Energy infrastructure: Time to Walk the Line

By Virinder Singh of Portland, Oregon. Virinder is the owner of Hat Trick Energy and Environment Consulting. He provides analysis and advice on renewable energy project development and evaluation, commercial issues related to greenhouse gases, and clean energy market intelligence.

A major component of an affordable move to clean energy is more transmission and more large power plants, whether wind, geothermal , biomass or solar. Unfortunately, it is difficult to foresee the U.S. (meaning “us”) accepting the siting of transmission lines on new corridors that reach rich areas of renewable energy. In the Northwest, the “solution” to the lack of transmission is stuffing wind turbines in the Columbia River gorge. The problem with that is that we are not reaching the best wind areas, just the areas with some kind of transmission availability.

The Northwest’s grid is congested for long-distance transport of renewables. Utilities such as PacifiCorp and BPA are either developing or at least planning for transmission upgrades. But what proof do we have that the American public is open to massive new infrastructure? Making fun of the French economic system is a major pastime for Americans, but can we even come close to an endeavor akin to their methodical expansion of their high-speed TGV rail line?


The Muddle

One thing that is clear is that the environmental community is not clear on the issue. In California, which drives the Western power market, Senator Feinstein’s call for eliminating vast stretches of the Mojave desert from wind and solar development, plus difficult transmission siting efforts to connect renewable-rich areas to Los Angeles, conflict with concurrent calls (by many of the same people) for aggressive renewable energy requirements and greenhouse gas regulations.

Some folks will assert that we do not need large-scale renewable energy. The argument goes that a combination of small-scale generation (today, that means roof-top solar mainly) and end-use energy efficiency will do the job of balancing environmental imperatives with economic needs. But study after study by environmentalists and the feds shows that a mix of renewables, including today’s least-cost resource of wind power, is essential for a portfolio that reduces environmental impact at a reasonable cost to us. (In climate change terms, that means cutting more greenhouse gases for each dollar spent.)

California’s “solution”, reached by default, is to incentivize massive amounts of small-scale solar photovoltaics (PV) while encouraging the siting of large power plants outside of the state. (Hello, Sherman County!) Their PV push is helping to cut overall costs for solar in the long term, which is good for all of us. But if that’s a microcosm of what the nation will face in coming years, then what will be the price tag? PV costs are still at least double that of wind, while the idea of siting large power plants far away implies two poor assumptions: (1) we have the transmission to do it (we don’t have much, and California won’t shortly, either) and (2) we are happy to export jobs to assuage our well-meaning queasiness of accepting some siting-related environmental impacts in return for reducing energy consumption impacts on the environment.

Finding the Line

What is needed is some honest introspection and subsequent dialogue among environmentalists, developers, utilities, consumer groups, and local regulators on what is truly acceptable and what isn’t for large infrastructure siting. That doesn’t just mean choosing what habitat to protect, but also what the alternatives are in an era of laptops, flat-screens, server farms, and electric vehicles. More nuclear? More coal? More hydro? Dare I say as an Oregonian, more LNG? One clear result will be that everyone at the table will have to give something up to balance the need for habitat and clean electrons.

A systemic approach to determining which impacts are “acceptable” and which are not cannot be avoided. California has been avoiding it, and the result is a more expensive energy policy, lost job opportunities, and a creaky, import-reliant model for reaching a truly clean energy future. Without honest dialogue, the looming siting stalemate should mean more overall greenhouse gas emissions, over-reliance on natural gas, and persistent exposure to fuel price volatility on your gas and electric bills. (And yes, that’s even if the Waxman-Markey bill passes.)

Comments

  • (Show?)

    This is an incredibly important issue. (Full disclosure: I did some work - when I was consulting - for a wind power client who needed new transmission. But I also ran for Senate using the transmission issue.) Carl Pope of the Sierra Club has said there is "no free lunch" anymore when it comes to energy: we need to face up to some trade-offs. That includes figuring out how we're going to get energy transmitted from the places where renewable energy is abundant to the places where people live. It should be done as carefully as possible, but if we are going to avoid frying the planet like a grilled cheese sandwich, there are going to be tough choices.

  • mp97303 (unverified)
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    I have a feeling that this topic, like healthcare reform, will never change in any meaningful way. Too many interest groups with their lists of unacceptable energy sources to every have any reform. Every energy source has to be on the table to come up with a comprehensive plan.

  • George Anonymuncule Seldes (unverified)
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    The most promising approach to cleave this Gordian Knot is to stop thinking about transportation and energy separately and to start recognizing the urgent need for electrified rail throughout the state, which would provide excellent corridors for transmission.

    Rather than the psuedogreen nonsense of the "Solar Highway" (using expensive PV in installations with poor solar potential in rainy Western Oregon) we should be starting to electrify existing rail lines and begin laying new energy/transport corridors over existing road rights-of-way to bring wind and solar power to the load.

    Trying to solve the energy siting dilemma while a separate group of folks tries to use endless rivers of money to try to keep the automobile going is never going to work. The future of motorized transport for all but the wealthiest people is going to be electric or none at all. The auto industry wants everyone to keep owning their own vehicles, but the economics of that will never work without cheap oil -- the electric car only makes sense as a shared vehicle if you're talking about transport for the masses.

    Electric transport (heavy rail for freight, lighter cars for interurban passenger needs, and light rail and street cars within cities and towns) provides a pre-existing solution to "where do you put the power lines" debate.

    Sadly, I expect that rather than gore the biofuels lobby's sacred cow of liquid fuels and challenge ODOT's mania for pouring pavement, we'll continue to keep the problems widely separated so that we'll make no progress on either front and, instead, continue to bankrupt ourselves on megabridges and to drive the climate into crisis with coal.

  • John Silvertooth (unverified)
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    It is unfortunate that Oregon has performed so poorly in energy planning and renewable energy development when we could have easily lead the world.

    Tom McCall created the Governor's Office on Energy Planning under the direction of visionary Joel Schatz and created a plan to meet Oregon's needs with renewable resources entitled Transitions. Schatz developed a following amoung even Republicans like Rep. Norma Paulus and Sen. George Wingard.

    Then Bob Straub, one of our Democrats, got elected and scrapped the office and fired Schatz and put the Transitions report in the trash can. The Dartmouth grad claimed he did't understand it but what really happened was he was following orders on high from Glen Jackson of PPL (Pacific Power for you kiddies) and PGE.

    Not since then has Oregon engaged in any meaningful renewable energy planning and development- our utility infrastructure is crumbling like a lot of the rest of the nation because of Reagan era deregulation and it is sorely in need of a major overhaul. We need massive investment just to pay for the stock dividends of the past feeding Enron, Scottish Power, etc. let alone feeding Warren Buffet and the hedge funds holding PGE today-

    Now what the power brokers present to the public is a choice between more transmission lines and global warming. This is essential the same cross environmentalists were asked to bear by Richard Nixon in 1970- and read Schtaz response: http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1298&dat=19740301&id=gWgRAAAAIBAJ&sjid=rOcDAAAAIBAJ&pg=7397,108725

    Also read 1974 article in Eugene Register Gaurd "Money Can't Buy You Energy" covering Schtaz talk to a utility group. http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1310&dat=19740517&id=PGYRAAAAIBAJ&sjid=OeADAAAAIBAJ&pg=5866,4523265

    We don't just need "green" energy- we need decentralized energy and utility reform. Presenting this as a simple need of environmentalists to be reasonable is an inadequate framework for change.

    When Tesla essentially invented the modern American system of centralized power distribution he proclaimed at the time that it was already out-of-date and mankind must pursue decentralized generation.

    Why aren't we pursuing at least a path where these resources are being developed by Oregonians for Oregonians?

    Enough said I gotta go.

  • Rick (unverified)
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    Just a question that will cause a knee jerk in some, but I think it is worth getting over that and considering it.

    What about nuclear power. In France, 80% of electricity is nuclear. I think we (the worldwide "we") have likely developed pretty effective safeguards and waste disposal solutions.

    Since it seems impossible to convince the populous that they need to use a lot less energy (relatively speaking, 5% isn't a "lot"), then isn't a compromise that will fill the needs without pollutants and environmental issues possible?

    Just asking. Don't rail on me, but I wonder if we are thinking "chernobyl" and 70's thinking a bit much for our current crisis.

    Do the French have this one right?

  • John Silvertooth (unverified)
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    Say who are this firm's current clients anyway?

  • George Anonymuncule Seldes (unverified)
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    Rick, the nuclear industry thinks about nuclear all day and investors have nightmares about nuclear all night.

