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Thoughts on geostrategic implications of renewable energies

by Nikita Sun Sep 18th, 2005 at 08:17:58 AM EST

Renewable energies have been given fairly little thought from strategic standpoint because their importance has been neglible in both total energy production and electricity generation.

However, the renewable energy production is increasing at pace of 20-30% per year in EU and thus it is becoming increasingly meaningful. The renewable share of EU energy production was roughly 6% in 2000 and most realistic predictions assume increase to 8-10% (goal is 12%) by 2010. At the same time European reliance on imported energy (especially oil and natural gas) is rising. EU responses have been diversification of suppliers and increased conservation efforts.

I see following interesting developments in renewable sector from purely strategic standpoint:

  1. The renewable energy sources have typically smaller unit sizes than concentrate power generation facilities. They are also more sparcely distributed. When you combine these effects with somewhat higher personnel use per generated energy unit, you have more jobs that are distributed more sparcely. Effectively this means more jobs in rural areas compared to urban locations. This has more effect in local rural politics but in large scale would keep more people working in rural areas.
  2. The renewable energy allows setting up local and/or national corporations that are responsible for entire energy generation within national borders. This increases both energy security in time of crises and probably helps in keeping more of money involved in local economy than paying to foreing supplier.

I believe that these two issues (rural/regional employment and domestic energy security/investment retainment) deserve more consideration even if renewable energy size of energy generation is still small due its potentially major strategic implications.

Smaller, more dispersed generating units tend to make the transmission grid more robust.  In the USA, the trend for decades has been to ever larger generating plants, strategically or sometimes not so strategically located, connected to the grid by ever longer higher voltage transmission lines.  The strategic implications are obvious.  The addition of many small wind and/or solar units dispersed across the grid would tend to make it less vulnerable.

We all bleed the same color.
by budr on Sun Sep 18th, 2005 at 09:09:58 AM EST
ever longer higher voltage transmission lines

I have always suspected that these long transmission lines make a mockery (in energy terms) of the "economy of scale" that the big centralised plant is supposed to provide.  but have not yet done the math.  often the "economy of scale" refers instead to minimising labour or to siting the plant in a certain jurisdiction or community for graft/pork reasons, or to inflict plant effluent on a lower-income community, etc.

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Sun Sep 18th, 2005 at 11:57:00 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Transmission lines are not a major issue from cost/benefit standpoint. Besides, even with widely distributed renewable (think wind) system you'd still need major grid to function properly (because wind unavailability rates are high) so costs associated with grid would not be cut down.

In war time the attacks against grid are usually targeted towards major transmission stations in national grid. Actual grid is fairly easy to fix (it is done all the time after storms) and power stations are often better protected (from defence standpoint), wind farms are of course fairly dispersed but I must admit of not seeing any real vulnerability analysis against air strikes.

The real problem is the vulnerability of transformer assemblies. A typical high end transformer assembly is always unprotected (and in the ground). It also takes about a year to build up new transformer from scratch (which I remember are built by perhaps dozen electrical engineering companies in whole world) plus construction (that is fairly fast in real war). However, these vulnerabilities are shared by both "normal" and renewable energy sources so no difference there.

by Nikita on Mon Sep 19th, 2005 at 05:09:37 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I have seen suggestions that even very high voltage transmission is quite lossy? Maybe that is what the OP was referring to?
by Metatone (metatone [a|t] gmail (dot) com) on Mon Sep 19th, 2005 at 05:41:49 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I was not thinking of attacks in war time so much as routine contingencies of weather, equipment malfunction and so on.  It stands to reason that more generation sources dispersed throughout the grid would reduce overall vulnerability to failures of any kind.

I think we cannot do without the grid more or less in its current form until we have some form of viable utility-scale storage systems.  I touched on this issue in this comment in one of Jerome's excellent energy diaries on Daily Kos.  Even then we would have to have many, many more wind turbines, solar panels, or other renewable sources than I think anyone contemplates at present.

I share Jerome's sense of urgency on these issues.  We have a lot of work to do and not a lot of time to get it done.

We all bleed the same color.

by budr on Mon Sep 19th, 2005 at 06:48:27 PM EST
[ Parent ]
As far as distribution of energy production itself as network robustness, that is not very important for normal usage. Generally grids are built to handle sudden emergencies by having excess capacity and/or ability to draw power from neighbouring areas. (This is basic case, national differences apply. US national grid is a good example where this reserve has been allowed to wither.)

