You Can Drown in a Lake Whose Average Depth is 6 Inches

Where electrical power is concerned, it seems quite difficult for many people to grasp the importance of peak versus average demand and of  peak versus average supply.

A letter in today’s WSJ argues in favor of solar power, noting that “unlike large generation plants, enormous wind turbines and especially nuclear reactors, all of which require years of planning, personal and small industrial solar installations can be planned and installed in a month or so”  The writer says that utilities are seeing these installations diminish their income, and hence “understandably are fighting back by charging not just for electricity, but separately for connection to the grid.”  He argues that as utilities raise their connection charges to compensate for the newly disconnected, more and more people will think that utility power is a bad deal and will disconnect totally, which will “ultimately result in electric utilities holding sway only in urban or perpetually cloudy areas.”

What happens with solar will be largely dependent on the future improvements in battery or other energy storage technologies, but I think it is most unlikely that most people will be comfortable disconnecting from the grid totally.  With any economically-reasonable level of local storage, a run of bad weather is likely to result in running out of power totally, with very uncomfortable consequences.

What most people who invest heavily in solar are likely to do, IMO, is to maintain a backup grid connection for those exceptional cases.  The problem is that the exceptional conditions will occur for thousands of households and other sites at the same time over a broad area…requiring the utility’s generation and transmission facilities to be sized for these exceptional conditions, with capital expenditures made accordingly.

Continuing financial viability of the utilities will require these costs to be recovered, either via a connection fee (“readiness-to-serve charge”) or a very high kwh charge for these infrequent and difficult-to-handle customers.  But the solar people will argue vehemently against these charges, asserting that they represent nothing more than corporate greed and hostility to new technology, and are likely to gain considerable political support.

In this scenario, in those areas with substantial distributed solar power, the utilities will be driven into financial distress or will have to raise rates considerably on their non-solar customers…which in turn will encourage more people to invest in solar, but will create great economic pain from those people and businesses who cannot do this, and eventually result in the costs of the entire vast grid infrastructure and its maintenance being allocated against an ever-declining base.  This seems unlikely to end well.

25 thoughts on “You Can Drown in a Lake Whose Average Depth is 6 Inches”

  1. When I lived in Capistrano Beach, a community in south Orange County in the late 70s and early 80s, the utility, San Diego Gas and Electric, was so unreliable, mostly due to local transmission line troubles, that I put a 440 gallon diesel tank in my side yard. That was also the gas shortage era when Carter was accusing tankers of waiting offshore full of oil. I had all diesel cars and filled them from the tank, which of course was illegal. I got the company that supplied a school bus yard a half-mile from my house to fill my tank once a month. I was buying a diesel generator made in China to hook up to my house for emergencies.

    That was being ready to be off the grid for a few days at a time. We would have power outages two or three times a month.

    I sold the house later and wonder if the owners ever found the tank. It was under the ground and had a concrete patio over it but the vent and output lines came up in the garden.

  2. I should not be, but I continue to be dumbfounded by the ignorance of most people to how our modern technological society works, especially the electricity system. From generation to transmission to distribution, very few folks know just how complex it is. It show most in those hippie types who think they can go “off the grid” with an emergency connection with no consequences. Even if the government owned the grid, tehy would still have to make the “off the grid” types pay a premium for their connection. There is no way to avoid it. The beauty of physics is that you CANNOT ignore it without severe consequences.

    Operating a large grid is more demanding than operating the air traffic control system and it is ALWAYS balanced on the edge of a knife. Our federal regulatory apparatus has not helped at all in this for the last 30 years by demanding a nationwide grid under central control. The larger a grid gets, the greater the instability. The best solution is what we had until the “deregulation” craze in the late 80’s and 90’s, a set of interconnected regional grids independently operated. Texas has defied this increasing integration by keeping the main grid independent (ERCOT). There are several high voltage DC ties to the national grid which are not always in operation, only when they need to import (very rarely) or export power to the national grid.

  3. I was in Boston as a medical student when the The Great Northeast Blackout of 1965 occurred. I was at the hospital. My wife was helping some friends replace a lightbulb and when she screwed the bulb in and the lights went out, she thought she had done it. She did;t realize until driving home that it was more than one house.

    The Mass General Hospital and been convinced there was no longer a need to have an emergency generator on line so it had been disconnected. There were no sterilizers for emergency surgeries and we had one. Boiled instruments like Harvey Cushing had done in 1920.

    The only lights in Boston were at the electric utility across the Charles River which were shining brightly in the dark city. It was six hours in November before the power came on.

    One good thing about California is that it won’t be as cold when the power goes out. I don’t have my sailboat anymore. That was going to be my escape capsule.

  4. I’ve been watching videos on the construction of Cotter Dam outside of Canberra, a very dry region to start with (like much of California) that’s been in extended drought. They’re upgrading a 4 billion liter reservoir to 78 billion liters of storage. They’re didn’t remove the old dam since it held the river back while the constructed the new dam in front of it. At project end they allowed it to be inundated under the much larger reservoir as it filled.

    Most of the interest for me is following the design and construction of the project, including the ancillary projects to improve community use of the site, building reefs for endangered fish, and other community outreach projects. Everything seemed to go smoothly. I couldn’t help but think how much antagonism there is now in the USA to projects like this. Building a simple desalinization plant becomes a decade long project fighting lawsuits and getting permits from the very people you’re trying provide with water.

    The root cause is cultural marxism, the politics of destruction and class warfare pursued by the left and the apparent corruption of the GOP, which should function as the natural alternative, on the right. It has left people with nowhere to go. It’s destroying our ability to anything at all. I could be wrong, but I don’t think the answer will be found in a lying corrupt Hillary or a bombastic narcissist Trump.

    Cotter Dam, if have an interest in that sort of thing:

  5. Waiting to run entirely out of power would seem to me to be the dumbest way to use your grid emergency lifeline connection. As a thought experiment, let’s say you have 5 days of local storage. When I’m down to two days, it’s time to throw the switch overnight and top off my storage at the cheapest power rates available and to a level that takes into account the weather forecast. Some people will top off at 3 days, others at 1 day. There’s no reason for everybody to charge their storage at the same time and every incentive not to unpredictably come on grid with a demand for power right now because local storage went to zero. This does not eliminate the problem, admittedly. It does mitigate it though.

    What would eliminate it would be local acquisition of power besides solar and the grid. For the sake of argument, let’s say hydrogen ends up as practical storage. When your electricity needs are lower than your generation, you crack natural gas or water to create locally stored hydrogen. When electricity isn’t being generated sufficiently by solar, you use the hydrogen to heat your water and generate power via a fuel cell. When the stored hydrogen grows low, you buy a tank of fuel, whether it’s hydrogen, propane, or perhaps there’s no tank at all but pipelined natural gas. You let tanks and pipeline compete with the grid to top off your system.

    Right now, neither solar nor hydrogen are practical without significant subsidies for most applications. But that’s not necessarily going to be true always. Creating realistic, indirect competition for home power provision is a future worth creating.

  6. “The root cause is cultural marxism, the politics of destruction and class warfare pursued by the left”

    Oh, I agree. We have a whole generation who have lived in an era of plenty, much like some of my children, and who think this is the normal state of affairs. They have no idea of poverty and scarcity. They think that “money grows on trees” as my mother used to say who was born in 1898 and whose father died when she was 18 months old.

    I have a son who is 50 and a trial lawyer and who has no idea of what life is like. He and I do not speak. I have four other children, some of whom seem to get the real picture.

    California is populated with such people. Look at David Gerlenter who is trying to hire programmers for a new project.

    They are making $5 million a year from Google and are not interested in new projects.

