Tag Archives: power generation

A Three Question Climate Change Knowledge Test

Climate change is a scientific discussion that has been hijacked by political considerations.  Many people have strong opinions about climate change and too many of those opinions are based on political rather than scientific reality.   Politics are here, there and everywhere.  And the UN, a strangely political place, is the recognized world expert.  Need I say more.

With that in mind I have developed a simple 3 question test.  If you already know all the answers, congratulations!

Question 1. —  What is Climate Sensitivity and how does it impact the global climate debate?

Most people have never heard of Climate Sensitivity.  Some will be well aware of the idea, but not know the name.  Others are simply unaware of the arguments.  A general knowledge of how climate sensitivity is used by the global warming doom crowd is important.

Carbon dioxide is a weak greenhouse gas.  Water vapor and methane are strong greenhouse gases.   As carbon dioxide changes in the atmosphere, it is predicted to make changes in other climate variables.   IF the model assumes a high climate sensitivity to carbon dioxide then small changes in carbon dioxide cause big changes in climate.  Low sensitivity produces much less change.   Many UN modelers assume a fairly high carbon dioxide sensitivity.  This high sensitivity leads to “tipping points” and gloom and doom.

Climate models are run by computers. These computers use carbon dioxide as a key input variable.  They then predict temperature years and centuries into the future.   UN approved climate models do not agree with each other.   Models can vary by as much as 5 degrees C by the year 2100.

As time goes by computers get faster, more information becomes available and the models are adjusted.  Predictions made just 10 years ago have proven to be wildly high.  Either the climate sensitivity was too high or … they have failed to properly consider natural climate variation.

Question 2. — What is natural climate variation?

If you don’t get this one right, you’re really not paying attention to the science.

We live in an ice age time.  We have been in an ice age for the last 2.5 million years.  For the last 11,000 years we have been in the Holocene, an oddly steady period of climate history.  Climate during the Holocene has been warm and stable.  Ice cores go back about 700,000 years.  The Holocene is the only climate period during that time that has stayed warm for 11,000 years.   The norm is colder.  Much colder.

Here is a copy of a Vostok Antarctic Ice Corps showing climate variations at the drill site.

This chart starts in the present time and then goes back 400,000 years.  Another widely used chart displays the last 50,000 years of the chart beginning at the oldest with the newest dates at the right:

It’s easy to see the Holocene.  20,000 years ago New York City was covered in ice…and 130,000 years the world was warmer than it is right now.   This wildly changing climate is called natural climate variation.

Now lets look at the last 10,000 years using a Greenland Ice Core:

This chart ends with year 2009.  Man has only been able to influence climate for perhaps 200 years.  Any variations seen before the beginning of the Industrial Revolution (the blue on the chart) must, by definition, be something that man did not cause.  Three times in the last 10,000 years it has been more than a degree warmer than it is right now.

What change is natural and what is man caused?  This is one very difficult science problem.

Question 3 — How is electricity stored?

This is a bit of a trick question.  Generally, electricity is not stored.   Power generation is an on demand business.  You turn on the light switch, the utility provides the electricity and the lights go on.  The utility grid has a bit of excess capacity running all the time so that it can maintain a stable grid.

A small amount of electricity is stored in batteries, but batteries are expensive and have manufacturing and disposal problems.  Batteries are not now a viable option.  People are working hard to solve this problem.   But in science, wishing doesn’t make it so.  When the solution is found…we can consider it, but for right now we have to look at what is available today, not what might be there in 10 or 20 years.

Electricity is not stored, any electricity provided must be immediately used by the grid.  Electrical demand varies throughout the day and the electric utility has to vary production to meet that demand.  Demand usually peaks just before sunrise and again in the early evening.  Wind and solar are only available when mother nature feels like it.  Germany, the largest solar power market in the world is so far North that solar provides almost no power in the winter.   Munich, which is in Southern Germany, has the same latitude as International Falls, Minnesota.

The Energy Information Administration (EIA) releases statistics every month on power generation in the USA.  Here is the data for a 12 month rolling average including October 2015.

