Disaster Resistant Energy Sources Part II

Instapundit links to a New Scientist article on a report from NASA and the National Academy of Sciences that warns of the danger that large solar storms present to the world’s power grid. The report summarizes the core problem as:

The first is the modern electricity grid, which is designed to operate at ever higher voltages over ever larger areas. Though this provides a more efficient way to run the electricity networks, minimising power losses and wastage through overproduction, it has made them much more vulnerable to space weather. The high-power grids act as particularly efficient antennas, channelling enormous direct currents into the power transformers.

Obviously, increased use of solar and wind power will increase this sensitivity to solar disruption.

Like hydroelectric generation, solar and wind generation are geographically anchored. You have to put the generators where the sun shines a lot or where the wind blows reliably. They also both require a lot of area to collect the low-density energy. Their dependence on the weather means that any given generation location will often go offline at unpredictable times. To compensate for this unreliability, we will have to create a large diffused grid that can shift power from places with good weather to places with bad weather. All these factors mean that we will have to create large transmission systems to move a high percentage of our power over long distance. Such transmission systems will be even more vulnerable to solar storms than the ones we have now. 

As I wrote before, solar and wind power are fragile power sources. We need power sources that can provide power in the case of unexpected events.

The linked article plays down the ability of nuclear power plants to provide power through an emergency but history has shown that they do continue to operate under conditions that take fossil-fuel plants off line. In the late ’80s, a massive blizzard and cold front in the Northeast froze the delivery systems for coal and natural gas. Many fossil-fuel plants went offline (of course solar and wind would have failed then as well), but the nuclear plants kept chugging right along providing power that kept other fossil-fuel plants online. Without that power, the Northeast would have experience a domino power outage that could have killed large numbers of people. Even in the solar-storm scenario, nuclear plants could continue to provide power to their local grids, which would make some communities islands of power that could bootstrap the rest of the system.  

Going forward, micro-nukes would be an even better protection against solar storms and any other conceivable event. If every skyscraper had its own power source and if every city or town had several dozen power generator locations, no single event could knock out power over wide areas. Power transmission lines are the weakest link in the power grid. Storms both terrestrial and solar attack the lines. The more powerful the lines, the more vulnerable they become. Smaller lines coming from small, localized generators would be less vulnerable and much easier to repair. Such systems could provide power for years even in the case of a mega-disaster such as a nuclear war or asteroid strike. 

The current drive toward solar and wind power springs purely from a political movement. As such, it really doesn’t take into account all the tradeoffs and hazards of putting all our energy eggs in one fragile basket. 

We need to take such rare but dangerous factors into account as we engineer the energy systems of the future. 

16 thoughts on “Disaster Resistant Energy Sources Part II”

  1. I had another thought a while back about green power.

    All the recent proposed changes in the regulatory regime for power and manufacturing will result in:

    * Higher steel prices.

    * Higher electrical prices.

    * Therefore, higher aluminum prices and higher glass prices.

    * Higher costs for coal and oil and therefore, higher plastics prices.

    The net effect of all of those changes would be to increase the cost of manufacture of solar systems and of windmills.

  2. I have read that (on average) only about 32% of the power generated at the plant is actually available at the home electrical outlet. I assume that this is due mostly to transmission and conversion losses. Has there been any study done to determine if we had a much more distributed power system (like micro-nukes) would the overall system be more efficient? What are the thoughts on this?

  3. Pablo,

    That number refers to the the overall efficiency of the generating and distribution system.

    When you have a heat engine, whether it’s burning coal, or burning oil or getting heat from a nuclear decay, you have a thermodynamic engine that converts that heat to mechanical power. This is generally done by making high pressure steam to spin a turbine. It’s this process that has most of the inefficiency and is subject to immutable laws of thermodynamics. When you see that plume of water vapor rising from the cooling tower at a nuke plant, that’s waste heat that cannot, generally, be recovered.

    The spinning turbine runs an electrical generator which then puts power into the electrical transmission and distribution (T&D) system. This part of the system is high efficiency. For example (going from memory here) the loss in the T&D system has historically been as low as 2%. Unfortunately, due to our failure to build new transmission lines the existing lines have become overloaded and the loss is approaching 5%.

  4. Pablo:

    Once the electricity is generated, the delivery losses are pretty low — the estimates I’ve seen recently are in the 7-9% range on average in the US, split about half and half between line losses and transformer losses. Of course, the further the distance from generation to use, the higher the transmission losses.

    You may be thinking about the thermal losses in actually generating the electricity. Generally less than half of the thermal energy from burning fossil fuels or fissioning uranium can be converted to electricity. It used to be that 2/3 losses were common, but newer plants often reduce this to 1/2 losses, and Siemens says its newest generators have only 40% losses.

  5. Even setting aside solar storms and EMP, I’m nervous about ever-increasing interconnectivity of the grid. No matter how careful the design, no matter how much analysis & simulation, sooner or later something is likely to happen that will propagate to the uttermost limits of connectivity and take the whole thing down.

    I’m also concerned about the dependency of the water system on the grid–in the U.S., at least, almost all pumps are electric, and I don’t think very many of them have self-contained backup.

  6. David Foster,

    Even setting aside solar storms and EMP, I’m nervous about ever-increasing interconnectivity of the grid.

    Yes, that is a concern. We have temporary power outages due rather often due to storms. I noted to my spouse the other day that our increasingly reliance on cell phones also meant we needed power to have communications. In the old days, the analog phones operated separate from the power grid even if they used a lot of the same lines. I remember a lot of times as a kid when the power went out but the phones kept working.

