Upgrading the US Electric Grid - Many pluses but some minuses too

President-Elect Barack Obama talks about upgrading the US electric grid. He talks about making it a "smart grid", so that customers can be charged by their time-of-day use, fluctuations from wind and solar can be more easily handled, and it is easier to sell electricity back to the grid. One presumes that he is also talking about upgrading the physical structure of the grid, so that it has better long distance carrying capability and so that parts that are exceeding their normal lives are replaced.

Doing all these things has obvious advantages. Our current grid has been neglected for years, so that many of its parts are nearing the end of their useful lives. Currently, most customers have no incentive for using appliances and machinery at night, during times of excess capacity. This could reduce fuel usage during the day time. Also, as many have noted, to add more wind and solar capacity to the grid, upgrading the grid is a necessity.

In this post, I will offer a few thoughts on the upsides and downsides of the upgrade.

What are the advantages of an upgraded grid?

Clearly the big advantage of an upgraded grid would be that it would provide a possibility of continuing business as usual, in spite of declining resources. Nearly everything we have now runs on electricity. To keep everything going, including oil transportation by pipeline cross country, we need a grid that functions well. An upgraded grid would theoretically let resource-short areas borrow from areas with more resources. The cost of transporting electricity over the grid would be far less than the cost of transportation of the fuel for making the electricity.

Here are some quotes on what an upgraded grid could do:

National U.S. Power-Grid Upgrade Would Cut Oil Use

Oct. 14 (Bloomberg) -- A $75 billion investment in a high- voltage ``backbone'' for the U.S. electric grid could cut oil consumption in half by powering plug-in hybrid cars and displacing the use of home heating oil, a study showed.

A 21,000-mile (33,788-kilometer) national grid could help move power across the U.S. and reduce prices, Peter Huber, senior fellow for the Manhattan Institute, a New York City-based policy research firm, wrote in his report entitled ``The Million-Volt Answer to Oil.''

U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman last month said a high- voltage transmission system could have ``extensive'' benefits, including helping to bring wind and solar power from remote areas to serve major cities.

``It would be the electrical equivalent of the interstate highway system,'' Bodman said in a Sept. 24 speech. ``Today, by comparison, we have some high-voltage lines in some areas, but they are not integrated into a network.''

``The more you electrify, the more you smooth out supply and demand, and you get downward pressure on prices,'' said Huber. ``Our grid weaned itself from oil almost 30 years ago'' during the 1973-1974 Arab oil embargo.

According to a presentation on upgrading to a Smart Grid by Philip Bane, the advantages of the US upgrading to a smart grid would be as follows:

According to Bane's presentation, the cost of the Smart Grid would be $165 billion over 20 years. This likely includes more than the $75 billion backbone discussed by Bodman.

What are the disadvantage of an upgraded electric grid?

1. Enhancing the grid is likely to enhance the perception that there is no need to cut back.

If it looks like business as usual will work, why should anyone cut back on their electricity usage? If the upgraded grid actually reduces costs (as some have suggested), this would further act to encourage electricity usage.

2. Cost.

Whatever is spent will be borrowed from future generations. Do we really have funds to do this?

3. Loss of local responsibility for production.

Producing electricity has a lot of negative externalities. It costs money to build a new plant. It generally takes a lot of water for cooling. If coal is used, there are both CO2 and pollution issues. If nuclear is used, there are safety issues. Wind turbines create noise and get in the way of the view.

If it is easy to buy electricity from the grid, why should any given area bother itself with any more production, given the negative externalities? In fact, why should they even continue to allow the coal fired plant next door to continue operating? As long as it is possible to buy electricity from the grid, there is no point in troubling the local community to build more capacity. Also, once it is built, it will only go into the general "pool", so the local area with all the externalities won't get any special benefit, so why bother?

4. High cost electricity sources may be priced out of the market.

The grid will tend to allow customers to buy electricity from the cheapest source, where ever it is. It seems like this means that there would be less and less demand for electricity from the less-cheap sources, unless there was a shortage overall. Wind capacity at night would probably have zero utility. When "merchant" gas plants were built after deregulation legislation was passed in some states, they discovered that they had a difficult time financially, because they were the high-cost power source. Doesn't this just exacerbate the problem?

5. We may not be able to maintain the upgraded grid for very long.

If it takes 20 years to accomplish, there are even questions as to whether we can fully complete it, before resource depletion becomes such a serious problem that we are unable to continue to make upgrades.

One suggestion for upgrading.

The premise of IMEUC is that "without the existence of a free and open competitive market, no de-regulation of existing utility companies can be safely implemented".

The problem with all existing attempts to implement de-regulation of electrical pricing is that they do not first establish a market for all customers. Typically a market is established at the wholesale level, but retail (eg. smaller industries, commercial enterprises, and residential), for lack of imagination or concern, are simply "tossed to the retailers", whose only possible option is to add cost without adding value. What is needed is a market system where every utility customer interacts equally to competitively purchase the product of the primary suppliers (generation and transmission), and distribution and overheads (metering, billing etc.) are done under regulated geographical monopolies.

- distribution becomes a regulated monopoly, generation and transmission plants (and small distributed CHP, DG etc) become merchant enterprises competing evenly in an open electronic market.
- computer systems and communications are used to eliminate any unwanted participation by customers, whose primary job is to regularly evaluate their usage profile and perhaps invest in money-saving efficiency or demand-reducing improvements, as changing conditions warrant.
-All market interactions can be carried out automatically by the basic programming delivered to the customer in the initial meter installation. If customers choose not to put any settings into the meter initially, it simply observes their typical load profile and does the best it can to accurately predict their next-day load profile based on day-of-week, weather forecasts and recent changes which might indicate guests, vacations etc. Creative third party companies are free to sell to customers better and more advanced meter programs and other options, but all customers are required to purchase from the central market, to keep in place the maximum incentive for peak-load-leveling and to avoid the "free-rider" problem.

Independent Market for Every Utility Customer - Preliminary Business Case

Independent Market for Every Utility Customer - Part 2 - Market Operation

Independent Market for Every Utility Customer - Part 3 - Alternative Market Operation

Energy Central Blogs - IMEUC - Independent Market for Every Utility Customer

There are different aspects to grid upgrade proposals.

On the retail and distribution end -- where utilities are regulated by state PUCs -- there is smart metering which would bring the benefits of IT to the management of household usage. It would make possible "time of use" pricing, allowing consumers to save money by shifting usage to off-peak hours. This would reduce need for new peak-load generation capacity. Seems to make sense. Feds could help by including tax breaks for cost of smart meters in the stimulus plan. (Who will pay for new meters and how has been a stumbling block so far.)

Transmission is a separate discussion although sometimes included with smart metering. The key idea here is federal eminent domain power for new transmission lines to overcome local opposition. While there has been much discussion of connecting wind and solar, who can guarantee that new federal eminent domain power will not be used to accelerate "coal-by-wire" projects, especially if a stringent climate policy is not in place first?

Furthermore, it would seem that smart metering might reduce the need for additional capacity. Efficiency first!

If the coal generation is IGCC with sequestration in spent oil basins which presently need added CO2 for enhanced oil recovery (and are now drilling for CO2 and extracting it for the purpose, similar to Nat. Gas), then coal-by-wire makes a lot more sense in every way than railroading the coal across 1/2 a continent to the customers.

Putting the captured CO2 into oil deposits as a way to sequester it (and enhance recovery) has a problem. The mass of CO2 is 3.67 times the mass of carbon captured (because of the added oxygen). It can be liquefied for shipment form the power plant to the oil field, but still weighs as much (good old conservation of mass). Coal is nearly pure carbon. A power plant burns _many_ tons of coal per day. Multiply by 3.67 to get the tons per day of CO2 to be shipped to an oil field that is, perhaps, half way around the world. IMHO, the cost of shipment will be very high.

To the extent that coal is not pure carbon, the remainder becomes ash. This is another distressing disposal problem.

So if I grind up a good quality coal and put it into my soil, is that "terra preta"?

I don't know. It depends on your belief system. I incline to the beleif that 'good quality' is not an appropriate modifier for 'coal', but I'm undecided as to whether 'terra preta' is 'good quality' whatever. ;-)

Coal is loaded with toxins. Mixing either coal or coal ash with soil will just terribly pollute the soil.

The goal would be to put captured CO2 into domestic oil fields, not OPEC's.  This eliminates most of the shipping problem and also improves balance of trade.  There would be more CO2 available than fields to take it, so the balance could go into deep saline aquifers (including those below the oil level in oil fields; oil is only a fraction of what's in oil fields) and unmineable coal seams.  The reduced oil imports might pay for the conversion from PCC to carbon-captured IGCC.

Once CO2 is dealt with, ash is a problem secondary only to the mining itself.  I suspect this problem would also be addressed by IGCC; a gasifier handling molten ash and quenching it to solid slag would produce all the ash as glassy pellets, which would be relatively un-leachable and would drain water rather than forming mud-like fluids.

Wind capacity at night would probably have zero utility.

Interestingly true, and exacerbated by the fact that most wind energy is generated at night, usually greater than 60% of total. Is the logic here that we shouldn't improve our electricity T&D infrastructure because that may hurt wind generation? That should be weighed against the fact that solar (both cental thermal CSP in desert areas needing transmission and PV DG on homes needing both universal bi-directional metering and more intelligent control of the distribution system plus permission to isolate from the grid during outages so the local island can be powered independently, an operation explicitly bared by current grid-connect inverters) require at least various aspects of the above upgraded grid in order to become economical / rational.

The article also misses the huge benefits to a grid of doing intelligent interaction with grid-wise PHEV's, using them as both offpeak loads to level the load curve down onto the most efficient continuous-run generating units, and perhaps even as temporary storage-retrieval pools, even if only occasionally thus eliminating wasteful and costly spinning reserve.

Once again, the conventional lack of wisdom puts absolute faith in "the market" to solve all. But the market only handles allocation. Not scale (MORE vs LESS) and not distribution. Many of the downsides Gail mentions are precisely scale and distribution (not like a grid, but the distribution of costs and benefits among the various whoos in whooville and future whoos too).

The lowest price issue Gail brings up also reminds me of something I'm pondering right now in Heilbronner, about how markets go unstable. Nor do I hear the key argument made against hydrogen made against electricity: that it's not an energy source and it's damn hard to store.

Still, I'd put my point of argument that "upgrading" the grid fails on basis of scale and distribution. Seems to me that scale and distribution both suggest breaking apart the grid and localizing much production.

And then there are those charts presumably comparing old to new. Hogwash. A chainsaw will take down a fancy grid just as easily as a 40 year old grid. And deep integration with asset management? Keep that out of my house, please; a good reason NOT to get on this program.

cfm in Gray, ME

The "Invisible Fist" of the Market usually pounds something until it dies. We need to not worship our God Capital, and The Chosen Path, The Free Market.

You'll find that the "invisible leech" of a command economy system will treat you much worse. See FSU pre-1990's. I'm a vocal opponent of present so-called free market systems for electricity, but am also aware that the present "fully regulated" model has a lot of weaknesses too, such as a) the higher they can get their costs, the more money they make. b) no incentive to efficiency. c) no incentive to innovation.

Bottom line is, workers need some incentive to work, investors need some incentive to invest. Trick is to use our intelligence to set these incentive vectors at the correct size and direction to do the most long-term good for our communities.

(in lieu of an up-rate) Hear, hear!

The regulated industry model can be made to work, if we can keep the free market Nazis out of the regulatory process. I remember how PG&E operated years ago. They spent money on maintenance to keep the equipment running for years not months. Free market economists would count this a waste, because the goal is to maximize profits on a quarterly basis.

