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The future as envisioned by some of the more, shall we say, avid enthusiasts of renewable energy has an energy grid dominated by small-time operators. With solar cells on every roof and wind energy at suitable locales, we won't need those big centralized power plant dinosaurs, whether they're coal, nuclear, oil, or gas. Individuals will be in greater control of their energy, and there will be less leeway for the 1% to rip off everybody else.
But it won't come out that way, for the most mundane of reasons: wire.

We all know that renewables suffer from intermittency problems. Where does your energy come from at night, when there's no wind? Advocates of renewable energy point to two independent strategies for dealing with this: energy storage and wide distribution.

Energy storage is, so far, nowhere near ready for prime time, as far as the electricity grid is concerned. We have a number of ways to store electrical energy: pumped storage, for example. We use excess electricity during the day to pump water up into a high reservoir, and then at night we reverse the process and let the water flow out, turning the pump motors into generators. This process yields between 70% and 80% efficiency — certainly good enough for our needs.

The killer problem with pumped storage is finding suitable locations. Ideally, you want a thousand-foot high cliff at the edge of a river or lake. You put the motor-generator facility at the bottom of the cliff and the water reservoir at the top of the cliff. The problem is, there aren't that many high cliffs next to rivers or lakes. They really have to be quite close (laterally) to the bottom, or you start losing energy to the friction of the water moving through long pipes. There just aren't that many good sites for pumped water storage.

There's also the prospect of batteries; one innovative idea is the use of scrapped electric car batteries for this purpose. However, again, the total capacity we can obtain in this fashion is just too low to be meaningful.

Then there's the idea of hydrogen fuel cells. We use excess electricity to hydrolyze water to make hydrogen, then run that hydrogen through fuel cells to get the electricity back. That's certainly feasible, but so far fuel cells are still too damned expensive to permit us to use them on the vast scale required for such an application.

Thus, energy storage remains inadequate to the task. I have no doubt that it will end up playing a role, but by themselves, energy storage technologies aren't hefty enough to solve the intermittency problems of solar and wind.

Which brings us to the other Great White Hope: HVDC transmission lines. Regular high-voltage transmission lines aren't efficient enough to permit us to send power any further than, oh, maybe 500 miles. We can use the highest AC voltages to wheel it up to a thousand miles, but we're losing an embarrassing percentage of that power to resistive heating.

Enter HVDC: High Voltage Direct Current. The idea here is that we can get to really high voltages (over a million volts!) using this technology, which allows us to transmit electricity greater distances with less loss to resistive heating. This will be especially important in the exploitation of wind power, because most of the best places for wind farms are pretty far from the cities that need electricity. So we build the wind farms out in the remote boonies, and ship it back to the cities using HVDC lines. Huzzah and Halleloo-whatever!

But here we get into a problem: those HVDC lines are not the kind of projects that Little Guys do. Getting all the rights of way, acquiring the large amounts of capital necessary for the installation, negotiating with the various utilities — this is a job for Big International Capitalist Corporation, not Joe's Hardware Store and Ice Cream Parlor.

We'll see the same problem with all many aspects of renewable energy. If we really do get fuel cells working right, you won't buy little 1 KW machines at your local hardware store; the big corporation that installs 100 MW fuel cells at strategic locations and sells its services to the local utility will have too many economic advantages.

Sure, much of the renewables biz is run by small time operators right now — but that's only because the business is too small to attract the attention of Daddy Warbucks. Once the New Age dawns and renewables become a big chunk of the energy economy, the big guys will move in and use economies of scale to drive all the little guys out of business.

That won't be bad — they'll be the ones making renewables cheap enough to challenge fossil fuels. Without those big companies, we might NEVER get renewables cheap enough to put Big Coal out of business.

You just can't get around dat ole' debbil economies of scale.

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Comment Preferences

  •  . (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Calamity Jean, BYw, unfangus
    Wind and solar power peaked at 59.1 percent of German power generation earlier this month. It happened at noon on a very windy and sunny October 3, which is the German holiday commemorating reunification. (Germany also hit peaks of 61 percent, a record, and 59 percent earlier this year.)
  •  no . . . . (7+ / 0-)
    this is a job for Big International Capitalist Corporation
    It's a job for Government.

