Monday, January 27, 2014

The grid is more fragile than most people expect

The problem with success is that it ultimately becomes invisible.  Electric power generation and distribution is one of the stunning achievements of the last 100 years, and the success has been so complete that most people simply don't even think about how it works.  They flick the switch, and 99.99% of the time lights come on.

They should think about it, because it's not magic, it's engineering.  Engineering is a demanding mistress, and the most important thing to know about it is the need to over-engineer highly reliable systems.  We did that with the power grid, and it worked spectacularly well, to the point that it's now invisible.

That invisibility has led to a series of changes, some in the name of "efficiency" ("It costs us how much to do this?!") and some in the name of political philosophy ("Green" power, which typically is nothing of the sort).  Al Fin (of course) has the go-to reference on the grid's fragility:
It is important to understand that demand for electricity is constantly changing, in an unpredictable manner. This changing demand causes fluctuations in grid voltage, frequency, and power quality. If the grid cannot respond to these fluctuations in a timely manner, the grid is at risk of going down.

As governments mandate the increased injection of expensive non-dispatchable intermittent unreliable low quality power into the delicately balanced power grids — upon which modern societies are perched — they are playing risky games with the lives of ordinary citizens.
Non-dispatchable means that you can't bring the source on-line when you need it.  Natural Gas generation plants excel at this like nothing else, and fracking means that (assuming that fracking remains legal) there's hope for the future.  Coal plants are much less so, as they are basically a World War I Battleship energy plant scaled up: coal fired steam boilers.  It takes some time to bring up a head of steam, as the Admirals of old discovered.  That remains true today.

Germany has shuttered most of its nuclear plants in the wake of the Fukushima tsunami.  Ignoring that tsunamis are as rare as hen's teeth in Deutschland, this means that a dispatchable power source (pull the rods for instantaneous power) has been replaced with a non-dispatchable source (coal or, God forbid, wind).  The engineering implication for the Fatherland's power grid is not favorable.  Al Fin explains:
Wind farms claim capacity factors of close to 30%, but the actual experience in Denmark is closer to 15% or less. In other words, you need 7 times as many wind turbines as you think, to achieve the nameplate power capacity under fair wind conditions. Until the turbines break down. Or the wind stops blowing. Then you can only hope that the coal, nuclear, or gas plants that you hate so much, are still capable of operating. If your government’s energy policies have forced the “backups” to shut down, you are in big trouble.


If your government is pushing intermittent unreliable forms of energy onto your power grids, you had better prepare for blackouts and cascading grid failures.

If your government is pushing vulenerable “smart grid” technology, prepare for hackers to shut down your power for fun, or for political reasons.
Yup.  Especially that last point.  Especially that.  And riddle me this, Green Power Man: name the people who benefit from rolling blackouts in Germany.  Extra points for you (no doubt a Capitalism hater) if you said "Siemens corporation".  But the list doesn't end there, it begins there.  And it's not short.  Al Fin sums up:
You don’t need an electromagnetic pulse catastrophe to throw your society back into the middle ages. Normal government policy can accomplish the same thing, given enough time.

There is no need to invent a conspiracy for something that basic corruption and incompetence in government can achieve as easily.
Of course, since the Government is run by Philosopher Kings, this is low risk.  After all, Philosopher Kings like Dick Cheney and George W. Bush would never ascend to the throne of power, would they Green Power Man?

Oh, wait.


Dave H said...

Even nukes can't spin up instantaneously, although they do come up to speed faster than coal plants.

Traditionally utilities will have "spinning reserve" generation ready to bring online if the demand spikes. These are generators that are turning and synchronized to the grid, but are not yet connected. When the demand goes up they can be switched in and the throttle opened up within minutes. But having them idling burns fuel - fuel that's not being paid for because they're not actually producing - which gives both Gaia and management a rash.

Unknown said...

My one comfort is that grid stresses will be seen in homes and businesses as voltage changes or frequency changes. I've not yet seen much to worry about personally within the USA except in California.

Elsewhere in the world I've had my voltage creep down to 60% of spec at peak -- no fun when you are trying to put on a rock and roll show....

Goober said...

Other than natural gas, hydroelectric is the only instantly dispatchable power source. There's no more rivers left to dam.

Ted said...

Pump storage Hydro was invented to help smooth the demand fluctuations and allow thermal ( coal & Nuke ) to run more consistantly in max efficiency range.

Wind and solar on the other hand are the polar opposite of dispatch able power and just serve to destabilize the grids ability to balance supply and demand efficently