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November 12, 2012

Sexy Solar vs Boring Gas
Filed under: Energy — Tags: — nedpelger

As Hurricane Sandy buzz-sawed through the Northeast, knocking out power for 8.5M, we get to examine the electrical grid in crisis. The fragile nature of how our electricity gets delivered is showcased by any natural disaster. We mostly operate from a mid-1900s grid.

With hindsight we can see too many profits went to shareholders and not enough into re-investment. Regardless of where I think we should have been, we are where we are.

ENR had a good article about moving forward with the goal of a more efficient and sustainable electrical national transmission system. I like how ENR summarizes:

Historically, transmission was a relatively simple concept: Powerplants were built near cities, and transmission wires were strung to connect the plants to distribution systems, which delivered power to customers. Rarely crossing states, transmission lines were planned and built on a project-by-project basis.

A lot of these local electric highways were built in the 1960s and 1970s, with little built since. Lynch says there were probably only one or two 500-kV lines erected during the 1980s and 1990s.

The big transmission projects that are being designed now tend to be associated with solar or wind farms, getting that localized power far way to the areas that need it. Of course, those renewable energy projects don’t nearly make sense without huge subsidies from state governments that require certain percentages of renewable power. Functionally, these state laws are an energy tax on business and consumers.

I just ran through a solar design for my house that illustrates an important concept. We spend over $100/month heating an inside Endless Pool. I designed a solar water heating system (since I had scrap Plexi-Glass panels left over from a project) that would use an open, self-draining system to pre-heat our domestic hot water and use the pool as a solar heat sink. This type system is much more cost efficient than solar electric panels.

When I completed the design, though, I ended up with $18,000 of cost, which even with a 30% federal federal tax credit yielded an 8 year payback.  The downsides included increased maintenance, a higher than comfortable pool temperature to make the heat sink efficient and probably lots of time tinkering with the system.

Then I thought of just changing from an electric pool heater to a gas pool heater. The payback time will be less than a year and I expect monthly energy costs to be reduced by about 2/3s. Plus, the long term outlook for gas costs in PA seems great.

As I look at the national energy picture, I see a parallel. What we really need is more power near congested areas. What we have is a cheap long term fuel in shale gas. I think our short term fuel outlook will include lots more gas generation stations near the required areas.

The challenge of getting the new transmission lines permitted and constructed also leads to my conclusion. ENR again says it well:

Utilities often cite local opposition and difficulties in obtaining permits as the main obstacles to building new transmission lines.

Even after the permits are in hand, the on-site construction can be onerous. Everything from birds’ nests to what trucks track in on their tires has to be continuously monitored, according to Seay.

“These projects have become as much environmental projects as they are construction projects,” says Mike Beehler, vice president of transmission and distribution for Burns & McDonnell.

In California, in particular, “You have more people watching the crews work than actually working on the line,” says Rick Pieper, vice president of transmission for Henkels & McCoy.

If crews find evidence of an unexpected species, such as a desert tortoise or an Indiana brown bat, the find can shut down construction for months and send line repair workers scurrying to other jobsites. Regulators and construction crews strive to work around jobsite animals, birds and fauna. “But it’s not easy,” Pieper says. “It’s an issue of good project management.”

Unlike single-site construction with restricted entrances, a transmission site is a continuous, several- hundred-mile construction zone, often in the middle of farmland, woodlands or prairie without access roads.

“Building an individual tower is not terribly complex. But building 1,500 towers along 500 miles of right-of-way” requires managing thousands of logistical challenges, Seay says.

Timing of construction is crucial. In addition to working around animal nesting and mating seasons, crews constructing existing transmission lines often can’t begin until October, when the grid doesn’t have to deliver as much power as in the summer.

So, with the ease of providing gas generation and the challenges of getting new electrical transmission lines installed, I’m betting gas will be most important for our near term future.

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