In searching for technologies that can aid in the transition to a low carbon environment the following characteristics would define the ideal new energy source;
1Of course some would argue that wind turbines and utility scale solar have negative environmental impacts but those are not severe compared to the environmental advantages of transitioning away from a hydro-carbon based economy.
From the table above the clear winner is hydro-kinetics which captures the energy of water flowing in a river without using a large reservoir. And yet this is the least developed renewable source on the planet. I would suggest that this ideal energy source faces challenges which are not technical but rather are political and regulatory. This posting will discuss the state of hydro-kinetic developments and suggest a path forward towards wide-spread deployment (this post focuses on river hydro-kinetics technologies deployed successfully in North America – there are other projects underway overseas but these face many of the same issues discussed here).
Hydro-kinetics – An Attractive But Elusive Technology
A number of companies have spent the last two decades attempting to commercialize hydro-kinetic turbines in one form or another. These companies have consumed, in aggregate, well over $100 million in Research & Development funding, have overcome many technical challenges and have staged numerous successful trial installations. However, despite the best efforts of talented and dedicated teams none of these companies have achieved a commercial deployment of a single hydro-kinetic turbine.
Free Flow Power
Free Flow Power developed a 40 KW turbine unit which was deployed in a test configuration in the Mississippi River near Baton Rouge for six months in 2011. The results of the tests were encouraging and the company undertook detailed site evaluations and identified more than 3 dozen locations on the Mississippi where turbines could be installed. A serious drought and low water levels in 2012 called into question the viability of many of the sites and the company decided to focus on retrofitting conventional turbines in existing dams that did not already have electrical generation facilities.
In late 2014 the company was split into a non-operating entity holding the Intellectual Property rights for the SmarTurbine and a new company, Rye Development was formed to pursue the dam retrofitting.
Hydro Green Energy
Hydro Green developed a 100 KW hydro-kinetic turbine unit which was deployed near Hastings Minnesota in 2009 in what is claimed to be the first licensed hydro-kinetic generating facility in the U.S. This turbine operated until 2012 when Hydro Green Energy, like Free Flow Power, decided to focus on dam retrofit.
Clean Current was a Hydro-kinetic company that developed several versions of turbines for use in both saltwater and freshwater environments. They conducted several tests of the technology, most recently at the Canadian Hydrokinetic Test Centre on the Winnipeg River in Manitoba from September, 2013 to May, 2014. At the end of May, 2015 it was announced that the company was being wound down after 15 years of Research & Development work.
With substantial funding from the Quebec Government RER Hydro developed a technologically advanced hydro-kinetic turbine unit which was deployed in the St. Lawrence River near the city of Montreal in 2010. It functioned as designed for more than 4 years.
Based upon the success of this initial test the Boeing Corporation entered into a global marketing and distribution agreement for the TREK turbines in November, 2013. Phase II of the RER Hydro business plan involved the production of 6 additional turbine units in a brand new manufacturing facility in Becancour Québec opened to great fanfare November 11, 2013.
On April 7, 2014 the Parti Québecois lost the Provincial election. The new Liberal majority government immediately halted payments to RER Hydro that had previously been confirmed.
With turbine construction for Phase II well underway and purchase agreements being in place with suppliers RER Hydro was immediately short of funds. Shortly thereafter the company made a court application for the Issuance of an Initial Order under the Companies’ Creditors Arrangement Act which was granted. All RER Hydro staff were laid off in July, 2014 and after several further court applications what remains of RER Hydro is the Intellectual Property, some inventory related to the turbines being constructed and the contracts with the Boeing Corporation. The company was declared bankrupt at the end of 2015.
Verdant has been working on tidal power turbines in the New York City area for more than 15 years. From 2006-2009 KHPS (Gen4) turbines were installed in the East River in a grid-connected configuration as part of the Roosevelt Island Tidal Energy (RITE) project. In 2012 Verdant was awarded the first commercial license for tidal power issued in the U.S. There is no indication that any turbines have been deployed or power generated in regards to this license.
Turbines developed by Verdant Power have been proposed to be installed as part of the Cornwall Ontario River Energy (CORE) project with $4.5 million in funding from various government agencies and utilities. The project has been ongoing since 2007 but it appears that in 2013 the project was abandoned.
In the spring of 2016 Verdant announced the formation of a partnership that will focus on hydro-kinetic projects in Ireland.
Instream was formed in Vancouver in 2008. In 2010 the company, in partnership with Powertech Labs, deployed an array of 4 25 KW turbines near the Duncan Dam in British Columbia, Canada.
In August, 2013 a second demonstration site was established near Yakima, Washington State, U.S. As of August, 2016 the company has plans for 2 more demonstration sites in the U.S. and anticipates a project in Wales, U.K. in 2019.
Hydro-Kinetics vs. Wind and Solar
It seems clear from the number of successful demonstration projects that have been undertaken over the past decade that the engineering problem of manufacturing a hydro-kinetic turbine that can reliably generate electricity has been largely solved. It also seems clear that by combining the engineering expertise and learnings from several of the existing designs any residual problems can be resolved quickly and new designs that minimize fabrication costs could be developed.
The barriers to the implementation of hydro-kinetics are no longer technical.
Hydro-kinetics generation, like large-scale hydro and geothermal is qualitatively different from wind and solar power because it is reliable and dispatchable. As a result, a backup power source (natural gas-fired plants being the most popular alternative in the current low gas price environment) is not required. This is a very significant advantage which is not reflected in the various economic analyses that are used to justify regulatory and financial support for renewable energy.
In order to fully transition away from a hydro-carbon based economy it is necessary to have access to reliable electricity generation at times of peak demand. In the middle and northern latitudes (north of about 35 degrees) peak demand occurs in the late afternoon and evening as the requirements for light and heat reach their maximum. Obviously there is no solar power available at that time. Wind energy is highly variable and generally speaking cannot be relied upon to generate electricity during a specific time period.
The most valuable measure of the contribution of wind generation would be the amount of wind available during peak demand times. Very few organizations are willing to investigate that important metric because it would be hugely detrimental to the case for subsidizing wind energy.
MISO’s Independent Market Monitor (Potomac Economics) noted in a June, 2013 report on page 39 that
“wind resource output is negatively correlated with load and often contributes to congestion at higher output levels, so hourly-integrated prices often overstate the economic value of wind generation”
The report states that the MISO practice of counting 13.3% of wind as reliable is much too high. They recommend instead that a value of 2.7% would be more appropriate (page 16 of the report).
If anyone was inclined to make a truly fair comparison of generation costs for wind and solar there would have to be a very large additional cost to maintain a reliable backup generation source for when wind and solar were not available. This would probably come close to doubling the true cost of wind and solar generation.
Hydro-kinetics sources do not suffer from this problem. They are reliable and predictable and can scale up to any degree without causing problems on the grid. No backup generation sources are required.
Hydro-kinetics generated electricity is much more expensive per kw-hour of nameplate capacity than wind and solar – probably on the order of $8-10/kw of capacity. But when reasonable capacity factors for wind and solar are considered (30% and 15% to be on the generous side) then the costs are not significantly different. But the very important advantage of hydro-kinetics is that it is reliable during times of peak demand.
As long as a KW-hour of electricity is judged to be of equal value no matter the source then wind and solar PV appear to be much lower in cost than hydro-kinetics.
The Value of a Hydro-kinetics Partnership
The barrier to wide-spread implementation of hydro-kinetic generation is not technical.
The primary barrier is the perception, widely held amongst renewable energy advocates, government officials, politicians, and funding agencies, that wind and solar PV are the best options to fight climate change.
Utilities, that have a deeper understanding of generation issues and understand the problems associated with wind and solar PV generation, are not actively engaged in the debate. This is because they largely see renewable generation as a nuisance that they have to deal with, like environmental regulations. They continue to build out new natural gas fired plants and even a few nuclear plants to provide reliable generation. They also are learning to manage rapid cycling of their plants in response to fluctuations in renewable generation.
Utilities do not own the majority of wind and solar farms and of course have no financial interest in distributed sources such as roof-top solar.
Finally, because they are either publicly owned, or earn an agreed upon return regulated by Public Utility Commissions, utilities are not particularly concerned about any additional costs associated with unreliable and unpredictable wind and solar PV generation. Whatever costs they have to incur, including maintaining a duplicate fleet of generation assets that can be available when wind and solar are not, will ultimately be born by the rate-payers, not the utilities. Consequently, utilities are not advocating for sensible options like hydro-kinetics.
