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Just a few observations from a non-expert:

  1. The larger the dispersal of wind farms, the less the risk of intermittency.  The average weather system is a few hundred miles across - with calm in the middle and wind around the periphery - and it moves across the country.  Thus if the grid is broad enough, and had sufficient transmission capacity, the net amount of wind power available to the entire system becomes relatively constant - and ever more constant/stable as the size of the grid/transmission capabilities increase.

  2. There is a power loss inherent in power transmission - which goes up the greater the distance power is "transmitted.  This power loss is lost as heat/radiation which contributes to global warming.  Thus there is still a benefit to producing power as close to demand as possible.

  3.  The development of fuel cell technology will greatly increase the ability to store power (as hydrogen) when compared to batteries.  It also makes electric vehicles much lighter, longer range, and more efficient.  So this must be a priority.

  4. The costs of redundancy increase dramatically as utilization is reduced.  Thus many of the costs of a gas fired power station are constant whether it is generating electricity or not.  These increased costs of redundancy and their effect on electricity prices will have to be factored into any overall cost model.

  5. Increasingly the "quality" of electricity will become an issue.  Many processes - computers, hospitals - require absolutely reliable, stable supplies with no "brown outs".  A new distribution infrastructure may be required to provide "priority" (and higher priced) electricity to essential services and interruptible supplies to e.g. recharging a fuel cell/battery overnight which can happen at any time during the night provide the interruption does exceed a set time.  This may be possible today for major factories etc. - but may have to become part of the grid capability for ordinary consumers as well.

  6.  As Jerome has already pointed out - the big requirement for such a huge infrastructural and financial project is certainty and stability in the regulatory and financial environment - something that Governments can best provide.  However the "small government" and "magic of the markets" economic philosophies currently still dominant will make it difficult for the US, in particular, to adopt such a long term, planned, big government, interventionist and stable regulatory environment.  This level of development almost requires a "socialist" model of Government and thus will be fought tooth and nail by Capitalists who prosper from the shock impact of major electricity supply failures which can soften up the populace for major price increases.  After ll it is shortages which create "value" in te capitalist model.

Therefor we can expect a lot of opposition to the Gore "socialist" model and a derisory, piecemeal, fragmented, and spasmodic approach to continue - particularly as the wind industry is already dominated by European firms with little lobbying power in Washington.  Expect the mother of all political battles if this is to happen - it requires a political, cultural, and ideological change in US politics.  Reality based policy initiatives cut little ice in the political bubbles of Presidential campaigns.

"It's a mystery to me - the game commences, For the usual fee - plus expenses, Confidential information - it's in my diary..."
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Fri Jul 18th, 2008 at 12:13:56 PM EST
Well put Frank, belying your "non-expert" status.

  1.  One of the ways lobbying power comes to the "weak" is bottom up; in this case, because of the tremendous economic advantage to windy localities, there is a natural power base beginning with local governments.  In the past two years i have seen numbers of state and local governments visiting EU conclaves to encourage European firms to invest in their locales.  Pennsylvania has made huge deals to secure Gamesa facilities in their states, and Iowa, Texas, Oregon and Minnesota have made concerted efforts to lure EU companies.  Even non-windy Arkansas managed to lure a Vestas (or was it LM?) blade facility, because of available, relatively low cost workers, and ease of shipping to different wind regions.  Many states are playing catch-up.

  2.  The pressure on the federal gov is intense already.  This week the FERC (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which controls the grid and power plants) allowed California's PUC to establish their program of grid infrastructure build out aimed at alleviating the logjam on wind projects backed up because of no grid access.  This alone will build out some 5,000 MWs of wind in california in the next five years or so.

  3.  The number of jobs created during these past few boom years is not going unnoticed; and the industry does have wide bi-partisan support because politicians seem to think that jobs are a good thing (if they don't form damn unions and ask for reasonable wages).  In fact, the only opposition in congress (i hate to give it the dignity of its rightful name, so at least no capital letter) are those already bought by the vested energy companies.

  4. The quality of electricity issue is taken care of by upgrading the decrepit grid with current technology, nothin new or different.  Smart Grids are designed to address all the issues you bring up, without a separate infrastructure.  You just use the wires to also transmit data back and forth, including turn-down or turn-off instruction; or from the other direction, turn-on, 'cuz nows the cheap time to recharge.

  5.  Redundancy costs?  Any time the marginal gas plants already there don't run, they are avoiding the likely staggering fuel costs of the future.  That's a value, bolstered by their ability to be turned on when needed.

  6.  When the grid is a mix of AC and DC, transmission losses diminish.  There is a corelation between where the wind blows and where people and industry aren't, so that ain't gonna change.  Getting the power to where it's needed will cost something, but all the studies show it's profitable.  In fact, that's exactly why ERCOT just enabled a huge increase in Texas transmission facilities to interconnect with the small non-Texas part of the US.