Coal   Natural Gas    Nuclear    Hydro     Solar     Renewable (inc. wind)

35%         32%              19%           6%           0.6%                          7%

Natural gas burns much cleaner than coal but does create some carbon dioxide when burned.  Hydro and Nuclear are clean (from a carbon dioxide perspective)   All four are unpopular with environmentalists for various reasons and they represent about 92% of all power production.

Wind is the most difficult to predict alternative fuel, and it’s the least reliable.   Places with lots of wind relative to other sources of power have odd things happen from time to time.  When the wind really blows, Germany gets so much power from wind that they have to pay neighboring countries to take the energy.  A US utility made news a few months ago when it gave away electricity during peak wind production.  A  cheap reliable battery network would fix this problem.  Unfortunately none exists right now.

Whenever I encounter a global warming true believer I ask them the same simple question.   What is your opinion on Nuclear Power?  Coal represents 35% of total load now and most environmentalists want that at zero.   Where is that capacity going to come from?   There is only one currently available source that can bridge the gap to a better world with wind, solar and cheap batteries and that choice is Nuclear.

Which of course begs the question.   What do you fear more, Nuclear Power or global warming?  I myself am skeptical about the science that touts global disaster, but they could be right.  On the chance that they might be at least partly right…. I support more Nuclear Energy.  How about You?


Ooops — A Power Failure just after sunset

While I don’t really believe in signs, I must admit, the last week I spent in Honolulu provided the encouragement I needed to give Kailua-Kona a try.   Honolulu was encouraging me to find someplace else to be.  It had been a great 4 week stay full of Saimin, Portuguese Sausage, papaya and walks on Kailua Beach.

It all started when the good folks at the Honolulu Board of Water Supply decided to replace a water main in front of my Hawaii residence location.  This 8 to 10 month long process was spectacularly noisy.  Hours were spent listening to a saw cut strips in asphalt.

A few days later, on Monday January, 12th,  I went for a drive to a favorite beach of mine near Kaena Point.  I got caught in an 90 minute traffic mess because the city closed one lane of the Farrington Highway.  90 minutes to go a bit over a mile.

Later that evening, shortly after sunset, on a windless night, the power system got stressed by the anticipated evening peak. The utility issued a series of rolling blackouts to prevent total system failure. People watching the National Championship Football game were not pleased.

Hawaiian Electric (HE) has not constructed a new peaking power plant since 1991.  The most recent plant of significant size (a 130 megawatt plant) was built by a private firm in 1992.  That’s a long time without significant power additions.  Plants get old, technology changes, new loads get added.   The traffic mess that is Kapolei did not exist in 1992.   No wonder the grid is stressed.

Hawaii needs 4 old plants to operate properly for the city to stay lit at night.  Three oil fired plants owned by the utility and one owned by a private firm, AES.

AES constructed it’s plant in 1992, some 22+ years ago…and it’s…are you ready for this… coal fired with coal imported from Indonesia!  This 130 megawatt plant  burns an odd assortment of waste in addition to the coal.  Old tires and waste motor oil provide fuel for the plant. The plant uses an old technology to clean the coal exhaust. On the plus side, it does get rid of lots of hard to handle waste, on an island that has little surplus land.

In 2010, the utility began the process of converting existing oil plants to algae based biodiesel.   And in 2014, they included biomass as a future feedstock in the coal plant contract.   I worry that converting existing peaking plants might put the grid at risk, should the new technology not work as well as advertised.

It’s never a good idea to be first to market using a new technology.  It’s generally a good idea to go second or even third.  Our optimistic nature produces rosy scenarios that are nearly impossible to meet in the real world.  We fail to anticipate problems. Many expensive mistakes are made as we learn.  Remember the Boeing 787 airplane, chock full of new technology.  It turned out OK because Boeing had the resources and time to make it work. The project was years late and billions over budget.

I remember something called the Healy Clean Coal Plant that was constructed in Healy, Alaska.

This new technology plant was supposed to burn waste coal cleanly.   The 300 million dollar plant was  completed in 1998.  It sits idle today…the victim of frequent plant failures, poor quality control during the test phase and a plethora of legal difficulties.

Hawaii politicians seem to be OK with the notion that evening power failures are part of the price Hawaii must pay for Hawaii’s clean energy policies.  I don’t get it.   It’s going to get worse.