The other perception, which is unfortunately firmly grounded in reality, is that hydro-kinetic generation has not been proven to be a really viable option at this time.
All of the hydro-kinetic companies discussed in this post are relatively tiny, privately held firms that are generally under-staffed and under-capitalized. That statement is not meant as a criticism – these firms have achieved remarkable engineering accomplishments and have overcome very difficult technical challenges. But it would not be much of an exaggeration to say that all of these companies are about one failed grant application or unsuccessful project away from bankruptcy. Several have already succumbed.
This situation lacks “critical mass” in every dimension – economic, political, regulatory.
The only way to overturn the perception that wind and solar PV are better options than hydro-kinetics is through a very significant lobbying and public relations effort focused not only on national politicians in the U.S. and Canada, but also on regulatory agencies and utilities. Hydro-kinetics is a superior option. No exaggeration is needed to make the case. But the case does need to be made. Regulatory agencies and even utilities need to be strong advocates.
Politicians need to believe that additional support in the form of production tax credits or feed-in-tariffs as well as increased R&D funding are justifiable based upon the superior value of hydro-kinetics as compared to wind and solar PV.
At the moment a number of small companies are advocating different approaches and technologies using staff resources that have limited time and money to tell their stories. Decision makers are faced with trying to choose a “winner” which leads to no decision at all in many cases.
A partnership of these firms could fund a professional and credible full-time lobbying effort. As unsavory as that might seem to leaders focused on the development of hydro-kinetic technology the reality is that wind and solar PV already have entrenched and vocal proponents at all levels of government.
A partnership of these firms could also fund resources dedicated to interfacing with various regulators to understand their concerns and educate them with regards to hydro-kinetic technology.
Rye Development and Hydro Green Energy have extensive experience with the complexities of licensing facilities on the Mississippi, which has to be one of the primary targets for hydro-kinetic development.
Instream Energy, as well as former staff members from Clean Current and RER Hydro, have knowledge and contacts within the Canadian regulatory establishment. The Fraser and St. Lawrence rivers also have great potential for hydro-kinetic development.
Verdant Energy has had success with regulators with regards to tidal energy development.
The pooled expertise of these firms with respect to regulatory and environmental matters would represent a very significant resource to aid in the advocacy of hydro-kinetics in North America.
Would a partnership of hydro-kinetic firms require that some technologies be abandoned? Only if it made sense.
It is likely that collaboration on engineering issues under mutual non-disclosures would be beneficial to all parties, each of which would retain the Intellectual Property for their particular implementations.
Rationalization of the supply chain for major components and consolidation of some fabrication would reduce costs by increasing volumes even if the final products were quite different.
Centralization of some non-core administrative functions such as web site maintenance, legal services, and grant application preparation could be explored in order to reduce costs.
The “outside world” would benefit from having a single communications channel and a single core message representing hydro-kinetics. The various technologies being offered by partner companies would be presented as options to address a particular opportunity.
It would be possible to have competing solutions proposed for a particular project in some circumstances but that would not be ideal. It should be kept in mind that the real competition is wind and solar PV, not other hydro-kinetic technologies. It would be preferable for the partnership to advocate one technology for a particular opportunity based upon the geographic location and availability of support staff and resources. The possibility of supplementing staff at one organization with knowledgeable and experienced staff from one of the other partners would enhance the credibility of a response to any particular opportunity.
Hydro-kinetics should be one of the most important foundations for a transition to a sustainable energy environment; more environmentally benign than large scale hydro, more reliable than wind or solar PV, and vastly scalable with every large river offering development potential.
Given the amount of investment and engineering effort that has been undertaken to date without attaining commercialization it seems clear that the current decentralized approach is not very effective. A hydro-kinetics partnership would allow the technology to attain critical mass without compromising the technical achievements that have been made or will be made in the future by partner companies.
This post isn’t directly related to alternate energy but discusses what I believe is a serious issue with the way that we govern ourselves. Problems translating the “will of the people” into political action will impact all policy decisions including those related to attaining a sustainable energy environment.
Political leaders, captains of industry, and ordinary citizens around the world are debating how it is that Donald Trump was elected President of the world’s greatest democracy and what impact that vote will have on a variety of issues, most notably International Trade and action on Climate Change.
Regardless of what Donald Trump may or may not do as President I feel that his election demands that we as citizens of the world ask ourselves a couple of very important questions. What is wrong with our democratic institutions and how can they be repaired?
The general consensus is that 2016 saw one of if not the most devisive and depressing U.S. Presidential campaigns ever. It made me recall the spoken-word song by Gil Scott-Herron from 1975. Unfortunately – very unfortunately – it turns out that he was wrong. The Revolution is being televised.
What we are witnessing is no less than the transformation of a very important exercise of citizen rights and responsibilities into a very bad reality TV show.
It started with a primary race that lacked focus on the Republican side, with more than a dozen contestants vying for the nomination trophy. Contrast that with a race on the Democrat side that pitted pure (perhaps naive) principle against a single-minded quest for power by an establishment politician with more than a few skeletons rattling around in her closet.
During the primaries Donald Trump’s schoolyard taunts alienated millions. But millions of people that feel alienated and manipulated by the “elite” applauded him for his lack of political correctness. Trump’s utter disdain for everything and everyone associated with “politics as usual” was a major factor that helped him win the primaries and the election.
Bernie Sanders, at the age of 75, tapped into the youthful desire for something to believe in. Young people in the U.S. and many other countries also feel alienated from a political system that seems sadly out of touch with their concerns and has been remarkably immune to their influence (consider the extremely short-lived impact of the ‘occupy’ movement).
Citizens of other countries (including my own Canada) might be tempted to characterize what went on during the 2016 U.S. Presidential race as a grotesque anomaly, something that could only happen in an electoral environment where candidates need close to a billion dollars to be “competitive” (2012 estimated spending by Obama/Romney was $2.6 billion). But I don’t think we need be so smug. The bigger issue, and in my opinion the reason that money has become such an important factor in elections, is the lack of engagement by the electorate.
If you truly believe that all politicians are power-hungry, unscrupulous, self-serving partisans, then why not vote for the one you find the most physically attractive, or the one that says that one thing in a TV ad that you relate to, or repeats one nasty allegation about their opponent that you find credible?
To me this is the fundamental problem that undermines the legitimacy of our democratic institutions. There have been too many cases where politicians campaign on a specific issue only to completely ignore it once elected. There have been far too many policy flip-flops, post-election priority adjustments, and “unexpected” financial revelations that prevent the successful candidate from keeping promises made during the election campaign.
The most troubling manifestation of this lack of engagement is the declining participation rates in the mature democracies. Routinely, about one in three eligible voters stays home. That was the case even in the hotly contested Brexit vote. Recent U.S. Presidential elections have experienced participation rates as low as 49%.
Citizens are not to blame. They are not lazy, stupid, or gullible. But they find themselves having to choose between politicians who all owe huge financial debts to the same group of wealthy backers. They also know that any politician they elect will be virtually invulnerable to popular opinion or voter dissatisfaction until shortly before the next election, if at all. For many people, far too many, the conclusion is that their vote really cannot make a difference so why bother.
In a world where societal changes come as fast as Donald Trump tweets and many people are unable to hold the same job for more than one election cycle our current form of democracy just doesn’t make sense.
Having one opportunity to express a political preference every 4 or 5 years is not enough to engage the electorate. That is especially true when the only way to express that preference is to physically travel to a polling station, wait in line for an indeterminate period of time and mark a piece of paper with a pencil.
Having to choose one political party that will necessarily represent a broad spectrum of positions on all manner of issues means that it is impossible for many citizens to feel totally comfortable with any of the available choices.
For the past 10-15 years most successful electoral campaigns have promised “change”. But after several sequential change agents have been elected voters continue to crave more change. Perhaps what is needed is not a change in policy or a change in the party in power but rather a change in the system itself.
Representative democracy is probably still the best hope to have a government “of the people, by the people, for the people” to quote Abraham Lincoln. It is not possible for even the most engaged citizen to obtain a deep enough understanding of every issue facing government to allow for direct democracy on a daily basis. So it does still make sense to choose representatives who can be tasked with the operation of government as a full-time job.
However, there are issues that arise on a regular basis that represent significant inflection points in the trajectory of the economy, care for the environment, civil rights and other issues of National importance. I would contend that for decisions being made on those issues there is a role for direct citizen input.
