04.15.13

A Sustainable Energy Manifesto

Posted in Uncategorized at 1:52 pm by Administrator

The electrical generation and distribution system has evolved over the past 100+ years into an extremely reliable source of power – one which has been the foundation of the industrial expansion and prosperity of the developed world.   Our society is totally dependent upon this and even relatively short and localized interruptions in the power supply (for example during the Sandy superstorm) cause major disruptions to everyday life.

In the past 10 years there has been rapid development of renewable energy sources, principally Photo-Voltaic (PV) solar and wind supported by significant tax-payer and rate-payer subsidies.  The public policy goal of replacing non-renewable hydro-carbon combustion with renewable generation sources has achieved significant successes; higher efficiencies in manufacturing and more efficient deployment have resulted in lower unit costs which have in some situations made renewables competitive with traditional thermal generation assets (coal-fired, natural gas-fired and nuclear plants).

However, the success of renewables has been achieved in an environment where all traditional thermal generation assets are still in place, able to provide immediate backup power after sunset and when the wind is calm.  Even so, as renewable generation becomes a significant component ( > 10% ) of total capacity there have been increasing problems with grid stability (for example in Germany, Hawaii, and Texas). In addition, preferential access to the electrical grid by renewables has seriously eroded the operational efficiency and financial viability of base-load thermal generation plants which are designed (and financed) to run 7x24x365. 

In the U.S. the MACT regulations put in place in November, 2011 will result in the permanent shut-down of a significant portion of the coal-fired generation fleet – more than 34 GW by some estimates.  It will be very difficult to attract the investment capital required to replace this base-load generation capability in an environment of increasing price uncertainty where renewables are given preferential access to the market.

In order to continue the transition to renewables the problems of variability and reliability must be addressed in a serious way.  The roll-out of renewables should continue at a slower pace with reduced financial support in order to direct more research and development and implementation funding to programs designed to maintain the integrity and reliability of the electrical generation and distribution system as a whole.  These programs should address reducing end-user demand, development of physical transmission inter-connects and associated “supergrid” technology, and the development of utility-scale energy storage technology.

The following specific initiatives would support an aggressive and relatively painless transition to a truly sustainable energy environment.

  • Over the next three years cut both the wind energy Production Tax Credit and Photo-voltaic Feed-In-Tariffs in half. Redirect these support mechanisms to Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) developments that include Thermal Energy Storage with the proviso that these CSP systems begin operations in the late afternoon and throughout the peak demand period at night. With a combination of PV during the day and CSP at night solar energy can become a cost-effective and reliable base-load substitute in the Southern U.S. and in many other parts of the world.
     
  • Pass legislation that prevents regional grid operators from treating energy storage systems as an “end user” subject to grid tolls.  Utility-scale energy storage systems are essential to address the variability and reliability issues associated with renewables and should be supported by grid operators, not penalized by them.
     
  • Institute a Feed-In-Tariff for stored energy that is released to the grid.  These systems are as yet in early stages of development and need tax-payer and rate-payer support in order to achieve the large scale deployment that will result in more effective and lower cost systems.
     
  • Create an Internationally coordinated Research & Development program to develop utility-scale energy storage systems with funding in the tens of billions of dollars spread over the next decade.  The challenges associated with any viable storage technology are enormous and will require an ISS-style effort to overcome.
     
  • Establish a North American “Smart Grid” initiative that will include extensive upgrades not only to the systems used to control energy flow but also to build out required physical inter-connections.  The concept that “the wind is always blowing somewhere” does have some validity but would require massive and expensive inter-connection capabilities.   Given that transmission lines require significant environmental review, often encounter citizen protest, and take years to construct, this is a process that will take decades to complete.  The sooner we get started the better.
     
