Where is the electric grid headed?

19 11 2014

Followers of this blog will know my enthusiasm for solar power as a silver bullet for our future energy predicaments has waned, and in particular, my love affair with grid tied solar is over.  I have also been doubting for quite some time that the future of the electric grid is secure, and have on occasions discussed stand alone solar power as a possibility for those of us who are aware of the coming dilemmas to stretch their energy horizon a little further and make the inevitable energy descent less painful.  Well, it seems, this theme is catching on, even making it to what I consider to be mainstream internet sources.

Recently, on the Climate Spectator website (an arm of Alan Kohler’s straight as a die Business Spectator financial website), an article titled “Solar wins! Zombie-grid a dead man walking” began with this paragraph:

The grid financial model will collapse within 10 years, as millions of Australian households flee for the new, disruptive and cheaper alternative. This change will be as big as the conversion from horse and cart to motor vehicle, film to digital camera and the typewriter to the laptop.

I nearly fell off my chair…… because let’s face it, if the collapse of the grid financial model is not soon followed by total collapse, I would eat my hat.  The reasons the author – Matthew Wright CEO of Beyond Zero Emissions – gives for this prediction are:

Modeling by Zero Emissions Australia shows that an ordinary, but all-electric, household using off-the-shelf efficient electric appliances could be off the grid for between $30,000-$40,000 today and $12,000-$20,000 in 2024.

This is based on the following representative example of electricity demand charted below for an all-electric five-person household in Melbourne.

Example: One year of average monthly demand for all electric household in Melbourne (5 occupants).



Source: Powershop, Zero Emissions Australia

Households can install and size their off-grid solar system now and change their redundant gas appliances (stove top, gas hot water and gas heating) over later. Or, given that the price is going to be right to leave sometime in the next 10 years, they can start their electric conversion journey now. Ditching gas and the power grid starts by installing an oversized solar system (11-15kW) on the north, east, west and possibly even flat-racked. Indeed you can place it on the south face which captures diffuse light when its cloudy – which contributes over half of all generation during the middle of winter (more on that in another article).

10kW PV System

10kW PV System

I’m frankly AGHAST!  I wonder if Matthew has even ever seen a 10kW PV system (let alone a 15 kW one…)  One of my neighbours has such a large system on his roof, installed before Energex put their foot down and limited grid tied systems to 5kW, and it looks like the photo opposite.  Bear in mind this house was designed for solar to begin with, faces true North, built with a skillion roof, and is bigger than our place by some margin at 250m².  And yet, its roof is completely covered….  Try that on a standard McMansion hipped roof….

Consumption is consumption, whether it’s PVs or whatever, and at least KC exports 90% or more of what power his system produces, he doesn’t actually need it to run his house!  Any household that needs 11 to 15kW of solar has a serious efficiency problem that needs to be solved before spending “$30,000-$40,000“, and if Matthew believes such schemes are ways of dealing with Carbon emissions, he is seriously mistaken.

Then, he pushes heat pumps for water heating rather than solar……  I thought the title of this piece was “solar wins!”?  Why buy an electricity consuming gadget, even if very efficient, when there are alternatives that do not?  Matthew doesn’t even seem to understand the physics of energy with the statement “achieves Coefficient of Performance (COP) of ~4.0 or (400% efficient, yes that is possible)”  NO Matthew, 400% efficiency is NOT possible, COP is not efficiency…..  And you wonder why I have so many doubts about BZE’s green wet dream of 100% renewables for Australia?

But back to our grid problems.

“Industrialized countries face a future of increasingly severe blackouts, a new study warns, due to the proliferation of extreme weather events, the transition to unconventional fossil fuels, and fragile national grids that cannot keep up with rocketing energy demand” says Motherboard….

The paper published this September in Routledge’s Journal of Urban Technology points out that 50 major power outages have afflicted 26 countries in the last decade alone, driven by rapid population growth in concentrated urban areas and a rampant “addiction” to high-consumption lifestyles dependent on electric appliances.

Study authors Hugh Byrd and Prof Steve Matthewman of Auckland University, a sociologist of disaster risk, argue that this escalating demand is occurring precisely “as our resources become constrained due to the depletion of fossil fuel, a lack of renewable energy sources, peak oil and climate change.”

Blackouts, they warn, are “dress rehearsals for the future in which they will appear with greater frequency and severity,” they find. “We predict increasing numbers of blackouts due to growing uncertainties in supply and growing certainties in demand.”

The relentless growth in demand, 1300 percent from 1940 to 2001 in the US (and likely much the same here), is the obvious culprit with aircon requirements at the forefront.  And let’s not forget the coming new fad…..

Adding further pressure to future electricity demand is the rise of the electric vehicle, driven by efforts to mitigate climate change. Byrd and Matthewman note that in higher-income regions, switching entirely to electric cars would increase electricity demand by 15-40 percent. Even if we replaced all our petrol-guzzling cars with “highly efficient” electric cars, the new models would still consume about “twice as much electricity as residential and commercial air-conditioning combined.”

And as climate change brings warmer Summers and more intense rains to regions of North America and Australia, people resort to more and more air-conditioning to stay cool, another climate positive feedback loop maybe?

Worldwide, overall energy demand for air-conditioning “is projected to rise rapidly to 2100,” to as much as 40 times greater than it was in 2000. New York alone will need 40 percent more power in the next 15 years partly because the city will contain a million more people, aided of course by electrical appliances, elevators, and air-conditioning.

Yeah right….  like that‘s going to happen, with a failing grid model….?  The article even goes further saying “But in a slow-growth global economy hell-bent on austerity, the prospects for large government investments in grid resilience look slim. According to the global insurance company Allianz in an extensive report on blackout risks in the US and Europe, “privatization and liberalization” have contributed to “missing incentives to invest in reliable, and therefore well maintained, infrastructures.””

A new report by the French multinational technology firm CapGemini warns of a heightened risk of blackouts across Europe this winter due to the shut-down of gas-fired plants, competition from cheap US coal, and the big shift to wind and solar. Ironically, electricity surpluses from renewables have led to a fall in power prices and crippled fossil fuel utilities, which in turn has reduced the “electricity system’s margin to meet peak demand in specific conditions such as cold, dark and windless days,” according to the report.

So it seems the grid’s financial model in Europe is in just as deep a hole as Australia’s.  The more I think of the terminology ‘disruptive’ used to describe renewables, the more I think it’s accurate!  The increasing shift to renewable energy sources has, it appears, exacerbated the blackout risk not because they are bad at generating power, but because of the difficulty in integrating volatile, decentralized energy sources into old power grids designed half a century ago around the old fossil fuel model.  Something the BZE people just don’t seem to understand.

Take this for example:  Our friend Matthew Wright is at it again with “Imagine 1000 gigafactories – that’s what’s coming”

No doubt you have all heard of El on Musk, the CEO of Tesla, the electric car company.  “Tesla is everyone’s favourite motor car company, a darling of investors large and small. Rev heads who have driven a Tesla give it the nod” writes Matthew.  Well of course they’d give it the nod…. just like anyone who drives a brand new Range Rover would give that car the nod; after all, after driving our old bombs around, I’m sure I would be mighty impressed with a car worth some $70,000 too……

Musk’s gigafactories will be the world’s largest lithium-ion battery factory, and is expected to generate as much renewable energy as it needs to operate — and then some.  But is that thin line at the bottom right of the photo a road, or a mighty big cable going to Bolivia’s Lithium mines…?

Here’s the first problem with celebratory headlines over renewables: record renewable energy growth hasn’t stopped record fossil fuel burning, including record levels of coal burning. Coal use is growing so fast that the International Energy Authority expects it to surpass oil as the world’s top energy source by 2017.  And building gigafactories is only worsening the problem.

