Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Lexicon Electric

This post is about a subject that many of you don't even know exist. It's about words, electric utility words. It's about how these words take on meaning and that meaning morphs into an understanding of system behavior. And it becomes a frame. That frame becomes both a tool and ultimately a prison.

In order to move from the present carbon based system that is presently running our energy needs, we will need to revise the lexicon of energy, and thus revise the way we model it in our minds and ultimately in reality.

If you were to go listen to an electric utility guy give a presentation, say at the Public Utilility Commission, you would hear words such as base load, intermediate generation, and peaking generation. Base load plants are big plants that basically are on or off. They include most coal and nuclear plants and some combined cycle gas plants. Intermediate plants are mostly combined cycle gas plants, while peaking plants are often combustion turbine gas plants.

This lexicon was not pulled out of thin air, it is based on the reality of our diurnal electrical loads. On average, we use half as much power at night which grows during the day, and then peaks (in summer) in the latter part of the day. The utility runs its base load plants at night, and then adds or ramps up its intermediate plants in the morning, finally adding the peaking plants during the peak demand, which may only last a few hours. On top of this, to add stability to the system, regulators and dispatchers want to see some "ready to go energy" which is called spinning reserve.

From this framework comes the word "dispatchable". It means that the plant's generation can be turned up or down depending on the load.

When utility planners talk about wind and solar, they often characterize them as non- dispatchable resources. The next statement that generally follows is "and we all know that the wind doesn't blow and that the sun doesn't shine all the time". (I wasn't aware of this)

If you follow this frame, and walk down the mindform plank it supports, you are on the edge of descending into the dark waters of nuclear power and nonexistent clean coal generation.

"We must have base load plants, and solar and wind can't do that, let's be realistic" you will hear from those who reside in this frame. Hence, you have organizations like Environmental Defense talking about supporting nuclear energy because it is the least of two evils.

But two evils are still two evils.

So rather than make decisions between these two evils, let's reframe the model.

The Lexicon Electric that I propose is this:

All renewable generation from now on is called Foundation Generation. Renewables are moved from the top of the graph, where they are seen as an unpredictable nuisance, all the way down to the bottom of the graph.

Existing base load plants (those that have not been decomissioned) are layed on top of this foundation generation and they are viewed as Smoothing Generators. On top of this curve we add our intermediate plants which are now viewed as Matching Generation. On top of these generation profiles, we add our peak plants which are now viewed as Firmers. Firming may not just be generation, it would also include demand programs which allow the utility to reduce demand at peak by various strategies.

Firming would also include V2G strategies from the transporation sector as well as the capacity in the system from your solar customers who have their own capacitance and will offer it back to you (the utility) should you need it. Firming technologies would include the added capacitance to the system of advanced batteries and ultra capacitors which might be inbedded into the grid to create what is now a very firmed up system with plenty of stability. The concept of Spinning reserve is thus replaced with the concept of "Reserve Capacitance"

With this new Lexicon, the problem of the "non dispatchability" of renewable generation disappears. And the new problem is now the old "must run" base load plants. Their inflexibility is now viewed as a liability.

Suddenly, the mind understands that what was once seen as the way it has always been done, is now seen as the old way we used to do it.

Words are important.

They create frames.

New Words create

New Frames.

And a new Lexicon Electric

creates a new world.


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Blogger RobC said...

You can change the words but not the facts. There still has to be a way to generate electricity when the sun isn't shining and the wind isn't blowing. We have to choose between nuclear and coal. What's your choice?

12:08 PM  
Blogger oZ said...

Dear Robc,

Sorry, you still don't get it. Thanks for the comment.

1:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There does not HAVE to be optimum
electrical service 24x7. Burning
fossil fuel is not a permanent
source of electrical power generaton, and even the free market
decided that nuclear power had too
much downside, and that does not even include the nuclear weapons
issue which nuclear power aggravates.


