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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

MIT: how to integrate more renewables

The MIT Energy Initiative is holding a free webinar March 12, broadcast from a live seminar at MIT. The event will discuss the results of the MITEI symposium on how to leverage renewable power sources without relying on storage:
Briefing on the Final Report of the Symposium on Managing Large-Scale Penetration of Intermittent Renewables
Monday, March 12, 2012 12:00 PM - 2:00 PM (Eastern Time)

The focus of the symposium was on how renewable energy standards affect power system capacity planning and operations, assuming affordable, scalable electricity storage options will not be available for at least a decade, and probably more. Until such breakthroughs materialize, capacity planning and implementation are still required.

Currently, 29 US states and 27 EU countries have renewable energy standards. As countries increasingly embrace intermittent renewable resources, they will confront the operational challenges this poses for baseload power generation and generators. The results of the symposium, including commissioned white papers and other submitted technical papers, will be included in the report that will be available at the event.
The website for the April 2011 symposium has nearly 30 papers or presentations about how to combine renewable energy with traditional sources to level out electricity supplies — in lieu of relying solely on baseload generation.

I am looking forward to the presentation, which I hope will discuss the forest rather than the trees. Trying to make sense of the papers individually seems like trying to understand a forest from its constiuent leaves and twigs.

In looking up the earlier symposium, I also ran across another MIT study released in December that looks at the impact of renewable energy generation upon the electricity distribution grid. This MIT team concluded that federal preemption is the only way the US will get enough transmission lines necessary to carry this renewable energy.

The MIT press release quotes the study director, former Sloan School dean Dick Schmalensee:
While the grid is not in any imminent danger, he says, “the current regulatory framework, largely established in the 1930s, is mismatched to today’s grid.” Moreover, he adds, today’s regulations are “highly unlikely [to] give us the grid of the future — a grid that by 2030 will support a range of new technologies and consumer services that will be essential for a strong and competitive U.S. economy.”

While the grid’s performance is adequate today, decisions made now will shape that grid over the next 20 years. The MIT report recommends a series of changes in the regulatory environment to facilitate and exploit technological innovation. Among the report’s specific recommended changes: To enable the grid of the future — one capable of handling intermittent renewables — the United States will need effective and enhanced federal authority over decisions on the routing of new interstate transmission lines. This is especially needed, the report says, in cases where power is produced by solar or wind farms located far from where that power is to be used, requiring long-distance transmission lines to be built across multiple regulatory jurisdictions.

“It is a real issue, a chicken-and-egg problem,” says John Kassakian, a professor of electrical engineering at MIT and the study’s other co-chair. “Nobody’s going to build these new renewable energy plants unless they know there will be transmission lines to get the power to load centers. And nobody’s going to build transmission lines unless the difficulty of siting lines across multiple jurisdictions is eased.”

Currently, when new transmission lines cross state boundaries, each state involved — and federal agencies as well, if federal lands are crossed — can make its own decisions about permission for the siting of these lines, with no centralized authority.

“There are many people who can say no, and nobody who can say yes,” Schmalensee explains. “That’s strategically untenable, especially since some of these authorities would have little incentive ever to say yes.”
In other words, the MIT technocrats concluded that we need a national policy to address the NIMBY problems that have plagued both solar farms and distribution grids in California. It sounds like a good idea, but (as in the the solar farm example) requires resolving the conflict between RE-loving environmentalists and NIMBY environmentalists.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The cost of German solar policies

Bjørn Lomborg is a controversial PhD political scientist who has questioned the cost effectiveness of various efforts to mitigate global warming.

His Feb. 16 syndicated commentary discusses the implications of Germany’s plans to drastically scale back its feed-in-tariff:
Germany’s Sunshine Daydream
By Bjørn Lomborg

Germany once prided itself on being the “photovoltaic world champion”, doling out generous subsidies – totaling more than $130 billion, according to research from Germany’s Ruhr University – to citizens to invest in solar energy. But now the German government is vowing to cut the subsidies sooner than planned, and to phase out support over the next five years. What went wrong?

There is a fundamental problem with subsidizing inefficient green technology: it is affordable only if it is done in tiny, tokenistic amounts. Using the government’s generous subsidies, Germans installed 7.5 gigawatts of photovoltaic (PV) capacity last year, more than double what the government had deemed “acceptable.” It is estimated that this increase alone will lead to a $260 hike in the average consumer’s annual power bill.

On short, overcast winter days, Germany’s 1.1 million solar-power systems can generate no electricity at all. The country is then forced to import considerable amounts of electricity from nuclear power plants in France and the Czech Republic. When the sun failed to shine last winter, one emergency back-up plan powered up an Austrian oil-fired plant to fill the supply gap.

Indeed, despite the massive investment, solar power accounts for only about 0.3% of Germany’s total energy. This is one of the key reasons why Germans now pay the second-highest price for electricity in the developed world (exceeded only by Denmark, which aims to be the “world wind-energy champion”). Germans pay three times more than their American counterpart.

Using solar, Germany is paying about $1,000 per ton of CO2 reduced. The current CO2 price in Europe is $8. Germany could have cut 131 times as much CO2 for the same price. Instead, the Germans are wasting more than 99 cents of every euro that they plow into solar panels.

It gets worse: because Germany is part of the European Union Emissions Trading System, the actual effect of extra solar panels in Germany leads to no CO2 reductions, because total emissions are already capped. Instead, the Germans simply allow other parts of the EU to emit more CO2. Germany’s solar panels have only made it cheaper for Portugal or Greece to use coal.

In the meantime, Germans have paid about $130 billion for a climate-change policy that has no impact on global warming. They have subsidized Chinese jobs and other European countries’ reliance on dirty energy sources. And they have needlessly burdened their economy. As even many German officials would probably attest, governments elsewhere cannot afford to repeat the same mistake.