The Case For Dumb

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  1. Avatar Cascadian
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    says:

    @Michael Cain I’m looking forward to seeing where you go with this.

    You might want to clean up the first sentence after the critical congestion graphic. There was a double negative I tried working through. Maybe it’s not supposed to be there.Report

    • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to Cascadian
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      says:

      You’re right, the sentence should be “I’m going to spend the last bit of this post explaining why I don’t think spending on a smart transmission network at this point in time is not the best use of the money.” Maybe one of the editors will strike that extra word for me.Report

  2. Avatar Murali
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    says:

    Why don’t individual states just handle their own power? I get that things just “growed” but aren’t there already power stations in about every state?Report

    • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to Murali
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      says:

      Why don’t individual states just handle their own power?

      Combinations of economies of scale, location of resources/opportunities, and interstate commerce. Consider a simple example.

      City A needs an additional 300 MW of generating capacity. City B, 100 miles away but in a different state, needs an additional 500 MW of capacity. A single 800 MW power plant will be cheaper to build and operate than two plants of 300 MW and 500 MW capacity respectively. So the utilities build a single jointly-owned plant at an appropriate location and transmit power into both states. The state utility commissions in both states approve the scheme because their goal is to get the electricity as cheaply as possible. A specific example: the Palo Verde nuclear plant in Arizona is owned by, and generates power for, utilities in Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Texas.

      From a reliability perspective, the desirable interconnects may cross state lines. You want to interconnect big nearby grids with lots of generating capacity. Consider Pennsylvania during the early days of interconnects. The natural connections for Philadelphia are going to be in other East Coast states: New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland. The natural connections for Pittsburgh are going to be in Ohio.Report

    • Avatar Lyle in reply to Murali
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      says:

      Because they did not want to be regulated by the federal government Texas utilities in general are all on a distinct grid ERCOT (Electric Reliability Council of Texas). The exceptions are parts of the panhandle and some of east texas because the utility in the East Tx case came from La. But here geography helps with the exception of Texarkana no large Texas metro areas are near the border of the state. So Ercot and the Texas PUC can build lines as they wish the feds and other states are not involved. However think of many other states and you find significant cities near state lines, NYC, Chicago, St Louis, Memphis, the Whole DC area, Philadelphia, In those cases the integration came about because neighboring utilities interconnected.Report

  3. Avatar Shelley
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    says:

    Big is dumb. Small is smart.

    Because technology always breaks down. The smaller the mistake, the better.Report

  4. Avatar George Turner
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    says:

    The problem may solve itself. By reducing the number of coal powered plants, the amount of electricity produced will drastically drop, and thus the grid can’t be so stressed, probably dropping back to 50 to 60 percent of capacity. The public will just have to adapt.Report

    • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to George Turner
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      says:

      What? You don’t buy Will’s theory that we’ll burn every piece of coal we can find once it becomes clear the alternative is that we can’t keep the lights on?

      More seriously, coal is an important topic. Particularly so in the Eastern Interconnect, which has a greater dependency on the stuff. My perception — quite possibly skewed by the news sources I follow, along with my own biases — is that Eastern states aren’t making systematic decisions to reduce that dependency. Use was down significantly in 2012, but that seemed to be private companies making low-cost fuel decisions, and coal use began climbing in 2013 along with natural gas prices. Western authorities have been making more permanent decisions over the last several years — LA’s decision to be coal free, Colorado passing some laws that favor NG over coal, Oregon’s PUC and DOE pretty consistently smacking down long-term plans that involve coal.Report

  5. Avatar Patrick
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    says:

    To put it simply, the US grid would be better served in the near term by spending money in order to add a bunch of stupid bulk transmission capacity, starting in the regions identified as critically congested, than on an expensive smart grid project. Besides, adding capacity is something that we’re going to have to do anyway.

    Since one of the critically congested areas is Southern California, which has enough rooftop space to probably mount a gajillion megawatts of solar generation (and since Southern Californian congestion problems are entirely seasonal, and linked both to the season and to the time-of-day that solar works well), it seems like the Strategy for the Eastern Front and the Strategy for the Western Front ought to be different.

    There’s an added bonus in that Southern California has almost no susceptibility to the weather conditions that can lead to widespread damage to a solar installation (no hail, no hurricanes, no tornadoes) and it *is* susceptible to a widespread disaster that can cause damage to transmission lines (major earthquakes, for which it is substantially overdue, by the way), so generation at the point of consumption seems to be a pretty good idea.Report

    • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to Patrick
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      says:

      Since one of the critically congested areas is Southern California, which has enough rooftop space to probably mount a gajillion megawatts of solar generation (and since Southern Californian congestion problems are entirely seasonal, and linked both to the season and to the time-of-day that solar works well), it seems like the Strategy for the Eastern Front and the Strategy for the Western Front ought to be different.

      The price for PV solar has about got down to the point where it’s competitive. The biggest hurdle, at least IMO, is who has to lay out the capital for deploying it widely. The payback is too long to make it attractive to many (most?) homeowners. Utilities are (probably rightly) spooked by the idea of owning a broadly distributed generating “plant”; lots of workers required to monitor and maintain a million solar rooftops, where timely access to the panels or inverters can be iffy. I have always liked the SunEdison model, with fewer, bigger, standardized installations (up to a few MW, but well short of “utility scale”). That is, start with the big flat roofs of the shopping malls, warehouses, and such. My suburban city has a SunEdison array built on the 6.5 acre field adjacent to the water treatment plant that provides >80% of the power needed for the plant. IIRC, this array is roughly equivalent to putting a typical installation on about 2,000 houses. The grid connection is critical to getting to that >80%. During the peak sunshine hours excess power is fed into the grid, and at night the plant is powered by the grid.

      Absolutely agree about East and West needing different solutions. Sufficiently different that I think it will be the source of large regional frictions. For example, there are lots of published studies about converting the US Western Interconnect to low-carbon electricity: the resources are available, the intermittency problems are understood (and largely manageable), and the concentration of the population into a small number of major metro areas makes the transmission system relatively easy. Low-carbon designs for the Eastern Interconnect tend to involve a lot more hand-waving, or very rapid deployment of politically unpopular technologies.Report

      • Avatar Cascadian in reply to Michael Cain
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        says:

        Thanks for the link to your earlier piece. I wasn’t around for that. I don’t know how realistic it is to assume the NW would sign on. If things were as bad as you foresee, Canada would have similar problems. Again, BC would be happy to sign on to Oregon/Washington but would have a harder time with AB. I think a separate Mountain West would be needed. Not that the different interior regions within the West couldn’t cooperate, I just think a certain degree of Federalism would be required to actually bring them together at all.Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch in reply to Michael Cain
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        says:

        What about distributed generation that’s not even the post company’s responsibility, and maybe not even connected to the grid. I.e. getting homeowners to put up solar panels so their pull from the grid is reduced, and the maintenance issues ate there’s, not the power co’s? Would power co. subsidization of that be similar to their subsidization of insulation, new windows, etc? Cheaper than expanding capacity?

        Appreciate this post and looking forward to the next.Report

      • Avatar Patrick in reply to Michael Cain
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        says:

        The biggest hurdle, at least IMO, is who has to lay out the capital for deploying it widely. The payback is too long to make it attractive to many (most?) homeowners.

        It’s not the payback, it’s the capital outlay in the first place (at least, in my neck of the wood).

        Also: in many localities, the power company didn’t have to pay you for any extra power you generated, so you’d run your panels during the day, feed excess capacity back to the grid… and then at night you’d still be pulling off the grid, so you’d still get charged for your usage (even if you were pushing more during the day than you were taking at night). The only way to solve that is with a battery system, which some people are leery about.

        The payback cycle used to be 15 years. Now, I can see not wanting to invest $40,000 in something that will break even in 15 years, because you’re probably (maybe?) likely to move within 15 years and PV systems aren’t considered a value-add by the market (because the market is stupid).

        The last time I ran the numbers (which was a while back) it was 11 years and 20k.

        Now, I’m planning on living in my house for the next 11 years, you betchoo. If I *had* the 20k, I’d spend it in a heartbeat (also: the number are probably closer to 8 years now).Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Michael Cain
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        says:

        Patrick,
        Ah, the greatest tragedy of the commons: The American Consumer.Report

  6. Avatar zic
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    says:

    I know this is an aside, but the electrical grid (and water supplies) are why I believe the whole war-or-terror thing was teetered all out of proportion. Because the gird, the water, etc. remained out there for all to see, without being a target.

    This is an excellent piece, an nice primer on transition systems. Though it doesn’t explain why we here in my state have to pay for improvements to a grid that’s just passing power through from where it’s generated in Quebec to where it’s used in that congestion area south of us.

    I look forward to the second piece; and I actually hope you’ll follow it up with a third on the potential of localized, small-scale generation. I’m thinking of putting some solar panels on my house.Report

    • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to zic
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      says:

      Because the gird, the water, etc. remained out there for all to see, without being a target.

      Department of Homeland Security worries about the grid a lot. A very specific component of it — the enormous transformers that connect generating plants and major substations to the high-voltage transmission system. None of those transformers are built in the US any more. They’re expensive enough that the generating companies and utilities don’t keep spares, or at least not very many. They’re large enough that special transportation has to be arranged (eg, portions of the trip done by rail have to avoid tunnels and certain bridges because the transformers won’t fit). From order to delivery is typically six months. While they look rugged, ramming one with a garbage truck at speed is sufficient to break it, and you don’t even want to think about what a shoulder-carried anti-tank rocket would do to it (Hi, NSA! Enough keywords yet?). They’re not repairable. I’ve seen a presentation on an exercise DHS conducted, where emergency planners were presented with a situation in which terrorists took out six transformers around Cleveland. Rendered the city and surrounding suburbs largely uninhabitable.