2:53 PM  
Blogger RobC said...

I think I do get it. You're imagining that ultra capacitors, which may equal ni-cad batteries in energy density, could back up enough electricity to run homes, offices, and businesses when there's no wind or sun.

It seems like the kind of thing that could be made cheaper so plug-in car owners wouldn't have to swap out batteries every few years. But running cities? It doesn't sound plausible.

Even if such batteries could be made, consider what it would take to power a country like the US.

According to Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, for the land suitable and available for wind turbines, the average rated power would run at 7.8 MW/km^2.[] Allowing a generous load factor of 35%[], the output would be 23,900 MWH/km^2/year. To provide all the electricity the US uses would require 167,000 km^2 or 64,600 square miles, because of the spacing required between the turbines. That would be a strip of land 50 miles wide running from the northern Montana border to the southern Arizona border. If the turbines were all rated at 3 MW, the largest size being sold, 435,000 turbines would be required. Commercial turbines are rated at an averate around 750 KW, so it would take 1,740,000 of them.

For the US, an average insolation would be around 5.5 KWH/m^2/day[], or 2 MWH/m^2/year. Allowing a generous 20% efficiency[], the output would be 0.4 MWH/m^2/year. To provide all the electricity the US uses would require 10 billion square meters or 3861 square miles of solar panels. That would be a panel 1-1/2 miles wide running from San Diego to Boston.

And how many millions of tons of batteries would be required?

Maybe the solution is to reduce electrical consumption. Well, that hasn't happened in the past, despite considerable efforts. Meanwhile, the main solution to global warming is to shift fossil-fuel applications to electricity, e.g. battery-powered cars, so we can look for electrical demand to go up.

Anyway, the point of my comment before was that you can't change reality just by changing names.

5:01 PM  
Blogger oZ said...

Rob, you still don't get it. We can run our utility with wind and solar and a fleet of gas turbines if we choose to and have no base load plants whatsoever.

Wind and solar resources are just as predictable as our load (they are both weather related). Wind peaks at midnight in the west but not in the south; solar peaks with our peak if we locate the plant 600miles to the west.

Perhaps you are a new reader, I don't know, but please understand, I am a utility guy.

Anyway, thanks for your well thought out comments.

5:45 PM  
Blogger RobC said...

Oz, you got me. I am a new reader, and I didn't know you work at a utility. This is great: there's so much unformed information going around on what's really a pretty important subject, and it's good to hear from someone who actually knows something. And I'm glad to ascertain that Clean Coal is just a pipedream, something I suspected.

I didn't get the part about gas turbines following the load. OK, if there's a fossil-fuel backup, then that makes a big difference. I thought we were stuck on magic batteries.

Is it realistic to pursue an electricity supply that depends on gas? Shouldn't we be thinking ahead a century or so? Will gas supplies be adequate for the whole electrified world? At the rate developing countries are growing their economies, it seems as though gas would put us over the CO2 levels that drive us deep into global warming, assuming the supplies last.

Maybe you've already covered this. If you'll tell me where it's archived I'll greatly appreciate the information.


8:52 PM  
Blogger oZ said...

The original purpose of this post was to "flip" the above chart so that renewables don't sit on the top, as the graph portrays.

Renewables need support just as base load plants need support, it is merely a matter of framing.

I will address Robc's comments involving moving to very high fractions of renewables and long term gas supplies perhaps today.

8:37 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would be interested in your knowledge and insight on a more decentralized approach to energy generation. What about solar and wind generation at homes and or neighborhoods for base power?

I broach this because large, centralized power generation is also one of those "the way we always did it" concepts.

10:44 AM  
Blogger oZ said...


First we do wind, then solar power plants, then distributed solar.

read this....

Individuals can move to Dist Solar today using rebates etc, but until we get to third and fourth generation technologies with cost approaching 12 cents, we can't deploy it on a massive scale.

12:46 PM  

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