Energy reliability: let’s do the study for Georgia

Which energy source is really more reliable? Nuclear, coal, or wind, water, and sun?

As Plant Vogtle and others have just demonstrated, nuclear power isn’t as reliable as we might have thought. Mark Z. Jacobson says we can generate reliable power from wind, water, and sunlight alone. Will that work in Georgia?

Elsevier’s policy of charging for peer-reviewed articles from scientific journals is controversial, and some people find $19.95 prohibitive to access Mark Z. Jacobson and Mark A. Delucchi’s Providing all global energy with wind, water, and solar power, Part I: Technologies, energy resources, quantities and areas of infrastructure, and materials from Energy Policy Volume 39, Issue 3, March 2011, Pages 1154-1169. Fortunately, the same authors wrote an earlier version for Scientific American, 26 October 2009, A Plan to Power 100 Percent of the Planet with Renewables: Wind, water and solar technologies can provide 100 percent of the world’s energy, eliminating all fossil fuels. Here’s how

A new infrastructure must provide energy on demand at least as reliably as the existing infrastructure. WWS technologies generally suffer less downtime than traditional sources. The average U.S. coal plant is offline 12.5 percent of the year for scheduled and unscheduled maintenance. Modern wind turbines have a down time of less than 2 percent on land and less than 5 percent at sea. Photovoltaic systems are also at less than 2 percent. Moreover, when an individual wind, solar or wave device is down, only a small fraction of production is affected; when a coal, nuclear or natural gas plant goes offline, a large chunk of generation is lost.
The main WWS challenge is that the wind does not always blow and the sun does not always shine in a given location. Intermittency problems can be mitigated by a smart balance of sources, such as generating a base supply from steady geothermal or tidal power, relying on wind at night when it is often plentiful, using solar by day and turning to a reliable source such as hydroelectric that can be turned on and off quickly to smooth out supply or meet peak demand. For example, interconnecting wind farms that are only 100 to 200 miles apart can compensate for hours of zero power at any one farm should the wind not be blowing there. Also helpful is interconnecting geographically dispersed sources so they can back up one another, installing smart electric meters in homes that automatically recharge electric vehicles when demand is low and building facilities that store power for later use.

Because the wind often blows during stormy conditions when the sun does not shine and the sun often shines on calm days with little wind, combining wind and solar can go a long way toward meeting demand, especially when geothermal provides a steady base and hydroelectric can be called on to fill in the gaps.

Critics complain that such load balancing would require new long-distance power lines. Living as I do in a place that gets most of its electricity from Plant Scherer, the country’s dirtiest coal plant, near Juliette, Georgia, which is farther away than the Georgia coast, where wind farms could be built offshore, I’m not impressed by that criticism. If Google can do it off the Atlantic coast from New Jersey to Virginia, Georgia could do it off the Georgia coast.

For Nuclear vs. WWS, see this video of Jacobson vs. Brand at TED.

I think Jacobson and Delucchi’s recommendation of hydroelectric is more problematic, since we don’t need more dammed rivers. However, energy storage by pumping water uphill, spinning flywheels, heating salt, compressing air, etc. may be able to meet the same need.

Once again, I call for a rewewable energy study for Georgia to find out.