July 14, 2009
Smarter Grid Seen As More Important Than Long Distance Grid

Kevin Bullis of MIT's Technology Review takes a look at arguments against building a massive and expensive continent-spanning electric power grid.

What's more, advances in technology could change the economics involved and make long-distance wind transmission projects obsolete. For example, far-offshore wind farms could be located just a few dozen miles from major cities and provide wind power that is cheaper and more reliable than wind farms on land.

Hauser says that ultimately, stringing high-voltage trunk lines from the Midwest to the rest of the country is unnecessary. What's more important is developing a smarter grid. Equipping transmission lines, distribution networks, and electrical appliances in homes and businesses with sensors and controls that can communicate remotely with grid operators could reduce demand for electricity, allow existing lines to handle more electricity, and make it easier to integrate wind and other intermittent renewable-energy technologies.

The wind power industry wants the massive grid approach so that when wind isn't blowing in some areas then wind electric power can still be brought in from more distant locations. But a smart grid that could turn off appliances during power dips could reduce the need for more distant sources of electric power. More flexible demand would make more variable supplies of wind and solar electric easier to integrate into the grid.

I suspect that a big spend on long distance electric power lines would pull resources away from more productive uses. Also, how solidly is the variability of wind understood? Would long distance electric power lines really allow wind from different areas to act like a single more reliable power source? The answer isn't clear to me.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2009 July 14 12:15 AM  Energy Electric Generators


Comments
Fat Man said at July 14, 2009 2:26 PM:

"But a smart grid that could turn off appliances during power dips could reduce the need for more distant sources of electric power. More flexible demand would make more variable supplies of wind and solar electric easier to integrate into the grid."

The whole smart grid idea gives me the willies. First, it will be used an excuse to block generating capacity of any type. All electric generators have an environmental downside. The existence of a "smart" grid will be another excuse to not boost generating capacity. If the wind mills don't produce electricity, so what? we will just turn off your appliances. Problem solved.

Second, the smart grid is a new avenue for government intrusion into our lives. Members of "minority" groups will claim that any action to cut power to their neighborhoods is racism. Power cuts to the districts of Nancy Pelosi, John Murtha and Barney Frank will be rarer than hen's teeth. Don't bother to buy a new refrigerator if you live in John Boehner's district.

Non-union factories won't get electricity, but Government Motors and Fiatsler will have all they need. But wait, there is more. Too fat? No electricity for your kitchen. Want to stay up late. Sorry, lights are out at 10 p.m. in this town.

K said at July 14, 2009 6:13 PM:

I don't have Fat Man's vivid imagination about Smart Grid and, let me call it, a Smart Brother tyranny. But it makes a good read and government does have favorites.

The idea that a national grid and a smart grid are somehow rivals for capital seems mistaken to me. We can have both. Smart Grid is a local operation which will be installed and administered by regional utilities. And it is incremental, said utility can gradually add neighborhoods. It does almost nothing when the power system is not strained.

A national grid is another matter. We are really speaking of HVDC which allows efficient transmission of power over great distances. HVDC works now and steadily improves but buying in will be costly. And the political aspect is a quagmire.

Maybe wind power will benefit most from HVDC. But every type of power generation will benefit to one degree. In the winter the northern states can draw power from the south where the weather is pleasant and neither AC or heating is operating. In the summer the south may at times draw excess power from the north. Limited East-West shifting is also possible, the peak power demands in Arizona will coincide with falling demand in the Eastern Time Zone.

I haven't seen any real facts about O's widely touted program for a national grid.

Shannon Love said at July 15, 2009 5:52 AM:

But a smart grid that could turn off appliances during power dips could reduce the need for more distant sources of electric power

No offense but that is just stupid. What percentage of electricity consuming devices can be switched off at a moments notice without causing major problems? Almost none. The biggest consumers of electricity in households are climate control and refrigeration. You can't just switch those off on a whim. Ditto for all our computing and communications devices. More importantly, the really big consumers of electricity are factories and you can't just shut factories down when the weather changes.