Hawaiian Electric is not spending money to meet the peak demand and is spending money to stabilize the grid so that it can take more solar energy during the day.  Too much solar in remote locations has destabilized the grid, causing voltage surges.  This has forced the utility to limit new installations.

Generous subsidies have created a thriving solar business.  When the utility limits these installations, the utility has a significant PR problem.   Hawaiian Electric’s (HE) approach is to figure out ways to take more power during the day….and announce in advance when power failures are going to show up in the evening.

Spending money to expand the dirty old oil system is unpopular. Three main power plants provide the majority of Honolulu’s oil fired power.  The largest is the Kahe Oil Plant on Oahu’s west shore.  Between 1963 and 1981 this plant was expanded 5 times from 81 Megawatts of Power to the 661 Megawatts it has today.  Facilities at this plant are over 30 years old, with many facilities over 40 years of age.

The most recent major expansion of the Hawaiian Electric Oil system was completed when the Kalaeola Cogen plant was finished in 1991.  This “newer” Cogen plant  added almost 300 megawatts of power between 1989 and 1991.  The newest power generator in the system is 23 years old.

The third major oil fired plant, the Waiau Oil Plant provides a bit over 200 Megawatts.    I can remember driving by this plant in 1960.  Some equipment dates back to 1950, most of the generation was constructed in the 196o’s.

As HE approached the rolling blackout days, several HE oil plants were having difficulties and the coal plant was struggling too.  Peak capacity was severely limited as the utility struggled to get the failed units back on line.  No new peaking plants in over 20 years in a system that must exist without assistance from other operators.  Sometimes being on an island is a bitch.

HE has been pretending, literally for years, that their peaking problem does not exist.  It is only going to get worse as local politics trumps basic utility operations.   Algae based biodiesel might work, but it will probably be years late and billions over budget.

Goodbye Honolulu, hello Kona and all that geothermal power.


Hawaiian Electric gets Mainlandized

Hawaiian Electric Company has been Oahu’s power company for as long as I can remember and I can remember Hawaii in July of 1960.  Back then, Hawaii was going to stop using oil to generate electricity as soon as the population could justify a Nuclear Power Plant.

Nuclear long ago lost its luster and now the magic bullet has become clean energy.   Hawaiian Electric has been supporting all sorts of green alternates and has been saying whatever the local politicians wanted to hear.  Political realities have trumped economic realities and the Hawaii public has been paying for it all with higher rates.

Late last year Hawaiian Electric agreed to be purchased by NextEra Energy.  I’d suspect NextEra saw what I noticed….a company that ignores the real world in favor of the political.   NextEra says they like green energy, but they want all the subsidies eliminated.  Locals are  questioning whether the NextEra execs are being truly honest.  The local papers are full of it.

Solar power without adequate storage is not a viable solution for Hawaii’s energy problems for all the reasons I stated in my last post.   Hawaii has an after sunset peak that must be met with oil based generation. Dirty nasty oil.  Solar provides power when it isn’t needed and cannot provide it when needed…until better batteries are developed.

Hawaii has been following the German model.  Two complete energy systems, one renewable and one that uses fossil fuels operate side by side.  Germany has enough solar and wind to meet their peak when it is all working….but it never is all working at once.

Wind and solar power cannot be relied upon, day in and day out.  Utilities base load with other more reliable generation.  Whenever the wind blows in Germany, they get more power than is needed.  The utility is required by law to take it, which creates an energy imbalance. German Utilities sells the surplus to  neighboring utilities, something Hawaii will not be able to do.  The price of power at the German border moves around wildly.

In January of 2013, and again in 2014, the utilities bought power from the wind providers and could not find willing buyers.  They actually had to pay their neighbors to take the surplus power.  Utilities are slowly and steadily destroying their balance sheets as they are forced to buy high and sell low.

Too much solar power creates a similar problem for Hawaiian Electric.  The utility is forced to limit the number of rooftop solar installations…and the locals don’t understand why.  Too much power entering the system at unplanned places stresses the utility grid and provides no relief for peak demand.

