Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Determining the Future of the U.S. Electrical Grid

Although the official position of the government is not to attempt to select winners and losers through application of certain policy, the situation involving the environment is becoming dire. It is time for the government to realize that the free market is not capable of developing the appropriate grid demographic to substitute for the electricity provided by coal in the necessary allotted time frame to avoid severely detrimental consequences. This failure of the market is largely because of all of the lobbyists and the ‘so-called experts’ that are unwilling to accept the potential shortcomings in their preferred power medium. Normally even in the face of this common market bias people have faith in the market that the best option will outmaneuver the lesser options eventually controlling the market; however, on the doorstep to the end of ‘cheap oil’ with the era of ‘no oil’ not that far behind, decisions need to be made now, something the market is incapable of doing.

Almost all infrastructure is dependent on oil for its construction due to material transportation and construction operation and in an era of constant $150+ a barrel oil it will be incredibly difficult to construct an effective new electricity grid when the market is still deciding upon a winner because of its inefficiencies and imperfections. A wide range of piecemeal energy infrastructure (solar plant there, wind farm here, nuclear plant there, geothermal plant here) will not solve the energy problems of the future and yet that is exactly where the market is leading energy infrastructure. Therefore, the government MUST convene a legitimate and thorough energy conference to determine what one or two power mediums will be supported by government funds and which power mediums will be left out in the cold (from a government funding and subsidy perspective). It is time for the U.S. government to step-up, do its job and stop relying on the ‘all-powerful’ market to do a job that it is ill-equipped to do. Below are some concerns regarding most of the viable candidates to replace coal to get the ball rolling.


Some Issues about Nuclear Power –

1. With the lack of commercially viable Generation IV plants and none predicted to be available until 2021 at the very earliest, can Generation III plants carry the load for nuclear investment in the near-future from a cost prospective for clearly the cost effectiveness of Generation II plants is lacking.

2. Generation III plants do not appear to be able to create a negative radioactive waste load, so until Generation IV plants are created and fully commercialized in, at the earliest, 2025 where does all the excess radioactive waste go?

3. Although the probability of nuclear accident/meltdown is extremely small in modern nuclear plant designs, there are still lingering questions about who will foot the bill in the case of an accident.

Note the issue of ‘target for terrorist theft or strike’ seems irrelevant as no nuclear power plant has been destroyed by terrorist attack in decades of operation and with Pakistan, North Korea and in due time Iran all having nuclear bomb capacity, the impact and probability of terrorists stealing substandard and improperly enriched materials from a nuclear plant seems significantly unlikely when they can more easily acquire it from these countries.

Some Issues about Geothermal Power –

1. Without enhanced geothermal systems (EGS) is geothermal even worth pursuing as a baseload power source?

2. Can EGS be commercialized fast enough for geothermal to become a chief baseload provider warranting a rapid ramp-up of geothermal or should expansion be slow and steady pursuant to a back-up baseload provider?

Some Issues about Solar Power –

1. Will storage mediums ever move from uneconomical proof-of-concept plants to something which is actually realistic for a 500 – 1000 MW plant?

2. When will transmission lines be upgraded to dramatically reduce efficiency losses to warrant the massive economic investment of solar power in out-of-the-way desert and other high sun-low functional regions?

3. Will solar power ever become affordable relative to other options or will proponents continue to sell the yet-to-be-proven idea of scale-up significantly reducing prices? For decades solar proponents have professed that if only given a fair chance solar power could economically compete with fossil fuels and yet this proclamation for all intensive purposes remains false.

4. How will large-scale deployment of solar power handle large volcano erruption events? What is the attitude regarding the confliction between using solar power and the geo-engineering technique of seeding the atmosphere with sulfur dioxides?

Some Issues about Tidal Power –

1. Can tidal derived power even begin to produce any meaningful level of power required within the appropriate time frame of climate change? Basically is it even worth talking about tidal power?

Some Issues about Wind Power –

1. No one, wind proponents or wind opponents, seem to address the very real possibility of slower average wind speeds in the future due to higher average air temperatures in the Arctic brought on by climate change taking a significant bite out of wind power generation potential. Here

2. The concern that cost per MW for wind power is actually moving upwards not downwards as the best land-based locations for wind power have already been developed. Note: Offshore wind farms have yet to materialize in any significant capacity to develop a real and valid cost estimation to how their future development would influence overall wind prices per MW.

3. There is still the issue regarding how much emission savings wind power actually generates. Initial intuition leads to the conclusion that additional wind power that directly replaces coal or natural gas should reduce carbon emissions and while correct that intuition could be too simplistic. The problem with wind power relative to coal or natural gas is that wind power has only intermittent capacity, which demands backup power from more reliable sources (coal, natural gas, nuclear, geo-thermal or some form of storage medium). Unfortunately wind power advocates continue to downplay this need for effective and efficient power storage strategies to augment widespread wind power deployment on legitimate scale up grounds. Most pro-wind arguments make very optimistic estimates about the ability to scale up wind power via potentially unrealistic assumptions, like an average wind power failure with a very low standard deviation a la Diesendorf’s “the wind is always blowing somewhere” comment. Exactly how much backup is needed? Not surprisingly wind proponents cite almost nothing and wind opponents cite almost 100%. What is actually the right answer?

Also there is the issue of natural gas. Natural gas proponents feature natural gas as a cheaper and more reliable source of electricity over alternatives like wind, geothermal, solar and nuclear in the short-term. Such a strategy could be troublesome because widespread expansion of natural gas could be viewed as a significant waste of money because natural gas is not an endpoint energy solution, even if society wanted it to be one. While switching all coal plants to natural gas would cut total U.S. carbon emissions anywhere from 10.5 to 13.1% (derived from 2007 EIA data depending on natural gas plant efficiency), such a strategy is only a stop-gap measure because if emission targets to evade the worst consequences of global warming are to be met natural gas use as an electricity source must be minimized. With that reality would any significant scale-up of natural gas use for electricity be regarded as a waste of money if it has to scale back down 10 years later when that investment could have better been distributed to a cleaner and more permanent energy generation technology like geothermal, nuclear or solar?