Saturday, May 18, 2013

Solar and Wind Need to Step up to the Plate

Over the last few years there has been a steady back and forth between various individuals and groups about the viability of wind and solar power to account for a vast majority of the future energy infrastructure. Despite legitimate concerns with the potential effectiveness and consistency of such a system, wind and solar proponents continue to place their faith in its viability with no scale evidence validating this faith. In addition proponents of these technologies believe that the public must be made more aware of the “adaptability” of solar and wind versus fossil fuel generators. However, why does the solar and wind manufacturing and deployment community allow this uncertainty to linger instead opting for its new plan of engaging in a new more aggressive marketing plan to “sell” the public on the idea of solar and wind? Providing evidence to support one position or the other is quite possible; at least it must be for numerous wind and solar power supporters continue to claim that the limiting factor to “greening” the energy infrastructure is the deployment rate for wind and solar plants over existing technology.

Note that this experiment must exceed the testing irrelevancies of electricity aggregation or renewable energy credits (RECs), which do nothing significant to demonstrate the reliability of wind and solar energy providers. Wind and solar proponents envision an energy infrastructure that incorporates wind and solar into comprising at least 70%+ of the entire electricity providing system (maybe even 70%+ of all energy at some point eventually), thus that number seems to be a good threshold point. However, this dream should only be pursued if these technologies are actually able accomplish this goal; therefore, as stated above the current legitimacy of this system must be tested and its strengths and weaknesses must be adjudicated. So how would such an experiment be conducted?

A simple starting methodology must include, but not be limited to, the following boundary conditions/rules:

- Approach a small city (approximately 10,000-15,000 population) and receive permission to change the electricity provision infrastructure from the current existing mix to 70% solar/wind with a 30% other;

- At no time could the electricity provided to the city from non-solar or wind sources exceed 30% or the test would be considered a failure of the experiment (note this condition includes all electricity derived from storage sources like batteries); note that this condition could be modified based on how many brownouts/blackouts the selected city was willing to accept;

- All participating companies will have a year to prepare for the switch from existing mix to solar/wind dominated mix; a good idea would be for a coalition of solar/wind companies to select a city by July 31, 2013 and then start the experiment on July 31, 2014.

- An independent auditor will track electricity use and costs associated with that use and any addition construction related to that electricity infrastructure;

- The above point must consider net electricity use not gross electricity production. For example suppose 1000 MW are produced, but only 500 MW are used due to a lack of storage, the produced count must be 500 MW not 1000 MW in percentage calculations in order to not overstate the used production rate of renewable sources; i.e. utilized reserves is what matters not name plate capacity.

- Note that the city does not have to remain static once the test has begun, it can still add or subtract electricity infrastructure features; however, these changes must be incorporated into the evaluation metric for the efficiency and validity of the renewable sources tested;

If the simplicity and viability of the above methodology is to be believed then what is stopping one (or more through a coalition) of the various solar and wind companies from administering it? Realistically there seem to be only two reasons. First, wind and solar proponents are not accurate in their assessment that these energy technologies are advanced enough to effectively substitute for fossil fuel technologies and wind and solar companies know it, but don’t want to admit it. Second, solar and wind companies are not sure whether or not such an experiment will be successful and are afraid that if it is implemented and fails the negative publicity surrounding such a failure will produce a significant handicap to their future growth.

This potential “fear of failure” attitude is interesting because most intelligent people realize that failure is an integral part of technological growth, so why pass up an opportunity to explore the strengths and weaknesses of what numerous people hope is the future energy infrastructure in a real experimental environment over the worthless rooftop-like piecemeal “experiments” that are currently conducted? One possibility is that these companies believe that a failure in the above type of experiment will be regarded by society not as a learning experience, but as an inherent flaw in the technology itself, thus a higher probability of possible abandonment and lose of millions. This is a fear that solar and wind companies need to get over if they want to better serve society both now and in the future because if the technology does have flaws that are not corrected for before their application then society loses more than just money.

Despite the above concerns the apparent trepidation by solar and wind energy companies when it comes to this type of experiment is disconcerting. If they were confident in the maturity of the technology and its ability to provide consistent electricity to a populous then such an experiment should have already been conducted. Success would produce a valuable and powerful point of evidence that would support the rapid expansion and deployment of solar and wind energy technology and further demonstrate what strengths would benefit society from such a system and what weaknesses exist, which could be improved upon over time.

Two final notes, first some may point out that the city of Lancaster, California has recently spearheaded a large growth of solar power, but understand that it is no where near the capacity necessary to power the city and is probable too large a city for this initial test (population 157,000+).

Second, some may argue that Portugal’s 2013 1st quarter success of 70% power generation from renewables demonstrates its validity as the future energy infrastructure. However, when looking at the details of the renewable breakdown this success becomes less and less impressive and repeatable in the short-term. For example while Portugal is an above average producer of energy from non fossil fuel sources, favorable weather is more of a reason for the higher renewable percentage than anything else. A large spike in existing hydroelectric efficiency (312% increase) drove most of the change with no significant new project builds. In fact Portugal solar photovoltaic penetration only made up approximately 0.7% of energy use (in 2012), which is in direct contrast to most plans put forth by solar enthusiasts regarding massive solar deployment and is counter to the challenge presented in this blog. Therefore, Portugal’s success proves nothing about the validity of a solar/wind energy infrastructure, just the usefulness of hydroelectric power.

Overall if the benefit of success is a significant increase in growth rate of the industry, why has no one in the solar/wind industry attempted such an experiment? This lack of experimentation reminds one of the blind faith that some have in electrical vehicles acting as mobile storage batteries to augment solar and wind power, yet no one has ever demonstrated the viability of such a strategy in a community of 5,000 people let alone a country of 300+ million. If the solar and wind industry want their technology to be taken seriously as a substitute for existing fossil fuels by all parties then they have to demonstrate the ability to do the heavy lifting with minimal assistance from other energy providers. Otherwise why waste time playing with expensive toys in lieu of proven fossil fuel substitutes like nuclear and geothermal?

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