Some dams

Dams. They provide clean electricity. Sometimes they cause earthquakes that kills thousands of people.

As I mentioned before, hydro is a tapped resource in all places except Asia, Africa, and South America. In other words, it works great in developing countries. It is not an option for developed countries.

Despite that I provide references where I can, this post is pretty unprofessional. Also, since I didn't post last week, this will be a mid-week post. It is as close as I will get to a blog rather than a collection of science-based articles.

Hydro Plants Causing Earthquakes

Three gorges dam represents the domination of Man over Environment like nothing else on the planet.

Remember that earthquake in Sichuan earthquake in 2008 that killed 60,000 people? This earthquake was likely caused by the three gorges dam.

three gorges dam! "I cause Earthquakes" says Three Gorges.

How do earthquakes happen in general? Stress builds up in the Earth, usually from shifting tectonic plates. Loading a massive amount of water in an area increases the stress by huge amounts. Dams load billions of tons of water into an area. Dams are not the only way to do load the environment to prime it for an earthquake. Downtowns of cities with skyscrapers also do a pretty good job of it. But dams are way better at it.

Pros and Cons of a hydro plant

Let's look at more information on Three Gorges. I've recommended y'all read When A Billion Chinese People Jump. In that book, we find that the past several presidents of China have been hydrological engineers. The most recent one didn't show up at the opening of Three Gorges because, because in some ways, it is very controversial. It has very strong benefits and issues. Despite negative effects, it produces 22.5GW of electricity. In other words, it replaces 22 very large coal fired power plants. And in China, that means 50 years of 22 unfiltered powerplants not belching harmful pollutants into the atmosphere. In case you haven't heard, China in general and Beijing have some of the worst air pollution in the world. Before you start judging, remember all those jobs that are being outsourced to places like China? This is the result of that. We are exporting our trash and our pollution to poor countries, where environmental regulations are more lax. Getting back to the point, those 22 coal fired power plants that are being replaced would probably have caused more long-term deaths than the earthquake. Moreover, China is a very dry country. Like most dry countries, it is prone to flooding without controls. Containing the river behind the three gorges prevents the downstream from ever being flooded again. So they saves the homes and such of millions of people, but had to move millions behind the dam, and it also flooded historic areas. How's that for controversial? Serious positive and negative implications. No dam embodies the pros and cons of building a dam more than Three Gorges.

Other uses of dams

It turns out that producing electricity is only a small part of what dams do. Many are used for irrigation, for flood control, for reservoirs, and to protect the environment. We are mostly an energy blog, so we don't give a damn about all that stuff. Except one major point: electricity is less than 10% of the economic benefit from dams. A huge amount is in flood control, irrigation, and recreation.

FEMA says these are the benefits of dams. Notice that hydroelectric is tiny.

Hoover Dam

Hoover "meh" Dam

When you think of a huge American dam, you think Hoover. This is silly. It is a 2.5GW dam. It is 10% the size of Three Gorges. It is like comparing Bangor ME, to Boston, MA. One is just tiny. Why do people care about Hoover? I dunno. Maybe after spending too much time in Vegas they decide they want to see something natural? Hoover dam is tiny. It only replaces 2 or so coal plants. Hoover Dam, you are not worth wasting words on.

Grand Coulee Dam

Grand Cooulee Dam is one of the largest dams in the world. Notice the size of the houses for scale.

Grand Cooulee Dam is one of the largest dams in the world. Notice the size of the houses for scale.

You know which dam is an American dam? Coulee Dam. This dam produces 7GW. Fully 3x of Hoover, and near 1/3 of Three Gorges. It is also in Washington state, which, compared to Nevada, is better in every way except for gambling and prostitution. Which shouldn't be family activities. Why don't more people visit Grand Coulee instead of Hoover? This is not a rhetorical question. Someone please tell me.

Grand Coulee has this other sweet feature I already discussed. They have pumped hydro storage. In other words, they pump from the area behind the dam to another dam that is far higher up. This is a great way to make a giant battery. It recovers about 60% of the electricity that is put into it.

Interesting note: While scouting around the interwebs looking for information on the pumped hydro storage at Grand Coulee (it is really difficult to find), I stumbled across a blog that already has written posts that are way more in-depth maths about many of the things that I write about. If you are one of my sciencier readers, you might want to check his page out. I will poke around there some and give you more info on it later.

Dams produce clean power. They are environmentally friendly! Or not. 

We have discussed how dams get backed up and leave heavy metals in the sediment, and more or less create environmental issues. And how they block fish from swimming upstream. I wanted to touch on one thing again. In China, many places that built clean hydro plants attracted industry, cause industry loves inexpensive power. And hydro power is amongst the cheapest. So the skies and waters became quickly polluted with industrial wastes. Like, red polluted.

Image from the link above. It looks like the Earth is bleeding. I don't think this is healthy. And all my Boston readers are afraid of the Charles.

Outsourcing manufacturing seems even a bit crappier than it used to, doesn't it? Sure, we lose jobs, but they lose lives and the environment.

Alright, that's about it for my quite unprofessional rant. Thanks for reading.

-Jason Munster

Power Grid

I was struggling to write a post about PV solar panels (the struggling part came in while trying to describe the quantum mechanics that take place), and realized that I need to describe how our power grid works in far greater detail than I had before. What follows is the gory details about how power is transmitted to your home. This is important because while solar power costs 5x as much as coal on the wholesale market, it only costs about 2x as much as coal at your house. Sometimes less. This is because coal-powered electricity is wheeled and dealed through several players as it reaches you, and is marked up every time. Solar power dumps straight into your home. Some of you are gonna love this article, others have already closed it.

power_grid_300

On a logistical note, I haven't posted in the last two weeks cause I am too busy with life things to write both the blog and play computer games. Computer games sometimes win out. Thanks, X-Com: Enemy Unknown.

Generators, LSEs, Home Energy

Generators are all the different types of power plants we have discussed. They produce power, and in a deregulated market, sell the power to the grid. They are given a price based on demand. We have discussed how each power plant will "bid in" a day ahead and say how much power they can produce at which prices. As more power is demanded, the price will rise to bring more expensive power online. No matter what the power plant bids in, if they are online, they will get the per-MWh payment of the most expensive plant to come online. In other words, the marginal cost of energy production is what each power plant gets paid per MWh. If an expensive power plant is brought on-line for $1000/MWh, for instance, every single plant that is operating will receive that.

Okay, we have also seen the cost to produce power in several posts. It makes sense to repeat it here.

U.S. AVERAGE LEVELIZED COSTS (2011 $/MEGAWATTHOUR) FOR PLANTS ENTERING SERVICE IN 2018
PLANT TYPE CAPACITY FACTOR (%) LEVELIZED CAPITAL COST FIXED O&M VARIABLE O&M (INCLUDING FUEL) TRANSMISSION INVESTMENT TOTAL SYSTEM LEVELIZED COST
Dispatchable Technologies
Conventional Coal 85 65.7 4.1 29.2 1.2 100.1
Advanced Coal 85 84.4 6.8 30.7 1.2 123.0
Advanced Coal with CCS 85 88.4 8.8 37.2 1.2 135.5
Natural Gas-fired
Conventional Combined Cycle 87 15.8 1.7 48.4 1.2 67.1
Advanced Combined Cycle 87 17.4 2.0 45.0 1.2 65.6
Advanced CC with CCS 87 34.0 4.1 54.1 1.2 93.4
Conventional Combustion Turbine 30 44.2 2.7 80.0 3.4 130.3
Advanced Combustion Turbine 30 30.4 2.6 68.2 3.4 104.6
Advanced Nuclear 90 83.4 11.6 12.3 1.1 108.4
Geothermal 92 76.2 12.0 0.0 1.4 89.6
Biomass 83 53.2 14.3 42.3 1.2 111.0
Non-Dispatchable Technologies
Wind 34 70.3 13.1 0.0 3.2 86.6
Wind-Offshore 37 193.4 22.4 0.0 5.7 221.5
Solar PV1 25 130.4 9.9 0.0 4.0 144.3
Solar Thermal 20 214.2 41.4 0.0 5.9 261.5
Hydro2 52 78.1 4.1 6.1 2.0 90.3

So the cost to produce is the total system levelized cost (and now you should realize that producing power for $1000/MWh is ridiculously high. Except it has happened recently and momentarily in New England).

