I tire of this canard. So here’s the end of it. If anyone can show evidence that the information presented here is incorrect, then please do so. Handwaving and “nuh uh” won’t cut it.
So what is the canard? “Wind and solar power cannot provide continuous, smooth electricity. For that reason, we will always need a ‘base load’ power supply, be it nuclear, coal or gas.”
Why do people say this? Well, it’s common sense. The wind only blows sometimes and the sun only shines sometimes. Yet, we need electricity almost all the time. How can that possibly work? I need lights at night, yet there is no sun?
Well, yes, it does make common sense to think that way. This is why common sense is practically useless when considering things beyond one’s immediate actions and area.
The wind is always blowing somewhere and the sun is always shining somewhere.
The model of the electrical utility that we have grown up with just doesn’t work anymore. Used to, each town had a power plant. Then the town’s power grids were connected and, to get economies of scale, larger and larger power plants were built to supply larger and larger areas. If one broke, then because they were all interconnected, the others on the grid could take the load.
Oh wait… that’s exactly what will happen with renewables too. When the wind is not blowing in Dallas, the wind is blowing in Phoenix. When it’s cloudy on the coast, the wind is usually blowing the most. You see, it’s all interconnected.
Will there be problems? Probably. But it’s not like fossil fuels don’t have their issues too? How about the rolling blackouts of Texas in early 2011 when a pair of fossil fuel plants’ water intakes froze, shutting them down. Oops. How about when an entire town’s water pipes froze (northern Wisconsin) when gas and electricity were shut down for a couple of weeks? Eek, northern Wisconsin, middle of winter, shudder.
Now that we’ve got the myth that fossil and nuclear never go down and leave us stranded out of the way. What can renewables actually do?
There are five methods to alleviate electricity concerns from renewable power. Interestingly, you can actually do some of them at your own home, ensuring that you have power for when you need/want it.
Interconnected Geographically Distributed Renewables
We’re talking about the entire country now. We’re not talking about power in Denver or Colorado, we’re talking about utilizing the resources available to the entire country. Take a look at a typical weather map of the US. The sun is almost always shining in Arizona and New Mexico.
Combined with wind power, at even a 20% capacity factor, it would be relatively easy to provide the base load for an electrical grid.
Yes, there are times when the sun is gone for several days and wind stops for several days, even weeks. But the total electricity available to the grid will remain. It’s called excess capacity. If you need 500 GW, you don’t build a 500 GW power plant. You build two 300 GW plants or one 600 GW plant. When you need to take a generator off-line for maintenance, you don’t disrupt the entire electrical system.
It’s the same with wind and solar. We can do this, because wind and solar are cheaper than nuclear. $20 billion will buy you one 3.4GW nuclear reactor. $20 billion will also buy you almost 20GW of wind turbines. If you use a capacity factor of 20%, that’s still 4GW, more than the nuclear plant. Spread them out into 1GW farms over a large (hundreds of kilometers) area and you have constant power.
OK, but you want more. I can accept that. Let’s see what else we can do.
Use additional power sources
I mentioned this briefly, but wind probably will not be the entirety of the energy solution. Solar will not be the entirety of the energy solution. Hydro won’t either. But combine them…
When is wind usually the weakest? When there’s a large high pressure system in the area. But high pressure results in no clouds… unfiltered, direct sunlight powering solar cells. Heck, why not mount solar cells on wind turbine towers?
Why not put solar cells on mall roofs and cover the parking lot in solar cells? That’ll also mean your car would be cooler when you get in.
Would you raise your thermostat from 70F to 75F during the summer if you got a $100 gift card each month you did so? I sure would (of course, my thermostat is set between 75F and 80F anyway). Americans are generally pretty wasteful of electricity. A smart home could determine if no one was watching TV and turn it off. A smart home could determine that everyone was asleep and turn all the lights off.
