Solving Energy Problems is Complicated; "The Grid" Tells us Why Oct 2017

Each year, I manage to finish around 17-20 books; not a lot by any measure, but it’s enough to stumble upon a few fascinating gems that give a refreshing perspective about something. This year, the book that did it was “The Grid” by Gretchen Bakke and that “something” happened to be the Electric Grid.

It is a subject that can mistakenly assumed to be awfully mundane, but as you learn more, you begin the appreciate the complexity of making sure that the AC works when you switch it on. (similar to description of the layers of Software at work to render Google’s homepage on the screen).

The Grid walks us through the history of electricity production and distribution, how it grew from an elite luxury to hundreds of thousands of households in the late 1900s, and eventually, its near ubiquity today. The grid runs everything around us, but behind a formidable image of transmission towers is an ageing infrastructure and companies who are finding it hard to survive with the rules of the new (green) world.

Considering all the environmental concerns that we have, the best thing to imagine is generation of all power by renewable means. In near future, we might even have it. However, realising this goal today remains a pipe dream with what we have. The Grid explains why.

The most fascinating thing I learned from it is that the problem of electricity is as much—or even more—about distribution as it’s about production. What makes distribution troublesome is the insurmountable difficulty in storing the surplus electricity for future use.

Unlike coal, oil, or gas, there isn’t a way to pack the electricity in a sunny area like California and transport it to New York. The companies behind the grid (the Utilities) need to ensure that the supply of power is balanced with demand which is uneven throughout the day and year.

In US, for example, the demand starts to rise in the morning, peaks around evening, and tapers off as people go to sleep.

This even more complicated with seasons. In hot summers, as more houses start firing up ACs, demand reaches its biggest peak that might last for a few days.

Handling this wavering demand would have been easier if —

  • The utilities controlled all the generation.
  • All generation used reliable sources, like coal, gas, nuclear, or hydro.

For many decades both were true when utilities held a complete monopoly over generating and supplying power in the US and most of the generation relied on the mentioned sources. The recent regulatory changes now oblige utilities to buy electricity at a fair price (net metering) and allow consumers to shop electricity from their preferred provider (deregulation).

Although, it has catalysed shift towards renewables but the grid was never designed to handle distributed sources generating unpredictable amount of power throughout the day.

Picture this: A 10MW Solar Farm is powering a small town in a sunny area. If clouds start covering over the sky, there will be a drop in generated power, which will make it necessary to start a traditional power plant (Coal and Gas). Powering them takes time and mantaining them is a costly business.

Rooftop solars have exacerbated this problem. With all the electricity that is being fed into the grid from them and other power companies, it has become harder for utilities manage it with the variable demand. In 2015, wind farms were paid €53M in UK to shut down because the National Grid wasn’t able to cope with the power they were producing.

We are used to paying fixed prices for our power, but the fact is that it doesn’t cost the same through the day. At night, when demand has declined significantly, the electric utilities would love that you vacuum, run a washing machine, or charge your electric car, making better use of their capacity. During peak time, they would want you to increase the AC temperature, so they don’t have to fire costly backup generators to meet the demand.

The heart of the issue is our incredible inefficiency in storing electricity when it’s possible. We can’t store the surplus when wind is blowing harder or when sun is shining brighter. We can’t pack it in a box and export it. We have to rely on the grid when renewables can’t work,

As Elon Musk imagines it, the answer may lie in wide deployment of batteries. In fact, efficient storage might obviate any reliance on a centralised grid. Solar panels charging during day might provide for all consumption during night. Maybe, those same batteries could be used in electric cars and smoothen out the demand by consuming and supplying power when needed.

Whatever the solution holds us for the future, it was fascinating to learn about the nuts and bolts of the energy system. One that is failing to keep up with the greener ways of making power.

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