Large nodes are better from cash stand point (less manpower means less costs) but distributed system would have better overall survivability. I do not think it is that important for normal use (the robustness is generally taken care with grid). Wartime emergencies are whole different issue and distributed energy generation would be very important.

No matter what energy production method is used, the cheap storage method has always proven to be elusive. Current battery technologies are simply too expensive to be used as routine storage, especially on industrial scale. This is why current battery systems are essentially back-ups in critical nodes (medical facilities for example) rather than energy banks.

Industrial scale energy bank would be godsend to untility companies as it would:

  1. allow use of renewable source to load up in energy rush (like for example photovoltaics in sunny days or wind during peak generation). The biggest problem with wind has always been poor supply rate (currently fixed with heavy use of national net) and storage would effectively solve that.
  2. allow use of energy bank for peak usage. These times can be predicted (from history information) and having ability to ease off bank in peak load rather than going through expensive bother of firing up gas turbines for such a load. This would save enormous amount of money too as peak load generation is almost always at-loss rate for utility company.
by Nikita on Tue Sep 20th, 2005 at 01:14:05 AM EST
[ Parent ]
One should be aware of the devastating ecological effects of the most practical option: pumped (water) storage. Opposition to a pumped storage facility triggered the creation of the original Green Party in Tasmania.

It would be interesting to know exactly how extensive a system is needed before it can find enough wind blowing somewhere within its diameter. Wind generating systems are derated (by quite a bit) to account for regular variation in wind strength, but it seems unlikely that the wind would simply not be blowing anywhere in, say, all of Europe. Is this information available somewhere?

by asdf on Wed Sep 21st, 2005 at 04:59:15 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I fully agree.

See this table that I posted in an earlier diary (the one on energy policy, I think) about jobs per kWh produced:

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

by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Sun Sep 18th, 2005 at 05:42:28 PM EST
Look at photovoltaic! Jobs from the sun...what are we waitng for??

"Once in awhile we get shown the light, in the strangest of places, if we look at it right" - Hunter/Garcia
by whataboutbob on Mon Sep 19th, 2005 at 02:01:43 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I agree, distributed energy production would help the economy (jobs) and national security (both energy independence and a more robust grid). The environmental aspects are also touted widely.

One environmental benefit that is not often mentioned is that it will potentially help farmers and ranchers keep their land. They receive lease payments for the sighting of wind turbines, and the wind turbines keep the wealthy from moving in and buying "ranchettes". Most of the complaining you hear about the "unsightly" turbines comes from those who have moved out to the country and displaced farmers in order to have a "rural experience".

by toad on Mon Sep 19th, 2005 at 12:39:33 AM EST
thanks nikita for a great diary.

i think this is the way forward for all the excellent reasons you mention.

i think also a great way to frame this knowledge/movement is to help folks understand how much more spending capital they will have once we are all weaned onto renewables.

thousands more eurodollars a year for each family to reinvest in bettering their surroundings, instead of watching them disappear into a corrupt black hole, over which they have little democratic say or control.

i too share jerome's urgency about this. in fact i'm surprised there aren't more prophets like isiah of old shaking their e-staffs and telling us to repent.

the streets should be full of them, but a veil of ignorance hangs gossamer over our collective eyes; we have been slowly massaged and seduced into accepting entitlement to a petro-economy as an eternal, natural phenomenon.

we should have continued what little started in the seventies, heck, L.A. was covered with solar water heaters back in the 20's!

so little, so late....

i've been installing a solar wellpump today!

there's a beautiful high in shifting energy allegiance. you become conscious of the weather in a whole new way.

and the frame of an energy problem!?!?!?

it's pouring down from above, always has been and always will.

save the black goop for lube.

the other huge change corollary to shifting energy allegiance will be in the field of public health.

the savings on our hardworking services will be immense as the air becomes cleaner; likewise with the water and the food.

extra capital to enjoy, less sorrow and pain as family members contract pollution-related sicknesses, what's not to love?

why aren't pols riding this wave all the way to the top?

answer: corruption at high state levels- (who, where?), and the relative lack of constructive imagination in the media.

grassroots, web-enabled demand for change will probably be how it shifts, coupled with price at the pump pressure.
excellent offering, thanks again!

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Wed Sep 21st, 2005 at 08:39:40 AM EST

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