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We're incorrigible

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Henry Craver's picture
Small Business Owner Self-employed

As a small business owner, I'm always trying to find ways to cut costs and boost the dependability of my services. To that end, I've become increasingly invested in learning about energy saving...

  • Member since 2018
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  • Nov 28, 2022
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“The sweeping push to replace fossil fuel plants with clean energy is forcing US power grids to the brink of a twin crisis, making electricity unaffordable while raising the specter of more frequent blackouts, a member of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission said.”

This is not how I wanted to start my week. That being said, the grim outlook layed out in this BNN Bloomberg article isn’t really news to anyone who follows the power industry in the USA. The country is in the middle of a renewable revolution that promises to mitigate climate change. Unfortunately, as it’s currently being undertaken, the renewable transition also compromises service reliability and increases costs. 

As the article explains, there are a number of reasons reliability is decreasing while prices go up. A dearth of investment in natural gas infrastructure, premature fossil fuel generation retirement, and worsening weather all play a role. 

Transmission development, or lack thereof, is also to blame. Here’s what the article says: 

“More transmission lines are needed to better move power across the country, however, states need to step up their scrutiny before approving lines to ensure consumers aren’t slammed with excess costs, he said. State regulators are in the best position to site and approve lines, not federal regulators, he added. The problem is that numerous states don’t have the authority to review certain local projects, Christie said based on recent testimony from state representatives. 

FERC already has authority to approve a transmission line over the objections of state officials, and the Energy Department is working to declare “national interest” transmission corridors. Lawmakers in Congress are weighing permitting reform legislation that would strengthen federal transmission siting even more. “I do not think, as a matter of policy -– if Congress wants my opinion -– that we should be in the siting of transmission lines,” Christie said.”

Whether you agree with Christie’s solution or not, it’s hard to argue with the diagnosis. America has a transmission crisis. The country simply is not building enough big lines fast enough. Consider this fact pointed out in an Atlantic article last year: “Since 2009, China has built more than 18,000 miles of ultrahigh-voltage transmission lines. The U.S. has built zero.” 

Even before the big energy crunch, when generation was cheaper than ever, our putrid infrastructure kept electricity prices high. This is illustrated in this graphic

And for basically the same reasons an underdeveloped transmission system raises prices, it slows the country’s transition to green energy. All the wind and solar power in the world is no good if it can’t be delivered to the metropolitan areas that need it most. 

Cumbersome regulations and NIMBYISM are mostly to blame for the nation’s stagnant transmission system. A 2018 report by the nonprofit Americans for a Clean Energy Grid identified 22 shovel-ready projects that had been in existence for a decade or more. To get such projects off the ground, the report’s authors suggested streamlining project siting and permitting, passing a tax credit for transmission projects, and direct investment by the federal government. 

Unfortunately, this problem doesn’t seem to be going away. Check out this recent service announcement from the BLM in California: "BUREAU OF LAND MANAGEMENT INVITES PUBLIC INPUT ON PROPOSED TRANSMISSION LINE IMPROVEMENTS IN SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA."

Who do you think is going to show up to this community input session? Your typical Californian who would appreciate all the aforementioned benefits of better transmission? No, that citizen simply isn’t privy to these developments. The people who give input in these situations are disproportionately from the minority who oppose vital infrastructure for one reason or another. 

Meanwhile, why America invites curmudgeons to delay and derail important transmission projects, China steams ahead with another giant line: 

"The third power transmission line from south China's Guangdong Province to the Macao Special Administrative Region was put into operation on Friday, which will increase the transmission capacity by 30 percent.

It is a 10.3-kilometer-long underground cable, connecting Guangdong's Zhuhai City and Macao.

"Following the operation of this line, the network of power transmission by three lines in the south, middle and north is now established between Guangdong and Macao, enhancing the reliability of power supply from the mainland to Macao," said Chen Shengran, general manager of the China Southern Power Grid International Corporation. "Even in case of an extreme situation, such as typhoon or earthquake, when one of the lines is cut off and cannot work, the other two can still keep the power grid in safe and stable operation."'


