additional trucks, some moving at the same speed waiting to pick up a line if one should be dropped (spinning reserve) and others parked by the side of the hill (standing reserve). Some of the trucks would have to be able to start the boulder moving again from a standing start if it should stop for any reason (black-start).

We are looking at a world where there would be many more trucks, but each would be much smaller, and some of them would only pull if the wind was blowing or the sun was shining. The difficulty of the task will increase exponentially, and frequency management is only one parameter that must be controlled.

The mismatch between renewable resource potential, load and grid capacity is considerable. Resource potential is often found in areas far from load, where the grid capacity is extremely limited. Developing this potential and attempting to transmit the resulting power with existing infrastructure to where it can be used would involve very high losses. Many rural areas are served by low voltage single phase lines, and the maximum generation size that can be connected under those circumstances is approximately 100kW.

Even where three-phase lines exist, so that larger generators can be connected, carrying the power at low voltage is particularly inefficient, as low voltage means high current, and losses are proportional to the square of the current. Building high-voltage transmission lines to serve relatively small amounts of renewable energy would be an exceptionally expensive and difficult proposition, especially in a capital constrained future.

Renewable energy generation far from load could amount to little more than a money generating scheme, as a premium rate will be paid from the public purse for the time being, but little of the power might reach anywhere it could actually be used.

Difficulties occur when generation proposed would amount to more than 50% of the minimum load on the feeder. At this threshold, special anti-islanding measures are required that add considerable cost to the grid connection. In North America, we have large geographical areas served by a network of long stringy feeders with very low load. Adding much of anything to this system will be very challenging.

In much of Europe, where renewable energy penetration is relatively high, the population density is high enough to be served by a three-phase grid composed of relatively short feeders with high loads. Many of the limitations faced by North America simply do not apply in places like Germany, Denmark or the Netherlands. The North American grid has more in common with rural Portugal or the Greek Islands.

In this province alone, the amount of grid construction required in order to connect our renewable potential with load would cost tens, if not hundreds, of billions of dollars, and it would take decades to build. The cost of building, installing and connecting the necessary power generation equipment would also be enormous, and we would have to maintain at least some of the large plants needed for power system control and ancillary services (rapid load-following adjustments for frequency management, spinning reserve, rapid-response standing reserve, black-start capability, provision of reactive power etc).

This will be difficult as many large plants are due for replacement, large power plants take many years to complete, conventional fuels are depleting and capital will be very limited. While demand destruction will build in a temporary supply cushion, the lack of maintenance and new construction, which will inevitably follow a lack of funds, will take a huge toll in relatively few years.

Far from a future of greater high-tech connectedness under a smart-grid model, where EVs would charge at night and cover both transportation needs and power storage, we are looking at a much more fragmented picture. We are very unlikely to see massive AC grids covering anything like the area they do now, and much less likely to see power carried over large distances.

Rural areas may well be cut off and will have to provide any power they need themselves (yet another example of the core preserving itself at the expense of the periphery). This will mean a drastic cut in demand to a third world level in many rural areas, and may lead to other areas with no power production, and no money to build any, being abandoned completely or reverting to a pioneer lifestyle.

In urban areas, where dispossessed rural people migrate in very hard times, electricity provision in places down on their luck could look more like this picture of a favela in Rio de Janeiro. It's a far cry from a neat and tidy high-tech vision of efficiency."

Many thanks to Stoneleigh and The Automatic Earth for this article.


consultant said...

I've said it before. It took 35 years or so, but we're headed deep into a central/south american style country.

Every since Reagan, we've let too much important stuff go, while we've partied and done other foolish stuff.

We are a big, bankrupt nation. At some point in the near future, electricity might be available, consistently, in only parts of the country. A return to the 1940's.

Living off the grid won't be a lifestyle "choice". It will be a fact of life for many.

The North Coast said...

What we're looking at here is what Kunstler and others warned of, which is the task of completely rebuilding our systems, like the grid and the 100-200 nuclear power stations we'll shortly be needing to offset the decline of liquid fuels- at the juncture of a collapsed economy and the depletion in fuel prices.

