The City Beat took the day off today but decided to drop in to the office anyway, "just to check e-mail," I told myself. Well, I ran across a blog post on transmission lines and remembered that the president-elect, who will soon be just plain president, had to say about transmission capacity.
The issue fascinates me after I wrote about it in 2006. The problem with getting our wind energy to market today is the same as it was then, which is that the power grid can’t really handle the extra electricity.
Technology Review has an interesting story (via Capital Gains and Games) about the transmission problem in Germany, which is way ahead of us in utilizing wind energy. Because of the unpredictable nature of wind, wind energy production is also unpredictable.
When the wind isn’t blowing much, the Germans have to scramble to turn on backup coal generators. As you can imagine, it costs a lot more to bring a boiler up to full boil than it is to just keep it going.
When the wind is blowing a lot, it could cause a "massive overloads," especially with a lot more turbines coming on line in the North and Baltic Seas.
In the United States, our transmission system is already close to overload:
"We are already operating the system closer to the edge than in the past," says the [North American Electric Reliability Corp.'s] president, Rick Sergel. "We simply do not have the transmission capacity available to properly integrate new renewable resources."
Barack Obama seems to recognize this also:
"One of … the most important infrastructure projects that we need is a whole new electricity grid," the Illinois Democrat said [in October] on MSNBC’s "The Rachel Maddow Show." "Because if we’re going to be serious about renewable energy, I want to be able to get wind power from North Dakota to population centers like Chicago. And we’re going to have to have a smart grid if we want to use plug-in hybrids."
This is an issue that’s fascinating both from a technological perspective and an economic perspective.
Here’s why it’s a big deal economically:
Electricity — not oil — is the heart of the U.S. energy economy. Power plants consume as much raw energy as oil delivers to all our cars, trucks, planes, homes, factories, offices, and chemical plants. Because big power plants operate very efficiently, they also deliver much more useful power than car engines and small furnaces. On their own, our passenger cars consume less than half as much raw energy as our power plants, and turn it into useful power at the wheels about half as efficiently. If we could plug our cars directly into the electric grid, and choose the best time and place to plug them, idle capacity in existing plants could power almost all the miles we drive. With a 10 percent boost in production, the grid could also take care of all the heating supplied by oil-fired home furnaces.
Electricity is also comparatively cheap. If we could deliver electricity straight to electric motors connected to our wheels, it would deliver miles at a price that most current car engines could match only on gasoline priced under a dollar a gallon. Delivered to our homes at off-peak prices, electrical heat would cost homeowners a lot less than $4-a-gallon heating oil. Electricity is cheap because the gigantic furnaces and boilers that spin million-horsepower turbines and generators run almost entirely on fuels that cost much less than oil. As a result, we spend roughly half as much on electricity — about $350 billion a year — as we’re currently spending on $100-a-barrel oil, and electrically powered systems do more, faster and better, than oil-fired alternatives.
And finally, our electricity is made in America. Tomorrow’s power plants, like today’s, will be powered by anything but oil. We have abundant supplies and reliable access to all the fuels we currently use to generate electricity, and the development of wind, solar, and other renewables will only expand our homegrown options. Moreover, and in any event, the cost of our electricity depends mainly on the cost of capital, labor, and know-how, the most inexhaustible and renewable resources on our planet. With electricity, America controls its own destiny.
Here’s why it’s a big deal technologically:
When the National Academy of Engineering compiled a list of 20 of the most important engineering achievements of the 20th Century, the grid was No. 1, more important than the computer (No. 8), electronics (No. 5), the airplane (No. 3) and the automobile (No. 2).
The majority of the top 20 achievements would not have been possible without electricity. Electrification changed the country’s economic development and gave rural populations the same opportunities and amenities as people in the cities. It provides the power for small appliances in the home, for computers in control rooms that route power and telecommunications, and for the machinery that produces capital goods and consumer products. If anything shines as an example of how engineering has changed the world during the twentieth century, it is clearly the power that we use in our homes and businesses.
But the grid has not kept up with the times. The Tech Review story identifies several problems:
- There are no big lines connecting renewable energy producing regions — wind in the Midwest and solar and wind in the Southwest — with the major urban centers.
- There’s no way to store surplus electricity generated when wind and sun are strongest to be used when they aren’t.
- The grid is stupid and can’t automatically adjust to problems.
- Regulations meant to encourage competition has also encouraged more investment in power plants but little investment in power lines, which means more electricity but not more transmission capacity.
- There is no overarching federal agency that coordinates a development of an integrated and expanded transmission system. It’s a patchwork of regional organizations now and I don’t think there are very strong connections between different regions.
One solution is something called the "smart grid," which is to power distribution what the Internet is to data transmission. It makes it more efficient and less likely to fail catastrophically.
Currently, the grid is a dumb system that can’t adjust on the fly to changing demand and supply of electricity. As this helpful government pamphlet says, "in many areas of the United States, the only way a utility knows there’s an outage is when a customer calls to report it." The general lack of awareness of how the grid is running at any given moment makes it hard for grid operators to respond in a coordinated and timely manner before events spiral out of control.
The grid is also inefficient because it can’t tell consumers that demand is very high and electricity will cost a lot more. If you knew that you could save $10 in electricity by turning off the computer and TV for a few hours, say, Tuesday afternoon, you’d probably turn them off. A couple 100,000 people doing the same thing could take the strain off the system.
There’s also a need to simply add bigger pipes. Incredibly, national grid remains divided by regions without many major power lines connecting them. The way it’s described, it sounds like what the national highway system was before the Eisenhower interstate system.
This Manhattan Institute study calls for the creation of such an interstate system for electricity transmission.
Look at the way it connects all the sources of electricity around the country. When the winds go quiet in the Dakotas and Texas, there’s always nukes from the TVA.