You'll find that the "invisible leech" of a command economy system will treat you much worse. See FSU pre-1990's.

The communist party in the FSU was not an “invisible leech”. It was a chest thumping, roaring, 500 lb gorilla armed with an iron mace, ready, willing and able to smash in the brains of anyone who refused to do its bidding. If “invisible leech” was the best metaphor you could come up with, it seems likely that you are parroting standard propoganda rather than thinking objectively about alternatives to the “Let’s get richer forever” economic paradigm.

If “invisible leech” was the best metaphor you could come up with

Well, it seems that the leech WAS very invisible for a LOT of "good communists" long after the gorrila was obvious to everyone else. Still holds for many.

I'm not clear on what your objection is exactly. I'm certainly no fan of unfettered capitalism mainly because it creates as many leeches on society as any socialist system. The only difference is that in capitalism the leeches are found among the families and offspring of the successful capitalists, whereas in socialism they are found among the minority of working class who'd rather game the system than do a fair days work. I personally think that a fair system should provide an absolutely even start in life to every citizen, then beyond providing free healthcare to all (because most often health problems are not the result of bad choices but bad genetics, bad luck or environmental pollution) leave them alone to make the best of their talents, and no passing of advantage on to following generations. It also seems rational to provide some level of insurance against temporary lack of employment simply because that improves worker mobility, which is beneficial in the long term.

I personally think that a fair system should provide an absolutely even start in life to every citizen, then beyond providing free healthcare to all (because most often health problems are not the result of bad choices but bad genetics, bad luck or environmental pollution) leave them alone to make the best of their talents, and no passing of advantage on to following generations.

You don't think that a large part intellectual ability and manual dexterity are a matter of genetics just as much as a large part of physical health is a matter of genetics? Even if a society of 100% super geniuses existed they would still need people to pound nails, pick fruit, haul garbage, make clothing, clean the toilets in public buildings etc. Such a society would welcome with open arms people who were willing to spend 100% of their working hours doing these kind of humble but necessary tasks. Is is really justice that people who work hard and dedicatedly doing society's dirty work should be poorly paid simply because of their genetic endowment? (Am speaking of an ideal level playing field situation. The real situation is even more unfair because circumstances of birth often play an important role in economic success in addition to genetic talent.)

Furthermore capital markets (I distinguish capital markets from markets for goods and services) which give people more money simply because of the fact that they already have money can never represent a level playing field, not to mention the fact that such markets cannot function effectively without composite growth of the over all economy and are therefore inherently destructive in a world running up against resource limits.

My idea of a fair economic system has two components. One component is that the only way to earn money would be by doing constructive work. No one should be able to earn money simply by virtue of already having money. Of course one can conceive that people with good business acumen in a systems sense, who are capable of evaluating the potential for success of proposals for new enterprises or for expansions of existing enterprises would be providing a valuable service to society. However, such people should be rewarded for their hard work and intelligence and not for the volume of money that flows through their hands. Once people making investment decisions are rewarded for the volume of money flowing through their hands, then a growth orientation of the economy follows as the night the day. And if you allow people with excess cash to put their money in the hands of the people making investment decisions in return for a cut of the profits, then fairness goes out the window. We need a form of community or public finance. A dictatorial central government is one possible form of such community finance, but I am not convinced that it is the only one.

The second component of my idea of a fair economic system is that people who are very good at performing some valuable economic task should be rewarded by a combination of job security and/or reduced working hours but not by excess economic consumption relative to other people performing valuable economic tasks. This is to say that there should be a maximum salary which the majority of people employed on a full time basis would receive. This is not to say that anybody is guaranteed this salary. If I employ two janitors and I can easily go out on the street and find someone who can do the work of both of them in the same number of working hours, then I am free to fire the two inefficient janitors and hire the more efficient one. But if it is worth my while to hire a janitor full time, he or she gets the salary. A business could uniformly reduce salaries throughout the business in an effort to survive hard times, assuming the employees were willing to accept this reduction and not to jump ship. But you cannot say to anyone: we need you to work full time, but because you were born with the wrong genetics you can work like a slave all of your life and you will still be dirt poor.

You may say, of course that such a system would discourage talented people from utilizing their talents. I have two comments about such a claim. First, the day the you are willing to sign up to be a full time garbage man, or a garment worker if you receive the same salary that you do today, send me a note. I'm holding my breath. Second, encouraging talented people to try to use their abilities increase the total volume of stuff being manufactured and sold is an incredibly bad idea in a world running up against resource limits. We have to find some outlet for our entrepreneurial talents other than trying to sell more stuff this year than we sold last year. As Kenneth E. Boulding wrote in THE ECONOMICS OF THE COMING SPACESHIP EARTH:

By contrast, in the spaceman economy, throughput is by no means a desideratum, and is indeed to be regarded as something to be minimized rather than maximized. The essential measure of the success of the economy is not production and consumption at all, but the nature, extent, quality, and complexity of the total capital stock, including in this the state of the human bodies and minds included in the system. In the spaceman economy, what we are primarily concerned with is stock maintenance, and any technological change which results in the maintenance of a given total stock with a lessened throughput (that is, less production and consumption) is clearly a gain. This idea that both production and consumption are bad things rather than good things is very strange to economists, who have been obsessed with tile income-flow concepts to the exclusion, almost, of capital-stock concepts.

My ideas for bringing about a wealth maintaining economy (as opposed to a wealth increasing economy) may well be impractical, but I have yet to read a single line written by any promoter of the "efficiency" of capital markets that they have clue about how to bring such an economy into existence.

Agreed on the need for incentives for investment and efficiency.

Some market critics go too far. Just because a mechanism or tool is flawed that doesn't mean you should automatically throw it out. Sometimes a flawed mechanism is the best choice available.

It is important to make a distinction between capital markets and markets for goods and services. Capital markets are driven by the desire of money to make money, and they require composite growth for proper functioning. There are in fact other incentives for investment and efficiency than the desire of rich people to get richer without doing constructive work. When you invest in a new roof for your house you do so because you desire to stay dry, not because you are trying to make your money grow. When insulate your house you are trying to cut your energy costs, not to gain wealth based on somebody else's productivity improvements.

Everyone know that the Golden Gate Bridge was one the greatest wastes of money in the history of humanity, since any investment of community funds will inevitably be executed in a inefficient, slovenly fashion. This is the reason why our sewer systems, street lighting systems, highway systems, state universities, national laboratories, etc. are completely non functional and worthless.

You really ought to try activating a couple of extra brain cells rather than just parroting standard economic propaganda. If you did so you would realize an elementary fact: Capital markets require composite growth for proper functioning. If I give you money, which represents purchasing power, and expect you to return a larger amount of purchasing power to me at some later date, then that excess purchasing power has to come from one of two sources:

  1. Total economic output increases.
  2. I take purchasing power away from somebody else.

No third option exists. I look forward to you explanation of how such a system of investment will work without economic growth.

My belief is that we need a system of public or community investment, which I think can be compatible with markets for goods and services and a large degree of private enterprise. We need to create a society in which the only way to earn the right to consume economic output is by doing constructive work. No one should be able to earn money simply by virtue of the fact that they already have money.

If I give you money, which represents purchasing power, and expect you to return a larger amount of purchasing power to me at some later date, then that excess purchasing power has to come from one of two sources:

  1. Total economic output increases.
  2. I take purchasing power away from somebody else.

No third option exists.

Fallacy of the excluded middle.  The third option is you give purchasing power to me today and I give more back to you over time; it doesn't come from any third party.  What I'm getting out of it is the use of more resources than I have at hand immediately.

In the case of borrowing for e.g. a house, where I'm paying more than rent would cost but I get the use of a house and wind up owning it (plus the social benefits of my personal stake in the condition of the house and neighborhood), it's likely worth it; in the case of borrowing for spinner hubs for an Escalade, almost certainly not.

No one should be able to earn money simply by virtue of the fact that they already have money.

Should people be able to earn money simply by virtue of the fact that they already have a building full of machine tools, or a house to rent?  That will eliminate investment in factories and rental housing, and you'll see everything collapse.  If you think that government can allocate investment better than private agents with their expertise, you're quite crazy.

In IMEUC, no central "big brother" is invading your space. The "market manager" (formerly the regulator) simply makes availble to you the changing prices which indicate changing conditions, and it is your own equipment which reads those prices and takes appropriate actions (or does not) according to your own indicidual priorities which you program into it with a simple user interface. Metering and local controllers and communications are provided to you by the "market manager" (formerly the regulator), who also manages the central database and computes and collects bills, or makes billing data available to generating companies who then bill you. Many variations workable, individual distribution / market regions may operate differently.

It seems like to make the process work, the US government would have to take over the whole thing--grid and electricity production. It could then theoretically add production as desired, use the production that has been developed optimally, and use the electrical system to take over much of what oil currently is doing.

I have a hard time seeing this happen. There are other areas the government would probably like to nationalize as well, include oil and gas, and perhaps auto production and the airline industry, to keep these industries functioning. There is a limit to what the government can do. Also, I find it difficult to believe the government would do a great job of running any of these.

There is some merit to the idea of a single owner of an integrated business. It could be the government, or it could be a private entity, but only if the government recognizes and protects the property rights of the private entity, i.e. protects the private entity from hostile take-overs. But is that really something we can trust a populist government to do?

Dennis was right, with respect to the muni in Cleveland.

I find some of the comments above curious. The electric utility system is nowhere near "fully regulated", at least here in Maine. Hell. most of Maine's system has been sold to corporate owners in Spain. Nor is it fully regulated in Texas or California, as ENRON and Dynergy made clear. Nor in Massachusetts, Vermont or New Hampshire. The rest of the US, I don't know in as much detail.

Nor do I see why "nationalizing" is any kind of a solution. Regionalizing - reducing the scale of production to contiguous economic, political and environmental horizons - sure. But that's not "nationalizing".

The 14th Amendment, meant to free the slaves, unleashed these corporate monsters. Does not a Jew bleed? How many of us studied Merchant of Venice in high school? What about a corporation? Chop them up, return them to the communities and regions they were supposed to "serve" as community investment trusts under community control.

The rules that worked for a growth economy must give way to the rules that work for a shrinking economy. Among then the US Constitution. It's going to take a while to figure that out.

cfm in Gray, ME

I think a case could be made that the microcontroller in my thermostat has at least as much brains as the average Wall Street analyst. So does deregulation mean I can run an arbitrage program in my thermostat and buy electricity from HydroQuebec or somewhere in the FSU if it can get a cheaper deal?

Can it buy futures and sell them on the open market a-la Enron?

The sarcasm aside, what you just described isn't far from a thumbnail description of smart metering and DSM.

Dryki said:

Nor do I hear the key argument made against hydrogen made against electricity: that it's not an energy source and it's damn hard to store.

The argument is not made presumably because there is already what might be called significant existing electrical infrastructure, that delivers the commodity to the consumer in 99.999% of cases, on a real-time basis, as and when it is needed.

Also, I disagree that "it's damn hard to store" electricity. This has been worked on and refined for decades. From the very small (inside your cell phone and iPod) to the very large (Hydro Pumped Storage).

The art of storage that is now of greatest concern is not the very small or the very large. It is the intermediate. The ability to store enough energy to move 2,000 lbs at 65 mph for a distance of over 400 miles. It may surprise you, but there is currently enormous endeavor in this area with regard to electric cars.

Personally, I think it is truly a waste for so much effort to be expended in the hunt for a continuation of business-as-usual (BAU). I suggest that if the internal combustion engine had never been invented, we would still be living in a very modern world. Probably with largely the same set of problems, all of which stem from over-population and avarice.

If 99% of people lived within 1 mile of their job - then 99.999% of trips made in cars would be completely unnecessary.

