Jon Wellinghoff, Chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, made some interesting comments yesterday at a U.S. Energy Association forum. According to the NY Times, Wellinghoff believes that "no new nuclear or coal plants may ever be needed in the United States" and that "renewables like wind, solar and biomass will provide enough energy to meet baseload capacity and future energy demands." If only it were that simple...
Of the many things I disagreed with from Mr. Wellinghoff's statements, the comments on baseload capacity and the poor analogy of distributed generation are what stuck out most to me. From Wellinghoff:
"I think baseload capacity is going to become an anachronism," he said. "Baseload capacity really used to only mean in an economic dispatch, which you dispatch first, what would be the cheapest thing to do. Well, ultimately wind's going to be the cheapest thing to do, so you'll dispatch that first."That is not the complete definition of baseload. Baseload capacity also means reliable, constant power to meet the minimum load requirements. Wind, which is supposedly "going to be the cheapest thing to do," does not produce reliable, constant power. Here's what a recent NERC report titled "Accommodating High Levels of Variable Generation" had to say (p. iii):
As the level of variable generation increases within a Balancing Area, the resulting variability may not be manageable with the existing conventional generation resources within an individual Balancing Area alone. [In other words, when you throw enough variable resources into an area that already provides reliable power, the area may become unmanageable.] Base load generation may need to be frequently cycled in response to these conditions, posing reliability concerns as well as economic consequences. [Nevertheless...] if there is sufficient transmission, this situation can be managed by using flexible resources from a larger generation base, such as through participation in wider-area balancing arrangements or consolidation of Balancing Authorities.How much transmission would be needed? Here's page 35 of the NERC report:
15,000 miles of new transmission lines at a cost of $80 billion will be needed to meet a 20% wind energy scenario in the Eastern Interconnection.15,000 miles? That's almost twice the diameter of the Earth. The 20% wind scenario mentioned in the NERC report comes from this group which estimates that "229,000 MW of new wind capacity will be built by the year 2024, with 36,000 MW of new base load steam generation [just in the Eastern Interconnection]." Interesting how the study says that additional baseload generation is needed for new wind capacity to work, contrary to the FERC Chairman's statement. Here’s also what Sovietologist found in an EIA report that studied a 20% wind energy scenario:
Wind power cannot replace the need for many “capacity resources,” which are generators and dispatchable load that are available to be used when needed to meet peak load. If wind has some capacity value for reliability planning purposes, that should be viewed as a bonus, but not a necessity...Pretty much sums it up to me. Here's the other comment from Mr. Wellinghoff that I disagreed with most:
"People talk about, 'Oh, we need baseload.' It's like people saying we need more computing power, we need mainframes. We don't need mainframes, we have distributed computing."As Rod Adams already noted, we have "centralized servers, routing hubs, [and] switches" in order to have "distributed" personal computers. The electric grid needs a lot of hardware to move electrons as well, and unless we can make electricity travel through the air, the electric grid will always be this way. And is Mr. Wellinghoff saying that renewables are distributed?
My understanding is that distributed generation means "on-site generation" which "reduces the amount of energy lost in transmitting electricity because the electricity is generated very near where it is used." Well, according to FERC's sister organization NERC (pdf, p.ii),
fuel availability for variable resources often does not positively correlate with electricity demand, either in terms of time of use/availability or geographic location... Only seven percent of the U.S. population inhabits the top ten states for wind potential.That doesn't sound like distributed generation to me. In fact, it sounds like variable renewables will be more "centralized" than baseload coal or nuclear plants because the baseload plants can be built close to the cities/demand.
I highly recommend anyone and everyone to check out the latest NERC report (pdf) I mentioned above if they want to know how to accommodate more wind and solar renewables. The report finds that it's not as easy and cheap as the Chairman would like to believe and the report asks more questions than gives answers.
One more thing, if one of the US' and world's goals is to reduce emissions while maintaining our style of living, nuclear energy will have to be included in the mix. Independent analyses show that any credible initiative to reduce carbon emissions will require additional nuclear generating capacity. This fact is universally recognized by policy organizations at both ends of the political spectrum, national scientific organizations, independent consulting firms and government agencies around the world. Examples include the International Energy Agency, Cambridge Energy Research Associates, EIA's Analyses of the Lieberman-Warner legislation, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, McKinsey & Company and the Electric Power Research Institute.
Please be sure to check out these blogger's thoughts on Jon Wellinghoff's comments as well: Sovietologist at Blogging About the Unthinkable, Rod Adams at Atomic Insights, Natalie Wood at Clean Energy America, Carter Wood at NAM, Keith Johnson at WSJ and Brad Peck at ChamberPost. Also, Susan McGinnis on her show, The Energy Report at CleanSkiesTV, asked some challenging questions to the Chairman yesterday that is definitely worth viewing.
Update: Dan Yurman at Idaho Samizdat weighed in as well.