The Texas power grid gets 3% of it's power from wind, the most of any region. In Feb 2008, a sudden drop in the wind very nearly brought the entire grid down. Stability was assured only by getting industrial users offline and onto their fossil fuel back up generators. Had we relied on wind power for 5% of more of our power, the entire state would have been blacked out because we don't have that much fossil fuel backup that can spin up on half and hours notice. When your talking about about having 20% or more of your power coming from wind, you create a situation where your vulnerable to even short (under half an hour) periods of widespread calm. Even if such calms only happen once every couple of years, your looking at major blackouts every couple of years. That is intolerable.

The entire point of using energy is to shift work in space and time to when we want it instead of when nature provides it. We use light bulbs so we can have light when and where the sun doesn't shine. If we're willing to work on natures schedule, why bother with electricity at all? Just go to bed when it gets dark like people used to.

Energy isn't some mystic fluid we pump out of the environment and bottle. Its actually the shifting of work i.e. the movement of matter and energy, in space and time. If an "energy" system can't shift work in space and time to where and when we want it, then its a useless system.

Nick G said at July 15, 2009 10:01 AM:

What percentage of electricity consuming devices can be switched off at a moments notice without causing major problems?

Probably more than half.

The biggest consumers of electricity in households are climate control and refrigeration. You can't just switch those off on a whim.

Sure you can. Demand Side Management (DSM) programs across the country do it all the time, and it works beautifully. You can't turn them all off for a very long time, but you don't need to.

the really big consumers of electricity are factories

You're overestimating the size of this component of electrical demand.

you can't just shut factories down when the weather changes.

Sure you can - it's a standard element of DSM - in fact, right now it's usually the largest. You don't want to do it every day, but you don't have to.

Stability was assured only by getting industrial users offline and onto their fossil fuel back up generators.

Here's the proof of what I said above: this was the major part of ERCOT's DSM program, and it worked quite nicely.

Had we relied on wind power for 5% of more of our power, the entire state would have been blacked out because we don't have that much fossil fuel backup that can spin up on half and hours notice.

Nah. There are lots of strategies to deal with this: improved wind forecasting; curtailing of peak wind output (for a small % of time); additional long-distance transmission; additional DSM; and storage.

Even if such calms only happen once every couple of years, your looking at major blackouts every couple of years.

Nah. If the calm only happens every couple of years, you can use relatively expensive KWHs to deal with it. DSM is the first thing: I/C consumers are delighted to get paid for the option of having their service curtailed that infrequently. A lot of residential consumers feel that way. Second, as you point out, the major problem is the first few minutes. DSM only has to handle things until other generation can spin up, especially nat gas generation.

Plase note that EVs and PHEVs will provide a lot of opportunity for very large-scale DSM. They're not here now, but they will be when wind gets large. V2G will expand that further.

John Moore said at July 15, 2009 1:47 PM:

Nick G

T Boones has already abandoned wind. Many more will do the same when they discover that:

1) transmission capital investment is huge
2) it cannot make up more than a few percent of a power grid's load without:
-requiring expensive, carbon inefficient (as if I care) backup power generators to stay on line at all times
-better storage than now exists (which is the reason that PHEV's and EV's are not going to make it unless battery
technology gets a lot better)
3) generated power has "quality" related to its cost, reliability, flexibility and predictability. Wind power is has the lowest quality of all sources (except perhaps solar). It is only being pushed now because rational power generation is being prevented (nuclear especially, also coal).

Allen said at July 15, 2009 2:21 PM:

The bigger or more potentially unstable the grid is, the more you have to have really good system thinking. I.e., asking what else can cause unwanted outages, and how can those causes interact? For example - if a heavy sunspot year (flare-induced shutdowns) coincides with a reasonably savvy & lucky terrorist act or a natural disaster, how much of the grid would be affected, and for how long? What if national economic problems have caused maintenance to be deferred a couple of years? There may be advantages to having smaller, less smart grid regions that are sufficient for nearly all normal needs, saving discretionary interties and smarts for economic benefits and system robustness. More expensive, but safer.

Nick G said at July 15, 2009 4:39 PM:

John Moore,

Could you provide some backup for your points? Sources, and calculations? There's nothing wrong with making such assertions without cumbersome backup (until someone asks for it), but...they don't make any sense to me, so could you provide that?

Allen,

Right now we have flat pricing for residential power, regardless of time of day or cost of generation. Creating a rational, flexible market wouldn't make the grid less stable, and it would eliminate the need for new generation, and make wind and solar much more usable.

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