At the moment all effort is focused on the symptoms and not the disease. The sudden loss of a major oil field in Saudi Arabia within 6 months of the loss of Cantarell, would be the black-swan-event that results in total anarchy.

Is there anyone with a brain that truly believes capitalism as we have known it for the last century (predicated on infinite growth, dependent on cheap energy) is not dead - we are merely waiting for the doctor to issue the time of death.

There is insufficient time or capital to roll out the kind of infrastructure for hydrogen that would replicate in any way that which exists for electricity. Let alone the historical R&D associated with batteries.

The first world has been caught with its pants down, there is no petroleum jelly (how ironic), we all need to brace for impact.

We have to make the best of the situation whatever happens and thus we need to use the available tools and methods for organizing a society. Capitalism with a respect for ownership and a free market that allows new ideas and new entrepreneurs is a very efficient mechanism for change and finding efficient pathways in utilizing available resurces. I would fight tooth and nail for it and for geting the right incentives in place. And the mechanism for doing that needs to be accepted by a broad majority and a good mechanism for that is democracy. And the democracy in turn rests on peoples moral and knowledge.

Thus you got to have the same moral and laws for your neighbour, the countys and states tax financed oragnizations and businesses both large and small. Unfairness would rot the system, fairness and good laws makes it resilen in bad times. Healthy cultures and states have survived severe hardship and helped their populations thru bad times. Its not the end of the world unless you sulk untill you starve.

"Its not the end of the world unless you sulk untill you starve."

Can I watch you say the same thing in the future in person to large groups of people as they die of starvation? Might be in Africa, could be in the first world, who knows (rhetorical).

By the way, I do not need an explanation of democracy or capitalism or the connections, dependencies etc. In my opinion capitalism (as we know it) is dieing in front of us. Because it is not something seen everyday, most people lack the ability to recognize it. Cognizance of reality sometimes carries a very heavy price.

Capitalism in a new form, may rise from the ashes of the ruins we stand amongst and democracy (a separate issue) may continue to flourish. If you are so good at predicting the future can I have next weeks lottery numbers please and thank you.

Point taken, I got a little carried away about the "civilizatin will end when a family only can afford one car" mindset.

I do not see capitalism dieing. There is a whole spectrum of capitalists and businesses, some produce services and products that will be very useful in a post peak oil world, some dont, some produce good quality stuff, some dont, some have their environmental influence under control, others dont and some have solid owners and others are deep in debt and can no longer honour their contracts.

The financial crisis seems to be unwinding the contracts that no longer can be fulfilled. There are a lot of promises for future incomes that never will materialise and the ugliest part might be people who wont get the pensions they have paied for since they were malinvested. It sucks to work hard during the prime time of your life and having all that you accompished be sucked up by a Bearnie Madoff, or investments in inefficient buildings and infrastructure or companies who make shitty products.

But on the bright side this is a large batch of creative destruction that strips irresponsibe or dumb leadership of resources that the can be picked up by better run companies, new entrepreneurs and used to implement new ideas.

Unfortunately this process is unfolding in an abrupt way that also destroys businesses that would be viable in a more gradual change. Thus are also good assets destroyed and businesses that should pump out needed services and products for the adaptation to a new set of cercumstances are idle. This process surprised me since I thougt the market part of our global economy would be more agile then it obviously is.

But I can also see that not everything stops and good investments are made and they need to be valued against each other in a way that is far quicker then a political processes and there must be ways for people to invest their surplus money/work/resources in things that will pay off in the future. I work with political solutions but there is no way to get things done in an an efficient way withouth capitalism and the market economy.

Such processes have in earlier times survived hardship including currency failures so why should it stop?

My prediction is that a new generation of captalists will emerge from the ashes in parallell with new investors, both very small and large, who know about asking the right questions. One of the most important parts of this process is keeping old well functioning institutions running and improving on the institutions that are needed for the new situation. And this is a good thing to do regardless of how deep the recession or depression is or how large the emerging economy will be.

The for me scariest scenario would be a political movement in Sweden who would like to scrap our institutions and abandon capitalism, personal ownership and the market parts of our ecnomy for some grand experiment. That could destroy the good things we got and can create. We have recently toyed too much with socialism and it hurt us. I think we can handle the peak oil problems and climate change problems and competition with bidding wars for resources if we keep our toolbox of institutions and capitalism and one of the most important institutions is a functioning democracy.

Some people want to see markets collapse because they think the result will be a society which does not have as many status levels. That idea attracts them because they feel they will have higher relative status than they do now (few levels above them) and more control.

I think that markets are basic to human nature. We either trade or we get forced to do things. I'd rather we do more trading and less coercing.

as they die of starvation? Might be in Africa, could be in the first world, who knows (rhetorical).

It may be true that poorer countries will suffer more, but peak oil is not an insurmountable problem. The waste will be curbed first by simple market mechanisms when the oil price rises again. And as current waste is tremendous, especially in North America and in subsidizing countries, that gives us a really big cushion. Important operations won't suffer for decades after peak oil, which leaves us plenty of time and resources to invest in other energy sources.

In my opinion capitalism (as we know it) is dieing in front of us. [...] Capitalism in a new form, may rise from the ashes of the ruins we stand amongst

That is crazy talk, my friend. And please realize that death of capitalism would represent a much graver threat of global starvation than peak oil ever was.

"And please realize that death of capitalism would represent a much graver threat of global starvation than peak oil ever was."

I think we would have an awful hard time doing the math. Would we include the starvation presently caused by "free market capitalism"? Would we include the starvation related to folks finding themselves without ff resources in areas of severe environmental/agricultural degradation which has resulted from the practices of capitalism?

Capitalism has been a form of empire which has come into its own in the past century. While it may not be seen to be as barbaric as previous empires (and I would debate that) it most certainly is not a benign empire - particularly if you have what it needs to flourish.

In any case - it appears to me that the story of fossil fuel use and capitalist economic practice are inextricably entwined. I don't think the numbers are as easily separated as all that.

My opinion/rant off


What's dying now is not capitalism, but corporatism (what capitalism has evolved into in the US primarily, eg. a supposedly voter-selected government which has become captive of large corporations). To observe capitalism operating properly, see most Scandinavian countries. I dare you to call a Dane a communist. You wouldn't survive the encounter. Sweden lately has gone a little wonky, but otherwise the Scandinavians are getting things right. Observe how the Norwegians are handling the discovery of enormous petroleum wealth in their offshore. They've passed laws that say that all excess wealth generated is sequestered into a government-held fund, THEN passed laws stating that the resulting funds must NOT be re-invested locally, because such re-investment would overheat the local economy causing inflation of wages and products, thus killing local entrepreneurs outside of the oil industry (known as the "Dutch disease", see Alberta, Canada.) Interestingly, taxes at all levels in Norway are still high relative to esp. N. America, reflective of the high quality of services (universal health care, free education to any level which a student can qualify for the entrance exams, etc. etc.) the government provides its citizens, and NONE of it paid by the oil revenues collected by the government.

The difference from there to N. America is that the people actually TRUST their governments (for good reason, the governments are trustworthy and democratic). The true test of whether a government is democratic or not, is whether it is worthy of every citizen's trust. As soon as it fails that test, it is no longer democracy.

Also, I disagree that "it's damn hard to store" electricity. This has been worked on and refined for decades. From the very small (inside your cell phone and iPod) to the very large (Hydro Pumped Storage).

Batteries can't be used large scale, barring a tech breakthrough. Hydro pumped storage is nice, efficiency-wise, but "very large" is perhaps not quite right. The US consumes on average 450 GW electricity, whereas China's Three Gorges dam will provide about 22 GW. That says something about large scale operation of pumped storage.

Coal will prevail, it seems, for the time being. Only coal, natural gas and breeder really scales anyway.

The confusion comes from the PR 'packaging' of the grid, which is designed to conceal politically dangerous elements such as a phase-out of
conventional CO2 emitting coal(jobs issue though plenty of coal would instead be sent to Europe,etc.), ugly massive windfarms and solar farms with intermittency problems,etc.

First of all, there is NO ELECTRICITY CRISIS. The USA has 250 years worth of coal, plenty of unconventional natural gas according to the natural gas industry(and we can always turn lignite and even shale into natural gas), plenty of nukes.
Instead we have a new resource, renewable wind/solar which we want to use.
We are talking about a shift in resource dependence so the idea that cheap energy will drive out 'good' energy is not correct.
We have new requirement to radically reduce CO2 emissions which is really driving this new grid.

It makes sense to provide more pathways for additional electricity to reach congested areas like New Jersey be it wind from Texas or hydro from Quebec.

It makes no sense to use our 20% of all trains to bring coal to local power plants when electricity could be brought from remote minemouth plants where CO2 sequestration sites are available in thin uneconomical coal seams or saline aquifers
close by.

20 years is more fancy packaging. It could take 100 years, if the CO2 problem was not so pressing.

We have the time but we still have to get started and the tendency to procrastinate alone is the greatest obstacle.

The USA has 250 years worth of coal

Oh, really?

The EROEI of subbituminous/lignite is lousy, and getting worse every year. "Best first" = "Worst last."

Oh Really, nelsone?
What is EROEI of lignite/subbituminous exactly?
Yet the US mines more subbituminous and lignite than bituminous.
The coal industry must not have gotten the letter on the terrible EROEI of the coal they are mining.
If you really think that EROEI makes the world go round you are(how shall I put this)...'out of touch with reality'.

Ha ha.

"Yet the US mines more subbituminous and lignite than bituminous"

Coal mined in the largest group of fields in the US, the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana, is largely sub-bituminous and very low sulfur. This is coal of less energy density than bituminous, but has much less sulfur than coal found in the midwest and east. Yes, this Powder River Basin coal does have lower EROEI (especially after sending a train on a 2500 mile round trip using 20,000 gallons of diesel fuel to deliver 11,000 tons) than that mined in Illinois and burned in IL. However, in burning this western coal the sulfur dioxide emissions are much less and the older power plants do not need expensive scrubbers to meet the EPA rules. So the issue is how to meet EPA requirements and not which is best from EROEI standpoint.

250 years of coal! Aaaaaaabeeeeeedeng! You got it from W? - Right?

Time to take “The Course” my friend. Take it NOW!

chapter 18 Just look towards the mid of this chapter.


Yes, so true. "What we have here,,,, is,,,, failure..... tocommunicate".....Jeez, do any of these engineer/techno nits get the picture that this more, more, more atitude, is killing everything on this planet?

Can't you guys (and gals), see any other path in your educated brains? Why not just say no? Step off the techno fix merry-go-round. Look for a way to smooth the downward slide that is already coming. How can we make the electrical distro that we have, smaller and better. It's always been easier to get to the other side of the bank in a fast moving stream, by swimming with the current a little, and working in the direction you need to go. This constant idea that we need more, more, more, is just struggle against the current, and rapidly heading for the waterfall.

Not one good thing about expanding the Grid, making it "smarter", or HVDC, since this ""current" technology is already destroying so much. Growth? Why? How about less tech? Less grid? How can we make our lives better with less power? What about conservation?

Guess the BAU go, go techno's would'nt make any money? After all, for them, isn't that what life is all about? Making money.

Well, I suppose we could cut off YOUR use of energy.

You must have a dog in the hunt?

The real idea is to confuse first then steal later. 'Smart Grid'; these are buzz words. Ask ten or fifty people what a smart grid is and you will get ten or fifty different answers. What is it and what will it will do? There are already many opinions here as to the intended purpose of the smart grid - to alleviate CO2 buildup in the atmosphere, to redirect reserve capacity, to connect distant sources - it's one size fits all. It is everything and nothing, what it is and does has no real meaning.