Many state legislatures make quite extensive use of citizen propositions which represent a kind of direct democratic input. As valuable as these propositions are they suffer from many of the same problems as general elections. Campaigns for or against propositions are conducted largely through Television advertising that attempts to summarize often complex issues into 15 or 30 second sound bites. And being associated with general elections, votes on propositions require that trip to the polling station that many electors find archaic.
I would suggest a different approach to the implementation of direct democracy in our political system. What follows are some ideas regarding how this might work.
What the Public Could Vote On
First, direct citizen input would be requested on motions put forward by elected representatives. The public would not have the authority to initiate votes. The process to do that would be overly complex and drafting legislation is complicated enough as it is.
So which votes would be subject to direct democratic input?
I would suggest that in Parliamentary democracies the Official Opposition could request public voting on Government motions. Sponsors of Private members bills could request public voting if they could attract the support of no less than 25% of all members.
In Congressional systems public voting on a Bill could be requested with the support of 25% of members in either the House of Representatives or the Senate (or equivalent bodies in other countries).
How Would the Public Vote?
Direct Democracy voting would be done on-line or by telephone over a 24 hour period. There are sufficient identity management and verification systems available today to ensure that the rule of one person, one vote is maintained. We already have secure access to bank information and even border security systems such as Trusted Traveler in North America. Voting on-line or by telephone can be made safe, secure, and reliable.
Implementing on-line and telephone voting will disenfranchise some citizens and that is unfortunate. Before such a system was implemented the extent of this problem should be quantified. With the ubiquitous use of mobile devices it may be an acceptably small number when considering the potentially significant expansion of participation that on-line and telephone voting could generate.
What Would be the Impact of a “No” Vote
A “Yes” vote by the public would have no impact other than to confirm that the motion being considered had public support.
A “No” vote would have implications and for that reason there should be some qualifications and limitations built into the system.
First, public votes should be “informed” votes to the greatest extent possible. I would suggest that a short (10 minute?) audio and video presentation be prepared that provides both proponents and opponents of the motion the opportunity to make their case. The presentation should include critiques of these arguments by at least 1 or 2 trusted non-political sources agreed upon by the proponents and opponents of the motion.
Citizens would be required to watch the video or declare that they were well enough informed by other means to cast a vote.
A “No” vote would only be considered valid if at least 10% of the electorate participated.
It might offend some people’s sensibilities regarding the definition of “democracy” but I do not believe that 50% + 1 is a reasonable measure of public will, particularly with regards to blocking a vote sponsored by the elected representatives of that same public. I would suggest that anything less than 55% “No” would have no impact other than letting elected representatives know that there was significant public opposition to the motion.
A 66% “No” vote would mean that the motion was defeated and could not be reconsidered for a specified period of time – perhaps 6 months or a year.
A “No” vote between 55% and 66% would automatically trigger a second public vote within a specified period of time – perhaps 2-4 weeks. A second public vote with a “No” greater than 55% would mean that the motion was defeated and could not be reconsidered for a specified period of time (treated as a 66% “No”).
In a Parliamentary system a public “No” vote would not bring down the government even if on a budget vote or other motion of confidence. Special rules regarding this type of motion would need to be implemented.
These specific recommendations are only meant to stimulate thoughtful consideration of options. The key goal of these proposals is to make democracy relevant to a greater number of citizens and consequently to encourage greater engagement in the democratic process. Without significant reforms to current practices liberal democracies run the risk of greater disenchantment with elections and elected governments.
I end by quoting Winston Churchill’s comments to the British Parliament in 1947.
Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried …
I agree that it is the best form of Government but the way it is implemented could benefit from some fundamental reforms.
The road to a sustainable energy environment in Canada will require complex and politically untenable policy changes and will take decades to implement – right?
Maybe not! Here are four government policies that can be implemented in short order that would begin a radical de-carbonization of the Canadian economy. And none of them involve a carbon tax or huge government investments.
Policy: Update building codes to require that all new commercial/industrial buildings and all new residential housing developments implement geoexchange. Provide low-interest loans for retrofitting existing buildings with this technology.
Impact: All impacted buildings would use approximately 50% as much electricity as compared to traditional HVAC (Heating, Ventilation, Air-Conditioning) systems.
Cost: Essentially no cost. The increased up-front cost to developers would be repaid through lower utility bills over the life of the building.
Policy: Impose a fee for single-occupancy vehicles entering the downtown cores of major Canadian cities (similar to the London, England congestion fee). At the same time create a government vetted registry for car-pooling and expand funding for public transit.
Impact: Substantial reduction in congestion and commute times recovering lost productivity as well as resulting in lower taxi fares and reduced pollution and related health issues.
Cost: The initial cost of setting up the system will be recovered within a few years of operation and will then generate revenues going forward based upon the London experience.
Policy: Establish a Federally funded “regional grid balancing” initiative that will coordinate large-scale hydro developments with expansion of wind generation. For example, Site “C” in BC as well as potential hydro projects in Northern Saskatchewan and Manitoba could provide balancing services for vastly expanded wind development in the prairies. Implement “Unpumped Storage” to increase the ability of the hydro projects to support wind.
Impact: Expanded wind generation with reliable hydro backup will result in the reduction and eventual elimination of coal-fired generation in Alberta and Saskatchewan.
Cost: These projects can be self-financing through a combination of modest electricity rate increases and direct Federal and Provincial support through long-term, low interest loans for construction of the projects.
Policy: Provide support for the development of energy storage solutions through the elimination of grid transit fees for electricity going into storage and by providing a feed-in-tarrif for electricity retrieved from storage.
Impact: This policy will attract private capital to large-scale storage projects by supporting viable business cases. Utility-scale storage would support further expansion of wind energy which will be the primary source of energy in a de-carbonized Canadian economy. Canada will become a world leader in the development of energy storage technologies.
Cost: Minimal cost. The introduction of higher cost (because of the FIT) energy from storage will be offset by the declining wholesale cost of electricity that is associated with introducing large amounts of wind generation.
Hawaiian Transformation to Renewable Energy Sources
Hawaii Renewables facing Cross-currents and Headwinds
Hawaii represents perhaps the most important case study when it comes to integrating solar energy into the generation fleet. My first post on the topic reviewed significant obstacles and unrealistic plans for this transformation. I make some recommendations regarding the expansion of geothermal on the Big Island as well as the establishment of CSP plants.
Hawaiian Electric Company’s Integrated Resource Plan – Welcome to Fantasy Island!
The second in the series was a fairly harsh criticism of the Integrated Resource Plan put forward by the Hawaiian Electric company in June, 2013. This plan has subsequently been abandoned and NextEra proposed purchasing HEI. That deal fell apart in 2016 and so HEI is essentially back to square one.
There is a movement in Hawaii to convert the different operating units of HEI into a community owned co-operative.
Renewable Energy Highlights for the 2nd half of 2014 – Few and Far Between
This post discusses an evaluation of the effectiveness of wind generation in Texas in terms of how much generation can be relied upon in Winter and Summer for onshore and offshore wind farms.
The second part of the post discusses the rapidly declining permits to install roof-top solar in Hawaii and the success of the Kauai Island Utility Co-operative’s utility solar farm developments.
The German Energy Transformation
Germany At The Crossroads
This 2013 post discusses some of the challenges being faced by Germany as it builds out its renewable energy portfolio. In particular, the commitment to decommission the remaining nuclear power stations in the country, that currently represent about 15% of the electricity generation in the country, will make it very difficult for Germany to meet its long-term obligations to reduce CO2 emissions.
The German Energiewende – Modern Miracle or Major Misstep
This 2015 post discusses the considerable achievements of the German Energiewende but also identifies the problems with the way renewable energy has been developed in Germany. It points out that Germany is burning more hydro-carbons today to generate electricity than it was 25 years ago and that coal consumption has declined very marginally. It concludes by examining the financial health of utilities in Germany and predicts that further development of renewable energy in Germany will be constrained by grid security and economic issues.
The Problems With Roof-Top Solar Panels
Roof-top Solar Panels – Who Pays? Who Saves?
This post documents the financial inequities associated with tax-payer and/or rate-payer subsidization of roof-top solar. This inequity results from the significant capital expense required to install the solar panels and the fact that renters and those living in multi-family apartments cannot benefit from such subsidies.
No “Soft Landing” for PV solar industry
This post argues that the economics of roof-top solar panels ultimately do not work. Solar generation curves are compared to typical load curves resulting in the conclusion that as more and more solar power is developed the value of roof-top solar panel output decreases. The post predicts a rapid decline in the installation of roof-top solar panels once solar generation becomes a significant fraction of mid-day demand. This decline is already evident in Hawaii and Germany.