This way of managing demand can even extend to businesses. In fact, electric companies do this right now. They offer electricity very cheaply at night. Operators of electric arc furnaces operate mostly at night because of the cheaper electricity. So this practice is already in operation right now.
It’s basically a system of saying, there is x electricity available, if you want it, be prepared for it to cost extra. Some people will pay it. Some people won’t.
It’s a stormy day, the wind turbines are spinning, producing almost full capacity, but no one needs electricity for their AC units. Where does the excess power go?
Store it. Use the power to compress air and use the compressed air to drive a turbine when more electricity is needed. Use batteries in your home to power appliances when wind and solar availability is lower. Use the excess to crack water into hydrogen and oxygen, and then run those products through a fuel cell to produce electricity later.
There are many ways to store power, both at a national and individual level. Once everyone gets pure electric plug-in vehicles, there’s a ready supply of batteries in an emergency. Fly-wheels, capacitors, pumped storage, oh my.
Solar thermal plants even retain enough heat to provide ‘solar power’ through the night.
Smart Grids and Grid friendliness
The smart grid and system interconnectedness is some pretty interesting technology and it will get more and more advanced as time goes on. We’re seeing what modern networking can do with cell phones (google “color app”). What could this do for electricity?
Well, what if, in the case of lower than normal electricity production, the utility could shut down all the interior lights, instead of shutting down entire grids? You could still work, just with minimal lighting.
Smart grids are very much about monitoring the entire electrical system, including distribution and use.
Grid friendliness is another interesting concept. Large, centralized power plants cannot be shutdown and restarted quickly (and when I say quickly, I mean in days, not hours or minutes or seconds). So the coal and gas plants run all night, even though everyone is asleep. This is very wasteful. Sure, they run at lower output, but they can’t ramp up from dead cold to full power, when everyone switches on their coffee pots at 6:00AM. Storage systems can.
In a world of varying demand, large intensive systems with no storage would be a worse option than smaller, distributed systems with storage.
Let’s go back to our comparison between what to buy for $20 billion dollars. A nuclear plant or wind farms? What if, you bought $16 billion worth of wind farm and spent the remainder on storage. Now, you have a max capacity of only 16GW and an average capacity if about 3.2 GW (about the same as the nuclear plant) and you have $4 billion dollars worth of electricity storage. I don’t know that anyone has done a scaled up study on what $4 billion in batteries, compressed air, or any of the other storage systems would look like, but I suspect it would be A LOT OF STORAGE. Maybe enough to see the entire system through a day or two lull…
Oh wait, it’s all out there on the internet. A $4 billion dollar electrical storage facility will be built in Mexico. It will store about 1 GW of electricity. (http://www.renewableenergyworld.com/rea/news/print/article/2010/12/4b-1gw-nas-energy-storage-project-goes-to-mexico)
So, for the price of one nuclear reactor, you get almost the same amount of electricity in wind turbines (yes, they are cleaner and there is no possibility of accidents) AND a 1GW storage center.
Some of these systems are already in place. But with a little extra tech, they could way less disruptive than what we have now. Some of the systems are currently being developed. Some of these will need a little time to be deployed.
Will it be expensive, sure it will. We have to rebuild the entire world’s electrical supply and distribution system. But, let’s just face reality here. Even if you think global warming isn’t happening, you still have to consider pollution and the simple fact that fossil fuels will run out sooner or later. It’s unfortunate that many pro-fossil fuel guys don’t care what happens in the future as long as they have what they want.
You’ll hear all about how renewables can’t do this and can’t do that. Yet, renewables, wind and solar, are doing it. They are being built, they are being used, they are economically viable systems.
Change is hard to deal with. But let’s at least let go of this myth that renewables can’t power us by themselves. They can and they will. After Japan, if anyone thinks that the US will ever build another nuclear plant, they are just deluding themselves. [No it wasn't nearly as bad as the news claimed. But this is a case when news hype might work in favor of renewable power.]
Resources for Further Review: