Science & Technology

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.