Pushing Renewable Power to 100 Percent

nsc_20180609-152x200As recently as the 1990s many experts bet that just a few percent of variable power from wind turbines and solar panels would destabilize power grids. How far we’ve come! Today the debate is about the feasibility of 100 percent renewable power, which appears to be the most likely route to decarbonized energy systems by mid-century — our best shot at avoiding truly extreme climate change.

Two of my recent feature articles take a hard look at what running grids on 100 percent renewable energy will take. My June cover story for NewScientist assesses the big picture, identifying the changes required in consumer behavior and power supplies and the technologies available to deliver them. My first feature for Scientific American, meanwhile, takes a deeper dive into power grids, and how weather smarts must be built in to make the most of weather-driven “fuel” such as winds and sunlight.

Both articles are behind paywalls online. One more reason to consider subscribing to two of the world’s top science magazines!

Advertisements

A Double First in China for Advanced Nuclear Reactors

The world’s first AP1000 unit has connected to the grid at the Sanmen nuclear power plant in China’s Zhejiang province. Photo: SNPTC

Call it the world’s slowest photo finish. After several decades of engineering, construction flaws and delays, and cost overruns—a troubled birth that cost their developers dearly—the most advanced commercial reactor designs from Europe and the United States just delivered their first megawatt-hours of electricity within one day of each other. But their benefits—including safety advances such as the AP1000’s passive cooling and the EPR’s airplane-crash-proof shell—may offer too little, too late to secure future projects.

Both of the design debuts happened in China late last month. On Thursday, 29 June, a 1,400-MW EPR designed in France and Germany synced up to the grid at the Taishan nuclear power plant. The next day the U.S.-designed 1,117-MW AP1000 delivered first power at China’s Sanmen plant.

Both projects are coming online years behind schedule, and they are still at least several months away from full commercial operation. But the real problem for the AP1000 and the EPR are the designs’ unfinished Western debuts.

Delays are commonplace in the nuclear industry. For instance, the Korean-built nuclear reactors originally due to begin starting up last year in the United Arab Emirates were recently pushed back to late 2019 or early 2020. But the AP1000 and EPR troubles are in a different league.

The AP1000 is designed to passively cool itself during an accidental shutdown, theoretically avoiding accidents like the one at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi. But AP1000 developer Westinghouse declared bankruptcy last year due to construction troubles, particularly at dual-reactor plants for utilities in Georgia and South Carolina. The latter abandoned their pair of partially built AP1000s after investing US $9 billion. The Georgia plant, initiated in 2012, is projected to be completed five years late in 2022 and at a cost of $25 billion—$11 billion more than budgeted.

Delays for the EPR, whose dual-layered concrete shield protects against airplane strikes, contributed to the breakup of Paris-based nuclear giant Areva in 2015. And the first EPR projects in France and Finland remain troubled under French utility Electricité de France (EDF), which absorbed Areva’s reactor business, Fromatome. The Finnish plant, started in 2005 and expected to take four years, is currently slated for startup next year, and deadlines continue to come and go. In June, Finnish utility Teollisuuden Voima Oyj announced that startup had slid another four months to September 2019.

The troubled EPR and AP1000 projects show that U.S. and European firms have lost competence in nuclear construction and management. ”It’s no coincidence that two of the four AP1000s in the U.S. were abandoned, and that the EPRs that started much earlier than Taishan’s in Finland and France are still under construction,” says nuclear energy consultant Mycle Schneider, principal author of the annual World Nuclear Industry Status Report. “The Chinese have a very large workforce that they move from one project to another, so their skills are actually getting better, whereas European and North American companies haven’t completed reactors in decades,” says Schneider.

This loss of nuclear competence is being cited by nuclear and national security experts in both the U.S. and in Europe’s nuclear weapons states as a threat to their military nuclear programs. The White House cited this nuclear nexus in a May memo instructing Rick Perry, the Secretary of Energy, to force utilities to buy power from unprofitable nuclear and coal plants. The memo states that the “entire US nuclear enterprise” including nuclear weapons and naval propulsion, “depends on a robust civilian nuclear industry.”

A letter sent to Perry last month by 75 former U.S. military, industrial, and academic leaders adds to the nexus argument, citing a statement from the Trump administration’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review about the United States’ inability to produce enriched uranium for nuclear weapons. “Re-establishing this capability will be far easier and more economical with a strong, thriving civil nuclear sector,” write the signatories.

Heavy dependence on China, meanwhile, puts the global nuclear industry in a vulnerable position. Total nuclear generation declined last year if one takes out China, notes Schneider. And he says a Chinese nuclear growth gap is coming, since it hasn’t started building a new reactor in 18 months.

For more than a decade, the AP1000 has been the presumed successor to China’s mainstay reactors, which employ a 1970s-era French design. Areva’s EPR was a fallback option. The Chinese government may now wait to see how the first reactors actually operate before it approves a new wave of reactor construction.

All the while, nuclear is falling further behind renewable solar and wind power. As Schneider notes, the 3.3 GW of new nuclear capacity connected to the grid worldwide in 2017 (including three in China and a fourth in Pakistan built by Chinese firms) pales in comparison to the 53 GW of solar power installed in China alone.

This post was created for Energywise, IEEE Spectrum’s blog about the future of energy, climate, and the smart grid

SPECTRUM: “Swarm Electrification” Powers Villages in Bangladesh

SOLSHARE image 1489315010

SOLshare’s power controllers link up homes or businesses to form a DC distribution grid. Image: ME SOLshare

Bangladesh hosts the world’s largest collection of off-grid solar energy systems. Rooftop panels and batteries electrify over 4 million households and businesses there. The Dhaka-based startup ME SOLshare believes it has the technology to link these systems and foster a solar energy-sharing economy. If the company succeeds, home systems will morph into village minigrids, offering wider access to more power at lower cost.

