Tag Archives: renewables

Plentiful, Affordable, Reliable, but especially Reliable

29 Sep

Reliability is one of those things we don’t notice until it’s not there.

There was an interesting article published last week in The New York Times by James Glanz entitled, “The Cloud Factories: Power, Pollution and the Internet.” While the story line revolves around the vast amount of energy that modern data centers consume and the pollution associated with it, the story also highlights an issue most folks outside the industry do not  usually think about.

We turn on a light, switch on the stove burner, or jump on the internet and expect it to work. Service is there, 24/7, without fail — usually.

Our energy delivery systems, especially the electric grid, are designed and operated to be highly reliable. The electric grid is designed and operated to ensure system integrity. Ancillary services spread throughout the generation, transmission, and distribution systems keep it up and running nearly without fail. But, when it does fail, it’s a newsworthy event.

One of the tools used to provide this flawless delivery is reserve capability. The power grid is built with excess capacity over and above what the operators expect the maximum demand to be. (called “peak demand”) This backup capacity is used when a primary power source fails, or if demand exceeds the planners estimates of peak demand. It’s an effective “belt and suspenders” approach.

In the U.S., the electric transmission grid and wholesale sale of electricity in interstate commerce (sales that cross state borders) is regulated the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (“FERC”). FERC, in turn, certified the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (“NERC”) to ensure the electric network’s reliability by developing and enforcing reliability standards and assessing the grid’s adequacy.

NERC divides the U.S power grid into 14 regions and makes reliability assessments three times each year. With the exception of Texas, every region has a positive reserve margin. That is, there is excess capacity in 13 of the 14 regions. Due to its operating and commercial structure, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, (“ERCOT”) faces some unique challenges. As a result, ERCOT has experienced rolling brownouts and blackouts over parts of Texas during recent peak summer and winter periods.

The point of all this, however, is that the data centers examined in the NY Times article are not as unique as the author seemingly implies. Maintaining a high degree of reliability demands that redundant systems that sit idle a good deal of time be in place. Whether its Google, your bank, a hospital, or the power grid, standby capacity is essential if the system is going to operate without a hitch.

As our legislators and regulators develop new energy policies and make choices about how best to generate, transmit, and deliver plentiful and affordable electricity, reliability issues will be front and center. Studies by both industry and academic institutions have shown that if intermittent renewables (particularly wind and solar) become a significant portion of our electricity generation, it will increase the need for backup generation (especially natural gas) to provide the reserve margin.

Of course, reserve capacity that sits idle most of the time is expensive. The trade off between spending more money on reserve capacity and risking reliability is a judgement call. How much is enough? Just as important is the question of how to create incentives for investors to build such expensive, seldom used, but essential facilities. Certainly, there may be room for efficiency offsets, but as the NY Times article points out, infrastructure is needed to support these operations.

Whether it’s using the cloud for computing or smart grid technology to deliver our electricity, large scale infrastructure remains a necessity.  Just as with reliability, most of us will never notice it except when it’s not there.

Searching for a silver bullet; never firing the gun.

29 Jan

Maybe I’m cynical, but while I was heartened to learn that President Obama highlighted domestic natural gas in his State of the Union address, his campaign to promote an “All of the Above” strategy with the tag line, “Built to last,” appears eerily reminiscent of the last thirty years of Presidential initiatives to address our energy situation.

Presidents and their staffers are very good at crafting an image or brand around their energy policy. Jimmy Carter had his cardigan sweater. George W. Bush lamented our, “addiction to oil.”  Mr. Obama, until last week, was the “green” President: green economy, green jobs, green investments…until they turned red. Now, he is for “all the above” under a “blueprint for an economy that’s built to last.” (I guess speaking in automotive slogans is an aftereffect of the GM bailout.)

Unfortunately, it’s clear that we still lack a rational energy policy, just as we have over the past three decades. To be fair, energy is not a simple issue. It has implications throughout our daily lives, business and the economy, the environment, and national security. Compounding this complexity, energy is by definition, remarkably political in nature. On one side sit the pro energy interests (“drill baby drill”), on the other, the green movement fervently convinced energy is causing worldwide destruction. The majority in middle simply want a stable job and a decent living along with gasoline prices that don’t necessitate a second mortgage.

So what’s a politician do when he has to maneuver between such a political Scylla and Charybdis?  First, deflect the issue by identifying an expedient target. Be certain to be seen standing up for your constituents and publicly denounce the bad guy (think CEO’s of energy companies).  Next look for a silver bullet, no matter how ineffective, to calm fears and give the impression that you’re solving the problem. Finally, coin a catchy slogan so people will remember you in the voting booth.

The public flogging of energy company CEO’s feels good, but that’s been done so often recently that it’s loosing populist appeal. Silver bullets rise and fall faster than GOP presidential contenders. Ethanol, first and second generation cellulosic biofuel, algae derived bio-diesel, electric battery vehicles. Each an interesting concept, but none even remotely capable of addressing our challenges.  Silver bullets are attractive, but notorious for misfiring.

All this leads me to wonder, ” Will be ever get to actually fire the gun?” Why aren’t we defining our energy strategy by means of a classical engineering or business decision model, just as we did to develop the existing pipelines and utilities, our electric transmission grid, and cellular phone and internet access?  That is, let  government lay out the problem, clearly define the rules, and identify the objectives.

Our national energy policy should be defined in three broad parameters. It must lead to plentiful, affordable, reliable energy. Do so in compliance  with all applicable regulations, codes, and standards to protect our health, safety, security, and environment. Continue to support basic research that will lead to new applications, but don’t allow government to play venture capitalist and attempt to pick winners and losers.

Let’s stop trying to identify the silver bullet. Unleash the power of industry and this country’s innate  entrepreneurial spirit to generate multiple options. Test them and let them compete and in the marketplace. The choice of options that best meets our objectives will soon be clear.

A national energy strategy that guides the development of a bandolier of bullets–oil, natural gas, clean coal, nuclear, renewables, efficiency, etc.–will support a gun capable of firing well placed rounds that actually hit the target.