Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Future of the Electric Grid:

Is it in Question?

Recently, Rod Adams had a thought-provoking discussion about the electric grid on his blog, Atomic Insights.  In it, he points out the fallacies of the argument that the electric power grid is becoming obsolete.  I would like to take this opportunity to reinforce many of the points he made, and perhaps add a few of my own.

There is certainly greater interest, both by homeowners and by companies, in off-grid power generation.  Just today, the Wall Street Journal described the efforts of Walmart and other large chains to generate some of their own power.

Nevertheless, all the "off the grid" concepts that I have heard about or can envision are unworkable for one reason or another.  They are either too unreliable, too expensive, or--if you have personal, fossil-fueled generators as backups--polluting and inconvenient. 

On an individual basis, they are unreliable if they depend solely on the sun or the wind--or even on a combination of the two.  They are expensive if they incorporate enough storage to bridge the sometimes lengthy periods when the sun isn't shining and the wind isn't blowing.  Or, they depend instead on fossil-fueled backup sources, which in addition to being polluting, require individual homeowners to deal with maintaining and operating the generators and fuel safely. 

In fact, most of the renewable energy concepts depend very heavily on the existence of a reliable electric grid in one way or another.  Some of those who promote individual solar and wind systems believe that one alternative to having individual backup generators is--you guessed it--the much maligned grid. 

In this view, the individual homeowner operates independently of the grid when there is sun or wind and perhaps even has the right to sell power to the grid if when there is a temporary excess.  However, when their own sources are insufficient, they would expect to draw power from the grid.  (If this happens on a large scale, it has potentially serious consequences for the economics of the grid, and we will have to price power use differently, perhaps with an element to reflect peak use, so that intermittent users pay their fair share of the costs of having the grid available when they need it.)

Taken to the extreme, increasing the use of renewables could actually increase the demands on the electric grid.  A few years ago, I heard Amory Lovins speak at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).  In his address, his response to critics who question the reliability of renewables was that the sun is always shining or the wind is always blowing somewhere, so power can be moved around--you guessed it--over the grid.

This, of course, would require a far more advanced and integrated electric grid than we presently have, able to deal with rapidly changing power inputs, especially from the wind, and to be able to direct it instantaneously to where it is needed, which might be hundreds of miles away.  This would be true whether the solar and wind inputs came from the roofs of individual homes or, more likely, whether they came from wind or solar farms.

The truth is that, short of returning to caves and really living on only what we can gather or grow individually, we cannot live in isolation.  Even if we move into a world of more distributed power generation sources, we will inevitably need to link them together to achieve the reliable energy supply needed for a modern society to function.


Friday, September 13, 2013

Molasses and Nuclear Power:

What they have in Common
When Molasses isn't Sweet

At the same time the world's eyes are focused on reports of radioactive contamination of the ocean from Fukushima, news of a very different kind of threat to sealife has crossed my desk--pollution from an accidental release of molasses from a leak in a molasses pipeline.

Yes, molasses.  It sounds a bit like a joke, but the reports from Hawaii about a spill of molasses into Honolulu Harbor sound remarkably similar to the stories coming out of Japan, or the stories that followed the Deepwater Horizon oil spill--thousands of dead fish, long-term effects, impacts on neighboring reefs, an increase in predator fish (replacing the dead fish), unusual growth in marine algae (due to the nutrient-rich liquid) with perhaps unanticipated environmental effects, and warnings not to swim or eat the fish.  Gary Gill, the Deputy Director of Hawaii's Department of Health, terms this, "The worst environmental damage to sea life that I have come across...this is a biggie if not the biggest that we've had to confront in the state of Hawaii."

Some of the reasons for the concerns are different--the long-term effects near the spill are due to limited water circulation in the bay delaying the flushing out of the contamination (although, when it does spread, it would still affect the nearby reefs); and the warnings against swimming and eating the fish are not because the molasses itself is harmful, but rather because of the possible increase in predator fish (for swimmers) and the possible growth of harmful bacteria and other substances in these conditions.