SOLshare’s European founders—Sebastian Groh, Hannes Kirchhoff, and Daniel Ciganovic—conceived their “swarm electrification” power-sharing platform during grad-school brainstorming sessions in Germany and California. The three moved to Dhaka to define, engineer, and launch their product, starting with power measurements in off-grid solar homes.

What Groh and his cofounders discovered upon arrival in 2015 was plenty of spare power going to waste. Typically, the batteries in home systems are sized to capture the power generated during the relatively dim monsoon season. As a result, during much of the year there is extra power available that isn’t captured. On average, about 30 percent of each system’s potential output is lost.

SOLshare’s technology is designed to share this extra power.  A smart power controller, called a SOLbox, is installed in each home or business and linked with cables to other local SOLboxes to form a DC distribution grid. The SOLbox enables users to set how much power they want to share with or draw from the network, and at what price…

… READ ON AT SPECTRUM.IEEE.ORG

SPECTRUM: Exposing the Power Vampires in Self-Driving Cars

800px-Waymo_Chrysler_Pacifica_in_Los_Altos,_2017

Drag from rooftop sensors makes Waymo’s self-driving minivan an energy hog. Photo: Wikimedia/Dllu

By driving smarter, autonomous cars have the potential to move people around and between cities with far greater efficiency. Estimates of their energy dividends, however, have largely ignored autonomous driving’s energy inputs, such as the electricity consumed by brawny on-board computers.

 

First-of-a-kind modeling published today by University of Michigan and Ford Motor researchers shows that autonomy’s energy pricetag is substantial — high enough to turn some autonomous cars into net energy losers.

“We knew there was going to be a tradeoff in terms of the energy and greenhouse gas emissions associated with the equipment and the benefits gained from operational efficiency. I was surprised that it was so significant,” says to Greg Keoleian, senior author on the paper published today in the journal Environmental Science & Technology and director of the University of Michigan Center for Sustainable Systems. Continue reading

Bomb Cyclone Exposes Perry’s Subsidy Fallacy

6517601851_28656781e0_z

Pilgrim Nuclear Power Plant: Looks good on a sunny blue sky day, but didn’t weather the storm. Photo: NRC

Extreme weather events have knocked both nuclear and coal-fired power plants offline in just the past six months, undercutting the Trump Administration’s argument that subsidizing these aging energy generators is crucial for bolstering grid stability.  The latest failure came late last week when Winter Storm Gregory forced a nuclear plant in New England offline, ratcheting up the challenge facing grid operators amidst the “bomb” cyclone’s high winds and freezing temperatures. Continue reading

Circuit Reclosers Probed as Potential Cause of California Fires

Reclose

Automatic circuit recloser generating sparks at a simulated line fault. Photo: S&C Electric

Wind-swept fires that killed more than 40 people in California in recent months have also jolted the state’s biggest utilities, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) and Southern California Edison (SCE). The utilities have had to work around the clock to keep power flowing to fire-afflicted communities, even as their equipment and policies face scrutiny as potential contributors to the deadly fires. California regulatorspoliticians and trial lawyers are querying SCE and PG&E’s tree trimming and line maintenance — common culprits in prior California fires — but they are also examining a utility device that produces sparks by design: automatic circuit reclosers.

Automatic reclosers are pole-mounted circuit breakers that can quickly restore power after outages, but they can also multiply the fire risk from damaged lines. While SCE is adjusting recloser operations to reduce fire risks, PG&E’s practices are less clear. And only their neighbor to the south — San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) — is tapping advanced recloser technology that is safer by design.

Reclosers make quick work of many line faults, the great majority of which result from temporary insults such as a branch striking a line or the electrocution of an unlucky squirrel. As Australian recloser manufacturer NOJA Power puts it: “Like the success of Vanilla Ice, Dexy’s Midnight Runners and Devo, most network faults are transient.” In such cases the recloser detects a power surge, momentarily interrupts electricity flow, and then automatically re-closes its contacts to restart flow down the affected line.

Reclosers usually try restarting a line 2-3 times before giving up and “locking out” a line. Sometimes multiple attempts are needed to do the job, writes NOJA Power, such as when high-temperature electrical arcing at the site of the fault burns away hung trees or tree limbs.

Under the wrong conditions, however, such arcing and ignition can obviously spark a fire. Reclosers contributed to several of Australia’s deadly Black Saturday bushfires of February 7, 2009, according to the official report of the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission. Continue reading

Mexico Border Wall Won’t Stop Cross-border Power Push

Relations between the United States and Mexico are strained at the national level, with President Donald Trump pushing his promised border control wall and demanding a U.S.-favored rewrite of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). But Mexico and the southwestern states have continued working towards an international agenda for electricity, and regional players are talking up a first set of projects due to be completed before Trump’s term is up — projects that put the region on a path to a far more electrically-porous border.

These projects include a trio of new crossborder links between California, Arizona and Mexico to be completed in the next three years. They also include grid studies, revised market rules, and new power lines within Mexico that could rapidly expand flows over all of the U.S.-Mexico interties. “The proposition right now is fairly small because the interconnections are small. But that’s going to change,” says Carl Zichella, director for Western transmission at the Natural Resources Defense Council. Continue reading