Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Elegance in utilities

So, one of the most annoying things that everyone "knows" is that renewable energy is intermittent and thus not commercially viable. Wind doesn't always blow, and there's this pesky periodic phenomena called "nighttime" that precludes the widespread use of solar power. This, if you ask any of the people who actually make these decisions, means that Ontario needs as many new nuclear reactors as the politicians will allow them to buy.


Even worse are the pseudo-environmentalists, who argue that because the intermittency needs to be covered by natural gas plants, we shouldn't build wind or solar. (Yes, they've pitched me on coal. Yes, they call themselves environmentalists.) In the context of Ontario it's even more ridiculous because spinning reserve (the technical term for instant-on generation capacity) is provided by such obscure little landmarks as Niagara Falls.

The virtues of hydroelectric generation as spinning reserve are that it's cheaper than gas, is more nimble and quick, and that it doesn't emit CO2. Problem is that in Ontario we've built up all the convenient hydro already.

Solution: build more waterfalls. This is hardly the first pumped-hydro scheme I've seen, but I love the elegance of the solution: rather than filling a reservoir and waiting for demand to empty it, find one of nature's large bodies of water and wait with an empty bowl until demand lets you fill it. When electricity is cheap again, pump the water back to where you found it.

Some of the best solutions involve taking the parts we all know, and just rearranging them a bit. I love it.

In case you're wondering, Canada is actually supremely well-positioned to take advantage of the new renewable energy economy, provided we're willing to spend some money on transmission. (I'm not the only one who says so.) The last ice age left us with an abundance of large lakes and rivers, the prairies actually get a surprising amount of sunlight, and wind is abundant in the prairies and out in the waters of the great lakes. Balancing solar, wind, and pumped hydro storage should not overly tax the resources of even a half-competent manager. Autarky isn't necessary -- if New Mexico is selling cheap solar energy, maybe we can benefit from that too -- but Canada has a real advantage. This basic layout -- wind/solar/hydro -- is basically all you need for a stable electricity system. Or, if you need a headline: CANADA'S ENERGY PROBLEM SOLVED -- GET ON WITH IT.

Not that you'd know it, given what the main business story of the day was. As far as the leadership of this country is concerned, the tar sands are the only asset we have, energy-wise.


Brad F said...

Grr. As somewhat of a pseudo-environmentalist (I think of myself as green-tinged, although I have no accredited environmental training) I think people need to understand the costs of building wind and solar.

You point to Riverbank Power as an elegant solution. I agree - to a point. It is elegant but it is not without cost. If it can indeed be built for $2B, then the financing cost alone requires a spread of about 13 cents between purchase and sale price of energy. That's not bad (which makes me suspect their estimates may be low), but they'll need to see at least that spread every single day and then some to pay operating expenses. Energy cost will be 25-30 cents per kWh if the source energy is wind at 13 cents. When you factor in downtime for maintenance, cleaning up rock falls in the cavern, silt removal, costs go up. Still, it's not a bad deal for peaking power if the capital costs can be managed.

The thing to keep in mind is that this type of storage will not provide multi-day storage for the same cost. The business driver for Riverbank is to buy low, sell high, EVERY DAY to recover the plant's capital cost as quickly as possible. If the 'green' thing to do is maybe wait a couple of days for the wind to come up in order to pump out the reservoir, then the capital cost will be spread over fewer charge/discharge cycles and the cost of the stored energy will rise proportionately.

If enough storage capacity is built to carry through periods of combined low winds and overcast, then the cost will rise. And multi-day (possible multi-week or longer) is the kind of storage that is required to move to a wholly renewable energy system.

It's easy to wave your hands and say "problem solved, let's get on with it", but the reality is that ratepayers have to be willing to pay the cost.
Moving to renewables does not just require "building some transmission" (another fixed cost that would have to be paid for) and having "half-competent managers", it requires that the system be affordable.

john said...

It's easy to wave your hands and say "problem solved, let's get on with it", but the reality is that ratepayers have to be willing to pay the cost.

Obviously. When I wrote that as a headline, it's with the presumption that people will understand it's grossly simplified, as headlines tend to be.

I think you're overly pessimistic on the needs for storage... multi-week is almost certainly unnecessary. See, for example, here.

That said, I agree with the problems of the cost, but if you read some of the other posts in the blog you'll see that a) I'm convinced that having wasted decades, we now have to pay for speed, and b) many of the costs of mitigation will be lower than we think (doesn't immediately apply to this example, though.)

Brad F said...

Ah yes, the it's-always-windy-somewhere argument. Really, what you end up doing is building excess generation and transmission capacity to avoid building expensive storage. High costs either way.

Something to think about: Whereas cheap electrical storage is perceived as the 'killer app' for renewables, it would be just as much a killer app for nuclear generation.

john said...

Something to think about: Whereas cheap electrical storage is perceived as the 'killer app' for renewables, it would be just as much a killer app for nuclear generation.

I absolutely agree, and have written so in this space before. The question, in terms of costs, is whether the new, excess wind (for example) would be more expensive than new nuclear. Given the rapid inflation in nuclear costs around the world, I'm deeply skeptical. If you have to build 4 or 5 MW for every 1 MW of nuclear, you might still end up on the plus side of the ledger. Ontario in particular doesn't have a sterling history on cost containment.