I attended the 1st International Generation IV and Small Modular Reactors conference Wednesday and Thursday, November 7 & 8, 2018 in Ottawa, ON, Canada, presented by Canadian Nuclear Society and Canadian Nuclear Laboratories. The conference also included a workshop on Tuesday, November 6, involving small modular nuclear reactor vendors interacting with supply chain vendors, which I did not attend.
Marie Curie, physicist (7 November 1867 – 4 July 1934) once stated “Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less”.
Much of Marie Curie’s career was spent studying radiation. Radiation is not well understood by the general public today. For example, most likely don’t know one “can’t even eat a simple banana without getting exposed to radiation”. This article from University of California compares various radiation exposure situations such as dental x-rays, airplane flights, CT scan, cigarette smoking, etc via the “banana equivelant dose”.
Electricity is a critical source of energy for today’s modern societies. With global population set to grow to close to 10 billion by mid-century (from about 7.5 billion as of this writing), increasing urbanization and billions needing more electricity access to climb out of poverty, the global demand for electricity is projected to only increase. Electricity grids around the world will need to grow and increase, while at the same time, continue to provide reliable, on-demand services.
This post will discuss three requirements for reliable, on-demand electricity services and also address the topic of deep decarbonization of electricity generation (climate scientists tell us we need to reduce carbon dioxide [CO2] emissions quickly). Electricity generation sources that can meet at least two of these three requirements will then be examined. For deep decarbonization, the International Energy Agency recommends CO2 emissions to not exceed 100 grams CO2 emitted per kilowatt-hour (CO2ge/kWh). Each electricity generation CO2ge/kWh number is taken from the median here.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) publishes monthly electricity production statistics, cumulative for the current year and comparison for the same time period of the previous two years. The particular report up to the end of December 2016 does of course show the most recent three complete years of statistics, therefore, it is the one that was used for this post. It contains data for mostly OECD countries and therefore, does not include China and India (The USA Energy Information Administration has published detailed energy posts of these two countries, which the links point to).
The IEA also publishes grams of CO2 emitted per kilo-watt hour (averaged out on an annual basis). This detailed report created by Bernard Chabot is the best source I have found for this number (page 135 is data from an IEA 2014 edition, which is likely 2012 data). The IEA states that in order to meet Paris climate change agreements, electricity generation must be below 100 CO2 grams emitted per kilo-watt hour.
Data for several countries follows, with a brief discussion for some. As stated, these stats are accumulated electricity production for last three complete years (The category “combustible fuels” includes coal, oil, natural gas and biomass). This of course is not the full story about electricity production and operations because, for example, on electricity grids, output must match demand at all times and this point will be touched on at the end.
Most climate scientists tell us we need to greatly reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and fossil fuel use. Many traditional environmentalists tell us Germany is an example to follow to reduce CO2 emissions and fossil fuel use with their “Energiewende” or “energy transition” program. Its goal is to deploy renewable energy (which includes any or all of wind, solar, geothermal, hydro and biomass [which can be more CO2 emitting intensive than coal]), decommission nuclear power plants and reduce CO2 emissions and fossil fuel use (amongst other goals).
It is therefore worth examining how Germany has changed their electricity system. They have a great site that keeps details statistics since 2002, is interactive and is what was used for most of the graphics below.
We start with 2016 electricity generation stats, we can see that black and brown coal are the dominant source of electricity, followed by nuclear.
A critique of the paper 100% clean and renewable wind, water, and sunlight (WWS) all-sector energy roadmaps for the 50 united States, by Mark Jacobson et al
If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it 20 times. “Jacobson has shown that we can power the electric grid totally with renewables”, or words to that effect.
That idea comes up at every conference, Sierra Club meeting, Q&A session after a presentation, or what have you. It’s reassuring to people who are concerned about the environment, so they cling to it. “Jacobson says…”
Jacobson has now gone them one better – that we can run our entire society, not just the present electric portion of it, totally with renewables. I’m not sure that conceptual leap has sunk in with the environmental community. It’s not just lights, TVs and toasters anymore. Now it’s cars and trucks, space heating /cooling, and all commercial /industrial activity including heavy manufacturing – our entire Primary Energy consumption.
The catch-phrase is “100% Renewable Energy Vision” and the scholarly paper is titled “100% Clean and Renewable Wind, Water, and Sunlight (WWS) All-Sector Energy Roadmaps For the 50 United States”, published in 2015. The scholarly paper’s shorthand designation is the 100% WWS Plan.
I’ve gone through the 100% WWS Plan at some length, and here’s my critique of it. Spoiler alert: The amount of land that it needs is vast; the amounts of money and material are enormous beyond your wildest dreams; and it won’t work.
This post was inspired by a tweet by Chris Nelder of the Rocky Mountain Institute (paraphrasing) “at this point we’re not even sure if we need nuclear power”. Lets examine this comment.
This graph below was taken from the BP Statistical Review of World Energy (reviews 2015 data).
We can see that energy use steadily increases over the years and oil is the top supplier of energy.
Decarbonizing electricity grids is critical to rapidly reducing carbon dioxide emissions and fossil fuel use. Globally, fossil fuels are the dominant form of electricity generation. Policies are being created to electrify transportation and heating, therefore, all the more reason to decarbonize electricity grids.
A challenge for electricity grid operations is the fact that supply must match demand at all times. I think of this somewhat like a bucket of water with holes in it, in which the water level must remain filled to the top constantly, and never overflow. However, the “holes” vary in size throughout any given day, smallest at times of least electricity demand (approx. 3AM) and largest at times of most electricity demand (approx. 6PM and also when air conditioning is at peak use). The electricity generation sources being analogous to water flowing into the bucket.