People at home don't see the price that a generator gets. Do you notice that you pay about 20 cents per KWh in MA (I use MA cause apparently all my readers are here), it is $200 per MWh. What gives? All these power plants are producing power for way less than that. Except for solar thermal and offshore wind, which both suck and are expensive.

The reason for this is that home/commercial retailers do not buy from the generators and from the wholesale market. Things called Load Serving Entities (LSEs) buy from the wholesale market. Often they will just be your utility company. They then distribute it to end-users or to other complicated things that we don't care about. The end users are your households and commercial things like shopping malls and stores and offices.

Sidebar: One important thing to note is that industry usually buys directly from generators. So while we pay $200/MWh for electricity, a Ford power plant might pay $60/MWh. This has implications that we will discuss later.

So, the LSE buys electricity off the wholesale market. And then marks it up and sells it to consumers. That is why you pay $200/MWh.

RTOs, system management

This section is getting specific, some of you may want to skip to the end of the article, the implications part.

Who tells generators when to come online and manages the wholesale market? Regional Transmission Operators. In New England, our RTO is called ISO-NE, for Independent System Operator of New England. They take bids and determine which power plants produce. They have important things to consider, like making sure a regional power line isn't too congested.

Line Losses

Nearly all power lines lose a percentage of their power as heat. Transmitting long distances loses around 8% of power. This is because there is always some resistance to the flow of electricity. It is like friction for the flowing of electrons. Power lines also have a limit to how much power can flow through them. If you try to go past the limit, they heat up rapidly and lose a ton of power.

The latter is something that the RTOs manage, to make sure that there won't be problems. The former has massive implications for renewable energy. Most of our renewable energy is wind and solar. Like wind in the sparsely populated midwest. And solar in completely unpopulated deserts. Transmitting this power to cities incurs huge line losses. With current capabilities, transmitting power from Iowa wind farms to NYC would make power more expensive than just building the wind farm near NYC, despite that wind in NY sucks (heh, punny). I don't have a source for this, I just saw it at a talk at Harvard.

Implications for installing renewables at home, commercially, and in industry

boa_photo1

We pay $200 per MWh of power as residents in Boston. Solar PV in the best cases is $144. This will be in deserts. In MA, we don't get as much sunlight. But for the sake of argument, lets say that the average cost of solar in MA comes out to be $200-$250. With subsidies, it will be less. So would you pay $200 per MWh from your utility, or $200 per MWh to produce your own energy and stick it to the man? Also your own power would be clean, with far less CO2. With subsidies available in places like MA and NJ, solar comes out to less than $200/MWh at home.

Next lets consider commercial places. They also buy from LSEs. This is why you see a ton of them building solar panels. It makes sense economically and gives them a good vibe that the public likes.

Finally, let's consider industry. They buy directly from the wholesale market. So they pay closer to $100/MWh. They won't give two shits about renewables. Because they won't save money by installing renewables on their sites.

And this, my friends, is the trend we see. On-site renewables are adopted by commercial real estate and by residents, and industry is highly unlikely to ever embrace it. Interesting, eh?

Thanks for reading!

-Jason Munster

Solar Power

Solar power. It comes in two primary flavors: photovoltaics (PV) and concentrated solar power (CSP). The latter is easy. I decided to do solar power this week, and go back to the dams next week. Big picture: CSP is a bridge technology at best; an investment in most places is little more than a show that the investor is serious about green tech. Moreover, not all places are created equal to invest in solar power. Many of the places that offer the best incentives to have solar power (NJ, MA, Germany) are far from the best places to have solar power.

So this time: insolation, what it means, where it happens. And CSP. PV comes later. Cause it involves quantum mechanics.

So, first, solar insolation map, AKA "Where is the sun shining all the time" map.

Solar power resources in the US. Darker colors indicate better regions for solar power.

Solar power resources in the US. Darker colors indicate better regions for solar power.

Who is not surprised that Alaska is awful for solar power? But check out MA and NJ. Why are they giving tax breaks to install solar cells? Easy answer. To drive the technology forward. Solar panels are really useful in places without any other power source. Like small villages in Africa and other depopulated places. California also has big incentives to build solar, and at least that makes sense, yes?