  7.  Intermittency:  You're basically right, but the issue must be addressed from a different angle.  Until there is grid penetration of windpower nearing 20% of capacity, given the existing plants already online, experience over years in Europe shows there is no issue.  Intermittency only becomes a problem over a threshold point, but a problem with many solutions that are not expensive.  But that's only considering wind as stand-alone.  When you build in the other technologies, particularly solar electric, the issue virtually disappears.  Add storage technologies like compressed air, and vavavoom.

I'll save hydrogen for another topic, as i didn't have time to write what i just did.  Or did i?

"Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage." - Ana´s Nin
by Crazy Horse on Fri Jul 18th, 2008 at 03:08:49 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Well, it's not quite that simple. Intermittency WILL remain an issue. Solar is only good for daytime and not a great intermittency solution. Besides, it tends to be absent when you need it most: on cold winter nights (yes, I know USA dwellers are crazy enough to actually get a peak need in summer days because they are infatuated to air conditioning. I am stipulating that in an energy-scarce world, most of that waste is going to be removed).

So the solutions are not that easy. Some overcapacity with priority uses will surely be part of the solution.

Earth provides enough to satisfy every man's need, but not every man's greed. Gandhi

by Cyrille (cyrillev domain yahoo.fr) on Fri Jul 18th, 2008 at 04:21:22 PM EST
[ Parent ]

 Some overcapacity with priority uses will surely be part of the solution.

It IS the solution. What's wrong with it?

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes

by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Sat Jul 19th, 2008 at 11:59:56 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Agreed on all your points except perhaps:
Crazy Horse:
Redundancy costs?  Any time the marginal gas plants already there don't run, they are avoiding the likely staggering fuel costs of the future.  That's a value, bolstered by their ability to be turned on when needed.

My point here is that (say) the costs of running a gas fired power station are 50% fixed, 50% variable (i.e. proportionate to the about of electricity produced - due mainly to the cost of the input fuel).

The Unit cost of electricity from such a plant operating at 10% capacity (i.e. only at times of extreme peak demand/low average wind speeds) is (50+50/10)/10 = 5.5 per 1% unit capacity

If that same plant is operating at 50% capacity the equivalent unit costs is (50+50/2)/50 = 1.5 per 1% unit capacity - in other words almost 4 times cheaper.  Thus there is a marginal cost to maintaining more redundancy because of greater intermittency in the system.

"It's a mystery to me - the game commences, For the usual fee - plus expenses, Confidential information - it's in my diary..."

by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Sat Jul 19th, 2008 at 04:49:36 AM EST
[ Parent ]
"Peaker" gas-fired power plants are already profitable while being used only 2-5% of the time. The reason for that is that they function only during price peaks, where peaks can be 50-100 times higher than normal prices for short periods. So they make enough money from very kWh, and overall emit very little carbon, while providing a vital service to the grid.

Thus you can easily maintain redundancy at a very low overall cost.

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes

by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Sat Jul 19th, 2008 at 12:02:42 PM EST
[ Parent ]
You're actually reinforcing my point that the higher the level of redundancy, the higher the UNIT cost of a peaker station - especially if they require 50-100 times higher than normal prices to maintain profitability.  (In terms of carbon emissions they are, as you say, relatively insignificant).

This is in any case very much a secondary point.  The greater point made above is that the wider the dispersal of windfarms and the larger the grid they are connected to, the less overall redundancy is required to provide a stable supply/demand platform.

"It's a mystery to me - the game commences, For the usual fee - plus expenses, Confidential information - it's in my diary..."

by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Sat Jul 19th, 2008 at 04:43:04 PM EST
[ Parent ]
W.r.t. bullet 2, I think you're wrong about that. The alternative to tapping the energy of the wind is to let it blow all the way to the North (or South) Pole - where the kinetic energy it carries will be converted to thermal energy, thus heating the system. I.o.w., you just redistribute some of the heating. And given the quantities of energy in play here, I'd guess that you'd need to cover the planet in windmills to get a significant effect.

W.r.t. bullet 5, the only household appliances I can think of that absolutely must have power continuously is the lighting and the refrigerator and freezer. Well, washing machines might have to be re-jigged a bit to cope with intermittency too. And while all these appliances must have power above a certain threshold more or less continuously, they are not that sensitive to voltage or current. Computers require a stable power supply, but putting a UPS in a computer is relatively straightforward, and may become standard issue if the grid starts acting up.

Big consumers, like factories and hospitals, will need separate solutions, of course, but the advantage here is that they are located in one place.

- Jake

Austerity can only be implemented in the shadow of a concentration camp.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Sun Jul 20th, 2008 at 03:03:24 PM EST
[ Parent ]

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