Renewable energy

Electricity Blackouts Could Result from Green Energy Grid Woes


electrical grid
Zsoit Farkas: dreamstime

I am a technological optimist. Given enough time and the proper institutions, e.g., property rights, free markets, human beings can innovate around just about any problem, and create more wealth to boot. But do those conditions exist for the massive rollout of solar and wind energy that some policymakers and activists are demanding be done in response to their concerns about climate change?

An article, "Power Struggle: Green Energy versus a grid that's not ready," in today's Los Angeles Times looks into the problem of integrating the highly variable sources of renewable power into the electrical grid. As one power engineer asserted to me years ago, electricity is the only product that must be delivered to millions of customers as soon as it's produced and in the exact amounts that they want. As the Times reports:

Nobody can say for certain when the wind will blow or the sun will shine. A field of solar panels might be cranking out huge amounts of energy one minute and a tiny amount the next if a thick cloud arrives. In many cases, renewable sources exist where transmission lines don't.

"The grid is not built for renewable," said Trieu Mai, senior analyst at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

The frailty imperils lofty goals for greenhouse gas reductions. Concerned state and federal officials are spending billions of dollars in ratepayer and taxpayer money in an effort to hasten technological breakthroughs needed for the grid to keep up with the demands of clean energy.

How much money? The article cites a study suggesting as much as $1 trillion must be spent by 2030 to enable the grid to manage fickle renewable energy supplies. One paradox is that renewables can overload the grid forcing operators to dump power. As the Times reports:

Officials at the California Independent System Operator, which manages the grid in California, say renewable energy producers are making the juggling act increasingly complex.

"We're getting to the point where we will have to pay people not to produce power," said Long Beach Mayor Bob Foster, a system operator board member.

If federal and state governments insist on subsidizing low-carbon electrical power generation (and I am against all such subsidies), why not subsidize power sources that provide stable, rather than whimsical, supplies? Like, say, nuclear power? Perhaps small modular reactors or traveling wave reactors.

As I have explained elsewhere, I am attracted to the development of liquid fluoride thorium reactors because I think them "technically sweet":

One innovative approach to using nuclear energy to produce electricity safely is to develop thorium reactors. Thorium is a naturally occurring radioactive element, which, unlike certain isotopes of uranium, cannot sustain a nuclear chain reaction. However, thorium can be doped with enough uranium or plutonium to sustain such a reaction. Liquid fluoride thorium reactors (LFTR) have a lot to recommend them with regard to safety. Fueled by a molten mixture of thorium and uranium dissolved in fluoride salts of lithium and beryllium at atmospheric pressure, LFTRs cannot melt down (strictly speaking the fuel is already melted). 

Because LFTRs operate at atmospheric pressure, they are less likely than conventional pressurized reactors to spew radioactive elements if an accident occurs. In addition, an increase in operating temperature slows down the nuclear chain reaction, inherently stabilizing the reactor. And LFTRs are designed with a salt plug at the bottom that melts if reactor temperatures somehow do rise too high, draining reactor fluid into a containment vessel where it essentially freezes.

It is estimated that 83 percent of LFTR waste products are safe within 10 years, while the remainder needs to be stored for 300 years. Another advantage is that LFTRs can use plutonium and nuclear waste as fuel, transmuting them into much less radioactive and harmful elements, thus eliminating the need for waste storage lasting up to 10,000 years.

Finally, with regard to subsidies, in my fourth dispatch from the Warsaw climate change conference, I argued that cutting hundreds of billions in subsidies for fossil fuels and agriculture would help protect the climate from whatever damage increasing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases might cause.


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  1. You better watch out, Venezuela! The US is hot on your heels!

    1. Is this the “race to the bottom” anti-globalists have been warning us about? A race to see which country can shitcan its economy the fastest?

    2. During the September black-out, the president said that “the extreme right has resumed its plan for an electrical strike against the country”.

      Maduro or Obama?

      1. “During the September black-out”


    3. How is it that it’s 2013, but I don’t have a nuclear reactor of some sort to power my home?

      1. Because you’ve been naughty, and Santa Watts only delivers clean energy to good little boys. You get coal.

        1. That coal’s just for looking at dolefully, not burning.

      2. Screw the house. I want my nuclear powered pizza delivery car. And nuke powered rotary railgun. Gratuitously named after this magazine.

        1. Ultima ratio regum, bitches!”

        2. The Deliverator belongs to an elite order, a hallowed subcategory.

    4. You can seize a store exactly once. Then no more goods will flow through that business.

      Maduro is a marvelous case study for economics. BIG THANKS to the nimrods of Venezuela for electing him.

      1. Uh, I’m not sure they did elect him. I think a few poll workers there took some lesson from ACORN.

        That said, it is almost as if they want to provide more empirical proof for free market economists.

  2. The LFTR is a great idea, it is far from reality though. Getting a reactor approved in the US is almost a pointless task, especially one that is not a pressurized water reactor. But it is my favourite Generation IV reactor concept.