Why roof-top solar panels really don’t make sense
This post describes more problems with roof-top solar and compares roof-top solar to utility-scale solar farms. A link to a comprehensive study by the Brattle Group is provided.
Dark Days Ahead for Roof-top Solar
This post describes how the pace of photo-voltaic roof-top solar panel deployment has slowed dramatically in jurisdictions that were former leaders with this technology, Germany and Hawaii. The conclusion of the post is that as roof-top solar power generation becomes a significant fraction of total generation it becomes more and more difficult to accommodate additional deployments. The last section of the post discusses the successful efforts of the Kauai Island Utility Co-op in developing utility-scale solar farms.
Concentrated Solar Power
We should use Concentrated Solar Power ONLY after sunset
This post discusses how utility-scale photo-voltaic solar farms could be combined with a Concentrated Solar Power facility in order to provide 24×365 electricity generation only from solar power.
Solar Power 24 hours a day, 365 days a year – Believe It Or Not
This post discusses the Gemasolar power plant in Spain that utilizes molten salt thermal energy storage to generate electricity 24 hours a day, 365 days a year powered only by solar energy.
Arnold Goldman – A living, breathing “Black Swan”
This post presents a short biography of Arnold Goldman, one of the pioneers of the Concentrated Solar Power industry. From his development of the first utility-scale plants in the 1980’s to his recent involvement with Brightsource Energy, Arnold has demonstrated a commitment to innovation while always addressing practical considerations.
Unconventional Solar Generation and Applications
Non-Thermal Concentrated Solar Power (CSP)
This post discusses some unconventional technologies used to capture solar energy. Two companies (Stirling Energy Systems and Infinia) developed and deployed technology using parabolic disks to concentrate solar energy onto a Stirling Engine which then generated electricity. Both companies have subsequently gone bankrupt.
Another company, based in Australia, developed a highly efficient solar power receptor which also used parabolic disks to concentrate solar energy. It ceased operations in July, 2015.
The take-away from this post is that true innovation is both difficult and risky. While billions of dollars are spent on subsidizing wind turbines and photo-voltaic solar panels very little Research and Development funding is available for other innovations in alternative energy.
Solar Updraft – Inefficient but Effective
This post discusses a technology that makes use of temperature differences caused by solar heating to generate electricity 24 hours a day. A pilot project ran successfully in Spain in the 1980’s and there are proposals for much larger implementations. As with all new technologies there is significant “first mover” inertia as well as economic and technical challenges that need to be overcome in order to achieve commercialization of this technology.
Solar Power – From Rooftops to the Oceans and the Sky
This post briefly mentions some developments with Concentrated Solar Power. The bulk of the discussion focuses on very unconventional applications for solar panels including powering large sea-going vessels and aircraft.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly Truth about Batteries
This post discusses several of the largest utility-scale battery deployments that have taken place around the world in the last ten years. The failure of any of these projects to replace non-renewable generation assets is documented. The post concludes by identifying some of the very significant financial and technical challenges that need to be overcome in order for battery technology to be a significant factor back-stopping renewable energy sources such as wind and solar.
How Much Battery Storage is Enough for Roof-Top Solar Panels?
This post describes some of the complications associated with calculating the amount of solar insolation that will be received at any point on earth on a particular day. It also describes how a smart micro-grid could control the ebb and flow of electricity between a set of rooftop solar panels, a battery array, and the local utility grid. I provide a link to a calculator that I built that can be used to determine the amount of battery storage required to reduce or eliminate the need to connect to the grid.
The Transition to Electric Cars
Electric Vehicles – The Promise and the Problems
This post from 2012 discusses the rationale behind a transition from cars powered by internal combustion engines to electric cars. It also identifies the environmental issue posed by potentially millions of very large batteries that no longer charge well enough to be used to power those cars. A research project by the University of Western Michigan that proposes using those batteries for utility-scale storage is described.
How Quickly will the Electric Vehicle Revolution Come?
This post from 2014 discusses the lack of progress in the transition to electric cars and some of the difficulties that continue to prevent the widespread adoption of this technology. The experiences of two individual electric car owners (a Tesla owner in Vancouver, Canada and a Nissan Leaf owner in Anaheim, California) are described.
Demand Response and Conservation
Can we control our addiction to electricity? Should we?
This post discusses the strategy referred to as “Demand Response” which involves having businesses and residential energy users voluntarily reduce their requirements for energy at times of high demand. Some early programs have not lived up to expectations but there is clearly a huge upside to successful implementations of this type of program.
Your Speed – 32 mph – Slow Down
This post discusses the importance of consumer awareness when it comes to energy use. The example sited is regarding flashing traffic speed lights which have been shown to change driver behaviour in a positive way that actually becomes increasingly effective with the passage of time. A similar approach has been used with regards to energy use and conservation in Japan since the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
Creating a True Partnership between Consumers and Utility Companies
This is another post discussing the potential effectiveness of Demand Response programs. A J.D. Powers study of consumer behaviour is sited and the success of the program instituted by Oklahoma Gas & Electric is described in detail.
Harvesting the Energy Stored in the Ground Below Us
This post discusses the huge advantages to implementing geoexchange for heating and cooling buildings. An explanation of how such systems work is provided as well as examples of successful implementations.
The Sharing Economy (4 posts)
Imagine no possessions – I wonder if you can?
This post discusses the growing phenomenon of the “sharing economy” and what a positive impact it will ultimately have on energy consumption in modern society.
Bike Share/Rent in Northern Europe – a sampler
This post describes my experiences with bike sharing in a number of Northern European countries. I identify some issues with the various programs but overall I endorse the concept very enthusiastically.
Car Pooling Part I: Treading Water
This post discusses the state of car-pooling in North America. This very effective way to reduce traffic congestion, pollution and energy consumption has not been widely adopted and adoption rates have been essentially static for many years. The post describes some of the psychological and technical challenges that need to be overcome.
Car Pooling Part II: Going for Gold
In this second post in the series a number of suggestions are put forward that might significantly reduce single-occupancy vehicles in urban areas.
Why Energy Storage Should be the #1 Priority (2 posts)
It’s time to do the right things “not because they are easy but because they are hard”
This post discusses two difficult engineering projects – lunar landings during the Apollo Program and the building of the transcontinental railway in Canada. In both cases the most difficult challenges were the first ones to be worked on. These are valuable lessons that need to be applied to the development of renewable energy resources.
“Start off the development with the most difficult elements of the design” – Elon Musk
On September 29, 2016 Elon Musk made a presentation on his proposal to colonize Mars. While the concept is definitely “out there” the attention to detail in terms of addressing engineering challenges is admirable. And as with the other projects I have blogged about SpaceX is tackling the most difficult engineering challenges first.
Energy Storage Projects and Proposals (5 posts)
Funicular Power – Newton’s Apple to the rescue
This post discusses an approach to energy storage that involves lifting a large weight (railway cars filled with ballast) using excess energy from wind in most cases at night and releasing that energy the next day. A link is provided to a company attempting to commercialize this technology.
Hydraulic Energy Storage – Another Way to Use Gravity
This post discusses a method of storing energy using a large gravity piston which moves up and down inside a reservoir. A link is provided to a company attempting to commercialize a variation of this technology.
Compressed Hydrogen – A Viable Solution for Long-term Energy Storage
This post discusses a number of projects that aim to use compressed hydrogen as a long term energy storage mechanism. Although compressed hydrogen represents one of the only viable methods to achieve long-term energy storage commercialization of the technology faces numerous economic and technical challenges.
This post discusses a proposal to build additional capacity into existing hydro-electric facilities in order to provide short duration generation in excess of what the reservoir can deliver over the long term. This approach would be used to counter-balance variations in wind generation.
The Panama Canal, Apollo 11, ISS … Energy Storage
This blog post suggests that a coordinated and well-funded international effort will be required in order to develop economical and reliable energy storage solutions at the scale required to support the transition to a sustainable energy environment.
Wind Energy Headlines Need Scrutiny
This post discusses some of the very common misrepresentations promoted by Greentech writers about wind energy. The point of the post is that by exaggerating the value and achievements of wind energy and minimizing the significant technical problems yet to be overcome these statements lead to complacence and undermine efforts to obtain appropriate levels of Research and Development and financial support.
Alberta – A Case Study in Wind Energy Management
This post discusses some of the challenges being faced by Alberta, Canada as it integrates wind energy generation into the provincial grid.
