Several years ago I was asked to speak at a green energy conference in Portland, Oregon, U.S. I predicted that, at best, wind and solar energy would enable us to meet load growth. I just couldn't envision a scenario where wind and solar energy would replace existing generation in the foreseeable future.
Fifteen minutes after my presentation, while standing in line for lunch, I heard a lady in front of me tell her companions, “That last speaker was so ‘old school.’” I tapped her on the shoulder and said, “That last speaker was me.” I was met with icy stares, eerie silence and maybe a little flush of red. Looking back, I'm not sure why I was invited to speak to this collection of rabid greens who thought we could solve the world's problems with a sprinkling of wind turbines and solar cells to power our homes and businesses. Maybe attendees needed a target for their eco “darts.”
Actually, I have an environmental side, as do most of us. Those of us who make our living distributing electricity only want to understand the why before we invest our resources in the how.
WHY SHOULD WE BE INTERESTED IN GREEN NOW?
Our role is to deliver generated electricity to the customer regardless of the source. So, let's roll up our sleeves and come up with ways to deal with the problems inherent with connecting wind and solar facilities to the grid.
I am seeing a marked increase in the construction of large-scale renewable generation, particularly in the West. One major initiative is ongoing in California. San Diego Gas & Electric is proposing the Sunrise Powerlink Project, which would deliver hundreds of megawatts of solar, geothermal and wind power from the Imperial Valley to customers in San Diego. Having access to green power is key if California utilities are to meet the state requirement that 20% of electricity be renewable by 2010.
WHAT ABOUT COAL?
For the next 200 to 300 years, we will have enough coal to power our fossil stations. Expect to see utilities build new coal-fired plants as the cost of natural gas rises. TXU Corp., the largest power-generation company in the state of Texas, has announced plans to boost coal-fired capacity in the state by 50%. Two new TXU coal plants are in the works, and TXU is also considering the expansion of existing coal-fired plants and conversion of natural gas plants to burn coal.
We can lean on our coal reserves in other ways, too. I expect increased investment in coal gasification facilities that will enable us to deliver coal by pipeline to existing natural gas-fired plants.
Of course, oil companies are often reduced to drilling in remote regions of the world and at depths unimaginable even 10 years ago. Chevron recently announced locating huge oil deposits some 270 miles (435 km) southwest of New Orleans, which could contain as much as 15 billion barrels of oil. But with the economies of China and India heating up, I expect new discoveries will only help us break even for a decade or two.
THE BIOFUELS FAD
Biofuels are the latest renewable fad in the Midwest United States. Right now, venture capitalists are investing in plants to convert corn into ethanol and bio-diesel. An ethanol plant is being expanded right here in Kansas. But we can't afford to allot our entire landmass to the development of biofuels. I just read that if all the corn grown in the United States were converted to biofuels, it would meet only 10% of the need.
So, what other paths might we take down the energy road? Several state commissions have mandated that 15% to 20% of electric capacity be generated by renewables over the next decade. If utilities manage to hit these targets, we could indeed leverage renewables to keep up with the 2% to 3% load growth we are experiencing in this country.
WHAT ABOUT WIND
The growth in wind generation over the past decade has been quite impressive. I attribute some of this growth to tax credits and state environmental activists. I don't have a problem with credits. If you dig into the history of energy, you will find that most of our energy options have been subsidized in one form or another.
Regardless of the drivers, we are seeing the emergence of truly enormous wind farms throughout the developed world. States with significant wind near urban hubs are making the most progress. Although there is a disconnect between when the turbines spin and when the peak load occurs, wind continues to make headway. We've seen a real breakthrough in technology in wind turbine design and construction and we've also seen the emergence of mega-turbines. A 2.5-MW-prototype wind turbine has been installed in the Netherlands, and we should see the first 3-MW machines installed in Europe this year. Of course, connecting wind to the grid has increased stability concerns resulting in harried moments for operators, but some European countries are managing to cope even with 30% of load being provided by wind. To increase the penetration of wind further, we must find a way to store this energy, whether as compressed air in salt domes, in pumped storage hydro facilities or by converting to hydrogen.
NUCLEAR IS IN THE PICTURE
Although not strictly renewable, nuclear stations will play a vital role in meeting our energy needs for the next millennium. We really have no choice but to embrace nuclear. We already have access to inherently safe nuclear generating stations, and I anticipate we will find a way to address the spent fuel issue.
Many countries are already moving forward with the construction of nuclear plants. A search of the database of the World Nuclear Association lists plants under construction in 2006, with many more nuclear plants planned for the decades to follow.
A LOOK AT SOLAR
Solar cells have not made sufficient advances in efficiency to have a major impact yet. But we have other ways to convert solar energy to electricity. A huge solar farm is scheduled to be constructed in the California desert. Instead of traditional solar panels, this farm will use huge dishes to focus the sun's rays on the Stirling Engines company in San Diego. Edison International, a subsidiary of Southern California Edison, has announced the construction of a 500-MW, 4500-acre solar generating station to be located in the Mojave Desert, northeast of Los Angeles, California. When completed, this station will produce more electricity than all other U.S. solar initiatives combined. If pilots go as planned, a 20,000-dish array will be constructed over a four-year period that would provide sufficient power to serve 278,000 homes.
WHAT ABOUT HYDRO?
With exceptions, including the giant Three Gorges Project in China, we are unlikely to significantly expand our hydro output. Most utilities are focused on keeping what they've got by relicensing existing facilities. Hydro generators also find themselves under increased pressure to maintain sufficient discharge to accommodate boaters, fishermen, rafters and barges.
WHAT ABOUT FUTURE GENERATIONS?
If we are willing to look out a scant 300 or 400 years — a mere blip on the human history time line — we will have consumed most of the world's coal along with accessible natural gas and oil. So, whether we like it or not, we will find ourselves in a nuclear and renewable world, unless we manage to unlock the holy grail of nuclear fission. As we increasingly look to green solutions, the power-delivery industry needs to develop grid solutions that will enable us to hook up generation in all of its forms, whether massive remote power stations, regional mid-sized generation or even distributed generation.
|Kursk-5, Russian Federation||LWGR/RBMK|
|Tianwan-2, China, mainland||PWR/VVER|