 

Discussions
Thomas Palma's picture
Thomas Palma on Nov 28, 2022

The US seems to use "wait until it's broke methogology" to solve problems, and not just for energy.  During an election year, voters are interested in issues that are active now not issues that will effect them later, such as rolling blackouts.  There is no one person in charge of the country's transmission lines.

 

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Nov 28, 2022

You hit the nail on the head. Partially to blame is probably how election seasons have become sound bites, reactionaries, etc. in the media. The substance isn't always there and too often the voters are demanding it, either!

W. Alan Snook, II's picture
W. Alan Snook, II on Nov 30, 2022

Henry - Thank you for shining light on these important, PAINFUL points of reality.   Unfortunately, the problem you emphasized is not isolated to the transmission lines.  Simultaneously, we have serious challenges unfolding in the distribution space as well.   We are willfully adding substantial unplanned load into the already-aged distribution space via residential EV charging stations, increasing rooftop solar (DER), crytpocurrency mining, legal/illegal marijuana production, increased power theft, etc.  Collectively, the impacts of this trend are anything by trivial....to think these impacts are not coming home to roost in the way of increased power outages, increased operating/maint costs, and increased rates is simply naive.   Yet, here we go full speed ahead in the name of clean energy and reduced greenhouse gas emissions.    Whether it be the transmission issues that you mentioned or the distribution issues, both matters involve our undeniably aged infrastructure, and our accelerating theory that clean energy must occur, even without rational thoughts to build a necessary grid foundation that can support this movement.    Let's hope that more people wake up fast to the comprehensive needs that face our country.  "Crawl, walk, run" makes sense....presently, 'walk' has somehow been substantially overlooked, IMHO.   

Christopher Neely's picture
Christopher Neely on Dec 1, 2022

Transmission projects have really benefitted from their necessity. Today, if they meet baseline standards, they are can almost be rubber-stamped. If this keeps up, customers will bear the brunt of this. The FERC lately has recognized this, with Chairman Glick emphasizing that customers have to be getting the most bang for their buck. projects need to receive more scrutiny for efficiency, whether they are using the most up-to-date technology, and whether it really is a good enough project compared to what it could be. I think we've gotten to the point where we want to just see greater transmission capacity so we're willing to take subpar, high-cost projects as long as they promise to deliver electricity. Something has to give.

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Dec 5, 2022

If you shut down thermal plants, which historically are near population centers, the grid’s reliability is inevitably made worse. The problem is not lack of transmission lines, rather the dim-witted demise of generating assets being replaced by unreliable and far flung renewable resources. We are suppose to unnecessarily spend trillions of dollars for new transmission lines because of profoundly stupid green energy policies.

Peter Farley's picture
Peter Farley on Dec 23, 2022

1. The EU +UK has a population of 515m and uses about 2,700 TWh/y of electricity or 5.2 MWh/person. The US 12.7 MWh/person. Surely the US can get a little more serious about energy efficiency.

2. a) Restringing existing lines with advanced conductors can double their capacity, without most of the permitting hassles and with far less cost and time than new transmission corridors. 

b) Collocating solar or wind with variable sources such as hydro or peaking gas plants could double or triple annual transmission along existing lines

c) putting storage at the load and or generator end of existing lines can increase annual volumes substantially and usually reduce losses by smoothing the load. 

3. Behind the meter solar on roofs, carparks, agrivoltaics etc combined with small scale wind farms can generate most of the energy you need within 60 miles of the load. In Australia interstate electricity transmission has actually fallen by about 20% as wind and solar have risen from 7% to 26% of supply and we could probably increase behind the meter generation by a factor of at least five.

While none of these solutions will eliminate all new transmission, they will obviate the need for most of it and be much easier and faster to implement

 

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Dec 24, 2022

1. Europe is more densely populated than the U.S. and Europe employs much smaller apartments and residences. That means European energy use per individual is inherently smaller than that in the U.S. with our more far flung and larger U.S. housing. Claims of European “efficiency” are very misleading.

2. “Advanced” conductors is largely a mirage, unless that means 750kv (and higher) and HV DC transmission systems which are extremely expensive.