The Wind Production Tax Credit should not be renewed
This October, 2013 post argued that the PTC had reached the end of its useful life and that the funds allocated to the PTC should be redirected towards energy storage research and financial support mechanisms for energy storage projects. In December, 2015 the U.S. Congress approved an extension of the PTC until 2020 at a cost of tens of billions of dollars to American taxpayers. No additional funding has been provided for energy storage projects.
The California Electrodox
In this post I discuss the Electricity Paradox that is happening in California (and elsewhere). The paradox is that electricity imports and retail prices increase at the same time as total generation capacity is also going up so that there is an over-abundance of available electricity most of the time. A surplus of any commodity normally drives prices down but not in the case of the Electrodox.
Hydro-kinetics and Dam Conversions
An Ancient Energy Source Re-Imagined
This post discusses the potential of river flows to generate electricity. Subsequent to publishing that post I researched the topic thoroughly and found that there have been more than half a dozen successful pilot projects demonstrating the viability of this technology. Unfortunately, there has yet to be a successful commercialization of hydro-kinetics and several very promising companies have gone bankrupt.
Dam Conversion and Hydro-Kinetics – 25 GW of potential to be tapped
This post describes the very significant potential of hydro-kinetics in North America as well as a number of promising pilot projects that have demonstrated that this renewable and reliable technology can play a significant role in our transition to a sustainable energy environment.
Hydro-kinetics – the Renewable “Silver Bullet”
This post describes the current state of hydro-kinetic developments in North America as well as the financial and regulatory challenges faced by the companies involved in this sector. The post concludes that without a partnership which can pool resources the remaining participants will not survive. Some have already succumbed.
Editorials (7 posts)
Introducing the Black Swan blog
This post from September, 2012 explains why I decided to start the Black Swan Blog. Although it has not garnered even a tiny fraction of the interest shown in the latest Hollywood wardrobe malfunction it has been read by tens of thousands of people. From the feedback I have had from readers all over the world I feel it has made a useful contribution to the conversation about renewable energy.
A Sustainable Energy Manifesto
This post summarizes what I believe would be the most effective policies to achieve a sustainable energy environment.
Imagine a World of Abundant Inexpensive Energy
This post discusses the very positive consequences of attaining a sustainable energy environment. This includes shifting a significant amount of agricultural production to greenhouses in Northern areas and providing plentiful fresh water through water desalination.
COP21 – Turning Good Intentions into Concrete Actions
This post discusses the measures that need to be put in place to meet the commitments made by world leaders as part of the COP21 agreements made in Paris in November, 2015.
Lights Out: The coming crisis in electricity generation
This blog highlights some structural issues in the electricity generation industry that are being introduced by the integration of renewables. Ignoring these issues may put the stability of the electrical grid at risk.
The Future Ain’t What It Used To Be
This blog post builds upon some observations by keynote speakers at a technology conference held in May, 2014. They described a shift in the way people gather information as well as which sources of information are trusted by the public. They also pointed out the desirability, perhaps even the responsibility of people like myself that distribute information on the Internet to be thoughtful, respectful, and as accurate as possible. They also suggested that some level of “digital curation” should be practiced by authors in order to help readers find information quickly. That blog post provided the motivation for me to (eventually) create this page of abstracts.
BC’s Electricity Conundrum – Politics, Profits, and Potential Partnerships
This post discusses the confusing state of electricity supply and demand in British Columbia. The complexities arise from the fact that BC is entitled to electricity actually produced in the U.S. under the Columbia River Treaty, as well as the significant amounts of private power generation that exists in the province with Fortis BC, Alcan, and PPP’s. Questionable forecasts of demand growth and the existence of the Burrard Generating station as a peak demand supply make it very difficult to definitively state that BC needs the Site C dam. However, using Site C as backup for Alberta wind generation might make sense.
Green Energy, Schmeen Energy – Nobody Cares!
This rather facetious post that suggests that although the majority of the inhabitants of Spaceship earth have a vague desire to treat the planet better there are many other interests and issues that bubble up to be attention grabbers – some trivial, some serious. The post discusses a psychological study that investigated communications and actions taken during “Demand Response” events and the conclusions are encouraging.
Reflections on one year of blogging
Written in 2013, these were my observations after my first year of blogging.
Just For Fun
Scary Energy Scenarios (Hallowe’en 2012)
In the spirit of trying to scare the dickens out of readers this post identifies 3 hypothetical disasters related to energy development. Thankfully none have come to pass.
Hallowe’en 2013: Nightmare on Main Street
OK – so this was supposed to be scary but in hindsight is a bit comical. The post speculates about the possibility of skyrocketing oil prices and the geopolitical ramifications. Of course, just the opposite has happened and the collapse of oil prices has had different global implications. I must say that I still think we have passed “peak oil” at least in an economic sense and a future oil price crisis may still be on the horizon.
The Fright Before Christmas
This has been consistently one of my most popular blog postings. It describes a scenario where there is a dead calm across much of North America on Christmas eve.
Doing the “Green” thing on 2 wheels for the environment and for charity
This post describes my personal experiences with an electric bicycle. It has allowed me to commute more using both it and my road bicycle.
Until September 29, 2016 I was not a big fan of Elon Musk. Not that I had anything against him. But I put him in the same camp as Eric Schmidt and Mark Zuckerberg – guys that had made a fortune in tech and were doing some interesting things with electric cars, self-driving cars, and delivering internet service to rural and remote areas.
But when I listened to Elon’s talk on the colonization of Mars my perspective changed (I have put together a transcript of the presentation with his slides embedded and extra graphics and uploaded it to the Black Swan Blog Library).
Not that I think colonization of Mars is the most important goal for the human race at this time. As a Geophysicist I acknowledge the possibility that there could be a large asteroid or comet heading for earth right now and that there is nothing that we could do to stop it and avoid a possible extinction event. So from that perspective becoming a multi-planet species makes sense. However, I think that possibility is quite remote and I feel that there are big problems to solve here on earth before we start exporting our issues to other planets.
So the end goal of Elon’s talk is not what impressed me. What impressed me was the precision of the logic that he used to attack every potential barrier to the success of his mission. In essence he has taken all the lessons learned from more than a hundred years of development in the air travel industry and intends to apply all those lessons to Martian colonization in less than a decade.
What is the relevance of Elon’s talk to the development of a sustainable energy environment? I would site one statement that epitomizes the approach that is required to achieve that desirable end result.
“To talk about some of the key elements of the interplanetary spaceship and rocket booster, we decided to start off the development with what we think are probably the two most difficult elements of the design.”
These are not just words. The two elements Elon is referring to are the development of an extremely powerful rocket motor that is fueled by a methanol based fuel (which could be produced from resources available on Mars) and a carbon fibre fuel tank that is impervious to gas and extremely cold, liquefied methanol fuel.
Without the Raptor engine SpaceX could not build a ship that can return from Mars by creating fuel in situ. And without a lightweight yet incredibly strong carbon fibre fuel tank the inter-planetary ship would be too heavy to make the journey possible.
Neither of these elements are helping SpaceX achieve its near-term goals. In fact, quite the opposite. Key engineering staff resources and enormous sums of money are being diverted from near-term goals to demonstrate the feasibility of manufacturing the Raptor engine and carbon fibre fuel tank.
But the harsh reality is that if you cannot solve the most difficult engineering problems there is no point to working on anything else. This is exactly the issue I raised in a blog post more than three years ago.
The most difficult task we have before us with regards to sustainable energy is energy storage. Once we solve that issue everything else becomes easy. Without storage no amount of renewable energy development can wean us off the burning of hydrocarbons. It’s really that simple.
And yet, politicians and regulators continue to put up roadblocks to the development of energy storage systems.
There is no financial support available for stand-alone energy storage systems and politicians and even academics continue to debate the need for such support. There is no debate. As demonstrated by Denmark, Germany, and Hawaii, the development of renewables hits a wall when it becomes a significant percentage of total generation.
The 2013 California mandate requiring 1.3 GW of storage was met with hyperbolic excitement within the Greentech community. But what does it really mean?
By intentionally not specifying the mandate in GW-Hours the California Public Utilities Commission made it clear that this was not a mandate to take energy storage seriously as a generation source. A few large battery complexes like the Notrees complex (where all the batteries have to be replaced after less than 3 years of service) in Texas or the facility planned for the Alamitos Power Center could provide 1.3 GW for anywhere from 15 minutes to four hours. That might be useful for the purposes of grid stabilization but it will not make any significant contribution to the generation of electricity in California.
The California mandate will in all likelihood result in less than 2 GW-hours of energy storage by 2020. That’s about the same amount of storage that is built into one Concentrated Solar Power plant in Arizona.