What determines how much insolation a place gets? Well, you need sun to have solar power. The sun doesn't come out to party at night, so no solar power. A huge one is how much atmosphere the sunlight has to pass through on the way to the the solar panel. More atmosphere means more absorption and dispersing of sunlight (the atmosphere reflects, absorbs, and spreads out sunlight). So higher elevation, like mountains, helps. Less atmosphere. On a related note, the latitude is also very important. Far northern places don't get as much sun annually (Canada, Alaska). Finally cloud and moisture make a huge difference. If there are clouds or moisture in general, sunlight is blocked. This explains most of the east coast of the US, as well as why Nevada, a giant desert, has great insolation. It has a high elevation, and no moisture to make clouds or block sunlight.

The equivalent amount of sunlight hitting the earth at a high latitude spills out over a larger area. In other words, there amount of energy per area is lower. link

The equivalent amount of sunlight hitting the earth at a high latitude spills out over a larger area. In other words, there amount of energy per area is lower. link

CSP is easy. There are a bunch of mirrors, either flat or parabolic (to focus the light even more intensely), and they reflect light to a single point. It produces heat and and then that heat is used to make steam and drive a turbine, just like the basic thermal power plants we have discussed. The heat is typically stored in molten salt, cause it can store a whole lot of energy before it rises a degree in temperature (kind of like water). The heat from this molten salt is slowly released to make that steam for the thermal part.

CSP in action. Lots of light reflected to a single point that then gets very hot. link.

Given that some places on Earth receive upwards of 500W/m ^2 directly to the surface (assuming no clouds, no pollution, and daytime), a CSP plant that is 500m*500m could produce 125MW of power. Sounds great, right? 'Cept we know from basic thermodynamics that a thermal power plant that this thing is likely going to be 30% efficient. So something with a quarter of a square kilometer footprint might produce 40MW of power.

So why don't we use this? First, the depiction above is too rosy a picture. CSP is not all that efficient, because if you look at the picture above, you see that not all the area is used for gathering light. There are plenty of empty spaces. Moreover, the transfer of heat from the salt to water is not very efficient. Cause the high temperature and low temperature of the Carnot cycle are closer together (review the thermal power plant post for a review of Carnot efficiencies for all heat engines). Finally, this stuff is expensive. It is easily 2x as expensive as almost any other power technology (other than PV). It requires water to clean the mirrors and has other maintenance costs, the mirrors themselves are quite expensive, and the entire design is expensive. And, if you want to harness the power of the sun, there are better alternatives. Like PV.

As you can tell, I don't have a very high opinion of CSP. Why is that? Take a look at this guy again:

U.S. average levelized costs (2011 $/megawatthour) for plants entering service in 2018
Plant type Capacity factor (%) Levelized capital cost Fixed O&M Variable O&M (including fuel) Transmission investment Total system levelized cost
Dispatchable Technologies
Conventional Coal 85 65.7 4.1 29.2 1.2 100.1
Advanced Coal 85 84.4 6.8 30.7 1.2 123.0
Advanced Coal with CCS 85 88.4 8.8 37.2 1.2 135.5
Natural Gas-fired
Conventional Combined Cycle 87 15.8 1.7 48.4 1.2 67.1
Advanced Combined Cycle 87 17.4 2.0 45.0 1.2 65.6
Advanced CC with CCS 87 34.0 4.1 54.1 1.2 93.4
Conventional Combustion Turbine 30 44.2 2.7 80.0 3.4 130.3
Advanced Combustion Turbine 30 30.4 2.6 68.2 3.4 104.6
Advanced Nuclear 90 83.4 11.6 12.3 1.1 108.4
Geothermal 92 76.2 12.0 0.0 1.4 89.6
Biomass 83 53.2 14.3 42.3 1.2 111.0
Non-Dispatchable Technologies
Wind 34 70.3 13.1 0.0 3.2 86.6
Wind-Offshore 37 193.4 22.4 0.0 5.7 221.5
Solar PV1 25 130.4 9.9 0.0 4.0 144.3
Solar Thermal 20 214.2 41.4 0.0 5.9 261.5
Hydro2 52 78.1 4.1 6.1 2.0 90.3
Solar thermal is expensive. And the capacity factor is junk. There are places for it, but those are so few that it is not worth further exploring this technology.
That's it for now. Thanks for reading!
-Jason Munster