Being meaningless it can be used to pump the Treasury. It's another TARP. If we don't get a 'smart grid' in the next thirty days America will fall into an abyss!

One common suggested use is always 'electric cars' as if the car- making, highway- making aspects can be taken out of the envelope and treated as externalities. In a situation where a) a large part of the American public faces serious deprivation (no heat, no job, no food or no shelter) and b) when the credit system is so damaged that capital is not and will not be readily available for large projects such as this ... it is hard to believe that such a massive and destructive mis- investment scheme could even get ten minutes of serious consideration.

Electric cars: there are three hundred million internal combustion engine powered motor vehicles in the USA. Approximately 3 - 500,000 electric vehicles are sold every year, these subsidized by the sales of millions of gas guzzlers. As all auto sales fall with those taking place being less and less profitable for the manufacturers, how will the industry produce electric replacements for the current fleet? How many electric vehicles can be reasonably produced by the current builders? How long will it take to replace the current fleet @ 2 million a year? At 4 million a year? Forever? Why 'invest' in something whose demand will never measure up to expectations? If the large automakers fail, will any electic vehicles be made in enough quantity to justify a large increase in power support?

Why else built a smart grid but for automobiles?

The weakness of this is its manifestations of economies of scale; it promises cheap power as if the money cost is the only consideration. Haven't we heard all this before? Wouldn't a smart grid be another monstrously ugly insult to the country as a whole, added to all the other monstrosities? Strip mines, waste 'pits', super- mega- highways and shopping centers, energy 'farms', feedlot industrial 'plants'?

Now that money is disappearing fast, why is the 'money first, everything else last' paradigm still given priority? Why reinforce failure? Why build a power superhighway alongside the asphalt superhighway? When are the promoters going quantify all the externalities?

When are they going to admit externalities even exist?

What else would a smart grid power? More sprawl? More inefficient 'service' industries? If the new grid is integrated into the old one, wouldn't a failure of the old fatally compromise the new? Who came up with the cost numbers? Santa Claus? A simple interchange on the freeway costs a $ billion, why wouldn't a nationwide complex system, highly energized at all times with millions of moving parts cost $ trillions? Why wouldn't a more complex grid be even more susceptible of failute than the legacy system? Wouldn't a complete new grid add more stress to the existing grid? If the new grid is isolated from the new for this reason, what rationale exists to build it in the first place? Why not simply maintain the current grid?

Without the usual concentration of economic power and the self- dealing that accompanies the current stratified 'deregulated' administrative and financial structures, the need for this disappears. With local PV intallations, the demand on grid electicity diminishes. Why expand the grid when the demad on it declines? If an individual operates a large wind turbine, for instance, why not sell its output locally? If a suburb of Philadelphia builds a wind farm on itself (as a strategy to justify its existance) is it necessary to sell its power output to Los Angeles? Who would profit from such an arrangment, the suburb or some 'energy company'? What will be done with the power in LA?

This is just another big business scheme.

When is the Establishment going to stop driving more and more machine infrastructure down our throats? What are we? When is enough, enough? Does the entire nation have to be turned into an industrial site/waste dump before the powers that be acknowledge that this approach is a dead end?

Why else built a smart grid but for automobiles?

The question you have failed to consider is what kind of grid will be needed when all that is left is nuclear, hydro, wind and a tiny amount of solar.

Once the oil, natural gas and eventually coal, no longer satisfy the cost benefit analysis - we will be left with very little energy in relative terms. Giga-watt instead of Terra-watt.

Without a smart-grid, substantial portions of society may well be forced back into a subsistence existence. You may know for sure that you rank high enough in society that you need not care. I am not so sure where I rank, so I prefer a more equitable distribution and much more efficient use of the then available generating capacity. For me, that would be the primary and only reason to blow everything on a smart-grid.

PS. We also need to blow everything on electrifying the entire worlds rail network. Ships should all be sail powered. And the only thing in the sky should be the birds and bees.

Somebody alert the Decency Squad, it's doomer porn!

Approximately 3 - 500,000 electric vehicles are sold every year, these subsidized by the sales of millions of gas guzzlers.

Golf carts, fork lifts and factory-floor vehicles are subsidized by gas guzzlers?  Where did you get that?

Ask ten or fifty people what a smart grid is and you will get ten or fifty different answers. What is it and what will it will do?

Quantum mechanics has a solid definition and uses, but I doubt 50 people chosen off the street would give you one accurate summary either.

The smart grid's purpose is fairly simple:  to match supply and and demand at the lowest cost, not just immediately but over hours and days.  Since a demand which matches the least-expensive supply is the cheapest and easiest to feed, users (and devices) which bid for power in the low-demand periods or during the forecast times when e.g. wind power is abundant will get cheaper rates.  If the most expensive generators are rarely required and the demand is held below the stress level of the network, it's cheapest to supply and sustains less wear and tear.

How many electric vehicles can be reasonably produced by the current builders? How long will it take to replace the current fleet @ 2 million a year? At 4 million a year?

If the economy falls that far, so will the ability to run current vehicles.  Most of them will be worn out in 20 years or so.

Why else built a smart grid but for automobiles?

Oh, a few reasons off the top of my head:

  • To level the grid load and allow more kWh to be supplied by (more efficient and cheaper) base-load plants instead of peaking plants.
  • To limit the peak grid load and avoid wear and tear, outages and costly upgrades.
  • To let people with e.g. dishwashers and dryers run them at the cheapest possible rate.
  • To make it attractive to buy A/C systems like the Ice Bear and shape demand to what's best for the grid, and thus cheapest to supply.
  • To allow demand to follow supply (esp. renewable supply) rather than the reverse.

Not much to do with automobiles, except that EV/PHEV makes a really good schedulable load and can even be a backup generation source to make the grid far more robust against disruptions.

When are they going to admit externalities even exist?

When are you going to admit that intelligence at the edges of the grid means being able to do more with less?

When is the Establishment going to stop driving more and more machine infrastructure down our throats?

It isn't the Establishment.  It's the American consumer... and voter.  They want what the Smart Grid can supply, even if they don't understand the details (not unlike prescription drugs).

TOD comes through again. The comments are bringing out that there are really three issues here, two of which are only minimally interrelated. They are:

1. Much of the existing US grid is old, tired and in need of major attention. One can discuss the details, but unless we cough up some serious bucks for maintenace we are going to have power issues long before fossil fuel availability becomes an issue. This applies everywhere, from neighborhood transformers to the high lines coming out of Niagara falls and the Hoover dam.

2. Enhancements to the local distribution system. (Which is usually a star rather than a grid.) All the variations on smart metering, rooftop PV and PHEVs. Kinda wasted if we skip 1, but doable and worthwhile even without

3. Improved regional intertie. We get a lot of this with 1, but there's room for more. We don't get prairie wind and southwest solar thermal without it. Even without sequestration, we have end of life coal plants (see 1). Instead of refurbishing them where they are, rebuilding by the mine and doing coal by wire instead of coal by rail is at least worth running the numbers on. This actually might be an alternative to item 2. I think it's a dumb one, but might possible. I question that getting by with only item 2 is possible at all. Even if it is, I strongly expect that spurning large geographically pinned energy sources on ideological grounds would result in a bigger investment to get more expensive, less reliable power.

Does it make sense to do only one of these? If it is only the "Smart Grid" that Obama is talking about, it could theoretically be only number 2, plus a tiny amount of 3. The idea might be to reduce demand, and add a small amount of wind and solar.

This would might work (at least until the oil grid needs major attention), if it tends to maintain rate differentials between high cost and low cost production. It seems like we start running into major problems as soon as it becomes too easy to substitute grid electric for local electric.

Being of the 'peak oil is now' school, I'm skeptical that any reasonable smart grid conservation scheme (without a seriously demand killing depression) will be enough to cover the resulting surge to PHEVs, electric transit and heat pumps. Grid build outs after all occur on the same time scale as rail construction and rolling over the auto fleet. I think we should expect to need at some more long distance wheeling.

And on a more local scale we have nice sized renewable project here in New Hampshire that are stalled for lack of a few miles of 100kv line.

One is to put generators on the wood fired boiler of the now shut down Berlin paper mill. It's a nice deal. The boiler is there and paid for, and the loggers and forests have been supplying the mill for generations (trees and people). However the nearest line that can take the power is in the next town over and there's no current way to get the regional pool to pay for the line even though the power is needed.

Sounds like a great use for bailout money.

No....This is the typical attitude...No more Bailout Money for nothing...period.

I would strongly suggest, you get a group of people together and move the Boiler closer to the powerline. Don't make excuses...Just do it and stop waiting for the FED.

Soooo easy when it's not your money?

No more.

I think some of your "problems" are actually features.

  1. Enhancing the grid is likely to enhance the perception that there is no need to cut back. If it looks like business as usual will work, why should anyone cut back on their electricity usage? If the upgraded grid actually reduces costs (as some have suggested), this would further act to encourage electricity usage.

    I think you're contradicting yourself here; if electricity is so abundant that it's going cheap, is there in fact a need to cut back?  The wind power potential of the CONUS alone is around 1200 GW, so there appears that there is plenty of room for abundance as long as we can build turbines and transmission lines.  If electricity becomes scarce in a market systems, prices rise.

    Another thing to look out for is substitution.  Electricity may seem expensive compared to historical norms at 15¢/kWh, but compared to gasoline it's dirt cheap.  If BEV users substitute for ICEVs and bid up the price of electricity, they'll make it worthwhile for other users to improve their efficiency.  The result is that the whole system gets better.

  2. Cost. Whatever is spent will be borrowed from future generations. Do we really have funds to do this?

    If it's really expensive to do, it'll cost a lot and people will use less rather than pay for it.  The converse is also true.

  3. Loss of local responsibility for production. Producing electricity has a lot of negative externalities. It costs money to build a new plant. It generally takes a lot of water for cooling. If coal is used, there are both CO2 and pollution issues. If nuclear is used, there are safety issues. Wind turbines create noise and get in the way of the view.

    This should be self-correcting.  Areas which restrict supply will see prices bid up, and money will flow to areas which don't have a problem.  There is also the fact of comparative advantage:  no matter how much Georgia likes clean wind power, it's not going to be as good a place to generate it as the band from the Dakotas down to the Texas panhandle.  It's arguably a much better use of resources to put the RE generation where the energy is and move the power than to build under-utilized generation where the consumers are.  The differential in rates due to transmission costs may even drive users toward the sources.

"Maintaining the upgraded grid" begs the question of what we'd run out of, and the adequacy of substitutes.  For instance, doped carbon nanotubes have been made which are about as good a conductor as copper, and are far stronger.  We've got at least a century's worth of work ahead of us to pull excess carbon out of the atmosphere, and I just don't see how we can run out.  Plastic composites for structures and glass for insulators (and composites also) may go up in price, but the resource base is so enormous, and renewed every time something is "thrown away" (burn a glass composite and you get glass), that I just cannot visualize what you're worried about.

Regarding (3) (about local areas turning down power plants because of negative externalities), my point was that if prices are evened out, it removes the incentive for taking on (or keeping) power plant. I think more level costs is a feature of a better inter-connected grid, so the self-correcting feature you mention goes away.

Regarding what we run out of, it is the roads, equipment, and other oil dependent parts of our infrastructure, that aren't currently considered part of the grid. Also, based on our recent experience, it may be the money to pay for the replacements.

Rotating Blackouts are a sign of Grid resiliency

A common assumption is that the grid is failing/sky is falling if they are scheduled for a 45 minute rotating blackout. And such relatively minor inconveniences to non-essential users (residential & retail for example) are worth avoiding (conventional wisdom) AT ALL COSTS !