Building energy storage with a capacity of 1 GW-hour is hard. There is no battery complex, flywheel facility, Compressed Air Energy Storage System, or any other type of energy storage technology facility in the world that has a capacity close to that. But if California really wants to be powered by renewables at some point in the future the energy storage requirement would be more than 170 GW-Hours based upon the California “duck curve”.
Maybe someday we will get serious about energy storage. The enormous benefits to people all over the world that would result should be motivation enough.
However, I worry that at the rate we’re going Elon will have established a thriving Mars colony before we have an economical and reliable energy storage system.
I truly believe that we need to transition to a sustainable energy environment. If you have read posts on the Black Swan Blog you know that. And when I say “sustainable” I mean “sustainable for millennia” – an environment where all the inhabitants of planet earth have abundant and affordable energy for thousands of years. That means, in essence, eliminating the consumption of non-renewable energy resources (which includes uranium in the long term so I only support nuclear fission power as a bridging technology – viable fusion would be a different story).
As a result I advocate for alternative energy solutions in whatever form they take. But I avoid exaggerating the achievements of any renewable energy technology or project. More importantly, I do not try and minimize the immense difficulties that have yet to be overcome in making the transition to a sustainable energy environment. There is much work to do and some sacrifices to be made. Any statements to the contrary are not helpful in my opinion.
So it irks me to no end to constantly see statements that are, to be charitable, misrepresentations of the facts. I am convinced that these kinds of statements make politicians and decision-makers either complacent or encourage their support of ineffective policies. This blog addresses some recent statements and why I believe they are so destructive.
Solar accounted for 32 percent of the nation’s new generating capacity in 2014, beating out both wind energy and coal for the second year in a row.
This statement is only true with regards to what is known as the “nameplate” capacity of a generation source – the theoretical maximum output that could be obtained from the source. The actual output from a solar panel comes close to the “nameplate” capacity for only a few hours around noon each day in the summer.
A true measure of the contribution that a solar panel can make can be obtained by dividing the actual energy production of a solar panel by the theoretical maximum if it could generate electricity 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. This is known as the capacity factor.
Statements regarding capacity factors, even from relatively reliable sources, are typically very optimistic and therefore misleading.
In the latest publication from the U.S. Energy Information Agency (“Levelized Cost and Levelized Avoided Cost of New Generation Resources in the Annual Energy Outlook 2016) the capacity factor for solar is listed as 25% on page 7. That is a ludicrous number. Although it might be achievable with utility-scale solar farms with dual-axis sun tracking located in the southern U.S. it does not represent the average attainable from most re-world installations.
I prefer to use actual production numbers when determining capacity factors.
In Germany, with 38 GW of solar capacity, the largest in the world, the average capacity factor is about 11% (source: Fraunhofer – 33.3TW-Hours generated in 2014). In the winter it was more like 3%. Applying those capacity factors to the U.S. it would probably be fair to say that it would take at least 8x as much solar “nameplate capacity” to match the equivalent nuclear or fossil fuel generation. On that basis a more reasonable statement would be that effective solar generation added in 2014 was 1/8 that of coal generation.
Why does it matter if the figures published for solar are misleading? Because those deceptive numbers undermine the business cases for much more valuable renewable energy technologies such as geothermal and hydro-kinetics.
The Kauai Island Utility Co-operative commissioned one of the world’s largest utility-scale solar farms in 2015 – a 12 MW facility which cost $40 Million. Therefore the installation cost for this landmark facility is $3.33/W (Nameplate capacity) which is in line with figures presented by NREL.
Recent communications with KIUC indicate that the Koloa solar farm has achieved an average capacity factor of 21% over the past two years. That makes the cost per effective Watt for this solar farm almost 5 times higher; more than $16/Watt.
The only number you will ever see quoted for a solar installation is something like $3-4/Watt. The very poor capacity factor for solar is conveniently ignored.
Effective costs of greater than $16/Watt would make most geothermal and hydro-kinetics projects viable. Those technologies are available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year with capacity factors typically greater than 80-90%.
But even comparing installation costs/Watt is optimistic with regards to the cost of solar.
Very little solar power is available after 6:00 pm which is a very high demand period of time in most locations. As a result, it would not matter how much solar power was developed. Without economical storage solutions there would still be no power available in the evening and overnight. Should there not be some recognition of the cost to provide an alternative, backup source of power when solar is unavailable? And given that the backup power source today would probably be fueled by natural gas, how does the development of solar power without storage move us to a truly sustainable energy environment? What is the end-game?
Statements about wind generation are equally misleading.
The EIA report lists a capacity factor for onshore wind as 40%. The average capacity factor of wind in Germany (with an installed nameplate capacity of greater than 35 GW) based upon actual production numbers, was 13.5% in 2014. Installation of high capacity wind turbines is currently running around $2-3/Watt of nameplate capacity. Taking into account the capacity factor the cost/effective Watt is once again north of $10.
In terms of having to provide a backup power source the situation with wind is even worse than with solar which is at least predictable. Once wind becomes a major source of generation in any jurisdiction the problems begin in earnest.
In Denmark, with about 4.5 GW of nameplate wind capacity (as compared to peak demand requirements of just over 6 GW) when the winds are blowing strongly Danish wind generators are being paid not to generate. In fact, most statements about the miracle of wind power in Denmark are exceptionally misleading and unhelpful. Denmark continues to burn coal to generate electricity despite having more than 100% excess generation capacity. Denmark wind generation is greater than 40% of the total electricity produced in Denmark but only a fraction of that wind generation is actually consumed in Denmark, the remainder being dumped onto Nordic and European grids which Denmark uses as a giant battery. Some interesting observations on the Danish situation can be found in posts here at the Black Swan blog as well as at the Energy Matters blog. The master of all wind data for Denmark and Germany is Paul-Frederik Bach.
The bottom line is that the true costs of wind and solar are minimized and obscured while the benefits are exaggerated. A watt of solar energy generated at noon in Hawaii when that watt is not required is considered to be equal to a watt generated at a peak demand time in the evening from a reliable source such as hydro, nuclear, coal, or natural gas. A watt generated by a wind turbine in the middle of the night is considered to be of equal value as well. This is not reasonable and these attitudes represent a significant barrier to the development of energy storage solutions and reliable and renewable sources such as hydro-kinetics or geothermal. Even as tens of $billions are poured into wind and solar subsidies each year more effective alternative energy sources get little or no support.
The impact is not hypothetical. In California, which prides itself on being a leader in the “green energy” revolution, almost 2 GW of geothermal energy remains undeveloped under the Salton Sea because of regulatory and financing hurdles. That is the equivalent of two large nuclear plants or at least 1,000 wind turbines (if you could get them to generate when electricity was needed).
In Northern California the Idaho Hill pumped storage facility with 3.2 GW-Hours of capacity is not being built because the local utility cannot justify the cost (which at about $440/KW-hour is lower than any other energy storage technology available). That despite California’s mandated development of 1 GW of energy storage by local utilities. Why? Because that mandate specifically excluded pumped storage.
A 2015 research paper identifies the need for a diverse portfolio of renewable generation assets and confirms the need for baseload renewables such as geothermal and hydro-kinetics.
I am getting the distinct impression that the solar and wind industries in the U.S. are now such strong lobby groups that any message that might temper the enthusiasm for these technologies (and therefore might impact the profitability of these industries) is not being heard. The predictable result, in my opinion, is that the technologies that need to get developed to transition to a sustainable energy environment are simply not being given the support they deserve.
All the hyperbole and disinformation about wind and solar makes me wish that George Washington was still President. He would have to tell the truth about the various forms of alternative energy and allocate resources accordingly.
A future blog will provide more details regarding the potential of geothermal and hydro-kinetics. Some other initiatives are outlined in my Sustainable Energy Manifesto.
The Black Swan Blog posts have covered a wide variety of topics related to renewable energy. Many of those posts have focused on the need to develop reliable and affordable energy storage options so that wind and solar power generation can be time-shifted to match demand. No such energy storage technology is viable today but I am convinced that a number of technologies will become mainstream within 20-30 years – possibly more quickly than that.
Without in any way minimizing the challenges that lay ahead with energy storage (which I think should get vastly more R&D funding than is the case today) I thought it would be interesting to imagine what the world would be like when electricity is being generated primarily from renewable sources.
Renewables, whether they be always available such as hydro, hydro-kinetics, or geothermal, or whether they need support in the form of energy storage (wind and solar) all have very low long-term operating costs. Because they do not require any input fuel the only ongoing costs are operations and maintenance which are, in most cases, quite low. So what would be the impact of abundant and cheap electricity that has minimal negative environmental impacts?