    With a lot of people today going all wireless and even land lines now requiring power, a blackout of more than 12hrs duration would cut off communications to a lot of people.

    Heck, I realized few months ago that we didn’t even have a battery powered radio. They used to be common but now a lot of people don’t have them. I went out and bought a crank powered one just in case.

    We’ve gotten used to having reliable power in all parts of our technological infrastructure. It looks like we have diverse technologies but in reality they all share a common failure point.

  7. Anyone know how much, if any, of the stimulus money allocated toward improving the electric grid (~$20B IIRC) is to go to making it more resilient as well as (instead of?) making it “smarter”?

    If there are 300 key transformer stations as the article says, could we build and install (but not connect) full backups at each station? How much would this cost?

  8. Where I live electric power often fails for days during and after hurricanes. Cable TV and Internet and usually DSL service fail then too. Landline phone service is always the last utility to fail, but even it goes down sometimes. Cellular service isn’t a good replacement, because it usually fails too, and when it works the networks are often too busy to use.

    Depending on location, high-rise apartment buildings may rely on electrical water pumps. This eventually becomes a problem during power outages, even if municipal water pumps continue to function and even for buildings with emergency generators, because the typical backup generator has fuel for no more than a day or two.

    I suspect that the coming trend for upscale development, and this has already begun in my area, is for new condo buildings and single-family-home developments to have their own power supplies with enough fuel to go weeks or months without power from their local grids.

  9. “I noted to my spouse the other day that our increasingly reliance on cell phones also meant we needed power to have communications. In the old days, the analog phones operated separate from the power grid even if they used a lot of the same lines.”

    The old analog phone lines were provided -48 V dc power from the central office running over the pair of copper wires that connected the phone directly to the central office. They were running of the utility grid power but had large amounts of battery backup located in the basement of the central office.

    Today, the copper wires run from your house to a concentrator that sits anonymously somewhere nearby. The concentrator then puts the signals onto a fiber optic cable for further transmission. The concentrator has limited battery backup and the fiber optic cable transmits signals but not electrical power.

    We found this out during Hurricane Fran when power was out for 6 days and our landline phones worked for a while but then stopped. I eventually found the concentrator in our neighborhood because there was a portable generator next to it. It seems the phone company had a limited number of these generators and were playing a frantic game of musical chairs to try to keep the batteries charged at all the concentrators.

    Every house should have a “not plugged into the electric company” phone. We had one during the hurricane but many houses did not and even though the phone lines were “live” the phone was dead.

  10. WARNING: Off-topic

    Shannon, don’t have an email address for you, but I thought you might find this fascinating article by the IMF’s former chief economist of interest, given our discussion last week about the origins of the crisis.

    It adds a completely new dimension, but is tangentially related to your point about the manipulation of government entities as a cause of the crisis.


  11. SeanF,

    Thanks, I’ll check out the link. In the future just send a note to the Chicagoboyz support link (at the upper right of the page) and it will get to me.

  12. That article was BS! The grid is by no means perfectly insensitive to solar flares but it does isolate bad sections. Plus, we’ve upgraded the protective measures on most transmission networks.

    BTW, the EMP threat is grossly overplayed too.

  13. Whitehall,

    That article was BS!

    Most scares turn out to be exaggerated but something from the academy of sciences has to be seriously considered. It really doesn’t matter for my argument whether this particular scenario presents a serious risk or not. Damage from a massive solar flare is just one of many disruptions we make ourselves vulnerable to by putting all our eggs in the solar and wind power. Spreading the power collection out to diffuse, intermittent low density sources makes us more vulnerable to any natural, man made or systemic failure.

  14. “Spreading the power collection out to diffuse, intermittent low density sources makes us more vulnerable to any natural, man made or systemic failure.”

    Actually, the more concencentrated our sources are, the more vulnerable we are. Think of this way: Assume there are only ten power plants in the area. One of those breaks down, by whatever mechanism you prefer. Then you have a ~10% loss to the overall grid, which will cause a brown-out in a good case, or a black-out without any smart technology. If instead you have 10,000 power plants, and lets say you lose 100. Essentially very little loss, and the system works perfectly.

    The only time that diffuse power is a drawback is when there is a systemic problem infecting a large portion of sites, with the necessity to visit each site to get it back online. Which, in reality, is catastrophic problem no matter what system we use. Highly distributed nuclear isn’t a real option due to economies of scale (additionally, you need a certain quantity of plutonium or uranium to achieve a cascade reaction).

    There’s lots of reasons to prefer fossil fuels/nuclear power, but this really isn’t one of them.

  15. Joel,

    The only time that diffuse power is a drawback is when there is a systemic problem infecting a large portion of sites,

    You mean like, say, weather?

    Because they are low-density power harvesters, solar and wind power have to lightweight and relatively fragile. This makes them liable to damage from extreme weather. Likewise, making such power sources means making use of a very wide and complex transmission grid. That grid also has to be lightweight enough to be economical over long distances. Bad weather routinely takes down power lines. In the future, it will also bring down the power sources as well.

    By contrast, a nuclear power plant will shrug off anything short of a direct hit by a large tornado on its cooling towers. Nuclear plants can be built close to were the power is used (you don’t have to ship solar power from Arizona to New York) reducing grid vulnerabilities. Micro-nukes could be installed in large facilities like skyscrapers or hospital making them immune to everything short of nuclear strike.

    It’s just the way that the sails on a clipper ship are more susceptible to weather than the the engine of nuclear powered ship.

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