In the efficiency vs. resiliency debate, one could assign 100% grid reliability to efficiency (no missed dinners or TV) and resiliency to rotating blackouts (NOT a bug but a feature).

Limited time as I am packing for DC


That's something to ponder. Surely a society that can tolerate a 45 min rotating blackout, even if a scheduled one, is way more resilient than a society that cannot. In my quest to reduce operating costs and failure modes at my ISP, I've gotten it so most machines can be offline for random amounts of time. It gets funky - processes have to be isolated in different ways - but it is more resilient.

Wind capacity at night would probably have zero utility

HUH !?!

Just plain wrong !!

Wind has the lowest marginal cost of ANY power source# and nuclear power plants will go to reduced power (save some uranium) before wind will have "zero utility".


# except water that cannot be stored, and must be used or wasted, not an issue in the USA for over twenty years.

Wind has the lowest marginal cost of ANY power source

Oh, I get it. You're using a different definition of the word "utility" than Gail is. Marginal cost of an existing plant is not the same thing as deciding the utility (economic sense) of constructing say an addition of 10 Twh / year of new generation to a state's existing 30,000 MW of generation. Should it be a 1,268 MW coal or nuclear plant at 90% capy. or a 4,563 MW wind farm with 25% capy? Hmmmm... Adding that much wind and giving it it's present typical priority access in the dispatch order means that on some windy fall or spring nights when the present load curve is at minimum, there's probably going to be perhaps 4500 - 1270 = 3230 MW of excess priority wind generation wanting to get into the market mix, meaning we'll need to shut down 3230 MW of EXISTING high-efficiency baseload generation to allow the wind power in. Since this 3230 MW of baseload is now in a position where it is being turned on and off regularly according to how the wind is blowing, then the operators will eliminate any nuclear plants included in the previous 3200 MW dispatch order and replace them with either baseload coal or Nat. Gas running at partial load and low efficiency, or simple-cycle aero-drivative gas turbines running at horrible efficiency.

Any way you slice it, adding the wind turbines is a VERY questionable step economically and environmentally (the reduced efficiency of the associated generation can often result in real INCREASES in emissions overall, including CO2). Your mileage may vary some, but if you want to claim higher expected wind capacity factors, please cite references of REAL INSTALLATION PAID DATA, such as I use from Ontario, Canada's ISEO records of the past year's operation by hour of the 475 MW installed here in 4 well-distributed wind farms along the downwind side of the great lakes, in apparently ideal locations.

Ontario Independent Electricity System Operator - IESO - (Select Hourly Wind Generator Output)

Some of the latest Texas wind farms are at 40%. NZ as well. Packing ATM for DC, not time for a link.

Your hypothetical scenario works ONLY if only nuke and wind are on-line (unlikely to the extreme). Stereotypical coal fired plants can back down quite easily from 100% to 70% with little lose in efficiency.

Add a little pumped storage and all problems are solved with wind.

In the case of Ontario, your hydro and wind are an excellent match. Water stays frozen for much of the winter, especially outside the Banana belt. Your hydro draws down reservoirs, reducing the potential energy, most of the winter.

Ontario wind peaks in the winter, your time of max demand (and minimum hydro). Any winter wind helps preserve your hydro, getting more MWh out of the available hydro.

In an ideal situation, hydro would only generate when it is within a couple of meters of full reservoirs. (XXX volume of water creates maximum MWh that way). Winter wind can help that ideal.


Pumped storage for example, can be capital intensive, and incurs a loss of 50% of the energy you put into it either way (as a general rule of thumb, every conversion is 70% efficient tops).

Does Ontario wind during it's winterpeak also blow constantly, every hour of the day?

I recently visited the Ludington Pumped storage facility http://www.consumersenergy.com/welcome.htm?/content/hiermenugrid.aspx?id=31
in Michigan and the plant manager told me it has an overall efficiency up and down of about 70%. They also plan on making some efficiency upgrades that will move this up a bit. It is rated at about 1872MW/15,000 MWH...how is that for a storage battery!

Bath County Virginia pumped storage had a poster at a recent hydro conference where they explained how they went from 80% real world cycle efficiency to 81% (actually a big deal, took a few million $).

Raccoon Mountain is high 70% to 80% "depending" on dispatch, etc.. Annual average never over 79% (from old memory).

Optimum hydro can be 95% efficient "one way" (zero tunnel friction), so 90% cycle efficiency is "possible".


as a general rule of thumb, every conversion is 70% efficient tops

BS !!

Some generators are 98.x% efficient ! Some hydro turbines, at the peak of their "hill" are 97% efficient.

0.987 x 0.97 = 95.7% best case transfer of hydro mechanical energy to to electrical energy.

Electric motors and generators are quite efficient, as are hydro turbines.


Wikipedia tells me "Taking into account evaporation losses from the exposed water surface and conversion losses, approximately 70% to 85% of the electrical energy used to pump the water into the elevated reservoir can be regained.[1] The technique is currently the most cost-effective means of storing large amounts of electrical energy on an operating basis, but capital costs and the presence of appropriate geography are critical decision factors."

So I retract my under-researched statement :)
However I referred to the efficiency of the whole system, and your 98.x% refers to the efficiency of one part.

as a general rule of thumb, every conversion is 70% efficient tops

BS !!

Some generators are 98.x% efficient ! Some hydro turbines, at the peak of their "hill" are 97% efficient.

0.987 x 0.97 = 95.7% best case transfer of hydro mechanical energy to to electrical energy.

Electric motors and generators are quite efficient, as are hydro turbines.


I was cycling in Scotland on a cold wet day (are there any other types?) and stopped at a pumped storage facility, did the public tour (obviously this was before 11/9 or 2001-09-11 or Sept 11 as now only terrorists visit industrial sites). The tour guide (I think he was actually some sort of qualified engineer with little to do unless it broke) said they are over 100 percent efficient - 100 watts in becomes 80 (or whatever) watts out, plus over 20% from the perpeptual motion device called - rain.

Sorry, I can't find references.

Hi Alan,

Just to clarify one point, Ontario, like its southern neighbours, is now summer-peaking. My memory fails me, but I believe the province made that transition sometime around '98 or '99.

Follow-up: It appears Ontario first crossed that line in 1998 and has been summer peaking ever since, with the exception of Y2000. Since the mid '80s, the rate of growth in summer peak demand has exceeded that of winter by a factor of 2:1 (i.e., 1.3 per cent versus 0.7).

The top twenty all-time peaks have all occurred in June, July or August, and that list can be viewed at: http://www.theimo.com/imoweb/media/md_peaks.asp


It seems to me that at night, nuclear and coal plants will continue to operate, because for the most part you can't take them down at night. With good grid transmission, there should be sufficient electricity to cover all electric needs at night from these sources. Wind is superfluous.

If there is not enough from these sources, or if one can take coal-fired plants down and up regularly without damaging them, then wind might offset some natural gas use. In that case, the wind might be useful, to the extent that it offsets natural gas use. If there is still regionalization, this would be in the heavy natural gas using locations currently (California, Northeast, Texas, etc.)

A valid conclusion from my example above is that if a region adds 4,370 MW of wind generation to their system and it operates at 25% capy. factor THEN they will also add about 4,100 MW of quick-start natural gas aeroderivitive gas turbine generation which will likly run about 40% of the time at 25% thermal efficiency. If the exact same amount of natural gas were burned in a 55% efficient CCGT installation, it would generate more electricity than the total output of the wind generation plus the aeroderivative gas turbines, and the installation capital costs would be a LOT less, to say nothing of the wind subsidiy costs.

As I've said before, wind generation makes so much sense economically for owners of existing natural gas fields that I'm surprised that the natural gas owners like T. Boone Pickens aren't actively promoting it. Oh, wait....

Also relevant, this is an excerpt from an employee communique from one of N. America's largest Natural Gas transportation companies. They've obviously "caught on" to the benefits.

While energy security and environmental concerns encourage renewable alternatives, solar and wind power combined currently contribute less than one percent of North America’s energy consumption. And given today’s technology, both solar and wind require additional sources of energy, like natural gas, to even out production variations during adverse sunlight and wind conditions and peak demand periods.

if a region adds 4,370 MW of wind generation to their system and it operates at 25% capy. factor THEN they will also add about 4,100 MW of quick-start natural gas aeroderivitive gas turbine generation which will likly run about 40% of the time at 25% thermal efficiency.

GE's latest intercooled simple-cycle turbines hit 46%.

There is also the potential for CAES combined with wind, which could hit upwards of 80% fuel-to-electric efficiency without regeneration, higher with regeneration.  CAES reduces or eliminates the need for base-load plants to turn down during high-wind or low-demand periods, shifting the generation mix toward base load and boosting efficiency again.

Umm even if you can't modulate coal (and if Alan says you can, I believe him. He's a realer EE than I.) you've still got the Pickens plan, which does make sense. When, not if, natgas goes back to $10/MMBTU, it makes economic sense to put up wind turbines to allow the shutdown of existing gas turbines as long as the wind is blowing. If it stops, gas comes up fast, and the plant is paid for.

In New England we have small hydro to use similarly. It ramps up fast, and if it doesn't look like the wind is coming back there's plenty of time (hours) to get up steam, either coal or nuke.

if one can take coal-fired plants down and up regularly without damaging them

A good majority of coal fired plants are designed to "load follow" and the remaining ones could be altered to do so at reasonable cost. A rule of thumb is that 70% to 100% of capacity is the "sweet spot" but down to 30% power is OK (say 15% penalty) for fuel efficiency. 10-15% is OK for equipment, the fuel burn/Mwh (heat rate) is not good at that level.

Each power plant has it's own chart of efficiency (heat rate) vs. generation so I am generalizing.

Gail if you are not aware of basic facts, you should not be making pronouncements about what is, what should be done, etc.

I find this series of yours on electricity a waste of time, pointing to imaginary problems (such as HV DC unreliability), unimportant problems (rotating blackouts of Suburbs) and ignoring MAJOR problems (such as the USA gets half it's power from coal and uses twice as much electricity as it should).

The USA should be phasing out coal for several reasons.

It promotes Global Warming for 500 to 1,000 years (LONG after Peak Oil et al has faded from memory).

It has a relatively low EROEI and falling for most states (figure transportation in, remember you like diesel trains)

The link between oil and coal production for existing coal fired plants is MUCH tighter than the link between oil and wind farm maintenance for already built wind turbines.#

Best Hopes for a realistic assessment of risks,


# Once a wind turbine is built, I suspect the EROEI to keep it going (ignoring the sunk energy cost) is significantly higher than 1,000. Perhaps 5,000, perhaps 10,000.

And once scrapped, much of the sunk energy cost is reclaimed as recycled metal.

Today, when oil is cheap and plentiful, one very logical thing is to invest in renewable energy that will require almost no energy to keep going once built. Wind turbines, geothermal, landfill gas plants, small hydro, PV solar, plus HV DC lines and pumped storage.

Your solution will require LOTS of energy, including oil, to keep going post-Peak Oil. Mining more coal ! And transporting it with diesel trains.

My solution will require once a year visits by a guy in a hybrid pick-up truck for a transmission oil change##. (Or an electric assist eTrike or a horse & buggy).

## Used gear oil can be recycled to new gear oil.

Everything I have seen seems to indicate that there is a lot of base load capacity from coal and nuclear currently. If I look at EIA data, for capacity and generation, in 2007, coal generated 49% of total electricity kWh, and nuclear generated 19%. If one calculates percentages of capacity that these are operated at, one finds that nuclear operated at 91.1% of average summer/winter capacity; coal operated at 73.4% of average summer/winter capacity.