    That's why we refer to electricity as a "public utility".

    In the end, reality always wins.

    by Lenny Flank on Sat Nov 09, 2013 at 05:19:03 PM PST

    •  OK, fair enough (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      OrganicChemist

      I was thinking solely in terms of small business versus big business. Given the paralysis of most government these days, it's easy to simply assume that businesses will handle it. They're building a big HVDC line across Oklahoma and it's a public-private arrangement.

      •  I'm happy to let businesses handle it, as (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        JeffW, BYw, Horace Boothroyd III

        soon as they become nonprofit and democratically controlled by elected managers.

        Until then, fuck em.

        "The free market" has no more business being in the public utility sphere than it does being in the health care sphere.

        In the end, reality always wins.

        by Lenny Flank on Sat Nov 09, 2013 at 05:45:58 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  Uh, but wasn't (0+ / 0-)

          one of the major attractions of solar and wind the fact that it could be operated on a small scale, with lots of small operators generating power and putting it onto the grid? How are these people supposed to operate under government control? The original plans were that they would sell their power to the grid operator.

          •  uh, nope (2+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            BYw, Horace Boothroyd III

            The major attraction of solar and wind is that they have a lower carbon footprint than coal or nukes.

            They will not "operate under government control"--they will be operated BY the government.  That's what a "public utility" is.

            I have no desire at all for smaller energy companies, any more than I have a desire for smaller government (I'm not a libertarian loonie).

            I want a democratically-elected energy company, just like I want a democratically-elected government.

            In the end, reality always wins.

            by Lenny Flank on Sun Nov 10, 2013 at 04:12:02 AM PST

            [ Parent ]

          •  ps--decentralized energy production IS more (2+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            BYw, Horace Boothroyd III

            efficient, for precisely the reason you cite---energy is lost quickly through transmission.  That is why the most efficient way of energy production is production at the point of use--for each individual building to produce as much of its own internal energy needs as possible, through things like solar panels or windmills on the roof. It also helps solve the storage problem, since storing energy for an individual building is much less daunting than centralized large-scale storage. Already-existing battery technology is pretty good--and of course new and better battery technology is already in development. Not to mention the fact that most buildings are unoccupied at night and don't use as much energy anyway.

            None of that has a blooming thing to do with how big the energy company is, though.

            Technologically, we already have all the elements needed for widespread production at the point of use--we simply don't want to pay for it. Methinks your agenda is ideological, though, more than technological . . .

            In the end, reality always wins.

            by Lenny Flank on Sun Nov 10, 2013 at 04:21:33 AM PST

            [ Parent ]

            •  Some contradictions here (1+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              OrganicChemist

              You prefer a "democratically elected energy company"; that's a nonsensical idea, because democracy applies to political institutions, not commercial ones. I suspect that what you're driving at is the notion of a "regulated utility": a commercial, for-profit institution that operates under the regulation of a political institution, which in turn is controlled by democratically elected political institutions.

              Regulated utilities work; we've got gobs of them in this country. There are also publicly-owned utilities; they work, too. Economic theory is uneasy with both concepts; they are accepted as a clumsy compromise for an intrinsically impossible problem.

              You're right that eliminating transmission costs increases overall efficiency -- but that's not the only component of system efficiency. For example, instead of burning fossil fuels at big power plants and transmitting the electricity to individual consumers, we could have each consumer use his own gasoline-powered generator, thereby eliminating transmission costs. And in fact this option is available to everybody right now. Very very few people utilize this option because it's horribly inefficient. They buy generators to provide power in those rare cases when the centralized system fails. This, I think, demonstrates just how serious a problem intermittency is -- people are willing to spend hundreds of dollars to cope with the tiny intermittency problems that centralized systems have. That's the standard that will be applied to renewable systems -- and it's a steep standard.

              When you write that "we simply don't want to pay for" decentralized energy systems, are you acknowledging that these systems are more expensive than centralized energy systems?