    I recently met a college student whom Facebook recruited as a summer intern at $10,000 a month. A junior developer fresh out of college can expect to earn around $10,000 monthly, plus benefits, a $100,000 signing bonus and $200,000 in stock options. For a more experienced developer, the sky’s the limit. Business Insider reported last year that a startup offering an annual salary of $500,000 was unable to lure a senior developer away from Google because he was earning $3 million a year in cash and stock.

    They are Obama voters who think the world will always be the same.

  7. Rubbish. Even in Southern California you are absolutely guaranteed to have no solar power 4380 hours a year. So what are you going to do in those hours. How about battery packs?

    Elon Musk just put his brand new household battery packs on sale for $3500 for the 10 kwh model. My nice suburban house in a not particularly hot nor particularly cold part of Ohio uses ~200KWH/mo. On average I would need 100 kwh of storage to get me through the night. Ten of those Tesla packs would be a mere $35K. Paying that off over the 8 year life of those packs would be ~$400/mo. My Electric bilis about $220/mo.

    Forget about it. This is nonsense. The only viable option is to be connected to the grid.

  8. “I’ve been watching videos on the construction of Cotter Dam outside of Canberra”: ha! Sixty years ago, roughly, an Australian aunt sent me lots of bumf about the Snowy Mountains scheme; it persuaded me to find out what a “Civil Engineer” was and, in due course, consider that as a career.

    I admire the Aussie penchant for getting on and doing practical stuff really well (just as I often squirm when Aussies have a bash at something more abstract – not their métier).

  9. Southern California and Arizona are both good locations for solar use to supplement the grid. I considered it but a neighbor’s tree shaded one small area of my roof and made me ineligible for subsidy so I dropped it.

    I doubt it would have been economic but I was interested enough to look into it.

  10. As an electric generation consultant, my clients are making a lot of money backing up solar/wind and the costs will continue to rise. It used to be in most of Europe that peak load was in the winter as most heating was electric resistance especially in France. Summers had little residential air conditioning load. The french state utility EdF used to have very favorable incentives for people to be able to go off the grid for up to two days in the winter (but their overall tariff was typically french and very high, there is a welfare state to fund you know). My father in law used to have a beach house in Delaware and he agreed to have his heat pump be interruptible for up to two hours for a slightly lower bill. Sure enough on a hot, windless 4th of July with all the kids and grandkids there, the house seemed to be getting hot. I went and checked his heat pump and quickly spotted the LED showing a interruption demand. I sent all the cranky kids out to swim, until a jelly fish sting put an end to that.

    The problems with wind and solar is that the peak demand usually inhibits one or both. A few years ago I flew from Texas to Chicago in a really cold January (-15-20F). We flew right over the Dresden Nuclear plant which was clearly up and running, but in the dead calm of a bitterly cold day the surrounding wind farm was dead still.

    What is also interesting is that 40 years ago, the greens were all in to conservation (they called it Megawatts), but now they all want to increase demand for electric cars or to have solar/wind generation. I suspect the green elite is not longer hippy like going off the grid, but want to control the grid and the industrial system.

  11. Some people will use nat gas generators to back up their home or business solar panels. I don’t know how much slack capacity there is in the nat gas system…seems like it should inherently handle peaks better than the electrical grid because of the storage facilities in each city, but there are still going to be flow limitations on both the local distribution pipes and the long-haul pipelines.

  12. David Foster, I wonder if it would be a simple thing, if one lived in an area with NG service (are there many such areas?), to have a storage tank connected to the service line for use in emergency situations. This would, if there aren’t any drawbacks, seem ideal.

    I know folks that have NG generators to back up their electrical service.

  13. Tyouth…I wouldn’t be surprised if there are local regulatory codes that would make it difficult to have a NG storage tank of considerable capacity…I know there have been some regulations inhibiting diesel fuel storage for backup generators, which have in some cases resulted in telcos not having these where they should have, with consequent outages.

    I have a 20KW nat gas generator, installed after too many outages with very long (days) repair times…of course, once I’d gotten it the power company service got more reliable, but the few times it’s been needed, it’s kicked right in.