Because the utility takes power when it isn’t needed and gives it back on peak, it is essentially buying high and selling low.

The utility is forced to maintain the old system and counts on it at peak, but there is less total generation using the grid.  Peak demand continues to rise, which forces additional investment from the utility. Costs go up but the revenue base fails to keep up as off peak demand actually goes down.  Throw in generous state tax credits for solar installations and you have a recipe for economic disaster if you are a power provider.

The new system doesn’t provide any peak assistance and yet it is heavily subsidized by everyone in Hawaii.  And since the utility and the State have not been particularly forthcoming about the negatives associated with green energy, the public doesn’t understand.   Unreasonable expectations are everywhere.

It looks like NextEra is going to try to finesse this problem by sounding positive on green energy but really being less positive than Hawaiian Electric has been.   Neither utility’s position is particularly truthful, but NextEra’s approach understands the economics of power generation.

I wonder though.  Island politics are tricky.  Perhaps Hawaiian Electric was right to stick their head in the sand and pretend the problems didn’t exist.  Hawaii’s politicians might simply shoot the messenger.  Time will tell.




Nuclear Power — One Fine Politial Mess

Nuclear Power politics has long fascinated me.   Whenever I meet a global warming gloom and doom  believer, I ask them if they support Nuclear Power.  Invariably they either oppose the issue or are confused by the question.  I have yet to meet one that interconnects the two issues.   This puzzles me.

Nowhere is this more puzzling than in Europe.  Britain has just decided to build two new Nuclear power plants.   The first new plant built since the Fukashima disaster of 2011.  It’s big news and the Chinese are big backers.   People all over the EU are up in arms.

Europeans are trying very hard to reduce man caused carbon dioxide in their lives.  And they are trying to avoid the political third rail that  is Nuclear Power.  Germany has walked away from Nuclear Power, France has pledged to cut production by 40% and Italy has delayed new Nuclear plants.

Japan has pledged to be Nuclear free.   China is building 20 new Nuclear plants.

Suppose, just suppose, that the global warming fear mongers are right.  If they are right, we must seriously change the way we make electricity.  Invariably the green community solution is renewable energy.   For most of the world that means wind or solar.   Hydro and geothermal can work when the environment is right, but most places where people live have neither.

The electrical utility business is an on demand business.   At any given time there must be enough power generation to meet that demand.   Demand varies throughout the day as this chart of New England demand prepared by the EIA demonstrates:

graph of electric load curve: New England, 10/22/2010, electric power demand (gigawatts), as described in the article text

Electrical energy demand peaks at about sunset in October.  Solar works best in the middle of the day.  Wind usually decreases as the Sun sets.   At 7 in the evening, the reality of the power utility business runs directly into the fantasy world of clean energy.   Clean energy become less available when it is needed most.   What are  we to do?

How do we, as a society, meet the evening peak?

No fair counting on technology that does not yet exist.   When a new way of storing electricity is developed, then we can plan on an electrical utility world that is not demand based.  Until then the power that is needed at 7:00 PM on a Monday night must be produced at 7:00 PM on that same Monday night.

Society has but three rational options.

  • Coal fired plants
  • Natural Gas fired plants
  • Nuclear energy fired plants

There are no other choices that will work ….right now.   Thus my confusion.  Only one of these options works well in a carbon doom and gloom society…Nuclear Energy.   So how is France going to reduce Nuclear Power use by 40% without impacting their carbon footprint?   And Japan?   And Germany?

The Chinese solution to the problem is Nuclear power plants….and the British have figured this one out too.  I wonder when the powers that be in the EU will decide.

So far, European politicians appear to be trying to have it both ways.  Clean energy and no Nuclear power.   What magical power source is widely available, carbon free and not Nuclear?  I don’t know of one.   If the IPCC is right, we have no choice.  We must produce less carbon dioxide.

Nuclear Power and carbon dioxide production are linked.  People all over the world appear to be pretending not to make a choice.  But that non choice is a choice.   Either people really don’t believe the IPCC rhetoric or they like living in a fantasy world.  And this puzzles me and has puzzled me for a really long time.

Each of us really does have to choose. Which is worse for the world, carbon dioxide or Nuclear power plants?