    The bottom line is that it's simply too late to have that discussion and have it be meaningful -- nuclear is irrelevant to the problem at hand, which is eliminating coal before it eliminates us.

    Even if there were a pro-nuclear consensus everywhere you couldn't build the plants fast enough to matter a damn. You can build gas turbines in 18 months today; you can build them in six months or less in a crash program and they will enable us to turn off the coal.

    If you try to build nukes, all you are doing is essentially saying "I want to burn a whole lot more coal for a decade while I build these nukes, and the even more coal while I wait for the energy invested in each nuke to be generated (approx. 10 years each) to be recovered." And that's just expanding the current fleet of 104 plants gradually.

    As Dr. Nate Lewis of Cal Tech says, if we choose a nuclear buildout as the solution to climate change, then we're going to need two 1 GW plants put on line per week for the next 50 years. Since the current actual costs are approaching $7-9 billion per GW, you can see that this won't happen.

    In fact, all we lack to enable a nuclear solution is the

    (1) Capital

    (2) Engineering Talent

    (3) Time to waste waiting while continuing to burn coal

    (4) Solution for rad waste disposal

    (5) Excess energy to invest in building the plants, fabricating the fuel, etc.

    (6) Political consensus

    (7) Ability to deal with all that plutonium

    What nuclear is mainly good for these days is giving people a way to support more use of coal while pretending not to support more use of coal.

  • Kurt Chapman (unverified)
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    You can build gas turbines in 18 months today; you can build them in six months or less in a crash program and they will enable us to turn off the coal.

    Sure you can, but where will the new supplies of Natural gas come from. Currently there are fights going on to stop the LNG terminal in Astoria and fights to stop a few CNG pipelines across the state.

    This is EXACTLY what Mr. Singh is writing about. The majority is sitting in a circle pointing to the left all saying coal/nuke/hydro/ oil is bad for power generation and then turning to the right and saying no wind/solar/natural gas in my neighborhood. then we get Chuck and his tax the rich folks railing against tax credits for alternative energy development. Folks, we can not have it both ways. Wake up and smell the coffee.

  • John Silvertooth (unverified)
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    Kurt Chapman "Folks, we can not have it both ways. Wake up and smell the coffee."

    Yes we can have it both ways! Wake up and look at the sun!

    Oh yeas and wake up to find out that you are the eyes of the world-

  • Joe Faust (unverified)
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    Airborne wind energy conversion systems (AWECS) in the profile of supply will become a game changer. The higher winds are near consumption and transmission points.

  • Kurt Chapman (unverified)
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    So john, please help us all understand how many pv or sv solar panels it would take to replace just ONE hydro-electric dam, or better yet the Boardman coal powered facility. Where would you place such a massive project and how would you plu it into the grid?

  • Rick (unverified)
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    Okay, George, but Kurt seems to be right.

    To create solar power for all our energy needs, the US would need to acquire 10,000 acres of land per year and keep it up every year for the next 50 years. Sounds like a “Capital” problem. It has to have land that is good for solar (not Pacific NW!) and it really can’t be farmland. “The use of corn and sugar to make ethanol is a main driver of rampant inflation in worldwide food costs during the past year. Grocery bills are up across Europe, and the United Nations World Food Program says that rising food prices have pushed 100 million people into hunger worldwide.” (USAToday). Additionally, the current production of solar cells is not enough to fill those acres we would purchase. We are doing better worldwide in production, but in the US, growth is slow. And other countries will compete for solar cells.

    As far as “Engineering Talent”, “While Americans remain enthralled with the idea that we can solve all our electrical problems by covering the landscape with thousands of windmills, nuclear technology is still viewed with a great deal of fear and skepticism. The result is that America is actually beginning to fall behind the rest of the world on the technology. If the nuclear renaissance does not pick up steam here soon, the world revival is likely to be led by countries abroad.” Actually, the rest of the world HAS the engineering talent and resources to save our country.

    As far as “Time to waste”, this is completely subjective, taking into account global warming claims, relative time to power of nuclear vs other approaches, and more. But remember, France has the lowest greenhouse gas emissions of any European country except Sweden as well as the cheapest electricity.

    As far as “Solution for Rad Waste”, France is reprocessing all of its waste and reusing it. Interestingly, of the plutonium isotopes Pu-239, Pu-240, Pu-241 and Pu-242, only Pu-239 can sustain a chain reaction. The North Koreans are creating Pu-239, but it takes a special process to do that. The rest of the waste cannot be made into bombs. And France doesn’t use or make Pu-239 for power generation. Recycling of nuke waste. Interesting.

    As far as “Excess energy to invest”, how is that different from wind or solar energy? Don’t we need to do the same in any case?

    As far as “Political consensus”, THIS is the one in question. And very emotionally charged. And the only real block to nuclear. But it isn’t “science”, of course. That’s why it should be discussed.

    And as far as “Ability to deal with all that Plutonium”, see “Solution for Rad waste” above.

    As far as wind, it already takes more than 125 square miles to equal the output of one 1000-megawatt power plant. And many estimates are much higher. But windmills are only generating electricity about one-quarter of the times. That means you need at least 500 square miles and even that has to be backed up by conventional sources in case the wind dies down across several states.

    I think the country needs a basic lesson in physics. You can’t power an electrical grid with intermittent sources. The requirements for storage are immense - you essentially have to double capacity and even then no real technology has emerged. Now we’re talking about covering whole states with windmill farms and building an entirely new electrical grid to move all this elusive energy around.

    On the other hand, Hyperion, a California company, just introduced a 70-MW nuclear reactor the size of a gazebo that can power a city of 15,000. And it wouldn’t require any new transmission lines. Is it possible that nuclear is really “small and beautiful?”

  • Rick (unverified)
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    Kurt,

    I'm sure we disagree on many things, but compromise is necessary in this. There are so many people on both sides saying we need to compromise to move forward, but as many or more saying "no" to compromise.

    Which is better? All or nothing at all?

    I think we agree on this.

  • George Anonymuncule Seldes (unverified)
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    What do you think "our energy needs" are? Because we're the biggest energy hogs on the planet really, given that Canadians and Aussies, our only competitors, live in more challenging climates but don't use much more than we do per capita.

    You seem to be presenting your rote arguments in favor of building nukes as if I had stated my opposition to that. I didn't. My point is that nuclear is irrelevant even if you were right in all your talking points because the whole pro- and anti-nuke battle is nowhere near over, nor are there any investors looking to site any nukes here, even if the law permitted any (which it doesn't).

    So all talking about nukes does is turn a present crisis (CO2 389 and rising up the charts with a bullet) into an opportunity to mindlessly gas on about the energy wars, just like we wasted the 2004 election refighting Vietnam -- a lot of wasted energy and effort that served no one.

    When you have an investor who wants to build a nuke in Oregon and claims that the law's requirement (that there be a solution to the waste disposal problem) has been met and applies for a permit, then it will be worth discussing.

    Meanwhile, we've got a good solution on tap to the gravest threat we face, the Boardman Coal Plant, which is now not only our biggest source of CO2, mercury, NOX, SOX, and haze, but also our biggest source of radionuclide emissions. We don't need to worry about natural gas supplies forever -- if we don't shut down the coal plants fast, we can quit worrying about forever because the climate will be into runaway mode and where she stops, nobody knows.

  • nrgindeepndnt (unverified)
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    It is quite depressing reading these renewable energy blogs these days, even more so the commentary posted... everyone's got the solution, industrial solutions. Ever stopped to ponder for just a moment that industry is the problem. And humans have gotten just a little too god damned industrious.

    Everyone needs to be happy with less! And that includes less ideas on how to fix the world, because most of us can't even really truly take full responsibility for our own necessities in life.

  • Kurt Chapman (unverified)
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    Rick, we defintely agree on this more than we disagree. I am merely attempting to point out the fallacy that solar and wind are a panacea. At absolute BEST case scenario, they supply about 10% of the growth in energy consumption needs over the next 40 years. That is when additional conservation is taken into account.

    I defintely support solar and wind generation, however the NIMBY's need to compromise regarding placement as well as LNG and CNG. I do not believe that nuclear power has a future in the U.S. Personally it could be done, but the emotionalism is too anti-nuke.

    <h2>If we are to retire hydro by breaching dams while de-emphasizing coal, then Natural Gas seems the best alternative, even if it is a stop gap measure for the next 30-40 years. but hey, I'm willing to listen to any reasonable and well thought out compromise solution.</h2>
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