Electric power fantasies are lining up

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Seems like every big policy gun wants to take a shot at fantasizing the decarbonization and electrification of the energy system. No doubt that is where the government policy analysis money is going. Sadly I am on the wrong side of the issue, money-wise, but it sure is fun flogging the fallacies in these so-called studies.

A few weeks ago we looked at the hilarious effort by the International Energy Agency. They were growing the global economy, and electrifying everything in sight, but had the need for juice going down in the process. Clearly impossible.

Two other recent reports are also worth laughing at. Which one is worse is hard to say, they are that bad. The titles begin to give the flavor of fantasy.

One is “The Future of Electric Power in the United States” by the collective National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM). The role of medicine is unclear.

The other is this mouthful:”Electrification Futures Study: Operational Analysis of U.S. Power Systems with Increased Electrification and Demand-Side Flexibility” from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).

Each of these massive reports is several hundred pages long, so I am merely going to point out the biggest and silliest features. Given the green focus it is preordained that the biggest is also the silliest.

From NREL let’s start with Demand-Side Flexibility. What does this mean? It means that you serve the grid, rather than the grid serving you. I am not making this up. Their primary example is that electric vehicles will be charged during midday, when solar power is at full strength. You arrange your life around when power is available. Is this third world or what? It is the opposite of flexibility, a form of control. You are working on the grid’s schedule.

They also have a computer model showing how wonderfully well this works. Here it gets truly hilarious, as they have a contender for the world’s greatest green understatement. The Executive Summary, which is all most people will read, features a nifty graph of a week of power generation and consumption. It shows how thanks to the miracle of Demand-Side Flexibility we can get all the juice we need from solar plus wind.

Of course the graph is completely unrealistic. To begin with is says it is a week in April but apparently it never rains. Solar is full strength every day, even though clouds can cut solar to just 10% of full power. Even more miraculous, the wind varies every day in just such a way as to meet our needs when solar does not. Of course wind never, ever shows this kind of day to day rhythmic consistency.

They have this absurdity covered, however, in where else but a footnote! Here it is, although it is a tad technical: “The limited amount of unserved load found in the scenarios suggests that the systems are resource adequate although additional probabilistic analysis with multiple weather years are needed to confirm the findings.” I am pretty sure that in some of these other weather years it rains in April and the wind does not blow hard and rhythmically that week. Unserved load would be blackout scale. So this is a great understatement indeed!

NASEM has an entirely different approach, ironically one that is useful in its way. They are fussing and worrying about all the technical obstacles to radically transforming the American electric power system. In many cases these potential problems are spelled out in great detail, taking several hundred pages. It is a grand catalog of worries.

Happily very few simple minded solutions or fixes are specified. The dozens of recommendations mostly amount to by who and how these issues should be addressed. It is no surprise that many involve more research, since drumming up research funding is NASEM’s job. They explain in detail that the needed technologies simply do not exist, which is important to know.

This mind-numbing report makes clear that the popular green doctrine that transformation just takes political will is pure fantasy. It would be incredibly complex and difficult. Of course it would also be astronomically expensive and extremely disruptive, which they do not go into.

This weighty report adds to the shunned knowledge that the great green transformation simply will not happen. The wall of reality looms ahead, dead ahead of the political machinery that is trying to speed up. The interesting question is what the crash will look like? It may be as simple as nothing much happening, as it has been so far. As it gets harder, less and less will be done. A crash into nothingness.

I am sure in the days to come we will have more big studies like these. From an engineering point of view the electric power transformation and expansion is a fun problem. Properly read what these studies tell us is that it will not happen. Transformation is unbelievably costly, hugely disruptive and there is no need for it. This is a clear prescription for political failure.

  • David Wojick, Ph.D. is an independent analyst working at the intersection of science, technology and policy. For origins see http://www.stemed.info/engineer_tackles_confusion.html For over 100 prior articles for CFACT see http://www.cfact.org/author/david-wojick-ph-d/ Available for confidential research and consulting.

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