    Oak Ridge National Lab ran a pilot plant molten salt reactor for about 5 years in the 60’s so the concept is semi-proven in reality. But a full power reactor has never been built and if one ever is, I assume it will run purely on uranium. Thorium will come later as it adds a level of complexity to the reactors design.

    1. If they can railroad thru wind turbines, solar panel and high speed railroads, why can’t they railroad thru nuke plants?

      1. Because FYTW?

    2. The December 1984 issue of Omni mentioned aneutronic reactors that would use lithium. You’d need external power to generate the magnetic fields to collide the lithium atoms, then it could sustain itself, and they were saying these could be used to power office buildings. I never heard any more about that.

      1. It’s fusion, so it’s probably only 20 years away (just like it was in 1984).

    3. I assume it will run purely on uranium. Thorium will come later as it adds a level of complexity to the reactors design.

      Doubtful. While you can burn 235U and 239Pu quite well in an MSR you are left with two choices: start with enriched 235U/239Pu fuel which requires enrichment expense as well as the whole proliferation risk issue, or breed 239Pu by burning 235U along with 238U. The latter also leads to proliferation risks, arguably even more so since Pu is easily chemically separated from a fluid salt.

      Burning just 232Th transmuted into 233U doesn’t have that problem because 232U (hard gammas) contaminates the primary salt preventing 233U extraction (assuming you want to live long enough to make a bomb or don’t want to be easily detected) and 232Th is only fertile and not fissile. The proliferation risk comes entirely from the chemical processing step involving the intermediate 233Pa stage of the 232Th – 233Pa – 233U decay chain.

    4. Actually, they can be run denatured. Instead of having the Thorium and Uranium in separate streams and continuous fuel reprocessing, dump it all in together. Thirty years later a truck comes by, takes out the old one, sticks in a new one and done and done.

  3. I look forward to reading the book on LFTR wildcatters in a couple decades.

  4. “The grid is not built for renewable,” said Trieu Mai, senior analyst at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

    No kidding.

    1. Under the best circumstances, wind power can be efficient. There are areas where wind is fairly constant and blowing fast enough to generate power at a price comparable to coal. The problem is, these areas are generally not inhabited by many people. Might work for you, though. Also, it could provide power to the gas fields in western N. Dakota.

  5. LFTR will never work, because they do not dot the horizon prettily in the manner of massive wind generators. How are people supposed to feel all warm and smuggly without a visual reinforcement of their commitment to a better future?

    1. But not too close. The whirring will make the people bitch and moan and have amazing health problems. And the EPA will come after you for not having a permit to kill piles and piles of birds.

      1. Piles of birds which could be cooked to provide nutritious meals to the hungry? Free power and free food? Win-win.

  6. “We’re getting to the point where we will have to pay people not to produce power,” said Long Beach Mayor Bob Foster, a system operator board member.

    Why does every New Deal/Marshall Plan/Surge/5 year plan end up with the ineveitable “paying people not to produce”?
    Yeah, I know.

  7. Who would have ever thought that unreliability would be a problem with wind or solar. It’s not like skeptics have been suggesting as much for years or anything.


    Sometimes I feel that, in the political wold, anyone who thinks even marginally rationally is doomed to the fate of Cassandra

    1. That is because anyone who thinks rationally probably has a complete misunderstanding of how the political game is played and what the point of it is.

  8. They should just take a tour of Nellis AFB in Las Vegas, which gets about 25% of base power from its solar array, which is delegated to less critical systems.

    1. Is that the one Obama boasted about, that cost $100,000,000 to build and will pay for itself in only 100 years?

      1. JW & JL: When Obama visited Nellis to bless the solar panels, I calculated using Nellis figures that it would cost in the neighborhood of $18 billion to build a solar plant that would produce as much energy as a $1 billion gas-fired plant.

  9. Fluoride goes in water, not electricity.

  10. You would think by now some dictator somewhere would commission some scientists to come up with this shit in their country just to stick it to the US. And then when it works, sell it to everyone and become an even richer dictator. But I guess dictators are never evil genius dictators much to our shagrin.

    1. It’s the Chinese.

  11. Why doesn’t Elon Musk, SuperGenius! build a thorium powered luxury yacht to demonstrate the feasibility of this power source, instead of pissing away all that time and money on tarted-up golf carts?

    1. Because the golf carts get fat taxpayer subsidies?

  12. Still believing in the AGW religion Ron?

  13. A LFTR is not feasible. There’s no available material to separate the core from its blanket. Such a material must be last 40 years, be structurally stable, transparent to neutrons, resist fluoride, and fission product corrosion at 750 C.

    A simpler molten salt reactor (MSR) is feasible; we could start building it now. It would have nearly every advantage of the LFTR. Wait until a LFTR becomes feasible, then there’ll be no thorium MSR for many decades.

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