3. Renewable resources in the U.S. are generally hundreds of miles away from loads centers. Renewable energy is intermittent and unreliable.

The existing U.S. transmission system was adequate for the the existing loads until large numbers of small, far-flung, and unneeded green energy facilities began showing up and existing fossil (and nuclear) power plants were shut down. The alleged need for new transmission systems is the direct result of the astoundingly dumb policy of mindlessly building unneeded green energy facilities.

Peter Farley's picture
Peter Farley on Dec 29, 2022

1. It is true that Europe is more densely populated, and apartment sizes are smaller but a larger proportion of its population lives in cold climates so the larger living space might account for 20-30% increase in domestic energy use which is about 1/3rd of total electricity use.  but Europe is more industrialised, manufacturing being 21% of GDP vs 10% in the US. For example is produces 2.2 times as much aluminum than the US and 80% more steel so there is no real reason why the extra industrial demand in the EU should not more than offset reduced residential demand.

2. Advanced conductors are not high voltage AC or DC they are composite or aluminium cored aluminum cables with modified conductor cross sections which weigh the same as steel cored cable but carry twice as much current or the same current with 20% lower losses.

3. Renewable sources don't have to be hundreds of miles from the load. NREL did a study in 2016 which showed that 30% of US electricity demand could be sourced from 14% of US roof space. Since then, solar panel output per square metre has risen by 35% and by 2026/7 it will be 50% higher. Combined with an achievable 15% reduction in per capita electricity use, that 30% would increase to about 45%. The study did not include canopies over carparks and railroad stations or floating solar on hydro dams. US hydro systems operate at 42% capacity so floating/adjacent solar could theoretically double the output of existing hydro assets with no new HV transmission adding another 6% of supply. The US has eight parking spaces for every car at about 16 square metres each that works out at 35,000 square km. If 1/3rd of those were covered with solar panels at 12% CF that is 2,500 TWh/y which by itself is 60% of US current demand 

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Jan 3, 2023

The losses in transmission lines are associated with distance, voltage, and the wire material. Restringing with new wire would be more cost effective than a new transmission corridor. That being said, not sure the additional capacity attributable to just replacing the wire could be justified from an economics standpoint. Higher voltage systems noticeably reduce system losses, but back-fitting the heavier wire on existing towers is probably not that feasible, from both technical and economic vantage points.

“Paving over” large reservoirs with floating solar panels is not be particularly helpful to water ecosystems. Have seen examples of small reservoirs out West that use floating balls to curtail evaporation. The reservoirs did not appear to have anything alive in them (other than slimey floating balls) because of the lack of sunlight below the surface of the water. Also, doubt the economics would pencil out when the needed floating solar panel infrastructure was accounted for. Cheaper to put the panels on the ground.

The hydro facilities have to pay off their debt associated with building the facilities. The Bonneville  Power Authority in the Pacific Northwest has had to raise their rates to meet bond payment obligations because power production is being curtailed by wind energy production in the Columbia Gorge. Floating solar farms would have a similar negative impact for consumers if hydro production reservoirs are involved. Same problem arises for land based solar farms curtailing hydro production. The situation is bizarre, considering that hydro facilities produce zero-carbon power.

Peter Farley's picture
Peter Farley on Jan 6, 2023

Higher voltages are nice but require taller towers new insulators and more vegetation clearance as well as new transformers and switchgear. Advanced conductors might require upsizing of transformers and some switchgear but far less investment than extra HV. In some cases, new 800-1,000kV lines will be justified but most of this could be avoided by good planning and refurbishment of existing facilities

I agree the reservoirs should not be paved over but you don't need to, typically 10% coverage will produce as much power as the hydro turbines and by the way reduce evaporation and algal growth. Depending on the terrain the solar farms could be located on land anywhere between the hydro dam and the terminal station, but limited floating solar is more efficient and does reduce evaporation so both should be considered.

 

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Jan 7, 2023

I do think some floating solar units may have merit, but as with most things, there are always pluses and minuses.

Henry Craver's picture
Thank Henry for the Post!
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