U337: Utility Planners, Pay Attention

In a transformative post (for me personally) titled, The Power of Limits, Greenpa writes:
The problem we must tackle: All our supply systems are designed to work "on demand". Turn it on- the whole world supply of electricity/water/gas/waste handling/whatever is plugged in and at your command, your majesty.

It's a design guaranteed to CAUSE waste. It cannot fail.

We need to fix this in our own homes, first of all. I've found ways- mostly by just being unplugged from the big delivery systems. There have to be more ways- easier to put in place, more adaptable to cities- etc. We- you and I- need to find them.

But, what about the big delivery system? I am used to making the choice of turning things off and unplugging, but the utility system itself is an area I no very little about on my own. I often seek another source, earthfamilyalfpha, to hear from an engineer the things I don’t understand. One year ago I read this description of the utility delivery system and I want to share it with everyone I know, with everyone I possibly can.

Lexicon Electric
Thursday, November 29, 2007

This post is about a subject that many of you don't even know exist. It's about words, electric utility words. It's about how these words take on meaning and that meaning morphs into an understanding of system behavior. And it becomes a frame. That frame becomes both a tool and ultimately a prison.

In order to move from the present carbon based system that is presently running our energy needs, we will need to revise the lexicon of energy, and thus revise the way we model it in our minds and ultimately in reality.

If you were to go listen to an electric utility guy give a presentation, say at the Public Utility Commission, you would hear words such as base load, intermediate generation, and peaking generation. Base load plants are big plants that basically are on or off. They include most coal and nuclear plants and some combined cycle gas plants. Intermediate plants are mostly combined cycle gas plants, while peaking plants are often combustion turbine gas plants.

(from other article Thursday, May 11, 2006, The Solid State Utility – phrased like this: Most electrical utilities deploy a portfolio of resources to respond to the varying loads that it must serve. Generally this means a mix of base load, intermediate generators, and peak generators.)

This lexicon was not pulled out of thin air, it is based on the reality of our diurnal electrical loads. On average, we use half as much power at night which grows during the day, and then peaks (in summer) in the latter part of the day. The utility runs its base load plants at night, and then adds or ramps up its intermediate plants in the morning, finally adding the peaking plants during the peak demand, which may only last a few hours. On top of this, to add stability to the system, regulators and dispatchers want to see some "ready to go energy" which is called spinning reserve.

From this framework comes the word "dispatchable". It means that the plant's generation can be turned up or down depending on the load.

When utility planners talk about wind and solar, they often characterize them as non- dispatchable resources. The next statement that generally follows is "and we all know that the wind doesn't blow and that the sun doesn't shine all the time". (I wasn't aware of this.)

If you follow this frame, and walk down the mindform plank it supports, you are on the edge of descending into the dark waters of nuclear power and nonexistent clean coal generation.

"We must have base load plants, and solar and wind can't do that, let's be realistic" you will hear from those who reside in this frame. Hence, you have organizations like Environmental Defense talking about supporting nuclear energy because it is the least of two evils.

But two evils are still two evils.

So rather than make decisions between these two evils, let's reframe the model.

The Lexicon Electric that I propose is this:

All renewable generation from now on is called Foundation Generation. Renewables are moved from the top of the graph, where they are seen as an unpredictable nuisance, all the way down to the bottom of the graph.

Existing base load plants (those that have not been decommissioned) are laid on top of this foundation generation and they are viewed as Smoothing Generators. On top of this curve we add our intermediate plants which are now viewed as Matching Generation. On top of these generation profiles, we add our peak plants which are now viewed as Firmers. Firming may not just be generation, it would also include demand programs which allow the utility to reduce demand at peak by various strategies.

Firming would also include V2G strategies from the transportation sector as well as the capacity in the system from your solar customers who have their own capacitance and will offer it back to you (the utility) should you need it. Firming technologies would include the added capacitance to the system of advanced batteries and ultra capacitors which might be embedded into the grid to create what is now a very firmed up system with plenty of stability. The concept of Spinning reserve is thus replaced with the concept of "Reserve Capacitance"

With this new Lexicon, the problem of the "non dispatchability" of renewable generation disappears. And the new problem is now the old "must run" base load plants. Their inflexibility is now viewed as a liability.

Suddenly, the mind understands that what was once seen as the way it has always been done, is now seen as the old way we used to do it.

Words are important.

They create frames.

New Words create

New Frames.

And a new Lexicon Electric

creates a new world.

And though this still doesn't resolve the limitless, on demand perspective. It's basic foundation, "Foundation Generation" is created from renewables. My own proposal would have a transition including re-education of the new lexicon, the new framing, coupled with the concepts of limits. Higher prices for firming and smoothing seem logical to help control energy waste.

Cant see the Forest thru the Electric Tree-line-BK design


Rosa said...

You always find such excellent stuff to re-post. Both Greenpa's idea & the (very basic) worldview switch of looking at renewables as basic and coal as extra.

But it seems like we should be looking at the reasons for the spikes - are they heating/air conditioning spikes? If so, good housing/office building design and retrofitting to reduce energy needs, or adding on-site as-needed generation (solar for AC use, geothermal for heat) would flatten the graph out a *lot*. And we only need to flatten the parts where there's a mismatch, not all the spikes.

We drove south through Iowa and Missouri this weekend, and I swear every time we drive through northern Iowa the wind farms are bigger. It's amazing.

Minnesota has a renewable goal, and since we're energy importers we're affecting renewable buildout in the Dakotas and Iowa - earlier this year Minnesota blocked a coal project in South Dakota by refusing to permit a power line from the new plant in towards the Cities.

katecontinued said...

Rosa, it is a real sociological or anthropological study to look at the peaks, the spikes. If I were a kid still in school I think this would be a worthy masters thesis.

I think this next year will be a scramble for wind, coal, agri-, water, etc. I suspect MN will have a strong position in water one day. And we will be in big trouble.

About this article . . . I confess to have read it several times in the last year. Too bad public media is private, because this is a simple concept.

Rosa said...

I don't know if we can learn to conserve enough to export water, even if the infrastructure was there - every time we go visiting for a holiday I watch our friends and relatives blow through water like no tomorrow (running the water constantly to rinse dishes that are going in the dishwasher, for example). Since there's no drought here, and the farmers mostly don't irrigate, there's no concept of water as a resource to conserve.