  • Designate all hydro-electric power as a renewable resource (in California large scale hydro is not eligible for the state's Renewable Portfolio Standard) and plan for the further development of hydro where it is available.  In particular, plan for the integration of hydro from northern Manitoba and Saskatchewan as backup to the plentiful wind resources of the Canadian Prairies and the U.S. Mid-West.  In other areas explore the concept of unpumped storage which implements excess hydro generating capacity to balance wind and PV solar.  This will require co-operation between Canada, the United States, and the individual states and provinces.  The goal should not be maximizing revenue for any particular generating source in a “spot market” approach, but rather for long-term stability in both supply and price for the entire system.
     
  • Provide additional support for utility-scale geothermal projects such as the one that has provided base-load electricity for the "Big Island" of Hawaii for the past 20 years. Like CSP and Hydro, Geothermal is one of the only reliable and renewable base-load generation sources and deserves enhanced interest and financial support.
     
  • Develop national education programs designed to raise the awareness of consumers regarding the responsible use of electricity with the specific aim of supporting Time-Of-Use and Demand Response programs.  This must be a "call to arms" to industry and consumers with clearly identified goals for “clipping” peak demand in both summer and winter.  During peak demand times a web site, media segments included with weather reports and outdoor billboards should be used to visually display total electricity usage and peak prices being paid in order to focus attention on the environmental and financial consequences of peak demand electricity usage.
     
  • Amend the building codes across North America to require geoexchange systems for heating and cooling which reduce electricity use by more than half and effectively “clip” peak demand on hot summer days and cold winter nights.  This requirement should apply to all new commercial and industrial buildings and all new residential neighbourhood developments unless a credible technical or economic justification can be made to implement traditional, energy-intensive HVAC systems.
     
  • Promote car-pooling through a national education program, support for a unified car-pool participant matching system, and “tolls” for Single-Occupancy-Vehicles entering major urban centers during rush-hour (with exemptions for individuals that cannot make car-pooling work for them in a reasonable way).
     
  • Re-establish regulatory control over the wholesale electricity market.  Deregulation has been largely ineffective in every jurisdiction it has been implemented in with no measurable benefits for consumers and significant degradation of electrical reserves in most cases.  It is simply not possible to justify multi-billion dollar investments in more efficient and cleaner generation capacity without some price certainty.  Regulated profits for privately owned firms or public ownership of generating assets served to build reliable and cost effective generation systems for more than 100 years.  We have “fixed” something that was not broken to satisfy an anti-government, anti-regulation political agenda and now we really have broken the system. 

Implementation of these proposals will take many years, in some cases decades.  There will be very significant costs and in many cases public resistance.  The bottom line, which many will have a hard time accepting, is that we have to change the way we live, the way we construct buildings, our driving behavior, and our collective allocation of resources if we really want to wean ourselves away from hydro-carbons and transform into a truly sustainable society. 

We do not have to turn our backs on most of the technology we use or even give up many of the creature comforts we enjoy.  But we will have to sacrifice a bit of convenience to choose car-pooling or public transit; we will have to accept that being hot and sweaty on some summer days when the winds are calm is alright; we might have to put on a sweater (fashionable of course) on some cold winter nights so that we can turn the heat down; we will have to pay a bit more in the short term so that our buildings can use geoexchange; and taxes and utility rates will have to go up somewhat to pay for smart grids, extended high voltage transmission lines, and energy storage research.

If this doesn’t sound very pleasant consider the alternatives. 

We can stand by and watch as the 3rd world consumption of oil and gas increases and the physical supplies get tighter and tighter.  At some point, probably in the next 10-15 years, there will be a significant imbalance between supply and demand and the price of oil and gas will escalate dramatically and quickly.  Shale gas and arctic oil will not prevent this inevitable scenario. 

We can continue to rapidly develop solar PV and wind generation because it is very easy and relatively cheap.  But without giving the support required to commercialize utility-scale storage we will destroy the stability of the electricity distribution system which will lead to regular grid failures and blackouts.

