The Dispatch of Fallacies

  • Posted: July 30, 2014
  • Category: Energy
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It was a great day for a morning drive through northeastern Colorado, a bright sun shining in a clear blue sky over rolling hills covered in waving prairie grass. Though the weather forecast called for a scorching 100 degree day, it was still cool thanks to the morning breeze causing ripples through that tall grass. But despite the idyllic scene around me, the weather forecast showed every promise of being accurate. The warmth of the sun was beginning to be felt and the breeze was already no more than a whisper of what it had been the hour before.

The windmills alongside the road mirrored the disappearance of that vanishing breeze. From a distance they had been majestic towers of electrical production churning out green megawatts in redemption of the polluting humans on the northern prairie. The wind towers stood against the horizon, serene and ethereal in their beauty, the air whistling in whispered accusation against the square ugliness of a squat coal fired power plant in my rear view mirror. Graceful white towers of wind turbines stood in contrast to the squalid browns and greys of the vaguely menacing shapes of that coal-fired power plant. As a final insult to the peaceful morning’s panorama, the coal plant emitted a steady white flow of smoke from its smokestack, climbing above the plains like a middle finger raised in defiance of nature’s benign beauty.

But during the ticking tens of minutes as I drove north among the endless rows of wind turbines on the marginal roads of the Colorado plains, the day progressed and the morning breeze continued to die as it always does. The stillness of the mid-day heat was coming. Both the weather forecast and my experience agreed on the oppressive heat to come. Already, many of the wind towers had stopped, their blades still against the morning sky. By chance, coming over a rise in the ground, I caught the still visible coal fired plant again in my rear view mirror. At least the disgraceful smoke stream rising from its smokestack was gone.

All in all, my morning’s drive was a typical summer day on the plains of Colorado. It was a common scene all over what were once called the Great Plains. Sweeping in a vast arc from the Canadian border south to Mexico are states with vast stretches of federally owned land. Apart from the occasional lonely ranch house, cows, prairie dogs and a menagerie of Endangered Species are the only inhabitants of this land. Other than emptiness, the common characteristic of this great stretch of land is captured by Rodgers and Hammerstein in their song lyric;

“Oklahoma, where the wind comes sweeping down the plain”

Those of a certain age can hear Gordon McRae belting out that line with gusto, if not melodic subtlety. But there is no doubt as to the pervasive wind in Oklahoma, and Colorado, and Wyoming etc. It blows. It blows a lot. What better way to save the planet than to take the naturally occurring wind in places where no one lives to generate electricity? Someday, man will evolve to live in harmony with Mother Nature. But until then, generating electricity in the empty plains of Republican Flyover States for the grave serious-minded artisanal foodies of more responsible states with the foresight to provide adequate public transportation is a necessary oasis on the road to ecological salvation.

As I watched the blades spinning down and coming to a rest, the memory of a certain utility conference I had attended in years past came to mind. The focus of the conference had been on the future of the electrical power business in the United States. Heavily attended by marketers, management types, refugees from think tank cubicles and government functionaries, such conferences are hot beds of futuristic thinking about green power.

But at this conference someone had mistakenly allowed an engineer from an electrical utility to attend. I am sure there were consequences, unfortunate consequences, for the manager who had mistakenly signed off on such a faux pas. Perhaps someone in Human Resources with a wicked sense of humor scheduled that erring utility manager for a future week of engineering workshops, in a venue typical for such mundane technical conferences – December in Rock Springs, WY or Fargo, ND.

It was obvious to all present that the engineer’s attendance was a mistake. Only a newbie would be vocally skeptical in the Q&A sessions after presentations. I remember one presentation on the coming raptures of wind energy. Upon its finish the engineer rose in the audience, his voice unsteady with emotion, he began to question the members of the panel on stage as to how wind power could ever be more than a trivial part of our energy supply. Glib answers from the panel only caused him to continue his questions, which grew more pointed as the answers from the panel became little more than nostrums. The room grew deathly still as its embarrassment grew at this obvious faux pas. Finally, the engineer looked around the room in frustration. I was close enough to see what looked like tears in his eyes. He looked at us and with voice shaking said, “Don’t you understand, this won’t work”.

In passing, I must express my appreciation for that lonely utility engineer and his brethren. Engineers working for utilities are a special breed, an admirable group of people deserving of our respect. They are boy scouts in every sense of the word, trustworthy, honest and prepared. You want them as neighbors, on the PTA, in your church, coaching your kid’s soccer team. They deserve our respect because they are worthy of respect and because they get none from their own organization. It is no accident that Dilbert, the popular comic strip, was created by Scott Adams; a refugee from the engineering department of a utility. In my own experience, Dilbert’s cast of management characters is so very close to the mark.

I have always thought the fact that your lights always come on when you flip a switch is nothing short of a miracle. There is probably no more dysfunctional organization than a utility. Engineering and operations, the utility departments that work and deliver your electricity, are mushrooms. You know about mushrooms of course, they live in the dark and are fed manure. The management of a utility is strictly a political beast, engaged in a reciprocal dance of money and power with local, state and federal governments. Technical or operational competence is a distinct liability to the individual climbing the ladder of success in a utility.

This state of affairs has existed for a long time. To be sure, it has had much to recommend it. The technology of generating electrical power was a mature one for many decades. There was no need to be creative or take risks in the generation of electrical power. The industry would simply continue to build the power plants our forefathers built, put sober trustworthy people in charge of them and collect the resulting streams of money flowing into the organization.

Because of the large sums of money and physical access required for the facilities necessary to be a utility, the progressive politicians of the Depression Era felt it necessary to impose strict regulations on those providing electrical power to the unwashed masses. Those intrepid men felt it necessary to stop wasteful competition, ensure universal access and limit profitability. And thus was born the modern utility. Utilities were given exclusive markets, but had to operate as their political masters saw fit.

Over time, this cozy arrangement evolved the way you might expect. Money that doesn’t have to be pulled out of taxpayers but can be directed in politically useful ways is a politician’s dream. What retiring regulator wouldn’t enjoy a well-paid seat on the utility’s Board of Directors or as VP- Governmental Affairs?

After all, what does it hurt? The customer gets their electricity, reliably and anywhere they might want to live. The utility management is spared the need to worry about competition and profitability. The governmental types are assured a comfortable retirement. The political types have a slush fund for political favors. The customer has to pay extra, but its not as if they had any choice in the matter.

But then things started to change. Nuclear power came along and turned into a debacle. The EPA kept insisting on cutting sulfur/nitrogen based emissions. Reducing those emissions wasn’t that hard, but it required a different level of competence than the utilities possessed. The wildly varying price and availability of natural gas as a fuel for power generation just overwhelmed the limited abilities of utility decision makers. It turned out that anyone with creativity or talent for making risky decisions had left the utility business long before.

Then the unthinkable started to happen with increasing regularity. Customers left. There were actually customers out there leaving the utility because they got a better deal. New technology and aggressive entrepreneurs were competing against the utility. That put all of those cozy relationships under pressure. In a utility as well as the government that regulates them, nobody wins when competition comes along. It turns out that health care and utilities have that in common.

Just in time for everyone, green energy came along. It offered something for everyone. At least everyone that counted. As the unfortunate experience of that engineer at the conference showed, there were some losers, besides the customer that is.

It is Winston Churchill who is credited with the quote; “Never let a crisis go to waste.” Rahm Emanuel, Barack Obama’s project manager for pushing through ObamaCare, was preening before the press while strong-arming the legislative branch, when he said; “Never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that it’s an opportunity to do things you could not do before.” Though I am sure that both of them were simply putting in words what politicians have known since before the pyramids were built.

Both the government and the more sycophantic utility managements recognized renewable energy for what it was, a golden opportunity otherwise known as a crisis. The looming disappearance of fossil fuels meant that orderly government regulation could be re-imposed on the generation of electrical power. The competitive threats to existing utilities could be eliminated. Large new areas could be opened up for political favors to be handed out. The chattering classes would have powerful new levers to engage in long overdue social engineering projects. The resulting increases in electric power rates would provide more money that could be used for political purposes as well. The outrage from customers on the rate increases would be averted as everyone realized that running out of fossil fuels meant the era of cheap energy was over. It was unfortunate that electrical power would become so expensive, but it was about time that people in the United States realized that Europe was indeed the future.

But then the “Fracking Revolution”, driven by Adam Smith’s invisible hand, upset the apple cart. It became increasingly difficult, even for the tame academics beloved of the progressive left, to seriously argue that oil and natural gas would run out in the next couple of centuries. Of course, no one, not even academics, had ever argued that coal would run out for the next couple of millennia. So the crisis seemed on the verge of disappearing, to everyone’s dismay. Again, the caveat being at least everyone that counted.

But then if there is no crisis around when one is needed, the obvious solution is to create one. The twin sister of burning fossil fuels is carbon dioxide. If we have no shortage of fossil fuels, then we have too much carbon dioxide. While the historical evidence for more carbon dioxide reminds us of a tropical paradise, a crisis is needed. And so global warming becomes Global Warming, with the reregulation of the utility industry again proceeding to everyone’s satisfaction. Caveat included of course.

But there is a problem, a fly in the ointment if you will. That poor uncultured utility engineer back at the conference tried to articulate the problem, but his words fell on ears unable to hear what he said. That poor camel upon whose back the utility continues to pile bales of straw expects those lights to come on. Whenever that burdened camel flips the switch. If the lights fail to come on, the camel might lie down, or even worse, might vote in an inappropriate manner.

As one of his few privileges, the camel is allowed to turn on the light, or the air conditioner, whenever he so desires. This arbitrary behavior by the camel, i.e. the customer, requires the utility to have a system whereby different electrical power generators increase and decrease output, as well as start up and shutdown on command. As more power or less power is required, more or less power is generated, allowing a stable electrical grid to exist.

This hierarchical system is known by the term, Dispatch. All power generators on the system must be subject to the needs of the system for the system to work. At the risk of introducing an unfamiliar technical term, the power generators providing electricity into the electrical grid must all be dispatchable. They must turn on and off, increase and decrease power output, under the direction and control of the utility. The utility controls them based on a complex algorithm that takes into account generation efficiency, fuel cost, contractual obligations and operating characteristics of the power generators.

All power generators on the system are dispatchable, subject to the needs of the electrical system. Except renewable energy power generators. Wind power and solar power are under no requirement to be dispatchable. They generate electrical power as they are able, subject to the vagaries of the wind and sun. All other generators must adjust their own operation to accommodate wind and solar, as well as the customers own vagaries.

The reason for this state of affairs is to no one’s surprise a political one. Of course, a second limiting factor is that the wind and the sun are outside the control of both regulators and utility executives. But the real reason for the lack of their dispatchability is that both wind and solar are uneconomic to such an extent that to reduce their electrical output during the times that they can operate in any way at all moves them from the realm of political indulgence to financial debacle.

In the early days of renewable energy, their lack of dispatchability did not cause any real problems. The amount of wind or solar power was small and easily accommodated. Its presence or absence was of little affect to the power system’s operation. As the amount of renewable power grew, the burden it placed on the electrical grid’s stability continued to be accommodated by it broad predictability. The sun rises and sets on a predictable schedule. The wind follows seasonal patterns. The system could be broadly adjusted to match those regular patterns.

But a crisis cannot always be controlled, particularly made to order political crises. Hosea phrased it well some twenty five hundred years ago,

“ They sow the wind and reap the whirlwind.”    Hos. 8:7

Fear was sown, goals were set, subsidies were given, political fundraisers were given promises. If you listen, the keening whistle of a whirlwind is beginning to be heard. In northeastern Colorado, I was driving through a forest of white towers not there not so long ago. Each tower generated 1.5 million watts of electricity, known in the industry as 1.5 megawatts. Together, the towers could provide nearly 450 megawatts of electricity when the wind blew. Together the towers provided 0 megawatts of energy when the wind did not blow.

As I turned north for my drive through the wind farm, the wind farm was providing 450 megawatts of power into the Front Range of Colorado’s power supply. During the short drive through the area, that 450 megawatts became 0 megawatts. As electrical customers were unaware of this unfortunate turn of events, they did not turn off their lights. To make matters worse, the increasing temperatures of the morning were causing them to turn on their air conditioners.

As it happens, that ugly power plant in my rear view mirror provides 500 megawatts at full output. In a simplistic way, the coal fired power plant was stepping into the gap left by the wind farm as the wind died. That defiant finger of white smoke rising from the smokestack as I turned north on my drive was simply water vapor in the warm air from the stack condensing as it cooled in the atmosphere. The rising white vapor from the smokestack was just like the fogging of your breath on a cool morning. The power plant was simply idling, as a pickup at a stoplight. But as the power plant increased its output to replace the electricity from the wind farm, it went to full power and the condensation disappeared. The increased flow of exhaust air disperses the condensation and it is no longer visible, just like your breath on that cool morning disappears when you start your morning jog.

And so the camels of Denver and the surrounding suburbs continued to stagger under our load of straw. Our lights and computer screens were on and as we turned on our air conditioners, cold air made its appearance to keep our offices and houses comfortable. Though the straw’s weight on our backs continued to climb, there would be no revolution today.

But the weight of the straw on our backs is getting heavy. Xcel is the name of the utility supplying electricity to the camels of Denver and its suburbs. The pricing and costing of electrical power is byzantine in its complexity, but in simple terms, the electrical power coming from that fully depreciated and paid for coal fired plant is costing Xcel around 1.5 cents per kilowatt, or $ 15 per megawatt. The electricity coming from that wind farm is costing Xcel on the order of $ 90 per megawatt. That is heavy straw.

But that distant wail of the whirlwind is only a precursor of what is to come. That Colorado morning’s events are repeated daily across many parts of the nation. Fossil fuel fired power plants idle awaiting the call for their services as the wind dies or the sun is hidden by clouds. The alarm bells ring and the gas peddle is pressed to the metal. The alarm bells ring again and the brakes are slammed on.

Imagine if you will, that old 1960 Ford F-150 pickup that your father or grandfather gave you. It was in great condition, well maintained and comfortable to take on a Sunday afternoon drive. But then your teenage son started to use it for street racing. Revving up at red lights, standing on the gas pedal for the length of a block and then hitting the brakes at the next stoplight. That is a glimpse behind the scenes of our electrical system. Those old Ford’s are probably not long for this world.

To appreciate the full magnitude of the coming whirlwind, a basic understanding of how your electricity is created is helpful. A smoothly operating electrical grid has three types of electrical power producers. The basic element is a coal-fired power plant. It is hard to overstate the many virtues of the coal fired power plant. It uses coal as a fuel. Coal is cheap and its price stays constant over many years. Imagine if you paid fifty cents a gallon for your car’s gasoline and knew that the price would still be fifty cents a gallon five years from now? As an added advantage, coal fired plants get the same gas mileage whether they are going twenty miles an hour or seventy miles per hour. They are the workhorses of power generation.

Coal fired plants do have some disadvantages, other than the unfortunate one of killing Mother Earth. Coal fired plants don’t start or stop very easily. It can take days or even a week to start them up or shut them down. They use a lot of fuel idling at stoplights. They have a lot of moving parts, mechanical parts. Street racing is really hard on them and all that mechanical stuff starts to break down. They work best if you keep them on the open highway for months on end.

The second major component of the electrical generation mix is the combined cycle plant. For the purposes of the conversation about dispatchability, combined cycle plants are very much like coal-fired plants. The major difference is that they burn natural gas rather than coal as a fuel. To continue the automotive metaphor, combined cycle plants get almost twice the mileage of coal-fired plants, but their natural gas fuel costs a lot more than coal and the price of natural gas is very volatile.

The third major component of the electrical generation mix is the peaking gas turbine. In simple terms, a peaking gas turbine is a jet engine bolted to a concrete foundation and attached to an electric motor running backwards, otherwise known as an electrical generator. Depending on circumstances, the peaking gas turbine can use either natural gas or oil as a fuel. While the coal-fired and combined cycle plants can be compared to pickups, the peaking gas turbine is the dragster of the power generation world.

The peaking gas turbine can go from nothing to full power output in seconds. On the other hand, it uses expensive fuel and its MPG rating is very very very bad, which MPG rating is at full output. If it runs at less than 100% output, its MPG rating gets really bad. But it is very well suited to rapidly providing power when it is needed, like when the wind suddenly dies out there on the prairie or a rapidly moving storm front moves over a solar power array.

The other thing about peaking gas turbines is that all that starting and stopping is hard on them. It’s as if you scheduled your car’s maintenance based on how many times you started the engine instead of on how many miles it had driven.

So reading between the lines and amid the metaphors, we begin to see that our electrical system is a complicated situation. Engineers have a technical term for situations like this. We call them a kludge. A kludge works. But it is ugly, inefficient, expensive, misbegotten, prone to failure and impossible to understand. Our electrical power grid is a kludge.

It is also ironic. You know irony; the opposite of wrinkly? While renewable energy is many things to many people, its raison d’etre, the trump card of its existence, is renewable energy prevents carbon dioxide from polluting our atmosphere. Generating our power from wind and solar sources reduces the amount of carbon dioxide we put into our atmosphere. Doing our part to Save The Earth makes all that extra straw on the camel’s back worth it.

Except. That poor utility engineer with the catch in his voice and the misting eyes was trying to make a point. But as Dilbert makes so very clear, who listens to engineers? Those coal-fired and combined cycle plants idling while the wind is blowing use a lot of fuel. Those peaking gas turbines use monstrous amounts of fuel when they have to substitute for a cloudy afternoon. It turns out that Colorado emits more carbon dioxide because of its renewable energy sources than if it did not have them. That is definitely the opposite of wrinkly.



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