With respect to how much base load each one is supplying, clearly nuclear is being operated 24/7, except for when it is down for maintenance. Coal is operated less. I would estimate that 50% of its capacity is being used at night, in order to produce this total production. If you have a better estimate, I would be happy to use it.

We know that nuclear capacity averages 101,026 megawatts, and 91.1% of this is 92,035 megawatts. Coal capacity according to the link given above averages 314,060 megawatts. 50% of this is 157,030 megawatts. Combining these amounts to 249,035 megawatts. During 2007, average electrical production during the year (dividing total by 365 x 24) was 474,830 megawatts. I don't know exactly what relationship base load should have to average, (one usually sees 35% to 40% of peak quoted), but the coal plus nuclear base load seems to come to 52% = (249,035/474,830).

It is the presence of this much base load capacity that makes me question the need for wind as base load, especially if it is expensive to build and the other infrastructure is already built. If there is better interconnection, I would agree that the configuration could change--some of the coal could be taken offline as base, and there is a possibility that some wind could be used as base.

Hi Gail,

Any sense as to how much coal capacity would be older, in-efficient plant soon to be retired or already semi-retired? From what I gather, the average age of U.S. coal-fired facilities is greater than 30-years, so my guess is that a good portion is nearing end-of-life and that any refurbishment/extension of service would be prohibitively costly.

Edit: According to this April, 2007 submission to the U.S. House Committee on Ways and Means, the average age is 45-years (Source: http://waysandmeans.house.gov/hearings.asp?formmode=printfriendly&id=5798).


Look near the bottom of this EIA web page. There is an xls spreadsheet that you can download called "Existing Electrical Generating Units in the United States 2005". It lists each unit separately, whether it is coal, wind, gas, nuclear or hydro, the capacity, and the year it began operation, and whether it is owned by a utility.

Actually it gives a first and second energy source for each plant. For coal, bituminous, lignite, and sub-bituminous are separate categories.

Thanks, Gail; much appreciated.


nuclear power plants will go to reduced power (save some uranium) before wind will have "zero utility".

I don't see Nukes going to reduced power, their marginal cost to produce is very small, Uranium is somewhere around 1% of the net cost. Of course if they are in an area having a serious drought, and they are water cooled, then going to reduced power to conserve water might make sense. I suspect maintenence of wind turbines is greater per Kwhr, than for Nukes.

The last time the Bonneville Power Admin. had a surplus of hydropower (20+ years ago), they ran the nukes down to idle (not a full shut down) to save on the uranium fuel. The marginal cost of hydro was cheaper than uranium. The same will be true of wind.

Iceland has a surplus of hydro 9 out of 10 summers. They slow down or shut down geothermal and still let 150 MW of water spill over the dams unused.

The wear and tear on hydro (Iceland has mainly clean water) is less than the wear and tear and hot water disposal problems of geothermal. So lowest marginal cost wins.


Hydro is controllable and dispatchable. Windmills need conventional plants that can balance load and regulate voltage and frequency. These services are now provided free of charge at the expense of wear and tear and lost efficiency to the conventional plants.

At five times current levels the impact of wind turbines (not "windmills") will be negligible.

I am not aware of any mechanical "wear and tear" from rectifying wave forms/ supplying VARs/ reactive power, and most other power factor issues.

In any case, inefficient air conditioners (particularly Suburban McMansions and retail) create, by far, the worst "wear and tear" dispatch problems.

Best Hopes for more efficient air conditioning of smaller homes and stores,


Wind has the lowest marginal cost of ANY power source# and nuclear power plants will go to reduced power (save some uranium) before wind will have "zero utility".

Wind power has significant marginal costs, but it does not directly pay for them. It necessitates a lot of storage and transmission capacity(which is likely to be WAY underprovided), therefor they will need a lot of spinning reserve coal plant and natural gas turbines for back-up generation which have significant marginal costs. If you leave it up to the market they'd rather take electricity from nuclear plants than wind turbines unless you subsidize the hell out of storage and transmission.

Just like coal plants they are incapable of it; they're built too big and it will take hours to ramp down just a little bit where as an important wind generator could ramp down in just minutes.

What makes you think the NRC will even allow it without a huge heap of paper work?(you're paying ~$200 per beaurocrat hour)

Nuclear plants also have near zero marginal cost; personnel requirements don't change when they ramp down power(or if they do, they go up for the duration), neither does the interest payments they do on their loans, nor do regulatory costs(or if they do they go up due to the increased thermal cycling necessitating more inspections) and license fees. That leaves only the fuel cost, which is a fraction of a cent per kWh.

The only country on Earth that even bothers is France, and they generate ~80% of their power from nuclear; the alternative is to send a significant fraction of an entire country's electric power into a giant resistor at night(obnoxiously bright street lights?), but that would be costly and less than worthless. If pumped storage or running additional industry night-time only(e.g. generating hydrogen for Haber-Bosch, producing aluminium, producing lye and chlorine) was cost effective they would never do such a thing.

The only country on Earth that even bothers is France, and they generate ~80% of their power from nuclear; the alternative is to send a significant fraction of an entire country's electric power into a giant resistor at night(obnoxiously bright street lights?), but that would be costly and less than worthless.

That France does this rather than dumping excess load into a resistor is still a mystery to me. Its far more of an engineering hassle to load follow the reactor than to dump load into a resistor. Some beurocrat thought it would be an interesting challenge? Too much influence from coal power thinking where coal actually costs money?

If they did dump load into resistor banks I sure doubt it would last long however. Someone would notice that some french power plants were giving power away as long as they didn't get to pick when

David Bradish of the Nuclear Energy Institute argues that nuclear would compete with wind if the production tax credits were the same. Basically, he argues that wind and solar get more subsidy per kwh.

Wind does not have the same marginal cost everywhere. It has little to offer the US southeast for example.

I have to endorse #4 that the bad drives out the good. The 300 km underwater Basslink HVDC cable emerges from the sea close to an aluminium smelter that until 2006 was exclusively supported by hydro and gas fired power. The other end emerges close to lignite burning power stations that generate up to 1.25 kg of CO2 per kwh. Those stations have been effectively exempted from Australia's watered down 2010 emissions trading scheme.

Part of the problem is spot pricing under the system of auctioning electricity in 10 minute blocks. When distant shopping malls turn up their ACs in hot weather the quick response time of hydro via HVDC enables a fast buck to be made. Peak power can be sold say $1 per kwh (capped at $10) then lignite power later re-imported at say 3c when the dam levels have been critically lowered. However calculations suggest transmission costs work out to an additional 5c per kwh. A tough carbon cap would have forced a rethink on this practice.

Let me state this succinctly; HVDC caused an increase in lignite burning.

You are missing the bigger picture. The HVDC Basslink allows up to 4GW of hydro to be generated at peak demand. Without the Basslink 500MW of this would have to be replaced by additional coal fired base load or NG on the east coast of Australia. Alternatively the aluminium smelter could have been re-located and used coal fired electricity 100% of the time. The power re-imported to Tasmania can come from any source but usually surplus coal fired base-load. When larger wind capacity is build on the westcoast of Tasmania, this power can come form wind.
Don't blame the HVDC link for lignite burning!

This is a variation on the 'we'll relocate to China' theme except this time it is 'we'll move interstate'. The assumption being that everybody is entitled to more. Maybe everybody should just make do with local energy resources. Electrolytic smelting should move en masse to Quebec or Congo when they build the Grand Inga Dam. As it is Australia's carbon cap is near meaningless as the brown coal burners will be given over $A3 bn in free permits. Fortunately coal exports (over the really big ditch) are down 20%.

"Whatever is spent will be borrowed from future generations. Do we really have funds to do this?"

Can you afford to keep an unreliable and inefficient third world electricity grid? Energy is going to cost more and more, anything that improves efficiency and so reduces cost should be grabbed with both hands. Since energy is the lifeblood of a nation, the question should be what it is that is more important than this. It makes renewables a more viable proposition even!

"If it is easy to buy electricity from the grid, why should any given area bother itself with any more production, given the negative externalities? In fact, why should they even continue to allow the coal fired plant next door to continue operating? As long as it is possible to buy electricity from the grid, there is no point in troubling the local community to build more capacity. Also, once it is built, it will only go into the general "pool", so the local area with all the externalities won't get any special benefit, so why bother?"

This depends on the implementation. In the Netherlands, responsibility for electricity is split up between (privatised) producers, the semi-governmental national high voltage distribution system, regional distribution monopolies that have to use mandated prices, companies that buy in electricity for the suppliers, and the suppliers themselves that resolve all dealings with the actual energy users. Some of these companies can be vertically integrated.

Theoretically, all 'hidden' costs are non-hidden to some part of the chain, and can be charged for appropiately.

The way it is right now, the producers look for every opportunity to affordably generate electricity somewhere; if not suppliers will have to buy capacity from abroad which could mean added costs. So the market+local politics decides where generators are built. So far, this has lead to politics mandating the closing of our final nuclear plant in Holland, while we increasingly buy electricity from France via Belgium. France uses predominantly nuclear.

One of the odd quirks of the dutch system is that the government has encouraged the use of 'green' energy through tax-breaks (our energy is taxed per KWh, like our gas at the pump, and because of that measure green electricity is cheaper than regular at the moment); but the amount of green energy produced is not necessarily the same as the amount of green energy consumed. Energy companies are allowed to sell green electricity they don't produce, as long as they spend a specified percentage of it on investments/research towards green electricity.

A few random thoughts, not directed at any one response in particular.

A difficulty that a smart grid can pose is that without proper damping, that anything above a base load can go into "ringing" as the equipment seeks to optimize in the price/demand curves. All one as to do to see how fast this effect can appear is to look at electronic trading and the "noise" created during the trading day as programs kick in and trade based upon some set of parameters and differentials.

The problem with the grid now and into the future is an issue of balancing the gid based upon (projected) demand and available load. Depending upon location and dispatch characteristics, wind turbine farms can help or hurt the grid balancing problem. This is a particular issue for nodes of the gris associated with nuclear power as there are some specific NRC requirements associated with grid balance and flow.

This points to a myriad of siting issues and restructuring the T&D sytem provides an opportnity to rebalance and upgrade. The difficulty is that th system has to keep operating while we are doing this.

We have a long, long ways to go with renewable energy sources given where we are.

I'm in the process of updating this graphic to reflect the most recent info, but here is a graphic showing the disrtibution of electrical generating capacity by type and year in service since 1949 (the working data goes back to the 1890's and I haven't included that here).

Generating Capacity (2005)

A larger version can be found here: http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3410/3183095812_df68f3a4fb_o.jpg

The (unrestrained) demand growth can swallow future upgrades whole and so we have to be smart about our upgrades and our policy

I think you have it backwards in your disadvantage four, which seems more like a feature. (High priced generation SHOULD go.)

I would state this instead: The grid will push electricity prices to the level of the most expensive generating capacity on line, even if there is a local abundance of cheap power. What Sweden have seen when we deregulated the electricity market and built some more power lines to Poland, Germany, Denmark and the Baltics, is that we suddenly got high continental electricity prices even though we have enormous amounts of hydro and nuclear power with very low marginal costs. Windfall profits have become quite extreme.

This is of course touted as a "failure of deregulation" by socialists, but it is actually quite good in a more global sense, and would be even better if it weren't essentially forbidden to install new generating capacity other than wind power, and if we hadn't decommissioned two quite modern and very well placed nuclear reactors.

Hej jeppen, känner jag dig?

Japp, det gör du. :-)

Vi borde ses och prata lite energi och politik.

Gärna, det vore kul!

