06 June 2012

The Future of Power

Having worked in the power industry for six years after completing a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering, I have noticed a few common misconceptions about power generation. I also live in one of the more progressive and environmentally conscious cities in America, and see a lot of misdirected energies when it comes to saving the world. Here, I'll try to describe how to fix some of the long-term problems facing the planet.

First let's talk about "the grid". My company is the grid. We control the vast majority of high voltage transmssion lines and substations across Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and western Montana. Power flows dynamically, so energy goes in at many different points on the grid, and energy comes out at many different points. At any given point, you can measure the flow of energy, but all the electrons are mixed together. I think a good comparison is a lake. You have one person dumping a galon of water into the lake and getting paid by someone pulling a gallon out. Technically they didn't pay for the exact same water that went in.

This is important because I frequently see utilities advertising a "green" option where you can pay an extra $6/month and your electricity will come from renewable energy. That is almost a lie. What's really happening is you are making a donation of $6 that is then earmarked for the purchase, construction or maintenance of renewable energy. The electricity you get is exactly the same as you did before.

In China tipping is not part of the culture. If you try to tip in most restaurants, they will be confused. But there is an expectation to tip when you're a foreigner going on an organized tour. I can imagine how this all began with the first few rounds of tourists. Tourist: "Excuse me, do I need to provide a tip?". Guide thinking "If I say yes, they will give me more money, if I say no, they will not give me extra money." Guide says, "yes". I think the electric utilities are basically doing the same thing. They realized that if they ask for people to donate money and feel good about being green, consumers will, so they ask.

Some people might still think it's a good idea to pay into those projects, but it's not. You are donating to a for-profit company. Why not invest? If renewable energy is not profitable for the company, then it is not sustainable. If renewable sources are good for the world in general, the government can subsidize that industry with tax breaks, and it currently does. This is also a bad idea. I'll get back to why.

The earmarked funds, along with tax breaks, are then ploughed into wind projects. Sounds great? Maybe. The cost of construction and maintenance is currently more than the income they provide over their lifetime, that's why they need financial support. There is also the problem of transmission. There are plenty of windy places over in Nebraska, but there are no transmission lines between them and consumers. Transmission lines cost about $1 million/mile to build, so a long transmission line will swamp any potential profit.

There are precious few windy areas where transmission already exists, and southern Washington is one of the few. This area has seen hundreds upon hundreds of wind turbines built in the last five years, which have shown some of the downsides of wind power. Wind turbines kill animals. The constant sound they make have caused livestock to die from lack of sleep, and they frequently kill birds flying by. The problem is actually worse than it sounds. Wind turbines also destroy the landscape. It's cool to drive by and see them, but the people who live there hate the wind farms.

A misconception about wind power is that someday we can run entirely on electricity generated by wind. Wind projects don't actually generate very much power compared to the amount of land they take up (all of the wind capacity in the middle Columbia river basin equates to about 2 run of the river dams), and we will never be able to run our electric grid entirely from wind. Wind does not generate enough power, and the power is fickle. Turbines turn on and off with the wind, which can't be controlled. When the wind dies down, there must be a huge and consistent source of generation standing by. Wind also blows more often at night, when power demand is at its lowest. Nuclear plants must run 24 hours a day at the same power output, so wind generated at night is often a waste. Night-wind has been used to run electric pumps to bring water back up into dam reservoirs after it has passed through turbines. There are theoretical ideas to use wind power to compress air at night, then release it through turbines during the day. The point is, wind is no silver bullet and will only ever be supplemental to a major reliable source of power.

Most people don't realize it, but the Northwest just hit a milestone and my company is in a lawsuit with wind generators. About a year ago wind power started to generate so much electricity that it started displacing the hydro power. The problem is, you can't just stop the river and wait for the wind to die down, because the river would dry up and fish would not be able to migrate. Spilling water over the dams is an option, but then you're wasting potential electricity. My company had to arbitrate the situation and decided to draw power from the dams and curtail the wind projects when generation exceeded demand. This is a good example of power policy that was not well designed at a high level. Donations and tax breaks were feeding wind generation projects without considering long-term needs and implications.

Another misconception is that using electricity is not polluting. I've seen an all-electric vehicle that says on the side, "zero pollution". Actually, it's a lot of pollution. Nationally, half of the electricity generated comes from coal, and another 20% from petroleum and gas. Even with abundant hydro and supplemental wind , the Northwest doesn't always satisfy the demand for power, so Oregon gets 40% of its power from coal. If we reduce our pollution from transportation but move it to electricity, then all we've done is shuffled around the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Another misconception is that any single country can tackle the problem of global carbon emissions. I have to agree with the nay-sayers like George Bush on this point. He poo pooed on the Kyoto protocol because it divided the world into "rich" and "poor" countries, then only made serious restrictions on the rich countries. Emitting greenhouse gases is profitable, and reducing them is costly. So if India and China are excluded from the restrictions, all we're doing is moving the pollution (profits) from one country to another, with no change in overall emissions output. Don't get me wrong, I think the world should unite with enforceable reductions, but without everybody involved, we should not get too excited about reducing our own emissions.