This is why flexible, or controllable, electricity generation sources are so critical, also referred to as dispatchability (load following is another similar term). Not enough electricity supply to match demand can cause brownouts or blackouts, too much and the electricity grid operator may be forced to “dump” the excess electricity generation to a neighboring electricity grid at a financial loss. Curtailment (reduce, or possibly completely eliminate, electricity generation for a time) is another option when there is excess electricity generation, but this generally costs the electricity operator to pay the specific generation source operator to do so.
The electricity grid operator in Ontario, Canada is experiencing such financial challenges as it deploys more non-dispatchable, intermittent, asynchronous, weather-dependent wind turbines.
Germany has regularly experienced similar financial challenges when weather-dependent renewables over produce in relation to electricity demand, for example early May 2016.
Another metric that requires serious consideration is capacity factor. For example, wind turbines may have a capacity factor of 35% (eg, a 100 megawatt (MW) wind farm, over an annual basis, may have an average output of 35MW). It seems high pressure weather systems are getting larger in size and lasting longer in duration (high pressure systems generally mean minimal wind). Today, if the wind is calm, that electricity generation gap is generally filled with natural gas (it is currently the most flexible and inexpensive dispatchable source, specifically in USA). What happens if a wind farm operates at 100 percent of its capacity? It depends on the demand at that time, its output could help meet demand or if demand is low, curtailment may be required. In the future, nuclear could be a zero-carbon source of dispatchable electricity generation. Nuclear is occasionally operated for load following in some parts of the world, for example, France and Germany.
Other factors to consider for electricity generation and grids is Levelized Cost of Electricity and System Value of variable renewables, ie wind and solar (“it is determined by the interplay of positives and negatives”), as described by the International Energy Agency.
California captures detailed data of their electricity grid operations. We see that the least amount of electricity consumed at any given time is about 18 gigawatts (GW). Therefore, they could likely support almost this amount in baseload generation capacity (the linked post to baseload also contains a brief discussion regarding storage).
Ben Heard describes “Ancillary Services“, the criticality of synchronous generation on electricity grids for voltage and frequency control. Bellingham Technical College has created a four-part (five minutes each) youtube series entitled “Synchronising AC (alternating current) generators“. Enron didn’t seem to account for these complexities, amongst others, when it deregulated electricity grids as outlined in “What’s Wrong with the Electrical Grid“, from the article “for an AC power grid to remain stable, the frequency and phase of all power generation units must remain synchronous within narrow limits. A generator that drops 2 Hz below 60 Hz will rapidly build up enough heat in its bearings to destroy itself. So circuit breakers trip a generator out of the system when the frequency varies too much. But much smaller frequency changes can indicate instability in the grid. In the Eastern Interconnect, a 30-mHz drop in frequency reduces power delivered by 1 GW”. With regards to electric grid stability and reliability, the Energy Policy Institute of Australia wrote a short, to the point paper entitled “The ‘Pressure Cooker’ Effect of Intermittent Renewable Generation in Power Systems“.
An expert workshop was conducted in July 2015 and it outlined the challenges of decarbonizing an electricity grid, detailed here.
Armond Cohen, Executive Director of Clean Air Task Force, presented on the findings of this workshop (28 minute+ presentation), titled “Solving Climate: The Need for Zero Carbon On-Demand Power“.
Feel free to add to the conversation on twitter @tder2012
Sir David MacKay passed away this week. He made great contributions regarding climate change and energy.
He had much respect for math, science, engineering and the laws of physics, chemistry and thermodynamics. We would all do well, for the sake of the future of this planet and all its occupants, to hold as much respect for these as Dr. MacKay did. He also had a solid understanding, to say the least, of all of these.
His eminent book “Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air” should be required reading for anyone having influence or creating energy and climate change policies. (Some consider “Sustainable Materials With Both Eyes Open” a companion book).
Dr. MacKay also played a critical role in developing the Global Calculator “The Global Calculator is a flexible tool that allows you to explore thousands of options to help you gain your own insights into the world’s energy, land, food and climate systems”.
Dr. MacKay did a TED Talk entitled “A Reality Check on Renewables“.
Bill Gates wrote “Remembering David MacKay”
I’m sure there are several other publications, blog posts, lectures, etc well worth the time to explore. I’ll include one more, from the University of Oxford and “The Secrets of Mathematics” series, a lecture entitled “Why Climate Change Action is Difficult and How We Can Make A Difference“. Sir David MacKay’s good friend, Mark Lynas, wrote a touching piece “What David MacKay taught me, and taught us all” and also conducted his last interview.
Feel free to add to the conversation on twitter @tder2012
Mark Jacobson (senior fellow Stanford University Precourt Institute for Energy and author of “The Solutions Project“, 100% renewable energy by 2050) claimed nuclear is being replaced by wind and solar, OnPoint podcast of December 3, 2015 (start listening at the 40:30 mark). He is likely referring to nameplate capacity, but not actual energy produced. When reviewing the USA’s Energy Information Administration stats and comparing electricity production for the entire years of 2014 and 2015, it is clear that when coal and nuclear are shut down, their production is replaced almost entirely by natural gas, which Josh Freed stated in that same podcast (39 minute mark).
This piece points out that wind and solar grew 20,659 MWh from the entire year of 2014 to the entire year of 2015. It does not mention that natural gas grew by 208,459 MWh during that same time period (although one can see that when viewing the graphics within the article).
For more comparison of USA electricity generation, see graph below.
Feel free to add to the conversation on twitter @tder2012