We don't have the capital to do anything, and doing anything will be so much more expensive because of the fuel constraints. We have to build the new systems with fossil fuels. We should have started 30 years ago.

Worse, we have no handle on reality. The "conservatives" are clinging to the old paradigm of growth based on suburban expansion and prodigious waste of fossil fuels, and the "liberals" seem to think that there's such a thing as a functional perpetual motion machine, known to us as "renewable" energy. Our leadership is chasing this chimera with a huge infusion of tax money.

This means we will cling to our outdated, fuel-guzzling, suburban-sprawl lifestyle that is too much to power even if we could get 100 more nukes up and running in 5 years- and people are thinking we will power all that with wind turbines, solar panels, and switchgrass.

Politics are the biggest obstacle to re=templating our economy and industry and rearranging our physical environment for lower energy use and for the power generation we will need.

The "conservatives" are totally averse to anything that suggests that suburban lifestyles will be unworkable once available fossil fuel supplies deplete, which is starting now.

The "liberals" don't want to confront the realities of power generation and of what it takes to support basic tech amenity, which doesn't even include cars. They don't want nuclear plants to provide power and they don't want wars to get oil even though they consume as much gas as anyone else does.

consultant said...

Does this mean we're screwed?

The North Coast said...

I believe we will partially rescue ourselves at the last moment, but we will be quite a few days late and many dollars short, and life is still not going to be the same. As I roughly figure, we will need 100 nukes generating 800 to 1000 Mw each to replace our coal fired plants and our more senile nukes. In other words, we will need these just to keep even.

If we want to electrify our transportation, which we MUST do if we want to have motorized transportation in 15 years, then we need at least one hundred more.

The renewables will work here and there and people in remote, lightly populated areas will have those or have nothing,even though they will be hideously expensive- for as Stoneleigh so clearly states, there is the matter of the frayed grid, which needs to be rebuilt and reinforced just to serve our large metro areas adequately, especially if we're to double the load on it with all those electric trains and cars, not to mention the electrification of our homes and manufacturing.

This will all be VERY expensive, and time is of the essence. The recession is giving us a temporary reprieve on oil and gas prices, by demand destruction, but it has deprived us of the capital necessary to build the new systems- nukes and railroads- that we will need, and our current lame administration is not helping by tossing hundreds of billions of dollars at propping up the obsolete auto and suburban housing industries.

If we get to work now, and develop promising nuclear technologies such as the Liquid Flouride Thorium Reactor and other newer and vastly more efficient and economical nuclear technologies (that are also much safer) AND start to rearrange the way we live on the land, we can make nice lives for ourselves. But these lives will be different. Efficiency and conservation will have to be the bywords, for power will be much more expensive. Forget about cars for your teens, forget about 30 mile commutes, forget about boats, or jumping on a plane to fly 280 miles. Forget about buying a new wardrobe every year.

These are not huge sacrifices to me and maybe not to you, but it will come as a rude, nasty shock to most of our population that these economies will not be temporary, and that we are going to be living much differently.

I believe that those who predict that our megalopolises like Chicago and metro NYC will have to contract and densify drastically are correct, and the disinvestment in the outer suburbs has already begun. Many people will be stranded out there, and the ugly thing about this is that these places are where most of our lower-middle-class population lives these days. The leafy, convenient, graceful old railroad suburbs with their small-town configurations are the turf of the upper-middle and upper classes, and so is much of the city. City prices will hike drastically once the disinvestment in the far hinterlands gets rolling in earnest.

I just read today that the administration is now looking upon nuclear more favorably. Maybe the truth is sinking in, so I have a glimmer of hope. But then I sat there today and listened to Obama talk about how good it was that house prices were going up and I sputtered with rage. I managed to work myself into a bad, mad mood over this by the time I got up the road to my apt. HE STILL DOES NOT GET IT and neither do most other politicians and policy makers. They do not get that the only way to rebuild our economy is with savings and investments in the industries we will need to maintain our civilization and that you do not correct a storm caused by debt by adding more debt, and he really doesn't get how destructive asset inflation (i.e. higher housing prices)are to most of the population, and that housing and cars are dinosaur industries that should not be the foundation of the economy.