About half of the world’s population live north of 27 degrees latitude. That means that there are a lot of people living in areas where crops cannot grow for 1/3 of the year or more. As a result many large population centers are completely dependent upon agricultural production from areas farther south.
The transportation of these agricultural products requires large amounts of energy and inevitably results in a great deal of spoilage. In a world where electricity is abundant and inexpensive there would likely be a significant shift of food production to greenhouses in more northern areas. The result would be fresher produce and lower carbon emissions from the transportation sector.
Water through Desalination
Throughout human history there have been areas of the world experiencing drought. From the dust-bowels of the 1930’s in North America to the more recent dry spells in Australia and California a lack of fresh water can severely reduce food production as well as causing a variety of other problems.
Because transportation and trade via ocean-going vessels has been important to human settlements for millenia many large cities are located on the coastline. For those populations desalination would provide all the fresh water needed. Although such plants have been deployed quite extensively, notably in the Middle East, the cost of energy required for these plants has been a significant deterrent. It should be noted that more than 1% of the world’s daily oil production is burnt in the Middle East to desalinate sea water. In a world where electricity is abundant and inexpensive desalination would become a viable option everywhere.
Areas such as North Africa could possibly be transformed to conditions similar to those experienced during the last “Green Sahara” period which ended about 5,500 years ago. The result would be greater self-sufficiency and improved living conditions for the millions of people suffering through the repeated droughts that have afflicted Sub-Saharan Africa over the past decade.
The Al Khafji Solar-powered desalination plant in Saudi Arabia may be a “postcard from the future”. Using the power of the intense solar radiation common in the area this plant will replace the burning of oil to produce 60,000 cubic metres of water a day.
Inexpensive electricity could be used to power vastly expanded mass transit systems as well as the factories that will manufacture the trolleys and trains that will be used in those systems. Inexpensive electricity will reduce the costs of heating and cooling homes and offices with the result that families and businesses will have more disposable income. It is a fact that inexpensive electricity will transform human society in ways as significant and unimaginable as any technological innovation that has been experienced to date.
And that does raise a concern.
On ancient maps and globes uncharted territory was annotated with warnings such as “here be dragons” or “here be lions”, the intention being to discourage potential explorers or at least advise them to be well armed! A world of abundant and inexpensive energy may also have dragons that we need to guard against. As far as I am concerned the largest and most deadly of these would be the concentration of ownership of this energy by organizations that were not acting in the public good.
In most jurisdictions in the world electricity production is either publicly owned or managed by organizations that are monitored and controlled by public utility commissions or similar bodies. This system, although it suffers from inertia in some cases, has by and large worked quite effectively. As long as the new renewable energy sources continue to be part of this type of structure there is no real danger.
Considering all the positive consequences that could be realized in a world fueled by renewable energy it is reasonable to try and map out the path to get us to that blissful state as quickly as possible.
In my postings here at the Black Swan Blog I have identified numerous technologies that can be used today to store energy. I have also identified the problems associated with each of them. The bottom line, which few green energy advocates are honest enough to admit, is that energy storage on the scale required to transition to 100% wind and solar is not even close to being a reality. Euan Mearns has conducted detailed technical analyses on several real world scenarios. His summary post is a worthwhile read.
As daunting as the technical challenges are the real problem with energy storage is political will and funding. Politicians, with the best of intentions, continue to chase energy mirages such as roof-top solar and wind without storage under the entirely false theory that those approaches can achieve the desired result – a world powered by renewable energy sources.
The intermittent and unpredictable nature of those sources causes escalating problems when implemented to any significant degree. Denmark, Germany, and Hawaii represent well documented case studies that prove without any doubt that every step forward in the development of renewables increases the difficulty of taking the next step.
Having said that, one or more viable and economical energy storage systems would make all the problems go away. A large portion of the solar energy received at mid-day could be shifted to the evening and night. The huge variability of wind energy could be reshaped to better match demand curves. Regulation of electricity flowing into regional grids would mean that costly upgrades would not be necessary.
But in today’s world it is impossible to make a business case for a utility-scale energy storage solution.
In almost every jurisdiction there is little or no support for energy storage solutions. Instead, energy storage developers are faced with having to purchase electricity from local utilities, including paying a grid transmission fee, then store the electricity using some hugely expensive and largely unproven technology, then try and resell the electricity back into the grid in competition with other sources including cheap coal and natural gas-fired plants. Just as in the 1951 cartoon “Cheese Chasers” this scenario just don’t add up!.
Substantially increased R&D funding and operational support for energy storage are essential. A Feed-In-Tarriff for energy retrieved from storage should be provided.
In the short term, as energy storage solutions mature, more support should be provided for existing dispatchable energy sources such as geothermal and hydro-kinetics. These are sources that, despite very compelling attributes, also continue to suffer from a lack of R&D funding and direct financial support.
A sustainable energy future is possible with all the positive benefits that come with it. We just need to want it badly enough to make the best investments possible to achieve the desired result. There are more ideas discussed in my Sustainable Energy Manifesto.
The countries of the world have agreed to reduce carbon emissions significantly by 2030. Although this agreement is designed to limit the forecast rise in global temperature I am more enthusiastic about the fact that it will result in reduced consumption of non-renewable hydro-carbons.
But now comes the hard part. How to decide which actions will produce the maximum benefits for the least cost and economic disruption.
I’ll start by listing a few things that I don’t think should be priorities.
Roof-top solar panels: there will be a great temptation for governments to jump on the roof-top solar bandwagon. It sounds like such a great idea – let people generate their own power. And many, many countries are doing it so it must surely be a good thing – right?
There is nothing evil about roof-top solar panels. But an objective analysis of all the possible ways that renewable energy can be generated would have to conclude that providing financial support for roof-top solar is one of the most expensive and least effective approaches available.
On the other hand I am an enthusiastic supporter of utility scale solar developments between latitudes 35 north and south such as those built over the past few years by Kauai Island Utility Co-op. Solar energy in the equatorial/subtropical regions is probably the best source of renewable energy available.
The reason I don’t support the development of solar energy north or south of 35 degrees is not because there isn’t solar energy potential at higher latitudes. Obviously there is. The problem is that at higher latitudes the electricity demand usually peaks in the winter and there is significantly less solar energy available in the winter outside the equatorial/subtropical regions. At 35 degrees winter insolation is theoretically about 75% of summer. At 45 degrees the ratio is 66%. But actual generation is much, much less than that because in the winter the low sun angles mean that nearby trees, buildings, and hills place the solar panels in the shade for much of the day. So, for example, in Germany the winter solar generation is 1/10 the summer generation.
Wind: There is no doubt that the extensive development of wind energy is already and will continue to be one of the cornerstones of a sustainable energy environment. The increasing capacity of individual turbines and the decreasing cost/MW make wind energy a very attractive option – when it is available. And that is the big problem with wind.
Although it is true on a global scale that “the wind is always blowing somewhere” it is a fact that calm winds can extend over very large geographic areas for hours or days at a time. It is not uncommon for wind generation to be at less than 10% of nameplate capacity for 30% of the hours in a year. Dealing with the variability of wind will be perhaps the biggest challenge to be overcome in order to meet the carbon emission reduction targets envisioned in the COP21 agreement. Until some progress is made in this regard the financial support provided to wind developers should be significantly reduced.
So much for what should not be priorities.
It is clear that solar and wind can be developed to whatever scale is required and that the cost to do so is not unreasonable. The only remaining problem is how to handle the times when solar and wind are not available. The vast majority of financial support and Research and Development should be directed towards addressing that single issue.
In equatorial and subtropical regions this problem is well defined and can be addressed through energy storage systems that exist today. Solar energy is very predictable and by building enough solar generation to simultaneously meet daytime needs and charge a storage system it is possible to release energy from storage to meet evening and night demand. The Gemasolar plant in Spain is already providing 24×365 electricity generation using only solar energy.
The proposed Kapaia power plant will use solar energy stored in batteries to provide electricity in the late afternoon, evening and through the night. The Noor1 plant in Morocco will have the largest molten salt storage capability in the world when it is completed in 2017.
These positive developments in short duration energy storage should be encouraged by providing the same kinds of financial and regulatory support currently used to encourage wind and solar developments.
Outside the equatorial/subtropical regions the problem is much more difficult.