Bizarre as this incident may seem (and it certainly sparked some amusing comments from readers on the CNN website), this is not the first time that a molasses spill has led to serious consequences.  Nearly a century ago, the Great Molasses Flood of 1919 claimed over 20 lives, caused numerous injuries, and swept buildings off their foundations when a tank containing molasses exploded and sent a tidal wave of molasses, several feet high, crashing through the streets of Boston, Massachusetts.

All of this is not to suggest that we should ban molasses or create a Molasses Regulatory Agency.  It is a reminder that it is not only "unnatural" activities such as oil drilling and large, centralized power plants that have the potential to cause harm.  A lot of human industry today, even that related to food production and processing, has the potential to have serious impacts on the environment--and ultimately, to our own well-being.

Short of returning to subsistence farming--which I don't see happening, and which, of course, would come with its own set of environmental impacts anyway--we need to understand that anything spilled into our lakes and rivers and oceans in large quantity will affect the water, even things that are "natural" and nourishing, anything we eject into the air in large quantity will affect the air, and anything we produce leaves behind some residual waste products. 

While two major accidents in 100 years may not seem like much, it seems that the molasses industry may need to learn some lessons from those who operate gas and oil pipelines, from the clean-up effort from Deepwater Horizon and Fukushima, and from other large industrial activities.


Saturday, September 7, 2013

Energy and Fire:

Hidden Dangers

Just last week, I commented on the Yosemite fire and the concerns forest fires raise in terms of siting of some energy sources and power lines.  I didn't think I'd find myself writing about fire issues again so soon, but a friend just sent me a very interesting article about the dangers solar panels pose for firefighters.  The article raises yet another, although very different, fire-related issue that I hadn't thought about before.

The article reports that the solar panels on the roof of a burning warehouse in Burlington County, New Jersey, presented serious safety hazards for the firefighters attempting to extinguish the blaze.  "We may very well not be able to save buildings that have alternative energy," New Jersey's acting fire marshall, William Kramer, said after a fire chief refused to sent his firefighters onto the roof of the warehouse on August 31.

Several problems were identified in the article:
  • - The possibility of electric shock because electricity to the panels can't be shut off,
  • - The fact that any kind of light, including a firefighter's flashlight, will activate the panels,
  • - Not having a clear path on the roof to cut ventilation holes,
  • - The chance of slipping on the slick panels,
  • - The increased possibility of structural collapse because of the weight of the panels on the roof, and
  • - Inhalation exposure from the caustic fumes of solar batteries. 
The concerns that solar panels pose for firefighters have been recognized for at least several years, as a 2010 report by the Fire Protection Research Foundation was cited that warned firefighters to treat all solar systems as energized at all times.

The inherent conflict between firefighting and other requirements is certainly not unique to solar energy.  In homes and businesses, space layouts and other features of buildings are optimized for convenience of use, comfort, security, and other reasons rather than for optimum fire safety or access by emergency responders.  In nuclear power plants, some of the measures taken to ensure security against unauthorized intrusion may make it more difficult for emergency responders to move around the plant quickly in case of any emergency, including a fire. 

In the case of solar energy systems, the problem has the potential to be more serious than in some other cases.  This is in part because of the use of solar systems in residential and office buildings, where many lives may be endangered if fires can't be extinguished.  The fact that more and more solar energy systems are being installed means that the potential risks are multiplying quickly.  And finally, the fact that solar energy systems can pose multiple potential threats to the safety of firefighters, each of which may need a different solution, makes the efforts to address this problem more difficult and more costly. 

These kinds of problems, serious though they are, do not seem to be insurmountable.  The article quotes a representative of the Solar Energy Industry Association saying they are working on appropriate codes and standards for solar installations and on training for first responders.  Clearly, there may be a need for "backfits" to improve the safety of existing solar installations for firefighters, or even for some limits in the deployment of solar energy systems.

The reaction to the news of yet another unexpected problem attributed to solar installations should not be one of defensiveness from the solar energy advocates or of joy from the proponents of other energy technologies.  Neither approach helps move us towards a future with adequate supplies of safe, affordable energy.  Rather, the reaction should be the recognition by all that every source of energy supply has pros and cons, that every source of energy supply has some unexpected drawbacks, and that we must keep assessing and improving the design, installation, and operation of all energy supply systems to address issues as we learn of them.