I think the result you are seeing is based on not being able to build anything but wind. If there are no restrictions, and if demand is falling because of time-of-use pricing and a major recession, some existing capacity may not be needed. Also, a better grid would the United States to make more complete use of the capacity we have. For example, electricity could be exchanged across time zones, so that excess night capacity in the East could be used in the West, so that less natural gas would need to be burned in the West.

But I think you are right that the local situation makes a difference. Our "deregulated" states use the most natural gas, and have the highest rates.

Upgrading the power grid would allow the US to take advantage of one of the world's best renewable electricity supplies, Concentrating Solar Thermal Energy (CSP). http://www.theoildrum.com/node/4911

We are one of just a half-dozen or so areas in the world that is rich in this renewable resource but we will need extensive power grid upgrades (primarily HVDC) to transmitt large blocks of solar thermal generated power to the rest of the country.

I am a very stingy user of electricity, and in fact any kind of energy. I have used about 1/4 the energy my friends use, and I know I could use a lot less and still be happy. That means I am not the least interested in seeing anything like BAU, a curse on the planet and on our grandkids.

BUT. I do use SOME electricity and would like to keep doing so. So, that's why I keep harping on solar from the southwest (USA,of course), and wind from the windy plains. And if that were all tied together by HVDC, supported by lots of pumped hydro storage, goddam it, there would NOT be any call for lousy gas turbines sitting around ready to spin any time some airhead teenager turns on a hair blower (ha, ha).

We (USA) waste absolutely atrocious amounts of energy. And that's because it hasn't got the full price on it. If that teenager had to pay the full price for her coal-fired kW going into that hair blower, she would right quick quit blowing her hair. But no, she fobs off on her kids and my grandkids the environmental and other costs she aint paying, and this is what makes me mad.

And, I gotta confess, another thing that makes me madder, as if it weren't obvious- all you smart TOD's seen to reflect near the same obliviousness to the full cost problem. Fix that, folks, and most of your moanings go away.

Ok, I have done my citizen duty for the day, and I'm goin' back to that automatic bike transmission problem like god intended me to do.

I am with you Wimbi. Cost is always a problem. The way I look at it is we are going to be paying an annuity stream of cost one way or another for decades to come (opportunity cost). This is either through more high priced oil imports and/or for the BAU non-renewable related infrastructure replacements...at least until all of the money runs out. Why not direct our future capital spend, as long as we have capital to spend, toward conservation upgrades, localization efforts, electric transport and renewable energy supplies such as wind, geothermal, CSP, solar PV (promoted by feed-in-tariffs), supported by smart grid technology and grid capacity upgrades. This is basically a mixture of conservation and renewables which will create a lot of Green Collar jobs.

Who knows we may even need to build a few nuclear plants too. (Here is an interesting audio discussion on this subject followed by comments from Richard Heinberg http://www.publicbroadcasting.net/wiaa/news.newsmain?action=article&ARTI...

I believe Obama's pick for Energy Secretary, Dr. Chu, is already on board with all of this and perhaps can help us get the ball rolling.

This is not perfect but it seems better to me than just sitting at home and wringing our hands about the dual threats of peak oil and climate change while covered in blankets until the lights go out.

ausra and the kit fox
luz 2

i would like to see another company not owned by oil
develop linear Fresnel concentrating solar.

I can tell you there are plenty of good solar ideas waiting for a go- I am involved in some of them. I am still hoping for a national solar challenge, wherein every new idea gathers together for a shoot-out on such and such sunny place and time, and may the best widget win- mine, of course. This would take a trivial amount of megabucks compared to ,for example, a stupid auto company bailout, and would get us a great leap toward where we want to be.

I have followed Chu for quite a while and know he has the right instincts. So, maybe, just maybe---.

And then, just maybe not. Like, I suspect, many others here, I oscillate between totally illogical optimism and highly logical despair.

i just bought stock in ener and bought pv panels from japan.

5. We may not be able to maintain the upgraded grid for very long.

I am reminded of the world's longest HV DC transmission line#, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire). Operating as civil wars went around it, MASSIVE corruption and incompetence of Gov't, and still it operates since 1982.



# recently one in Siberia is longer

Good article. You're probably not against an updated grid so you won't mind if I pick apart the cons. :)

>>1. Enhancing the grid is likely to enhance the perception that there is no need to cut back.

The more incentive to switch to electric transport the better. Eventually prices will come back in line.

>>2. Cost.

This is an investment rather than a cost. In the long run the reduced cost of foriegn energy will pay our kids back 10 times over.

>>3. Loss of local responsibility for production.

If Hydro is cheap in the NW, wind is cheap in the mid-west, solar cheap in the south then all regions will benefit from cheap energy as will the local economies which support the production.

>>4. High cost electricity sources may be priced out of the market.

It's called competition.

>>5. We may not be able to maintain the upgraded grid for very long.

yeah, let's not plan for the future because the world might end.

There are two levels of smart grid upgrade.

1… Add smart technology to existing conductors.

2… Item 1 plus construction of massive network of long distance high capacity transmission lines.

Item 2 is vastly more expensive than item 1, and is only necessary if we try to incorporate large amounts of wind and solar. The added cost of 2 should be rolled entirely into the cost of the wind and solar plants served, which would show them to be largely impractical, but wind and solar buffs want the cost spread out over all kWh's.

I like 1 because it lets people know what the cost of electricity is in real time. That results in more realistic use of energy, for example if kWh's are 8 cents at night and 30 cents on peak consumers might make ice at night for cooling at peak times, true for industry as well as homes. The effect can be to lower average kWh cost.

Smart grid technology can smooth out the loads reducing peak power substantially, so that existing transmission capacity is sufficient in most locations, but not if we build massive wind and solar in the west and southwest.

Nuclear plants are close to load centers with short transmission lines that operate at high capacity factors. Applying smart grid with nuclear means relatively little new conductor capacity is needed. Smart grid technology will help nuclear by leveling the load and raising nighttime electricity prices, allowing new nuclear plants to supply 80% or more with baseload plants.

Renewables like wind and solar will need lots of new transmission line construction. They will operate at low capacity factors, even with smart grid technology.

Power lines serving wind farms will be loaded at an average capacity factor around 0.3 while power lines from nuclear plants will be loaded at about 0.9 CF. the owners of lines serving windfarms will have to charge 2-3 times the nuclear plant rate/kw-mi. The average distance traveled for wind kWh's from Oklahoma going to the east coast, vs. nearby nuclear plants, would be over 1000 mi / 50 miles, 20:1, so the ratio of wind transmission cost to nuclear transmission cost would be 2.5 x 20 = 50:1.

If the U.S. powers the east coast with western wind and solar, terrorists could kill millions by dropping HVDC power lines into the Mississippi river.


A smart grid powered by 400 nuclear plants located close to demand centers would be much more resistant to terrorism.

If nuclear is used, there are safety issues.

What are the safety issues? How many people are killed by U.S. nuclear powerplants each year? If we did not have 104 nuclear power plants we would have 104 more coal plants killing 5,000 more people each year.

Good discussion on the grid upgrades. I would add that if we can further scale up CSP thermal storage times this could also provide some high capacity factor base load generation. For example, here is a plant that is designed for 7.5 hours of thermal storage as a start. http://www.spectrum.ieee.org/oct08/6851
This would better justify the building of HVDC lines to support CSP power transfer.

"What are the safety issues?"
The safety record of the nuclear power industry is very good, but... I read on this list many comments about possible collapse of BAU. My concern about nuclear safety is that maintaining that safety is a real cost (in people, and attention, not necessarily in money). Will our descendants be able to sustain that cost? I don't know, and the engineering experience of today's well run organizations it largely irrelevant.

Concerning the safety of coal. We have to stop using coal anyway, out of CO2 concerns, so its hidden safety problems can remain hidden. Coal power plants are a kind of 19th century industry with 19th century safety standards, but because of CO2 problem, it makes little sense investing in improved safety technology.

Safety issues? How about wind turbines? And I'm not talking about birds, either. Stupid stealth bombers. :)

Unmanned stealth bomber could have been UFO responsible for destroying wind turbine

The UFO allegedly responsible for wrecking a wind turbine could have been a secret unmanned stealth bomber on test flights.

The claim came from Ministry of Defence insiders who reportedly said that a black delta-wing craft called Taranis was making test runs on the coastal bombing ranges at Donna Nook and North Coates in Lincolnshire, near to the site of the damaged turbine.

Looks more to me like failure of the hub attachment on one blade, followed by flexion failure of one of the remaining two due to the rotor imbalance.  No impact required (though impact on the loose blade would be more than sufficient).

A strike on an aircraft would have very obvious signs, like a crater downrange of the impact point with the aircraft in it.


I'm with you on this one. I think that probably what makes sense is adding smart technology to existing conductors, and adding only as much wind/solar as can be handled safely on the existing grid. (We probably need to replace worn-out components.)

If we even think of putting in a long distance high voltage transmission lines, we need to charge the cost back 100% to solar/ wind. Any storage added because of solar/wind needs to be added back as well. I think we are adding a whole new set of problems, if we add LDHV transmission lines.

Instead of safely issues, I should have said "safety concerns". People can (and do) have concerns, regardless of the safety record. One of the concerns relates to the spent fuel, and what is being done with it.

I think we are adding a whole new set of problems, if we add LDHV transmission lines.

I think that we add a whole new set of resiliency and "solutions" as well.

123 F in Dallas, thermal plants output is cut as cooling ponds overheat#, local wind is very slow as extreme high pressure system sits on Texas.

HV DC lines built to export Texas wind, mainly in the spring, summer and fall, can now import power.

Just because they are an unfamiliar concept does not make them dangerous or "bad".


# All thermal (including nuke) plants produce more electricity in cool weather than hot, for the same fuel. But when the cooling ponds overheat, significant reductions in power and even shut downs are called for.

According to the US Dept. of Energy study, the USA can build, at most, 8 new nukes in the next ten years (and none have yet been firmly committed to; even abroad only gov'ts are building new nukes).

So your "400 nuke grid:" is fantasy for many decades to come.

Nukes have a place, we should build 6 or 7 in the next decade (tincture of Murphy reduces from 8) and perhaps 25 or 30 in the decade after that.
Nukes are the secondary, late source of new non-GHG generation. Wind, secondarily geothermal, then solar are the best bets for the next 20+ years.


Is that nukes in general, or just PWR/BWR's?

Reactors not based on pressure vessels full of water and not requiring enriched uranium fuel (MSTR, IFR) do not require the same manufacturing and supply base as PWR/BWR's and need not necessarily be under that 8-unit cap.

Time to get a license for a new reactor type w/o containment vessel and then build it (no applications in yet) will be > 10 years.


A containment is a building, not a piece of steel.

You show yourself confined by the mental blocks I've been highlighting:  "license", "applications".  This assumes BAU.  If we have a serious problem on our hands, BAU can and should go out the window.  Our technical capabilities should be the primary determinant of how fast we move, and I don't think 8 units in 10 years is close to what we could do; I'd guess 50 on the low end.

BAU should go out the window for *SAFE* technologies, *NOT* nuclear power !!

Unqualified people welding, wiring, inspecting (or not) Chernobyl look a likes.

Better to freeze in the dark.

The regulatory process could be speeded up (SWAG cut in half) without ANY sacrifice in safety. But advocacy such as yours would put me in the streets protesting, laying in front of gates, figuring out ways to sabotage the supply chain, etc.

We has a Rush to Nuke before. Result, Zimmer, TMI, Browns Ferry #1, WHOOPS #1, #3, #4, #5, TVA canceling 11 nukes on one day (and abandoning repairs on BF #1), etc. etc.

Best Hopes for a Wind Rush and a slow steady development of new nukes,


Hi Gail, you've listed the pros and cons, but what is your position? What course of action would you recommend if you were advising President Obama?

