Sunday, December 14, 2008

The turbines are the easy part...

More states and investors are seeing huge potential in wind farms as both an energy answer and an income opportunity.  Once again, a solution that has great visual appeal is mostly a mirage due to the two big factors.

First, our electric grid sucks.  No kidding. Even if we could generate power for pennies, we would not be able to efficiently get it where it is needed.  One reason is organizations you've probably never heard of, like MISO.
The Midwest Independent Transmission System (MISO), the organization in charge of the power lines, has to approve every new project that will connect to existing power lines. And MISO is only used to dealing with coal-plant-sized projects. Thus, the current regulations say that they must dedicate 2 years of their time to every project that will connect to the grid.
Not only that, but they're only allowed to process one application at a time.
This worked fine back when they were approving coal plants. Two years was plenty of time, and there weren't enough giant fossil fuel plants to fill their docket.
But a system that worked fine for fossil fuel has completely broken down in the face of distributed wind energy. People filing an application with MISO to build a medium- to large-scale wind project (of which there are currently over three hundred) have a heck of a wait in front of them. [More]

But it gets even better.  Because of the enormous queue and the rising value of MISO approval, many of the places in the approval line are actually occupied by speculators who intend to sell their spot, not build an actual power plant.  Add a few more dollars to the cost of "free energy".

Interestingly, another energy darling of the moment  - methane digesters - run into similar grid problems.

Second, wind is a flaky power source. Absent a smarter grid, the erratic power availability of wind turbines creates more of a problem for grid operators that an opportunity. As more wind farms are added, this unpredictability goes up, unlike steady-state, boringly predictable coal plants.  Guess which grid operators prefer to deal with?

Not only do turbines generate only when the wind blows, but their touchy electronic controls cause them to trip off-line at the drop of a hat. Consequently the nominal 40% of nameplate rating is more like 30% because of operational flightiness.

Now consider the standard for reliability for the grid is 99.5%.  Wind farms can't come close to that unless some storage (batteries, compressed air, etc.) capacity is included. 

So what happens when an erratic power generator is located too far from a large load to balance its fluxuations?  Strange energy economics.
A power producer typically gets paid for the power it generates. In Texas, some wind energy generators are paying to have someone take power off their hands.
Because of intense competition, the way wind tax credits work, the location of the wind farms and the fact that the wind often blows at night, wind farms in Texas are generating power they can't sell. To get rid of it, they are paying the state's main grid operator to accept it. $40 a megawatt hour is roughly the going rate.
For the first half of this year, power producers, mostly wind farms, paid the grid operator to take electricity for nearly 20 percent of the time. It happened 33 percent of the time in March alone and nearly 10 percent in October, said Mike Giberson, an energy business instructor at the Texas Tech University. He recently wrote about this issue in his blog, Knowledge Problem.
The industry parlance for paying someone to take the electricity is "negative pricing." It happens mostly when power producers bid the selling prices in the negative territory because they can afford to pay someone to use the energy.
Why? Wind energy producers get money for generating renewable electricity, but to qualify for these federal tax credits, the generation must be purchased and fed to an electric grid. As long as the money paid to the grid operator to take excess or "unwanted" electricity is less than the federal tax credit, the wind producer can make a profit. [More]
Wind farms need to be crowded around population centers rathet than stuck in the outback of ND, for example, because we can't move power easily.  A patchwork of ossified regulatory bodies like MISO ensures a sluggish response to any effort to reshape our nation's energy policy.
Even more valuable than transportation infrastructure would be greater investment in  electricity infrastructure, a smart grid.  Consider that in 2003 a massive, widespread, power outage threw 50 million people in the Northeastern states and Ontario, Canada out of power - disrupting lives and the economy.  Why did this happen?  Because of a failure to "trim trees" in Eastlake, Ohio - now that's a dumb grid.  And remember that only a few years earlier, the most innovative, high-tech industries in the world were shut down by blackouts caused by our primitive electricity grid.  Overall, blackouts cost the U.S. on the order of $100 billion a year.
The smart gird is a not one idea but many technologies such as real-time pricing (smart meters), superconductive smart cable, and plug-n-play architecture that combine to produce a grid that is decentralized, self-healing, robust, and smart for both producers and consumers.  Decentralized power, for example, makes it easier to isolate problems, "route" power to different areas, and maintain robustness in the face of falling trees and other problems.  Plug and play architecture means that new technologies such as electric cars can be automatically used as both consumers and producers (via storage) of electricity, as needed, on the fly.  Plug-n-play, the open-source of electricity infrastructure, will also open the field of electricity generation and storage to far greater innovation than is possible now. [More]
What this means is if we are not careful, all the billions of stimulus/energy dollars we're about to pour out could simply create more boondoggles like we see in wind farms and ethanol plants, if we don't address some way to get the energy to users, and clear regulatory arteries to handle new technology flows.
The problem for farmers will be lifting their eyes to a more distant horizon that may not include a monthly turbine/digester check, but rather enrich the whole power infrastructure.  At the same time, when transmission lines or access roads are surveyed, we need to consider our responsibility to generations ahead.


Anonymous said...

I think we are looking at this the wrong way round. Every home, office building, school should be generating independent power. When not enough energy is produced one pulls from the grid. when too much is produced, it feeds back to the system. Big centralized distribution systems are prone to disruption or even terrorism. Make every home as self sufficient as possible.

John Phipps said...


I agree. I'll try to post about distributed systems soon. Not only are they easier to build and manage, they are more bullet-proof.

Oddly, the keys appear to be smart grids and electric cars.