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Peter Cochrane's Uncommon Sense: The Ups And Downs Of Power
"The societal machine has been finely honed to be very efficient but as a result it is now becoming very brittle."
Three years ago I was working with a number of groups in the US power industry and during many conversations I heard a common lament from managers and engineers on the state of the supply infrastructure, control software, differing operational practices, the impact of deregulation, the reduction in production capacity and ever-rising customer demand. Some were very specific in terms of the growing risks during times of freak weather conditions such as storms or prolonged hot and cold spells. All were deeply concerned about the ability of the industry to maintain continuity of supply. So the recent power outages along the eastern seaboard came as no surprise, although I had expected any significant event to occur in winter, and most likely during a storm, rather than midsummer!
What caused the biggest power outage in human history - plunging 50 million people into the dark - is still being investigated. What is clear, and has been clear for some time, is that the power distribution infrastructure is creaking, and deregulation has removed generating capacity when it is still needed. So the great city of New York - and two weeks later, almost exactly, London - was plunged into darkness and incapacity in a second, vast amounts of money were lost, and the first world suddenly looked like the third world.
Power supply is no longer a simple business. In most modern societies nuclear power is essential to provide the base load, which is usually around 30 per cent of the peak demand. The best efficiency can be achieved with the plant running at 90 per cent or so of its rated capacity but large nuclear plants are not suited to respond to sudden power demand changes.
Coal-fired plants are next in line, take an even bigger share of the load and address the slow demand changes, with oil-fired used to address rapid network demand fluctuations.
Hydro schemes can often span all these roles depending on climatic conditions but they are limited by geography and terrain and are often subject to drought and ice.
Beyond these are pumped storage systems that use lakes of water at differing heights in mountainous regions to turn the weight of water into instant electrical power. At times of excess power production water is pumped up the mountain and at times of great demand the water is allowed to flow back to generate more power.
Wave, wind, solar and other power sources are often second or third order contributors, and so reliant on weather conditions that they can generally be discounted unless they are in exceptional geographic regions of reliable wave, wind and sun.
It is difficult to generalise in the energy market and there are some notable exceptions, with France for example having more nuclear power stations than any other nation. So the model here is inverted. France is self-sufficient for energy and manages over production by exporting to other countries such as the UK. Other exceptions include Asia, Russia and South America, with huge hydro contribution potential.
A few more twists in the management of energy demand see the use of time zone differences across continents to share and smooth the overall loading. The scheduling of TV advertising to spread coffee and tea making, toilet flushing, anticipating popular TV programmes and other events are just a few of the more common load adjustment activities. Recent innovation has also seen the remote control of customer heating and cooling systems by power companies with zoned adjustments yielding a few per cent of the total load demand.
But the real problems are not about technology. In markets that have been deregulated we see good management replaced by ideology, and engineering replaced by politics. It takes a minute to decide to close a power station and a decade to plan and build one. When people and organisations are entirely profit and politics driven, then all the critical system decisions are driven in the wrong direction. Everyone wants to supply the long-term stable load because it is easy, highly efficient and very profitable. But the converse is true of short-term peak loading and the distribution infrastructure.
So will other first world countries experience similar outages to the east of North America and, indeed, London? I can almost guarantee it. Many have already created their own variant of this ticking time bomb and similar experiences can be anticipated. Another surety is that the cost of outages will waste more money than required to prevent the problem in the first place.
The US experience in particular was also a wake up call for other industries. Not only did the lights go out but the phones went dead, mobile phones stopped working and the internet died. How come? All of the network providers had taken advantage of years of reliable and unbroken power supplies to change their policies and save money by reducing the installation of battery back-up power and stand-by diesel generation plant. Bad engineering? No, greed and bad financial decisions.
In this new short-term environment companies are not engineering redundancy and reliability because it inflates costs by 10 - 30 per cent, which has to be passed on to the customer or comes off the bottom line, and thereby makes them fatally uncompetitive in the longer term.
Unfortunately the political and regulatory machine has either washed its hands of such issues or is not smart enough to recognise them. The real worry is that this is now commonplace in water supply, waste disposal, hospitals, manufacturing, food supply and just about everything else. The societal machine has been finely honed to be very efficient but as a result it is now becoming very brittle.
So what is the solution? Perhaps governments will bring together all the best people they can find to formulate national policies and regulations to build redundancy and resilience back into our systems. Don't hold your breath.
Or will individuals and groups take matters into their own hands? In the rural areas a minority are installing their own solar panels, standby generators, water and oil storage tanks and grow a percentage of their own food, stockpiling for anticipated shortages and emergencies. Will it have a significant impact? Not really. But it will most likely become a growing trend and market.
It seems to me that beyond the need for alternative power generation sources we really need an effective means of power storage above and beyond today's crude batteries. The technology for me to generate most of my home energy needs exists and may even be economic to install but the vital energy storage elements are still being researched. For now it will have to be a case of stocking up on torches, batteries and candles.
This column was typed in my garden under a 33oC sun delivering around 1kW/m2 for most of the day, when solar cells on my roof could have generated 300kWh of supply had I had the financial and storage means. Despatched to silicon.com via Wi-Fi and a high-speed network link.