              "Methinks your agenda is ideological, though, more than technological . . ."
              Huh? How in the world do you come to that conclusion? And would you reveal to me the ideology that is driving my agenda?

              •  your understanding seems limited (0+ / 0-)
                You prefer a "democratically elected energy company"; that's a nonsensical idea, because democracy applies to political institutions, not commercial ones. I suspect that what you're driving at is the notion of a "regulated utility": a commercial, for-profit institution that operates under the regulation of a political institution, which in turn is controlled by democratically elected political institutions.
                You suspect wrong.  As I thought I made clear, what I want is a government public utility, with NO private enterprise or free market involved in any way--run democratically as a public utility.
                You're right that eliminating transmission costs increases overall efficiency -- but that's not the only component of system efficiency.
                Nor did I say it was.  (shrug) What I said was that you are simply wrong when you declare that transmission loss necessarily means a centralized large-enterprise method of generation.  It assuredly means no such thing.
                And would you reveal to me the ideology that is driving my agenda?
                Why don't you just tell us, and stop being coy?

                In the end, reality always wins.

                by Lenny Flank on Sun Nov 10, 2013 at 09:04:41 AM PST

                [ Parent ]

                •  OK, so you believe (0+ / 0-)

                  that all regulated utilities should be converted to public utilities. This runs against historical experience. For the last 30 years, G20 countries have been opening up their transmission grids to independent operators, and in every case they have thereby lowered costs. It's tricky to compare current costs, because they all have different tariffs applied to them. Germany has very high electricity prices -- about $0.30/KW-hr, maybe twice what we pay in the USA.

                  Most countries keep the transmission grids either publicly owned or tightly regulated, but everything else has been privatized in quite a few countries. They're doing this because it reduces overall costs to society.

                  You disagree with me that long-distance transmission losses will give a big advantage to centralized operations as opposed to decentralized operations. OK, we disagree. Nothing more to say on that.

                  You want me to reveal the ideology that you think drives my agenda, as opposed to technological considerations. The fact is that I am NOT driven by ideological considerations. I don't really care if the end results favor tall people or short people, Republicans, Democrats, rich people, poor people, Westerners versus Easterners, and so forth. My only concern is finding a solution that yields the lowest net costs (including externalities such as pollution) to society as a whole.

                  However, I think that shoe fits you better. Your strong belief that utilities should be publicly owned is supported by neither technological nor economic evidence; therefore, it must an ideological concern. I won't argue with you about ideologies. But in this instance, you're definitely the pot calling the egg black.

              •  Other "selfie" options... (0+ / 0-)

                Besides the unattractive current option of producing your own electricity via gasoline powered generator, I think two other examples that are quite functional but selected against are personal water supply and personal sewage disposal. Both are quite possible and in wide use in many parts of our country and could be expanded but aren't for many of the same reasons you noted. My house has a well and before I bought it, I believe it originally had a septic system. We love the well water. The maintenance and replacement amounts I pay for my well are far below what I would pay if I tapped into the city-supplied water supply. Most people who own a home could have their own well, also. However, most do not because of fears, safety (in some cases) and hassle issues (people are concerned about reliability of supply). In the area of personal sewage disposal, technology improvements certainly could make this a very doable option. However, today it seems to be used only when no other options are available. Indeed, in our area, it is illegal to use a septic system. It certainly would be far cheaper - (our sewer bill is outrageous!!!) but there are safety, reliability, and esthetics issues that seem to select against it. I'll certainly acknowledge that there is also a high "yuck" factor involved. I remember from one of the first "Blue Man Group" shows that I saw, there was a skit about plumbing systems. A diagram showed arrows moving  through pipes in a house. The key factor was that movement in the system was ALWAYS "away"!!!

                It is certainly that increases in personal provision for both water and sewage disposal are technically possible, but their numbers are continuously falling for the reasons noted. I think personal electricity provision would have the same problems. There is already a very-well maintained and reliable system in place that is quite reasonable in price. People might well install personal systems (as they are now) to augment and reduce their use of the centrally-supplied product. However, few will go completely off the grid (except in those places where there is no other or no economic option) because of safety, fear, or hassle issues.

      •  ps--businesses, and their economic domination of (4+ / 0-)
        Given the paralysis of most government these days
        the entire electoral process, are the major cause of that "paralysis".

        In the end, reality always wins.

        by Lenny Flank on Sat Nov 09, 2013 at 05:48:16 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  Um, yes and no (0+ / 0-)

          While I certainly agree that wealth has far too much political power in the American government, I'd like to point out that, if it truly dominated government, then there wouldn't be any paralysis: our government would march along, efficiently passing laws favoring the wealthy. The fact that there is paralysis demonstrates that there is another faction, opposed to the political dominance of wealth, that is fighting the wealthy faction.

          A minor point, to be sure.

  •  Electric cars (0+ / 0-)

    Wide spread use of electric cars could be an important part of the equation.
    Vehicle to grid

    •  electric cars will also be a huge spur to the (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      BYw, ModerateJosh

      development of better battery technology. Indeed, they already are.

      In the end, reality always wins.

      by Lenny Flank on Sun Nov 10, 2013 at 04:31:31 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Not there yet (0+ / 0-)

        You also mentioned this in an earlier comment. The sad thing is that battery technology is not quite good enough for full-scale application. I own a Prius, and I shall never purchase a pure fossil-fueled vehicle. But I freely admit that the economics of the Prius are not clearly superior to those of a small gasoline-powered car. They're close; much depends on the driving habits of the owner. I have learned how to drive it properly, and my mileage puts us into the black, comparatively. My wife drives it like any other car, and her mileage puts us into the red.

        Yes, battery technology will continue to advance given the huge economic spur of rising gasoline prices. It is the rising price of fossil fuels that will make battery technology competitive. Batteries won't get cheaper; gasoline will get more expensive, and we'll soon reach the crossover point.

        I really like the idea of using all those scrapped car batteries for utility electricity storage.

        •  um . . . (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          hamjudo
          Batteries won't get cheaper
          They already are.

          In the end, reality always wins.

          by Lenny Flank on Sun Nov 10, 2013 at 09:06:00 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  That's not the major factor (0+ / 0-)

            I was describing the process in the context of comparative costs. Yes, cost-performance ratio for batteries will improve, but because this is a fairly mature technology -- battery technology is well over a century old -- we can't expect any dramatic breakthroughs. Instead, we'll see steady improvement. Over the long term, the results will be excellent, but for the immediate future, I don't think we can expect much.

            An ideal example of my meaning here is our experience with hard disk drives. 30 years ago I paid hundreds of dollars for a 5 megabyte drive that was terribly slow. Nowadays $100 will buy you a hard drive that's 200,000 times larger and much faster. That's enormous progress, but hard drive technology was immature 30 years ago, and the progress was slow and steady. I think we'll see a similar steady progress with batteries. There are lots of technologies being experimented with just now, and the main market is still primarily in a wait-and-see mode.

            The force that will drive up sales of electric vehicles will be the rising price of gasoline. It's been stable for a while now, but all the economics points towards rising prices.

  •  You are all over the place and it's all negative (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    BYw, Horace Boothroyd III, hamjudo

    The use of vague terms makes your diary questionable.

    What's "the little guy"?

    Your idea of storage reflects a lack of knowledge. For "the little guy", me if I were ever so fortunate to have the resources, I'd be thinking of nickle iron batteries to backup my photovoltaics.

    For utility scale I'd be thinking of solar thermal and molten salt storage.
    Dateline Oct. 9, 2013
    http://gigaom.com/...

    There's still a need for large wind farms and state of the art transmission lines. That's something we have to work on. But truly there is no one solution for every circumstance. That doesn't imply there are no answers. My perspective is enough local power generation to minimize the transmission bottleneck. That eliminates a lot of problems.

    Suggested reading:
    http://www.udel.edu/...