Wind generation can never truly replace fossil fuel or nuclear generation – it can only displace those traditional sources. By that I mean that regardless of how much wind capacity is developed there will be times when there is simply no wind energy to be harvested. During those times dispatching fossil fuel generation is the only way to keep the lights on.
Energy storage systems will help cover short duration periods of calm winds but they will be unable to solve the problem completely anytime soon.
Roger Andrews and Euan Mearns have done a lot of detailed analyses on large scale energy storage scenarios and have demonstrated quite convincingly that the scale of storage required to truly address calm winds is impractical. I would have to agree.
So if storage can’t solve the wind intermittency problem what approaches might work? I see three possibilities all of which are deserving of investment and regulatory support;
- Development of reliable and renewable energy sources. This would include Geothermal Resources such as the potential 1.6 GW under the Salton Sea and the estimated 25 GW of hydro-kinetic energy available for development in the U.S. alone. These reliable sources of electricity should receive financial support through R&D grants, accelerated capital write-offs and feed-in-tariffs in recognition of their superior value as compared to wind. It would also be possible to implement additional generating capacity at large scale hydro developments that could be used for short durations when winds are calm in a concept I have referred to as unpumped storage.
- Demand response. Post-Fukushima Japan has demonstrated the true power of demand response with peak demand being reduced by as much as 10-15% through the direct action of individuals and businesses. The key ingredient to success is a broad engagement of the population through advertising, public service announcements, and educational programs. It is clear that people will modify their use of energy if they are mobilized when electricity is in short supply.
Another mechanism for reducing peak demand over the long term would be the widespread use of geoexchange technology in preference to traditional HVAC systems. Requiring that geoexchange be integrated into any new commercial and industrial buildings would be a very low cost and effective way to significantly reduce demand.
- Development of a capacity market: I stated before that wind generation displaces fossil-fuel generated electricity. That would not be particularly problematic except that it seriously impacts the profitability of operating those fossil-fuel plants.
In Texas utilities took out a full page ad describing the deterioration in reserve capacity that the increasing penetration of wind energy is causing.
In Germany the development of a “grid balancing market” is helping to deal with fluctuations in wind output but there are problems with this approach.
Although the idea of paying for a duplicate set of generation assets is not appealing it might well be the most effective way to increase the amount of renewable generation that can be developed.
How quickly Can These Measures Be Implemented?
Building code changes to encourage or require the use of geoexchange can be put in place almost immediately. The same is true of changes to the operating practices of Independent System Operators so that organizations storing energy for later use are not charged a grid transit fee.
A feed-in-tariff (FIT) for electricity produced from storage and for reliable renewables such as geothermal and hydro-kinetics would take a bit longer but can certainly be available in less than a year or two. Public education and awareness programs with real-time indications of energy use can be delivered in the same time frame.
Development of a capacity market will require investigation and a thorough analysis of options. But an early commitment to a capacity market would send a positive signal to the operators of the fossil-fuel generating plants that will be needed during the transition to more dependence upon renewable energy sources.
The COP21 agreement represents an historic opportunity to make real progress towards developing a truly sustainable energy environment. But it is quite likely that political leaders will continue to support strategies that are not optimal and could encounter very significant barriers as the amount of renewable generation increases.
To quote Yoda “if you choose the quick and easy path as Vader did – you will become an agent of evil.” That may be a bit dramatic but I think the danger is real. As we move forward with the development of renewables the difficult challenges regarding energy storage need to be addressed as a priority.
There is a consensus in many countries that burning coal to generate electricity is something that needs to be phased out as quickly as possible. The Clean Power Plan in the U.S. has that as one of its most likely outcomes and there have been explicit commitments to retire coal-fired generation plants by governments all over the world.
When considering the options for replacing the electricity generated by coal-fired plants there are two characteristics of these plants that need to be considered. The first is that coal is the cheapest and most abundant non-renewable fuel available. The second is that coal-fired plants are very reliable – more reliable even than natural gas-fired plants because they can stockpile fuel on site so that they are not subject to pipeline congestion problems. And getting approval to build new pipelines is not easy these days.
One of the strategies for replacement of coal-fired generation is the development of more wind and solar power. This approach is not without its problems because of the inability to store energy from these sources which are often not available during peak demand times of the day. Matching the 24×365 reliability of coal-fired plants using renewables would be very challenging.
When you think about it the only thing wrong with coal-fired plants is the fact they burn coal to produce the steam used to drive turbines. If a renewable source of heat could be supplied to these plants they could continue providing reliable power and the negative aspects of burning coal would be eliminated.
In jurisdictions where renewable energy sources have been developed extensively the disconnect between electricity production and system load is starting to become problematic. For example, on many circuits on Oahu the amount of electricity generated by roof-top solar panels actually exceeds system demand mid-day some days. Although there is plenty of potential to expand solar power in Hawaii from a resource standpoint it will not be possible without the ability to time-shift production to match demand through the use of energy storage. As a result solar panel permits have been falling for the past two years.
In Denmark, where the nameplate capacity of wind turbines is approximately 1/3 of total generation capacity in the country, wind generation frequently exceeds domestic demand which requires the export of the excess to neighbouring countries. Obviously if all of Denmark’s neighbours also developed a similar amount of wind capacity there would be nowhere to export the electricity to. Texas and parts of the American Mid-West are facing similar issues.
So we are faced with two different problems;
- The need to stop burning coal to generate electricity
- The need to store excess electricity generated from wind and solar
Fortunately, there is a combination of field-proven technologies available today that can solve both problems. I will refer to this combination of technologies as “Thermelectric Power”.
Thermelectric Power provides a large rapid response load which can be used to stabilize the grid when there are variations in renewable energy generation. It also stores renewable energy by converting it to thermal energy.
The mechanism for storing the energy is molten salt – a mixture of 60 percent sodium nitrate and 40 percent potassium. Thermal Energy Storage (TES) systems using molten salt have been used for more than 10 years as a way to extend the hours that Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) plants can deliver electricity.
The initial research was done at the Sandia National Solar Thermal Test Facility in New Mexico. The first large-scale commercial application of the technology was at the 50 MW Andasol CSP in Spain which came on-line in March, 2009. The Solana CSP plant commissioned in the fall of 2013 in Arizona includes the largest TES facility deployed to date, able to produce 280 MW of electricity for up to 6 hours after sunset.
Excess wind or solar generated electricity can be used to heat the molten salt to a temperature of more than 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit using industrial electric heating elements. During peak demand periods the molten salt would be circulated through a heat exchanger to transform water into the steam required to power conventional steam turbines. The infrastructure to support the conversion of thermal to electrical energy by means of steam turbines exists at every coal-fired electrical generating station which allows the re-use of these very expensive components with only minimal modifications.
Both the heating of the molten salt and the use of molten salt to generate electricity using steam turbines are proven technologies that are deployed today. By integrating Thermelectric Power into an existing coal-fired generation station it would be possible to phase out the burning of coal as more and more wind or solar generation is developed. This approach would also maintain energy security because it would be possible to switch the power source back to coal for short periods of time to deal with extended periods of calm winds. This dual source approach minimizes both CO2 emissions as well as any risk of power failures on a grid where the primary sources of electricity are renewable.
The cost to implement molten salt storage at an existing coal-fired plant would be $250-$350/kwh. This is a fraction of the cost of utility scale battery storage. More importantly molten salt storage does not suffer degradation in capacity over time. The molten salt can be heated and cooled over and over again so that the service life of this technology is measured in decades.
Thermelectric Power could transform the more than 500 coal-fired generating stations in the U.S. into “green” energy sources. More than 10% of those plants are combined heat and power (CHP) plants on University and College campuses. Students and faculty have been actively protesting to stop the burning of coal at these plants for years.
As rate-payers, tax-payers, and advocates for a sustainable energy future we have a choice to make.
We can demand that coal plants be decommissioned and dismantled at a cost of billions of dollars. That choice would require the construction of natural gas-fired plants or nuclear plants with approximately the same generation capacity in order to handle peak loads in the evening when winds are calm – construction that would require more billions of dollars and would continue to emit vast amounts of CO2 annually.
Or we can demand that our coal plants be converted to Thermelectric Power which would dramatically reduce the amount of coal being burnt to generate electricity. Coal would only be used as a fuel when electricity generation from renewable sources was not available for extended periods of time. But the flip side of that is that coal could be used in that way to back up renewable generation. As a result we could develop as much wind and solar energy as we wanted without worrying about dealing with excess when demand is low and without worrying about destabilizing the grid.
A future fueled by renewable energy is possible using technology that is available today. We just need to want it enough to make it happen.
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