Another misconception is that we should move towards micro-generation. This is something I was really interested in awhile back. I thought that if you could build a house to funnel all its gutters into one place, then let all the water go through a small generator, you could make some power for the home to offset what is pulled from the utility. When I actually sat down and ran some numbers with the size of the average roof, average rainfall, an efficient generator, and the cost of normal power, I discovered that on a good year you might generate something like $25 of electricity. Even if you were to add solar and wind to the home, it might take 10 years to come close to paying off the installation costs, and that's not considering that the equipment might break during that time. This fad led to a highly green building in Portland built with four small wind turbines on top, which don't make very much power and cause vibration problems in the building. I have known someone with a successful set of solar panels that paid for themselves, but they were a large array on land with some acres. It was a big project, and it was still made difficult because power in that area was cheaper than average, so it took even longer to become profitable.

Another misconception is that there is such a thing as Smartgrid. At a utility telecom conference someone once told me that to get your project approved, you just have to put the term "Smartgrid" in the title. It's a buzzword that management types like to use without knowing what it means. It is actually undefined. It generally refers to one of two things: either having the local utility provide communications to the home about variable power rates by the hour (thus encouraging efficiency), or having smart appliances that use more power at night than during the day. Since dishwashers, dryers, and heaters can already be time-delayed, all this means is moving to smart refrigerators that suck more power at night than during the day. Most people don't realize it, but your fridge represents about one third of your electric bill. Moving consumption to night time is actually a great idea, because it will reduce daytime peaks when power is drawn from a lot of coal. But if all we do is smooth out our consumption throughout the day, we're still not addressing the underlying problems.

There are several novel sources of power generation that I think are worth exploring. There are two kinds of wave energy that have great potential. One harnesses the constant bob of the waves, and the other harnesses the rising and lowering of the tides (neither is perfect). Another that I find interesting is tethered wind. Imagine a big hot air balloon with a huge wind turbine hanging off of it, the whole thing floating in the jetstream with a power cable tethering it to the ground. The wind would be strong and reliable, and it would not kill animals. Tethered wind will likely not pay for itself, but at least somebody's thinkin'. Solar panels are becoming cheaper and much more efficient, but the major revolution in solar will come when panels can be integrated into new homes cheaply. The latest technology has made panels super thin, but not cheap enough. Fusion could be a silver bullet for power generation, the main problem is that nothing can hold the molten material because it burns through any containment. There have actually been breakthroughs in building the power plants to magnetically hold the material, but they are hugely expensive and it is still not a proven technology.

When it comes to available technologies, I'd say nuclear is the best option, supplemented with some wind. Next would be hydro, which is actually a far better solution than most people think. Yes, it would be lovely to have rivers that run freely, with abundant salmon. The question of fish is a complex issue. I won't get in to that. But consider that the vast majority of dams in the United States don't generate electricity, and the ones that do are serving a dual-purpose of flood/irrigation control. If you take away the generation, we'll still need dams. I think hydroelectric generation should be included in the "green" technologies because it does not pollute.

So far I've done a lot of complaining. How about a solution to the world's power generation and pollution problems? It's actually quite simple, and it's what the Economist magazine has been recommending for years. It's not cap-and-trade, it's a pollution tax. If any company is forced to pay a fee based on how much pollution they emit, that would drive up the cost of those fuel sources. The key to this solution is its simplicity. A solution must come from the government, but it should not be in the form of excessive regulation or tax breaks on a certain technology. If the goal is to reduce emissions, then emissions should be taxed to make them more expensive. Investors and companies will respond accordingly and search out better ways to make a dime that don't pollute.

There is something tricky about the power system. It takes muchos billions of dollars to make a power plant, and they are in service for many decades before considering retirement. Most contracts with distributors are renewed every five years, so investors are not interested in what the price is today, they care what it will be in 10-20 years. If there is certainty in the market, then the money will flow into research and construction accordingly. A cap and trade system would be a huge bureaucratic mess, and would definitely be riddled with corruption and favoritism. A carbon tax would be predictable and evenly applied. Giving tax breaks puts government in the game of picking the winning technology. A carbon tax leaves the market to decide the best way to generate power with the least amount of pollution.

The carbon tax is politically non-viable because it will sound like a tax on consumers. Electric rates will go up at first. The first major shift will be from coal to natural gas, which can happen almost immediately because many plants are tooled for both, or companies have gas plants on standby. As soon as coal becomes more expensive, the much lower emitting gas plants will turn on. The next shift will be towards more nuclear plants over the next one or two decades. During that time, research and development will be testing numerous theoretical sources of energy, and out of that a new technology will come to dominate in about 40 years.

The planet faces an overwhelming problem that has so far only seen band-aids. There are only two paths out of the mess. One is for the world to unite behind a federal system that can enforceably regulate worldwide greenhouse gas emissions, among other things. The other is for a technology that serves as a silver bullet. Fusion is the only known technology that might serve that purpose, but the potential solutions are unimaginably vast on our planet. Among the unused and unsuspected resources lies a secret that will supply abundant power without destroying the environment. The only apparent thing the government can do to encourage its search is to make pollution expensive. Hopefully the market in the USA is big enough to absorb some of the initial shock, and innovate our way out of the hole we're in.

1 comment:

  1. Great video on thorium reactors. I was totally unaware of this technology, and it seems to have huge potential: