SCIENCE OF DOOM takes on assessing zero Carbon power and a zero Carbon grid

Updated, 2127 EDT, 10th August 2015

The blog, Science of Doom, has taken on a new thread discussing the technical feasibilities and problems associated with building out zero Carbon energy in the context of an electric grid. As such, it provides a separate, albeit not independent look at some of the problems with such a rollout. There are two four postings at present,

  1. Renewable Energy I
  2. Renewables II – Solar and Free Lunches
  3. Renewables III – US Grid Operators’ Opinions
  4. Renewables IV – Wind, Forecast Horizon & Backups

The second installment intermingles some interesting reports on the manufacture and efficiencies and operations of solar PV with energy required to produce them. Okay, sustainability analysis is always good and interesting, but what’s the point? Just the material in one kilometer of natural gas pipeline has an embodied energy of over 200,000 kWh. That’s assuming 15 MJ/kg for embodied energy of pipeline steel, 10 mm of pipe wall thickness, and 20 cm pipeline outside diameter, using this chart (and converting to metric). The embodied energy of such steel is a little over 4 kWh/kg. And the pipe mass is about 48 kg per meter run.

When this blog post was written, there were only two postings at Science of Doom. If I have comments, I’ll probably make them there, not here. The fourth installment looks, to me, particularly interesting, but that’s because I have a soft spot for control system-related problems.

I tried to post these comments at the site, but could not, possibly because of policy about including links in the Comments. I consider the links crucial, so I am posting here. Perhaps readers of SoD will find this. Perhaps not.

I wish SoD would not refer to these as “renewable energy”. Waste-to-energy is used a lot in Massachusetts, and it is hardly zero Carbon, something not missed at all in the recent U.S. EPA Clean Power Plan.

Anyway, it will be interesting to see where the calculations there end up. As a reference for comparison, not saying it is necessary any better or worse than SoD‘s, I offer links to the so-called “levelized cost of energy” or “LCoE” produced by the U.S. Energy Information Administration. They attempt to roll in transmission and financing factors for a head-to-head comparison of different modalities, even different kinds of, say, natural gas. Two tables for the publication from 2015 are available. As always, I wish people who produced these tables put in some kind of uncertainty bars. Maybe those clutter the table, but there’s really no excuse for leaving them out these days, at least not computationally. Nevertheless, the LCoE from EIA are interesting, and it will be good to see how SoD‘s numbers come in. EIA also updates these, roughly annually.

There is also the seemingly massive study done by Mark Jacobson and colleagues at Stanford, which seems to be at odds with the “secure supply” arguments offered at the beginning of the first SoD post. I don’t know which way it goes. I’m not yet a good enough student of the subject to be able to have a technical opinion on the matter, although readers know my enthusiasm for any engineering proposals that uses the market to move what we need to do forward, that is, mitigating climate disruption. Jacobson and company propose an enormous build-out of wind power at spatial scales on the order of the size of weather systems in order to decorrelate availability. They also insert solar, where appropriate, noting how, as is the case for California, the anti-correlation between wind power and solar.
(Click on image to see a bigger photo.)
That figure is from NERC, by the way. What’s NERC? It’s the North American electric reliability organization. They are supposed to assure for the USA and Canada that whatever is needed in terms of electricity is always there to provide it.

This has engineering implications. For if power needs to be borrowed from afar to offset local unavailability, there are transmission losses to be considered. Jacobson, et al also posit high accuracy day-before forecasting as an important component of their vision of a smart grid. I like the idea of exploiting the stochastic nature of wind and solar availability in a national energy system. I like the idea of taking advantage of the comparably dirt cheap cost of erecting land wind turbines and community solar (ocean turbines are another matter) to build a huge amount out. I’m not sure this plan, however, can cope with what I perceive to be the pervasive and deep selfishness I see in sectors of the American community. I do know that we, being some of the richest people on the planet, collectively and otherwise, there will be a price to pay if we don’t wise up.

I have heard claims from local wind and solar producers (in New England) that wind is stronger in winter, but I have not yet found data to back that up.

About ecoquant

See Retired data scientist and statistician. Now working projects in quantitative ecology and, specifically, phenology of Bryophyta and technical methods for their study.
This entry was posted in adaptation, Anthropocene, clean disruption, climate data, climate disruption, conservation, consumption, decentralized electric power generation, decentralized energy, demand-side solutions, destructive economic development, dynamic linear models, dynamical systems, economics, efficiency, energy, energy reduction, engineering, environment, exponential growth, forecasting, fossil fuel divestment, global warming, Hyper Anthropocene, investing, investment in wind and solar energy, microgrids, open data, optimization, prediction, rationality, reasonableness, risk, solar power, state-space models, stochastics, sustainability, the right to know, time series, wind power, Wordpress, zero carbon. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to SCIENCE OF DOOM takes on assessing zero Carbon power and a zero Carbon grid

  1. Hi Hyper,

    you wrote regarding the Jacobson paper “This has engineering implications. For if power needs to be borrowed from afar to offset local unavailability, there are transmission losses to be considered.”

    I was struck reading that paper by this note from the introduction ” Note that if we relax our assumption that
    each state’s capacity match its annual demand, and instead
    allow states with especially good solar or wind resources to have
    enough capacity to supply larger regions, then the average
    levelized cost of electricity will be lower than we estimate because
    of the higher average capacity factors in states with the best WWS

    I have been reading lately about the “global electric grid”. I will send links to some good papers on the subject by sober authors when I get home tonight that I’ve been reading through.

    It is an area ripe for research.

    I’m an electrical engineer (electronics manufacturing mostly), so maybe I’m biased! but I think the key technology for global electrification with non-carbon generation is increasing interconnection of electric grids via high voltage DC transmission. “The sun is always shining somewhere” sounds like a great marketing tag line.

    You may be interested in what this company is doing: “Clean Line Energy Parners” as an example.


  2. hypergeometric,

    Please try posting your comment again at Science of Doom.

    Any comment with more than a certain number of links will go into moderation automatically but I will see it and approve it. There’s nothing sitting in moderation right now so I’m not sure what happened. I checked the sp&m queue as well, because WordPress can be a bit arbitrary on occasion but I dodging between the many handbag promotions and other wonderful offers I could not spot a comment from you.

    • Thank you SoD, and I’ll take comments there in future. But I severely rewrote my original comment to produce the above blog post, and to bring it back involves a quantum of work I’m not sure is worthwhile. Only so many hours in a day, with days shortened by time devoted to work.

  3. kmacwilli says:

    Very informative graphic!

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