Monday, January 17, 2011
Centrally-planned, declining R&D, government regulated and old: Despite all of this the U.S. electrical grid is becoming more prone to outages? Shocker.
I know nothing about the electrical grid other than what I read in the popular press from time to time, it seems more probable than not that these two statements are true:
It is very depressing.
This problem is very complicated.
I worked in the power generation field; this is not a new story. It is just getting worse. We have not licensed a new coal fired plant in 2 years and they are generally located in existing grid areas. New power lines are difficult to erect because of NIMBY problems. Then to complicate matters, the government's idea of new power sources are green energy sources which are generally away from populated areas and need new power lines in which NIMBY roars its head; so will the government start bypassing state and local zoning/hearing requirements for the "greater good"; more lost of citizen's freedoms. But as Scotland recently showed, green wind power is can be impacted by severe weather and when there is no backup power sources like dirty coal, there simply is no power.
The addition of more electrically powered labor saving devices, computers and now electric cars that need recharging are placing a larger burden on the existing grid. DC transmission was supposedly a partial cure, but I don't believe it has progressed too much in the past several decades. One salvation may be that the cheaper roof top solar power systems will increase the desire and ability of the homeowner to pick up some of their electrical load and reduce the need for more generation and grids. Of course, this means more homeowners deaths since the collectors will have to be cleaned maybe twice a year and based on the stats from deaths by falling off of ladders, thousands will die or receive major injuries each year. There are unintended consequences with every advance, it seems.
I wouldn't put too much faith in the EIA data. This may just be a reporting issue.
NERC should be much more reliable in this regard. However, those graphs are probably not the right metrics to use. Rather, it would be better to look at something like the percentage of customer-outage-kw-hours to customer-consumed-kw_hours.
Even then, if these outages are increasing, or that the level of investment now is too low or that the technology of the grid is substandard. It could be taken to mean that the grid used to be overbuilt.
The incubator for the new grid technology is Texas of course: http://green.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/12/03/deep-in-the-heart-of-texas-a-smart-grid/
Most of the regulatory hurdles are easy to overcome since energy professionals are held in high regard here. I work much further upstream from this point, but imagine that it is a friendly environment to develop such technology.
I'm on the generation side, but the problem isn't regulation on a gross level but on a local level. In most places it is next to impossible to build transmission lines (NIMBY, etc.) Wind power makes the problem worse since wind needs backup and is usually far away from loads.
Higher tech stuff (not smart grid hype) costs capital expenditures and since the public expects no change in power costs, these die more often than not.
Siting new generation close to loads helps so gas fired plants are currently the only viable option.
New Ideas cannot enter into the mix until the war on energy is stopped or at least a truce is declared by the various government entities.
hell, it's not merely the electrical grid (and the national 'travel' infrastructure)(had someone from 30 years ago been able to see the mess that's today's air-travel system, with grossly outdated ATC systems, cattle-pen airports, and soviet-class quality of flying, they'd have been appalled) that's going to hell.
"law and government policy are almost certainly an obstacle to..." pretty much every and any new innovation, which is how the law's corporate owners *like it*. imagine the internal combustion engine had never been invented. now, today, along comes a modern henry ford, with the engineering AND manufacturing knowhow to bring personal auto-mobile travel cheaply to the masses. just one small problem: sometimes, usually but not always due to driver error, accidents occur and people die in them.
given today's "legal and regulatory" climate, do you think the company that made those cars would last longer than 10 years from the lawsuits? between lawyers on billboards snarling, "we sue automakers!" to grandstanding EPA and NTSA bozos mandating technology that doesn't yet exist, we'd all be back to walking/horse & buggies in no time flat. our modern-day henry ford would be broke and in jail.
but hey, maybe i'm overreacting. so we have rolling brownouts from now on! what's the big deal? rwanda and zimbabwe have them, and it's not like we can say we're...you know....BETTER than they are. cuz that would be _wrong_.
I believe we here in Texas are on our own power grid that is far more up to date than the rest of the country. I may be over-simplifying this but I believe that Texas is completely self-reliant in both its generation and its ability to efficiently deliver electricity. What is very interesting is despite having about 5% of our energy derived from wind and solar, we still need to have the equivalent of another 2% or roughly 40% of back-up energy ready to go, to off-set the natural changes in wind and light.