    I'm a Vietnam Era vet. I'm also an Erma Bombeck Era vet. When cussing me out and calling me names please indicate which vet you would like to respond to your world changing thoughts.

    by Just Bob on Sat Nov 09, 2013 at 10:39:44 PM PST

    •  Centralization vs decentralization (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      OrganicChemist

      The issue I'm addressing in this diary is decentralization versus centralization. I use the term "little guy" as an anthropomorphization of decentralization.

      I'm quite aware of molten salt storage -- but that is unquestionably a technology for centralized power systems, not something to put on the roof of a building.

      The study to which you refer made a number of questionable assumptions, the most important of which is the inclusion of all externalities from fossil fuel use in the calculation. We don't include those externalities in our current calculations. I agree that we should include them, but this difference makes it more difficult to compare their results with other studies. Moreover, their assumptions about the cost of fuel cells are rather optimistic, IMO.

      I like the idea of phasing out fossil fuels while phasing in renewables; I am particularly eager to get rid of all coal-burners. I suspect, however, that we'll always need some base load sources, most likely nuclear. As you say, we want a mix of different sources so that each compliments the weaknesses of the others.

      •  If you dislike that study... (0+ / 0-)

        here's another plan from 4 years ago.

        http://www.scientificamerican.com/...

        No one can predict the future. The details are unknown. The goal is unmistakable.

        I'm a Vietnam Era vet. I'm also an Erma Bombeck Era vet. When cussing me out and calling me names please indicate which vet you would like to respond to your world changing thoughts.

        by Just Bob on Sun Nov 10, 2013 at 09:47:26 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  yes, there are lots of such studies (3+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Just Bob, OrganicChemist, ebohlman

          After all, a 100% renewable future is the Holy Grail that everybody agrees is the only long-term goal. But there have been many studies on this subject, producing a huge range of results. The most optimistic ones I have seen all claim that we can reach 100% renewables in twenty years from the date of the study. Those studies are always based on the most extreme assumptions: that fossil fuels will rise in price rapidly, that the externalities of fossil fuels will be properly integrated into their pricing, that technology will work the same kind of wonders that it has with computing, that there won't be any serious political opposition, and so forth.

          The most pessimistic ones, coming from from fossil-fuel companies or their minions, say that it will never come about. I don't give them much credence.

          The mid-range between the most optimistic and most pessimistic covers a huge amount of territory; some put most of their money on wind, some on solar PV, and all of them make assumptions about future technologies that are tricky. As you write, nobody can predict the future. However, it is necessary to make reasonable estimates of future conditions so that we can prepare better.

          My own estimate is that the politics of nuclear energy will be the most important deciding factor. If people opt for nuclear, then we'll see a rapid abandonment of coal, followed by great reductions in the price of oil as its price rises, with gas supplies lasting us through the rest of the century. Meanwhile, we'll be able to reach about 50% renewables by mid-century, and perhaps 80% renewables by the end of the century. Don't forget, those last few percentage points are the very devil to get.

          If we don't opt for nuclear, then we'll see heavy reliance on coal for many decades. Global warming will reach very dangerous levels. Renewables will rise more quickly than in the nuclear scenario, but they'll still be held back by competition with coal.

          Again, there are lots of studies predicting many different futures. A minority of the studies I've seen predict 100% renewables by the end of this century. We've got a long ways to go.

          •  We do have a long way to go. (0+ / 0-)

            The political environment may be the choke point.

            The problem I see with the nuclear scenario proposed by Hansen and company assumes closing the loop and basing our economy on fast breeders to burn the waste. The US, Japan, and France have all explored that approach with disappointing results as the financials don't permit it thus far. A one pass fuel cycle is less expensive and has less risk.

            I'm a Vietnam Era vet. I'm also an Erma Bombeck Era vet. When cussing me out and calling me names please indicate which vet you would like to respond to your world changing thoughts.

            by Just Bob on Sun Nov 10, 2013 at 12:40:00 PM PST

            [ Parent ]

  •  Pumped Hydro Storage (0+ / 0-)

    is feasible in a lot more places (pretty much anywhere that's geologically stable) if you don't mind some extra costs associated with digging a really deep hole in the ground.

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