We can continue to ignore how our behavior as individuals impacts the overall supply-demand balance; by using incandescent light bulbs, washing and drying clothes in the early evening, baking at the height of peak demand on a cold winter evening, not having programmable thermostats, and a thousand other “little” things that add up to 10-15% of peak demand.

In other words we can continue on our current path with relatively few changes until we hit a brick wall.  Or we can make serious changes that will help us transition to a sustainable energy environment as painlessly as possible.

I know which path I would prefer – I don’t like brick walls.


These changes will not come about without significant public support and advocacy. If you believe that some or all of this Sustainable Energy Manifesto is valid then I encourage you to become a follower of @enrgy_manifesto on Twitter. I will put out a tweet every day around noon Pacific time which addresses some aspect of this manifesto. By retweeting you can help raise awareness of these necessary changes and hopefully encourage action on the part of our politicians and industry decision-makers.

 

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3 Comments »

  1. Jensborsting said,

    November 14, 2014 at 5:11 pm

    Hi Davis
    I have been working in the wind industry for +20 years and I understand a lot of the issues you are bringing up. However not extending the PTC in the short term, when no new system is in place is maybe a too drastic step to take. It would crash the entire industry and it will take many years to recover. A 2 year extension and full focus on a new more sensible system would possible be a more gentle approach. Denmark has 37% average wind energy penetration and is struggling with some of the pricing issues you mention, however it has not collapsed yet and is not likely to do it in the near term either. So I think the US will survive a few more years with PTC.
    I do agree that storage is the key and that is why I am puzzled why you recommend CSP as a single and most important way forward. It is a relatively new and untested technology.
    Would it no make more sense to promote renewable energy that includes storage for some length of time? This would make the market bring forward the best and cheapest technology. This could be wind and compressed air storage, or Solar and biomass, or Synthetic Natural Gas, and many more. It would also promote using more renewable energy in the transport sector – like Hydrogen or Natural Gas.

  2. Administrator said,

    November 14, 2014 at 5:45 pm

    First of all thanks for taking the time to post this thoughtful comment.

    The problem with publicly funding the PTC as it stands is that there is a limited amount of government support available so this is a zero sum game. Money into the PTC is money not available for storage research and development which is desperately needed. The announcement of the Tehachapi Energy Storage Project project in September was very encouraging – the first time I have seen costs under $2/MW-hour for battery storage. But with 8MW capacity that is a tiny fraction of the storage needed just in California and consumed $25 Million in government grants. I would support a PTC for projects that included a substantial amount of storage but the economics for that scenario are still not viable.

    Regarding CSP I do believe that it is the best available solution in latitudes lower than about 30-35 degrees because summer/winter production are very similar. I do not support public funding (including feed-in-tariffs or other support mechanisms) for CSP or any other Solar power projects north of 35 degrees. There is just too much of a discrepancy between winter and summer production and more power is typically needed in the winter in these locations. North of 35 wind is pretty much the only truly viable renewable energy source in my opinion.

    I have discussed all the available energy storage technologies in postings on this blog site. None look economically viable yet but many are worth experimenting with. I believe that we will resolve the storage issue and wind will then become the primary source of electricity around the world supported by solar between the tropics.

  3. Jensborsting said,

    November 17, 2014 at 11:44 pm

    Hi Davis
    Thank you for your comments.
    My point was more that if the PTC is not extended within the next month the wind industry will crash for a few years until a new support system can be set up. This would include any development on storage. I agree that we need to find a way to store energy. But it will take a few years to get support for this granted in the political system. We need to progress in the mean time.
    Please take a look at this video that describes how we envision to solve the energy mix transformation in Denmark on our path to become free of fossil fuel by 2050:
    https://vimeo.com/105965332
    Please let me have your comments on this.
    We have now also developed a fairly robust technique where we in 6 hours can convert organic waste to raw oil. We expect to be able to do that at a rate that will be able to compete with ship diesel prices. The system is operating at the university of Aalborg in Denmark. Are you aware of this technology and how that could impact our energy mix?

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