My current thinking is

1. Add smart technology to what we have. Replace parts on what we have, so it isn't falling apart. Add only as much wind/solar as will work with minimally upgraded grid. Add long distance high voltage transmission only where absolutely required (North-East corridor?)

2. If additional wind/storage is desired, all of the costs should be considered together. New projects will probably need to include storage to keep fluctuation down as well as transmission lines to the place where the electricity will be used. All of these costs should be considered together in determining project feasibility.

3. We should probably be encouraging more combined heat and power. In some cases, we may need to change laws to allow private organizations to run power lines across streets to make better use of power that is available.

4. There is a great deal of interconnection between petroleum use, electricity, and the financial system. There is a significant possibility that we will lose most electricity at the same time the financial system fails and we start having major difficulties with imports of all kinds, including oil. This could be quite soon. We need to somehow be planning for this contingency, encouraging each area to do at least some local generation of electricity that can be continued and maintained with minimal external inputs.

New long-distance transmission and smart metering are sometimes presented as complementary. This is natural as lobbyists seek to expand their political coalitions.

I am beginning to think that these policies are in fact substitutes...pick one!

New projects will probably need to include storage to keep fluctuation down as well as transmission lines to the place where the electricity will be used.

We are VERY VERY far from that point (fluctuations) being a significant limiting issue in most of the USA (say x25 existing wind), In Texas, we are just very far (say x4 or x5) from that point.

Texas recently agreed to a "postage stamp" (everybody pays the same) rate increase to enable new transmission that will allow about a 500% increase in wind.

And since you support full costing, I assume you also support a carbon tax on coal that will quadruple it's cost ? (Good reason to conserve).

Coal is more expensive than wind by a large factor if Climate Change costs are factored in.


Other costs of coal:

When you add in the costs of water pollution from airborne mercury, sulfur dioxide, and ground source heavy metals from coal ash the cost of coal would be higher than it is now. Reason electric rates are so low in the US is because indirect pollution costs for coal are not paid for by the power user. This includes the environmental cost of mountaintop removal and resulting water pollution.

each area to do at least some local generation of electricity that can be continued and maintained with minimal external inputs.

So Zaire can keep a 1,060 mile HV DC line going through roadless jungle for 27 years, but Georgia cannot ?

Building 800 and 1,000 mile HV DC lines from Atlanta to, say, Oklahoma and Iowa with enough wind in Oklahoma & Iowa to keep it humming would give precisely the sort of resiliency you say you want.

Sure, rotating blackouts when wind dies in both OK & IA and not enough local coal fired generation left (coal production AND transportation, unlike wind and HV DC, could be significantly affected by a severe prolonged oil shortage). But enough power when the wind does blow and stretches the coal production out.

Wind and HV DC are LESS vulnerable than coal fired generation and transportation, (especially with imported coal).

Best Hopes for Georgia Power raising their standards to those of Zaire,


you raise an excellent point about adding more combined heat and power, aka cogeneration. If you look at energy use curves for various states a huge amount is listed as "waste heat." CHP also provides more distributed generation with its associated benefits. Hope we can have more discussion on this important topic.

Globally, lighting accounts for roughly 20 per cent of all electricity demand -- some 2,650 TWh/yr -- and within the commercial sector, that percentage doubles to more than 40 per cent. The bulk of our commercial lighting is linear fluorescent, nearly two-thirds being older T12 lamps driven by standard magnetic core ballasts. Simply replacing these inefficient lamps and ballasts with high performance T8s/T5s can cut this lighting load by as much as half.

To put this into perspective, Toronto's TD Centre contains 4.5 million square feet of office space and at the time it was built, lighting loads typically fell between 3.5 to 4.0-watts per sq. ft.; today, it's more likely to be in the order of 1.0 and 1.2-watts and in some cases considerably less (a combination of more energy-efficient lighting technology, greater luminaire efficacy, a growing use of occupancy sensors and daylight harvesting, and a general trend away from uniformly high ambient light levels to more purpose driven or task-oriented lighting). Note, too, that for every million kWhs that are saved in reduced lighting demand, there's another 300,000 or so kWhs that can be derived from the corresponding reduction in a/c requirements, so the potential savings are generally 1.3 times greater than what the face plate would suggest.

In addition, Osram Sylvania has recently introduced its innovative PowerSHED electronic ballast that allows utilities to temporarily reduce fixture wattage by an additional 33 per cent in the event of a critical supply shortage (see: http://www.sylvania.com/content/display.scfx?id=003697316; to view a video demonstration, see: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i-iKT_i0joY). This, combined with other forms of intelligent load control, can help utilities better manage their existing resources as well as enhance reliability of service.

Lastly, the cost per kWh saved through DSM initiatives such as those identified above can be as little as one-half to one-third that of new conventional supplies. If we want to maximize the value of any future investments in our power systems, we need to focus our attention on energy conservation and load management, and not treat DSM as an afterthought.


That is a good point. If time of day pricing is used, it helps to encourage demand side management. Even without, businesses can often save a lot of money by DSM.

I am all for the recapitalization of the NorthAm electric grid...HVDC, pumped storage, Vanadium Oxide flow batteries, brilliant SCADA, wind, CSP, advanced nuke (Thorium, other), distributed PV, the works. We are an electrified society, and I think this effort makes sense (I don't think many people want to return to 'Little House on the Prairie'). Better to spend money we no longer have on something useful over the long term, something that will employ people during the build-up and during the long-term sustainment phase, than to give gazillions to bankers who magic it away to Swiss bank accounts; and better than sending gaziliions to ME oil producers (the thinking here is that EVs and trains replace ICE cars/light trucks/some heavy trucks...those who say the fleets can't be rolled over in less than 100 years are truly doomers...with the right leadership/communication/education we could spin-up and make significant fleet-replacement inroads in 10 years...more jobs here in the U.S., less climate GG, less dependence on unstable ME).

Don't neglect the need to achieve real, World-wide arms control (verification, reduction) as part of the transition to a 21st century power grid. Otherwise, the mother of all Black Swans may crap all over our well-honed house of cards:

Read page 15 and 16 to cut to the reader's digest explanation of the threat (PDF):


To get a quick idea of the problem look at the first and third graphics (from the top of the article) on the right margin of the Wiki below:


No grid; no electronic ignitions in vehicles, no Internet, no stand-alone home/business/industrial/medical computers, all dust in the wind.

"All the King's horses, and all the King's men, couldn't put Humpty-Dumpty back together again."

VRB Power files for bankruptcy
VRB's long-life flow battery was a reliable electricity storage alternative for renewable energy


NAS Batteries


Altair Nanotechnologies Announces Successful PJM Market Acceptance of the First Grid-Scale, Battery Energy Storage System


Ford built a car that ran on nas batteries
why can't we build nas batteries

originally targeted for grid applications such as output smoothing for wind and solar


Electricity should be generated locally as much as possible. Long distance lines should be used for backup, the way the grid was originally intended. By interconnecting our electric grid, it has made possible cascading failures in which huge regions lose power simultaneously from the failure of a single part. The Northeast Blackout of 2003 was caused by power lines hitting trees and exasperated by a software bug.

The only way I would support constructing new long distance high voltage transmission lines is if they are combined with electrifying our existing long distance freight railroads similar to Alan Drake's proposal, Multiple Birds – One Silver BB: A synergistic set of solutions to multiple issues focused on Electrified Railroads. We have got to stop this segmented pie-in-the-sky dreaming and start solving our problems rationally, efficiently, rapidly and cost effectively. More electric transmission lines accessed using energy inefficient vehicles on paved, gravel and dirt roads is a poor substitute for access by electric trains. When the cost of construction can be paid by freight transport and the sale of electricity, we have a sounder business proposal.

The argument that we need to upgrade our electric grid to charge electric cars is ridiculous because the cars would be charged at night when there is plenty of idle spare capacity.

One concept I have not voiced is moving to "many ERCOTs" all with several HV DC ties to neighboring "ERCOTs".

ERCOT is the independent electrical island for 80+% of Texas, with only HV DC ties to the rest of the world.

They set their own 60 Hz frequency and live or die by themselves.

If each HV DC intertie would include HV DC Lite, they would have black start capability from their neighbors (HV DC Lite has max. 1.1 GW today), so any blackout could be quickly restarted with help from their neighbors.

Size of these new "ERCOTs" might coincide current companies. TVA would be one "ERCOT". Southern Company (Georgia & Alabama Power (all of states except TVA in the the north) plus Entergy (Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, non-ERCOT East Texas) might be another island.

Florida (except tip of panhandle) another.

This would require existing interconnects to be rebuilt from HV AC to HV DC (and capacity expanded as part of the rebuild). New HV DC lines built on Railroad ROWs.

Florida should have separate HV DC ties to Entergy/Southern, TVA, ERCOT (Texas) and "Duke"/Carolinas. Four separate electrical islands to trade power with and seek help from. Perhaps American Electrical Power (MidWest) or Mid-Atlantic as well.

A connection between HydroQuebec and Florida would be technically feasible (on RR ROWs mainly), the question is if it would be worth the cost.


TVA (centrally located) might have eight such ties.

This is close to what I would like to see.

When I look into the future (20-100 yrs) I see little available Natural Gas, Oil, and problems with coal and nuclear. What oil and Natural gas we have will likely be to valuable to use for electric generation. If we are to maintain even a modicum of our current civilization we will have find a way to power down, have some form of alternative to oil-based transport, and find an alternative to fossil fuels, especially coal, to maintain critical services such as clean water delivery, sewage treatment, food distribution, and etc.

Some of these problems are beyond my ken and may be insoluble. But without long distance transmission, local renewable generation will likely not be reliable enough to ensure that the sewage treatment plant (say) can function 24/7. Under any scenerio, I think we will be forced to adapt to rolling blackouts and expensive power. Our lives will likely change dramatically in even the next 20 years. The pain of this transition can be reduced by being able to mitigate for intermittent power sources by averaging over a wide area. Wind blows strongest at the edges of a weather system. Renewables (hydro, tidal, geothermal, wind solar, others) tend to be either fixed in location and/or weather dependent. By evening out these issues over a wide area, a properly planned and operated grid should be able to achieve greater reliability, and keep the essential services functioning under all or most conditions.

I believe the most cost effective means of getting this kind of distribution would be with redundant HVDC pathways connecting to major distribution points in different regional control areas. Since power flows on HVDC lines are controllable (AC lines have poor flow control capability, though there is some) we could reduce loop flows, power oscillations, and line overloads that tend to cause cascading outages. I don't think it would take too many HVDC lines to achieve this. In the short term, a supergrid would likely be carrying coal or other non-renewable power. I think it is likely that non-renewable power will get displaced over (a hopefully short) time as their costs increase and our ability to compensate for renewable intermittency increases over time.

I think this is a possible path to maintaining a semblance of our modern lifestyle. The alternative is very intermittent power, and likely reduced availability of power. These conditions exist in the world today, but most of us (me too!) avoid these places, because they aren't much fun.


Discussing the future development of any national energy/electricity grid probably requires the inclusion of a global perspective (see e.g. www.geni.org/). Much of the envisaged LDHV expansion would then become part of the backbone of a global energy web to harvest and distribute renewable energy.

Thank you Gail for keeping the grid discussion on the front burner. Many good comments as usual amplifying your article. I did see one concern of mine not addressed. I understand that our grids are vulnerable to induction current damage from solar flare events and what can be done to mitigate that risk?

National Academies Press has recently published Severe Space Weather Events--Understanding Societal and Economic Impacts Workshop Report.

Workshop convened by the National Research Council. Can read some on line here: