Tuesday, March 10, 2009

William Tucker debunks the notion that a "smart grid" will save America

William Tucker at The Infrastructurist (perhaps my new favorite blog) has an article up in which he debunks the myth that the "smart grid" is going to alleviate America's energy woes.

First of all, he points out that a smart grid and a grid capable of distributing solar and wind power from the states with (i.e., the interior) to the states without (i.e., the coasts) are two totally different projects, and that any effort to conflate the two arrises either out of ignorance of willful deception:

The second premise is that the smart grid will help integrate wind and solar energy - the two balky “renewables” that have the disadvantage of not being dispatchable when we want them. With the smart grid, wind and solar generation will always be available somewhere and so can be conveyed to where it’s needed.

But these are different things. The true “smart grid” will be a digitalized distribution system that conveys real-time information. Incorporating remote wind and solar, on the other hand, will require an upgraded grid, something entirely different. Our present 345-kilovolt AC transmission wires can’t do it without unacceptable line losses. We will need to rebuild to 765-kilovolt DC system – something that could take decades and easily cost several trillion dollars.

And then he makes this point, which explains why all you ever hear about are how you're going to do your dishes and laundry at night instead of during the day:

It’s fitting that the girl is standing in front of a clothes dryer because that and washing dishes are the only examples anyone has ever been able to come up with about how residential users are going to “redistribute” their energy consumption.

What else can they do? Are they going to wait until after midnight to watch television? Are they going to heat up dinner at 4 a.m.? Are they going to turn on lights at sunrise instead of when it gets dark? And how about air conditioning, that most voracious consumer of electricity? One suggestion floated by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) in “The Green Grid,” a study published last June, is that people might “pre-cool” their homes by running the air conditioning in the morning in anticipation of hot afternoons. This may indeed level peak loads. But it will also consume more energy, since some of the pre-cooling will obviously dissipate.

The same author also has another good article on the same blog about nuclear power, in which he argues that it's a lot safer than people think, though I wish he'd spent a bit more time on the economics of nuclear power regulation. Namely, I'd like to know: could nuclear power be cost competitive with coal- and oil-fired power plants and still be just as safe? (Though he does touch on it when he points out that environmental controls on nuclear are much stricter than on coal-fired plants, despite the fact that the latter spew more radioactive substances than their nuclear counterparts.)

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