Mabe, the 1,500 gigawatts of electricity produced from renewables worldwide have prevented a further 1,500 gigawatts of fossil fuel power stations? Who can tell?  It’s just as possible that renewables have simply added 1,500 gigawatts of electricity to the global economy, fuelling economic growth and ever-greater industrial resource use. That being the case, far from limiting carbon dioxide emissions worldwide, renewables may simply have increased them because, as I’ve written many times before, no form of large-scale energy is carbon neutral.

And no one mentions the looming economic crisis having an effect on the grid’s reliability.  The future is taboo.  Watch this space…




11 responses

19 11 2014

I am wondering how long the grid will last here in the UK!

19 11 2014
John Doyle

Gail Tverberg has a relevant blog out today which also criticises renewables as substitutes, being net energy costs, not net energy benefits. The power grid, “The most complex system on the planet” is in trouble as well

19 11 2014
John Weber

Mike – To me the biggest problem with solar energy capturing devices (aka solar panels) is they are part of the fossil fuel supply system and a massive industrial infrastructure. The mining, refining, manufacturing, fabricating, installing and maintaining all are underwritten.
This infrastructure is not green, sustainable, or renewable. The making of these devices inadvertently but directly supports fracking, tar sands and deep ocean drilling because of the need for this infrastructure. In addition, the Energy Returned on Energy Invested (ERoEI) is very marginal for all solar devices. A study done in your own back yard – Energy in Australia: Peak Oil, Solar Power, and Asia’s Economic Growth By Graham Palmer. 2014. SpringerBriefs as well as others supports this assessment.
They won’t produce enough energy to reproduce themselves even with recycling.
Too many of us ask what can I do without? The world view behind that question needs to be assessed. We should be asking what do we need? We are moving into an era where we won’t have all the energy slaves at our finger tips. What do you need to have a fruitful, interesting, creative life.

19 11 2014
John Doyle

That is actually mentioned in Gail’s blog above [Graham Palmer’s research]
Just one of the Pitfalls she writes about.

19 11 2014

when you mention ‘grid’ the masses will only envisage the poles and wires in their street neighbourhood, they have no concept that the grid is masses of steel towers marching across the landscape, hen relay/repeater stations fitted in the shoot power off on steel towers to other far off places.

what will happen if this renewable idea is followed through the grid will collapse as there neve could be enough power to power the grid. if renewables is going to have any chance then it needs to be decentralised, that is each home/business must make their own power as ‘stand alone systems.

for this to happen the gov’ need to control all aspects so as to take components from the hands of profiteers. of course no subsidies no special pay back prices all that rubbery stuff will have to go.

but it won’t happen so buckle up and get ready for nuclear

good point above renewable components involve rare earth mining and plastics from fossil fuel industry, so it has its own grotty footprint.

19 11 2014

oh forgot to add renewable fields/farms are eco’ unfriendly they take up masses of area where habitat should be, think about it

19 11 2014
Susan Krumdieck

There is nothing at all wrong with the grid.

The electric power grids of the USA, Aus, NZ, Canada, and Europe could work just fine for hundreds of years.

All these power grids could work with 99.9999% reliability (not counting natural disasters)

All grids could work just fine carrying only 20% of the power going into them now.

The problem is Demand.
Growth in demand, large swings in demand, not being able to match demand to intermittent renewable supply, no capacity margin, and demand that is too high for the networks… Demand and non-dispatchable renewable energy are the risk, the problem, and that which we will not talk about.

19 11 2014

“but it won’t happen so buckle up and get ready for nuclear”

nuclear??? err ok if you say so!

16 05 2016
Doone Wyborn

Renewable aren’t going to keep western society going, nor can we continue to use fossil fuels. Every one of us needs to reduce our energy consumption to about 20% of current. Will we do this of our own accord? Certainly not. It will be collapse that forces it on us, then all will be sweet. No fossil fuels and low energy consumption.

16 05 2016

It will be 100% renewables, just not in the way many people think!

16 05 2016

The planet has ALWAYS run on 100% renewable energy…. yet not a panel or turbine in sight for billions of years……

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