If you were one of the millions of people that watched the Super Bowl last Sunday, then you undoubtedly remember the blackout that stopped a fast-moving game in its tracks and held a group of people equivalent to the population of Mexico hostage for 34 minutes.
What you probably didn’t know was that the blackout came about as the result of this country’s enthusiastic embrace of renewable energy.
At least that’s what the folks at Peabody Energy would like you to believe. Coming out a few days after the game, in an opportunistic statement, Peabody Chairman and CEO Gregory Boyce claimed that “Coal is the world’s fastest growing major fuel and provides more electricity than any other energy source. Without coal, you might as well turn off half the lights not just for our favorite games but also for our cities, shops, factories and homes.” The statement was part of a press release, which that stated that the blackout served as a “Compelling Demonstration to Counter Those Who Envision [a] World Without Coal.”
Of course, this was nothing more than grandstanding on Peabody’s part.
Investigations as to the actual cause of the blackout are still in early stages, though it is already clear based on statements by Entergy, the utility that serves New Orleans, that there was no interruption of service to the Superdome, but rather, the problem was “on the customer side” of the connection. [Update: The cause has now been identified as a faulty relay, which ironically, is the electrical equivalent to a blowout preventer. There is still some question as to whether human error might have played a role.]
Peabody is no stranger to delusional thinking when it comes to the irreplaceability or the cleanliness of coal today or in the future. They retracted a statement on their website where they called themselves a, “Global leader in clean energy solutions,” changing it to “clean coal solutions,” after being called out on Andrew Revkin’s NY Times blog.
The company has long been an adversary to any and all efforts to regulate its environmental impact and its safety practices. Selected by ALEC , sworn enemy of renewable energy or anything else that threatens the hegemony of its members, for their Private Sector Member of the Year Award, Peabody was featured in one Sierra Club white paper entitled the “Anatomy of a Bad Corporate Citizen.”
Energy usage for the overall Super Bowl extravaganza was estimated at 4.6 GW including the stadium, area hotels and the convention center. The stadium had undergone a $336 million renovation in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Entergy had agreed before the game to donate 3.8 million pounds in carbon to compensate for the carbon generated during the event. That’s equivalent to keeping 359 cars off the road for a year (@29mpg).
Peabody’s suggestion that a move away from coal and towards renewables is bound to lead to blackouts is based on an outdated myth regarding the reliability of renewable energy. True, wind and solar power are intermittent sources. True, that presents special challenges to the maintenance of steady grid operation.
But technological progress aimed at integrating these unsteady sources has been considerable. According to the prestigious Nation Academy of Engineering (NAE), “Advances in power electronics have revolutionized wind turbine technology and led to the development of the doubly fed induction generator (DFIG)…. The highly efficient, variable speed DFIG is designed to extract maximum energy from the wind, and it puts out electricity at a constant frequency no matter what the wind speed.”
That is not to say that all the work has been done. There is, of course much left to do. The report continues, “Increased penetration of renewable resources has the potential to introduce major technological challenges that would have to be met to satisfy existing planning and reliability standards.”
But that does not mean we need to fall back on familiar old coal, no matter how much “Mr. Peabody” would like us to.
In California, for example the Independent System Operator (ISO) is already using advanced forecasting tools to help keep the grid in balance.
But to really get a more complete perspective on this issue, we need to look overseas to Germany where they just achieved a new grid reliability record of only 15 minutes of downtime for the entire year, despite the fact that they have the highest proportion of renewable electricity of any country in the world. Compare this with the US, where despite all of that “trusty old coal,” we experienced 240 minutes of down time per year, the highest among all advanced economies.
The problem is not with renewables, the problem is with the grid. One study reported in Scientific American, claims that the solution to grid reliability is to overbuild renewables, which are cheaper than electric storage systems, with the result that, according to a University of Delaware team, we can achieve 99.9 percent reliability by 2030. That would get us to 53 minutes of downtime, not as good as Germany, but far better than we have today. The team found that they could achieve 90 percent with wind alone, and the other 9.9 percent came by adding solar. Of course, even better reliability can be achieved with storage or the addition of traditional fossil fuel sources. The study did not consider some of the latest technology available, such as GE’s new FlexEfficiency generators, which, with their rapid start/stop capabilities, derived from aircraft engine technology allows them to integrate readily with renewables on the grid.
As for the grid itself, enormous investments are being made in smart grid technology, which has the capability to incorporate and manage a mix of energy inputs including renewables, allowing them to work together without interruptions. According to Pike Research, investment in smart grid technology is expected to reach $18 Billion by 2018.
This is likely a transient phenomenon, as the Chinese continue to diversify their energy sources, while recognizing the serious problems they are having with air pollution, water quality, unstable climate, food shortages and drought, all of which are exacerbated by the use of coal.
RP Siegel, PE, is an inventor, consultant and author. He co-wrote the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water in an exciting and entertaining format. Now available on Kindle.
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