  14. We’re on the electrical grid, but there’s no gas grid here, so we use a 300-gallon propane tank for heat. It also would power the electric generator if we lost power, but it wouldn’t last long unless we cut back to a minimum and eschewed the AC during the emergency. Absent that extremity, we normally have to refill the propane tank only a couple of times a year. We take care to keep it topped up during hurricane season. A truck comes out and refills it.

    In a big breakdown, or even a medium one such as a bad hurricane strike, I can imagine considerable bottlenecks in the gas resupply line, but it’s a question of sizing the tank to outlast the emergency. We don’t feel that we’re off the grid in any very dangerous way. I wouldn’t mind being off the electrical grid, for that matter, if solar technology (particularly batteries) improved in cost and reliability. For me, the grid is a source of anxiety rather than security. Redundancy is key.

  15. While we buy average consumption, we all pay for peak capacity plus safety factor capital costs.

    In the case of the Greenies, you can’t cure dumb.

    When there is not enough power, may their houses and their employment be the first to suffer.

  16. When there is not enough power they will blame the utilities and demand they all be nationalized, to make sure that kind of thing never happens again. Then they’ve won their end game, radical leftists in charge of the power generation for the country. Oh the damage they could do!

  17. “radical leftists in charge of the power generation for the country.”

    What do you think the TVA was all about ? Read “The Invisible Man.”

  18. There is a difference, though, Mike. The TVA was created and administered by people who believed that electrical energy was a *good* thing….today’s green-energy fanatics think very differently.

  19. Look at David Gerlenter who is trying to hire programmers for a new project.

    That computer science education is a failure is perennial. The discussion never ends. Nor do the faddish solutions. If it is and has been failure for forty years, what would the world look like if it had succeeded?

    Gerstner specifically says he has difficultly hiring the best talent. Well, duh. He has the same problem publishing houses have with authors, sports franchises have with athletes, studios with actors,….

    Some how plenty of projects are completed without $100 million dollar hires.

  20. Nuclear Power is expensive, once you factor in low-probability, gigantic-cost like Chernobyl or Fukushima.

    But on the subject of cost – peak energy use times (high summer) are also peak solar generation times. So what’s left are lowish-probability, high-cost incidents like several weeks without sunshine but great heat.

    Sounds like a reason to invest in batteries, a variety of production options, and past cost on to customers. (Unlike now, where the costs for many forms of energy have massive hidden subsidies — the Carter Doctrine w/o oil, for instance)

  21. A lot of the expense of nuclear is the green war on nuclear that was begun as a KGB ploy in the 1950s.

    Chernobyl was a Russian plant designed to make nuclear Plutonium fuel for weapons which had been converted to make electricity. It was a poor design. That site is anti-nuc but makes a few good points.

    The industry claims that Chernobyl was the product of a severely flawed reactor design that could never be licensed to operate in the United States. Industry proponents continue to claim that all U.S. nuclear reactors are designed to ensure that radioactive materials would be contained in the event of a serious accident.

    Better designs exist now but the entire industry is moribund due to litigation and the war on nuclear.

  22. Some new information on nuclear reactors.

    While the advantages of molten salt reactors have been understood for some time, they remain at the R&D stage because, in the post-Fukushima era of low-price natural gas, it’s hard to convince investors to fund any alternative nuclear technology. In the United States it can take a decade or more, and hundreds of millions of dollars, just to bring new a reactor design to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for a license application.

  23. Tdaxp, if you think nukes are expensive, wait until you have to pay for batteries along with the much higher cost per kW-hr for the so-called alternate power sources. The federal subsidies will go away, as they are not sustainable and wind/solar will never be competitive without those subsidies.

    Mike, my company is building two new PWR plants in South Carolina and Georgia. We should be starting them up in 2020 at the latest. Even with the low cost of natural gas, both utilities are building them because of the huge difficulty in building pipelines. The existing natural gas pipeline system in the US is running at full capacity with no room for more and a reluctance from federal agencies to liscense new ones.

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