The recent incident of rolling blackouts that occurred in the Texas ERCOT power grid raises some interesting issues for home owners, residential energy professionals and others concerned about energy policy.  A recent article by Michael Giberson posted on The Energy Collective is a good early analysis.

All power grids have their vulnerabilities; it’s too costly to build in 100% reliability.  In this ERCOT event, a number of factors came together in a so-called perfect storm to result in peak demand for electricity exceeding available capacity.  The peak demand at one point was 53,000 MW (million watts).  To prevent a cascading collapse of the entire Texas grid, rolling blackouts amounting to about 3,000 MW were implemented. 

Energy efficiency and conservation can make an important contribution to power grid stability.  When the grid gets stretched to its limit, it’s a fine line between blackout and normal operation.  It’s a balancing act for grid operators to have enough capacity to serve the peak demand, but not too much excess capacity, which would be costly and inefficient.  It is generally recognized that building in efficiency and conservation is less expensive per MW than building new power plants.  Also, when we have weather excursions into extremely low temperatures, improved building envelopes with less air infiltration and more insulation value will require less energy, regardless of the efficiency of the heating and air conditioning systems.

A number of gas-fired power plants were temporarily shut down, as high gas usage during the cold snap led to low gas line pressures in some areas, and regulatory requirements for preferred customers in others.  This brings into question the current policy of increasing reliance on methane (natural gas) for both peak and baseload power generation.  To the degree that there is variable and intermittent power on the grid, such as wind and solar, there must be methane peak power available to immediately replace their output as it fluctuates.  Giberson tells us that Texas’ significant wind turbine fleet on the ERCOT grid was producing normally for this time of year, about 3-4,000 MW.  He concludes that it did not cause the blackouts, but that wind power did not present any solution either.  My concern is that as the percentage of renewable power sources increases on a power grid, vulnerability may increase because of more reliance on methane supplies and pricing, and on unusual long periods of no wind or sun during times of peak demand.

Using methane to replace coal for baseload capacity places a further demand on methane supplies.  While it is generally agreed that buring methane has lower greenhouse gas emissions than coal, some ongoing life cycle analysis studies are indicating that methane may not be as “clean” as believed previously.  In addition, more and more of the new supplies of methane in this country are produced by the process of fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, which is causing great concern about the possible contamination of groundwater. 

Answers?  Conservation and energy efficiency continue to be a slam-dunk.  Put your dollars there first, whether you’re a home owner or a power utility.  Proceed with caution on renewable power, which may cause problems for the grid as deployment increases, and its high cost per unit of power produced may take limited resources away from other needed areas.  In my opinion, we need to take a good hard look at using nuclear power to provide the majority of our baseload electrical generating capacity.  Nuclear power is the only way to reach our carbon emission targets by 2050, and the only way to systematically take fossil fuel baseload power plants out of service relatively quickly.

 

This post originally appeared on Home Energy Consultants' House Whisperer Blog.

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Comment by Gary Kahanak on February 10, 2011 at 3:24pm
@David.  Perhaps, you may be right.  Time will tell, as you say.  We definitely need biological solutions.  We need it all.  However, I think I hear you saying that large scale social engineering and terraforming will solve the climate change problem.  Since it has never been done before, I would say it's a risky bet, given that the stakes are so large.  I would prefer to focus on things we know we can control, and that we know will have the desired effect.  I'll spend more time with the Soil-Age site.  Interesting stuff.  Thanks for your remarks.
Comment by David Eggleton on February 10, 2011 at 2:48pm

If we keep our eyes on what you call the finish line, you may be right.  However, we have more choices if we don't accept choices others would impose on us and too many future generations.  That emissions reduction target did not consider sequestering carbon dioxide by reversing desertification.  By that means, the atmospheric PPM can return to pre-industrial levels while large tracts return to life-supporting production.

I do not share your sense of the future.  We'll see which is realistic.  I'm betting on people finding themselves and each other, because that's where the meanings and infinite resources are.

Comment by Gary Kahanak on February 10, 2011 at 4:26am
@David, I agree that "life is so much more than what centrally-generated electricity supports," but what I am trying to point out is that it so happens that how we, as a world, choose to generate our electricity is the primary factor that will determine whether we will pass on a habitable planet to our descendants.  Sure, we need to use less in our country, but that's not enough.  We can conserve in the U.S. until the cows come home, and the planet may still fry.  We have to keep our eyes on the finish line; 85% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions below 2000 levels by 2050.  That means taking fossil fuel plants off line as quickly as we can.  It's not realistic to think humanity will accept using dramatically less energy, or going without completely.  And as a matter of social justice, what about the "bottom billion" that burn sticks and dung for energy?  Is it right for them to remain in a low-energy lifestyle?  It has been convincingly argued that bringing power to the bottom billion is perhaps the best way to rein in population growth.  So, we need MORE power, and LESS carbon.  Nuclear Power....Yes, Please!
Comment by David Eggleton on February 9, 2011 at 8:49pm

In my opinion, we need to take a good hard look at our using and choose recovery and participation.  Life is so much more than what centrally-generated electricity supports.

Comment by Gary Kahanak on February 6, 2011 at 3:00pm
@ Peter, continued.

I am familiar with Amory Lovins' stance on nuclear power, and I disagree with him completely.  The "nuclear renaissance" isn't dead; it never stopped in most of the rest of the world.  Capital costs are high, but they are being brought under control by standardization of plant designs, as opposed to the one-off designs of the U.S. fleet from 30-40 years ago.  Nuclear power plants are typically cash cows for utilities, as facility lifetimes are very long, and fuel costs are negligible in comparison to the generated revenue.  As a case in point, Arkansas' two nuclear reactors, built in the 70s, just received approval to extend operations into the mid-2030's.  These two plants are some of the best run in the nation, with capacity factors in excess of 90%.  They produce 30% of the electricity in Arkansas, while helping to give the state one of the lowest utility rates in the nation (and did I mention clean air?).

The house analogy to the cost scenario is, which is the better deal, the more expensive, very well-built, safe, energy efficient home, or the cheaper, thrown together, energy guzzling boom time special?

For more information, I recommend a blog site with scientific and academic underpinnings, www.bravenewclimate.com .  Also, an excellent presentation of the physical limits of all forms of energy sources is "Sustainable Energy--Without the Hot Air," by David MacKay (the entire book may be found online free at www.withouthotair.com .

Comment by Gary Kahanak on February 6, 2011 at 2:56pm

Peter, I'm not sure what happened here, but this blog apparently limits the length of comments.  It cut off part of your comment, and several paragraphs of my last comment.  Arrrgh!  I'll try to reconstruct.

There is risk in everything, but the public's perception of risk is key here.  Without the proper facts, it is common to not distinguish between what might happen with what is happening.  Many people are afraid to fly, but think nothing of driving a car, although driving is far riskier.  It is much the same with nuclear power.  The worst has already happened with nuclear power; it was called Chernobyl.  That was a primitive design, with poorly trained operators.  The reactor was literally a pile of graphite blocks and fuel rods in a Quonset hut....with no containment building!  Operator error led to a steam explosion and release of radioactive materials.  The accident caused 53 deaths, mostly fire fighters at the scene.  The affected area is now a nature preserve teeming with plant and wildlife, with no notable biological effects observed after 25 years.  This was a regrettable accident, but it was hardly planet-killing. 

To assess risk, we must consider how often an event could occur, and the severity of the consequences if an event does occur.  There have been no deaths caused by the U.S. nuclear power industry in 50 years.  The U.S. Navy has logged almost 6000 reactor-years of operation without a single accident or release of radioactive materials.   By contrast, the fossil fuel industry emits greenhouse gases continuously in gigaton quantities.  We are fairly certain that this will have planet-killing effects if it continues unabated.  In the U.S., there are 23,000 early deaths per year just from coal soot alone, and 400,000 early deaths per year in China.  And this does not consider effects of mercury and heavy metal emissions as a result of coal burning. 

I am familiar with Amory Lovins' stance on nuclear power,

Comment by Gary Kahanak on February 6, 2011 at 5:54am

Peter, I agree that here in the U.S. we have a huge opportunity in conservation and efficiency.  However, in the face of other larger goals we must attain over the next 40 years, I think it is a mistake to focus solely on demand side management as the centerpiece of our energy policy.

The primary goal we must keep in our sights is the conclusion of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that the world must have an 85% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions below year 2000 levels by 2050.  Most credible global energy demand projections that I have seen are calling for a doubling or tripling of current usage by 2050, and that is assuming significant deployment of conservation and efficiency measures.  If one does the math, the world's energy economy must be essentially carbon-neutral by 2050 to meet this target.  What is more, that target is projected to "stabilize" the atmosphere at 450 ppm CO2, or a 2 degree Centigrade increase in global mean temperature, a level which some climatologists, such as James Hansen, are saying is too high, that 350 ppm or less is the safe threshold. 

The 2010 global energy projections of the Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimate that by 2035, 86% of global energy demand growth will be in developing, or non-OECD nations.  So, in my view the U.S. has a dual challenge:  we must work especially hard on conservation and efficiency, as we are an energy obese nation, but at the same time we have an obligation to innovate and be early adopters and promoters of the only energy source that can accomplish a fossil fuel free energy economy by 2050, namely nuclear power.  If we refrain from doing this, we will fade into irrelevance on the global energy scene.

Regarding apprehensions of the entire nuclear cycle, were mistakes made in the past?  Yes.  Have we learned from past mistakes and made improvements?  Again, yes.  There are challenges and hurdles remaining, but are they solvable? Absolutely. 

Comment by Peter Boogaart on February 5, 2011 at 7:18pm
 

Gary,

You're right to assert that conservation is a slam-dunk.  I don't think that we have even begun yet to understand how much energy is available when we pursue conservation and efficiency. But, finding the answer is part of the base-load calculation.  It seems to me that we won't be able to plan a legitimate grid without understanding a true measure of demand.

I'd like to see greater emphasis placed on consumer engagement for conservation.  More efficient appliances are a good thing, but what if the consumer was incentivized to use less?  How about rebates for using less than a predetermined amount of energy?  If I could make money by using less, I'd find a way. Pricing needs to be part of the equasion.  It's too easy to use more when the dollar cost of doing so is only incremental.

I appreciated your insights about the difficulties of picking a fuel for base load production.  Nuclear power, however, makes me anxious.  I understand the appeal, but don't believe that the whole system--from mining to decommission has been discussed openly:  

Why should we engage more nuclear when the US has shown little appetite for cleaning up the nuclear waste sites we already have? 

I'm recalling Amory Lovins statement that we don't have to make a decision on nuclear--the market already has:  It's too expensive.  Only government intervention keeps the industry alive.  Will this

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