      DHS worries about it enough that they’re lobbying to get the generating companies and utilities to use multiple smaller transformers in parallel, built to a standard design, with many replacements stored in secured locations around the country. A rather expensive undertaking for those companies, who are resisting.Report

      • Avatar zic in reply to Michael Cain
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        says:

        I’ve written about it, Michael. Plus DHS has managed to pump a lot of money into projects to tighten up security; not just money into beefing up PDs and the vehicles those officers drive. (Go look at where increase in federal gov.’s happened since 2000 — it’s DHS, which used to mean Dept. Human Services, not Homeland Security.)

        But that’s exactly my point; there’s a lot of soft target out there; and we’re spending a lot to secure it; in the face of what need? There’s plenty of evidence on how easy it is to cripple the system, and vast swaths of the country, by bringing the grid down. You suggest, upthread, that what’s needed is big distribution investment, not smart-grid investment. I’m simply making a similar argument; those transformers might be reasonable to shift; but much of the expenditures are simply waste, not precaution, no matter how reasonable they seem.

        But as I said, the thought’s a digression into the silliness of the WOT, and a distraction from your very worthwhile post. Thank you.Report

    • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to zic
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      says:

      This is an excellent piece, an nice primer on transition systems.

      Too much primer, I’m afraid. I was scarred by the public policy classes I took a few years back. All these earnest young people, determined to improve the world, including the power system, and with no clue about where the electricity in the wall outlets came from and the difficulties of keeping it stable. I was back on campus recently and spoke with the head of the program. “Hey!” he said, “Did you know that we had a second engineer-type in our masters degree program last year?”Report

  7. Avatar Lyle
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    says:

    There were predecessors to pieces of the smart grid even back in the 1920s on the consumer end. For example you could get a lower rate if you just ran a water heater from 10pm to 6 am for example (because the real cost of the power was low). todays smart meters are just carrying that further.Report

  8. Avatar Rod Engelsman
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    says:

    Michael, nice primer. Couple questions:

    1. What do you think of HVDC (High Voltage DC), particularly for interconnects and long runs? It would seem to side-step a lot of the synchronization issues if nothing else.

    2. Have you thought any about what preps we should/could make for another Carrington event?Report

    • Avatar George Turner in reply to Rod Engelsman
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      says:

      I haven’t heard of that proposal, though many years ago I did a lot of math on using switched capacitor DC/DC converters instead of AC transformers, which could produce significant efficiency gains.Report

    • Avatar Lyle in reply to Rod Engelsman
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      says:

      Actually we currently use DC to connect the 3 synchronous areas in the US (west, east and Texas). The frequencies in the 3 areas are not synchronized, so the ac-dc-ac converstion is needed. There is a hub building near Clovis NM that would interconnect the 3 grids with DC ties. If it ever gets finally built its not clear why one would not extend the DC lines east to say Chicago and Nashville. (Note that there is the NW SW dc intertie that goes from the Dalles Or to Sylmar, Ca.Report

    • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to Rod Engelsman
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      says:

      In addition to the interties that Lyle mentions, there’s a surprising amount of HVDC, both existing in the grid and proposed. The Pacific DC Intertie (Path 65) carries hydro power from the Columbia River to LA. The Intermountain DC link (Path 27) carries power from LADWP’s coal-burning Intermountain generating station in Utah to LA. The TransWest Express transmission line is pretty much on schedule (route identified, initial EIS released) to start carrying Wyoming wind power to Las Vegas by 2016/7. Long Island is linked to both Connecticut and New Jersey by undersea HVDC (HVDC is enormously more effective for underwater lines than AC). I think the most impressive semi-serious proposal globally is the link from Iceland to Scotland, to deliver Icelandic hydro power to the UK.

      Lyle also mentioned the Tres Amigas intertie that’s going to be built in eastern New Mexico. The Tres Amigas developer has proposed building an HVDC line across New Mexico to the Four Corners trading hub so that utilities in the Texas and Eastern Interconnects can buy power there. People talk about the East gaining access to western renewable resources that way. If LA really goes through with its coal-free plans, the power that would be readily available around the time the link would be completed might well be coal-fired capacity left idle by LA. Somewhat similarly, there are proposals for an HVDC network off the Atlantic Coast of the US to connect off-shore wind farms; the developers admit that the initial use would almost certainly be delivery of coal-fired electricity from Virginia to the lucrative NYC market.Report

      • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Michael Cain
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        says:

        Wait, I thought that DC was no good for long distance transmission? Isn’t that a big part of the reason Edison lost out to Westinghouse?

        …And 30 minutes later, I emerge from the WikiHole with my answer.Report

  9. Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist
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    says:

    Thank you Michael, I am looking forward to part two.Report

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