Avoiding blackouts just by replacing reliable power sources with intermittent ones

just wait until the wind kicks in again

It keeps surprising me how many people actually think that electricity production by wind and solar is a continuous process. It probably has to do with the media that paints electricity generation of green energy as equal to that of fossil fuels, only cleaner. In that light this little message from Els Bonte (Dutch) makes some sense, although her naive thought made me laugh (translated from Dutch):

green electricity → less likely to get a blackout.
So join the group purchasing greenpeace green power!

It was made two years ago and was from a movement that wanted to make at least one nuclear plants redundant, in order to have less risk of blackouts in winter. It is beyond me how she could think that removing reliable sources from our power production and replacing them with unreliable sources would make our power grid more stable!? I think she didn’t gave it much thought.

I dismissed it as an isolated case of someone talking about something she didn’t know much about. Not many people could be that naive, wouldn’t it? Well, it seemed there are. After a while I realized that the short message was apparently shared across the internet. So not only the author found this plausible, also those who shared this message were digging it. I was puzzled. As far as I know it were intermittent energy sources that made the grid unstable. So how could they ever come to the opposite conclusion that green electricity means a more stable grid?

My light bulb moment came when reading the 2013 e-zine Reopening nuclear power plants increases the risk of black-out from Bond Beter Leefmilieu (could be translated as “Federation Better Environment”) that went to the heart of the myth and could explain this naive mindset best (translated from Dutch):

An imbalance between supply and demand may affect the stability of the electricity grid. With the restart of Doel 3 and Tihange 2 next Sunday, June 2, the power supply could even surpass the demand.

With a lack of capacity, security of supply is compromised. That is true during the winter months at the beginning of the evening when activity in households as well as in factories and offices is highest. But there is also an increased risk of blackouts in the event of over-production. On Easter Monday this year, with optimal weather conditions for the production of green energy, 30% green electricity was supplied to the grid. We only got rid of that excess capacity, yes, without Doel 3 and Tihange 2, with export abroad and we had to pay for it. Since the share of renewable electricity will only rise in the coming years, we ask the crucial question whether additional capacity of the nuclear power plants is desired altogether.

Jonathan Lambregs

The winter of 2013 proves otherwise
Last winter has proven that sufficient capacity is present in Belgium in order to get through difficult times. Admittedly, we have imported electricity from abroad, yet our own gas plants – a emergency solution – stayed unused. The decision to import energy instead of using the gas plants was made on financial basis. We got trough the winter months without the electricity of Doel 3 and Tihange 2.

Danger to the net
Since it is difficult to tailor the production of nuclear electricity to the demand, a constant amount of electricity will be put on the grid. For example, the stations run throughout the year at full speed guaranteed in order to absorb peak demand during the winter. And it is this constant supply that becomes a growing obstacle, in combination with an increasing proportion of flexible renewable electricity.

I was baffled. To me that sounded completely and utterly ridiculous. Nuclear plants give a constant base load to the grid, so if something makes the grid unstable, it wouldn’t be nuclear energy. Ridiculous or not, the author is obviously believing this fairytale.

Luckily, the article gave me an inside in how he came to the bizarre conclusion that nuclear plants were making the grid unstable.

As mostly in such communications, there is always a core of truth in it. There is no shred of doubt that an imbalance between supply and demand affect the stability of the grid and in that regard overproduction is as bad as too little production. It both can bring a grid on its knees. Sure, there was an overproduction on Easter Monday in 2013. And yes, it was not possible to power conventional plants down quick enough and we had to pay for exporting our overproduction (other neighbor countries had the same problem, so there was no need for it). He is also right that in winter months our need for energy is the highest, especially in the beginning of the evening on workdays. It is also true that nuclear power plants can be difficult to power down/off. It is also true that we got through the winter of 2012/2013 without the two nuclear power plants Doel 3 and Tihange 2. Those things are correct.

But then I quickly found what the fatal assumptions of the author was. It was there, all along in the article. It was fueled by that near black-out that we had on Eastern Monday of last year.

Easter Monday is a holiday in Belgium. It was sunny and windy at that time. Wind and solar that normally produce suboptimal, suddenly produced optimal and there was not much consumption because of the holiday. This meant that we had an overproduction of electricity and conventional power plants hummed on as nothing happened because it took a while before they could be powered down. The Grid Manager could avert disaster by exporting electricity to France. Danger was luckily averted, but it came very, very close to a black-out.

This let some green minded, naive activists believe that green energy was mature enough to power our country and that the nuclear power plants were the culprits of this near blackout. They couldn’t be powered down/off quick enough… That is some strange logic, but it gets even worse: he also thinks that we can produce more than enough power because, even without those two nuclear plants: we needed to export the generated extra electricity on Eastern Monday. Although he truthfully explain the context, he fails to make the observation that Eastern Monday-conditions and winter-conditions are not really comparable. On Easter Monday there was a lot of production and a small consumption. In winter there is only little production and the biggest demand of the year.

He later adds that the winter of 2013 proved that nuclear power plants are not needed. That we survived the winter of 2012-2013 without the 2,000 MW of those two plants is not necessarily proof that everything was fine and we had electricity to spare. On the contrary, we were STRUCTURALLY dependent on the supply from abroad and it came very close to black-outs in January. Not an ideal situation at all. This was no situation to glorify. We were very lucky nothing seriously happened in that period.

And yes, gas fueled power plants weren’t brought online, but not because we didn’t need them. He was right about that, the decision to not use them was a financial one. They were not used because they were too expensive to operate … due to the sky high green subsidies for green energy in the first place.

The real problem was not the nuclear plants that couldn’t be powered down, but the intermittent nature of wind and solar that was injected into a grid that isn’t capable of dealing with it. How could he ever think that an energy source that provides electricity from zero to 30% of our production can be stable in a grid that is unprepared for that? How could he ever think that removing the base load from the grid and adding even more intermittent energy sources to it would make that grid more stable? The proportion of green energy at that time was only 7% and most of that came from biomass (burning stuff) anyway. This means that energy sources that amounts on average of a couple percent, could bring our grid to its knees. I don’t want to think about what would happen when this would be 20%…

Continuous power can not be provided with non-continuous power sources, unless we can balance the load or store the energy for later use. Powering down a reliable power source in a grid (that delivers electricity in a continuous way) without a reliable replacement is just insane. That is not exactly rocket science.

How can one come to such a mindset? Thinking back to my own believer years I think it is a combination of the focus on green energy and the misrepresentation of the media that green energy has the same properties as fossil fuel energy, but just cleaner. Therefor seeing nuclear energy as an additional and discardable power source, not as the base load that it is now.

If you looked closer, that Easter Monday also showed us that green energy is not that mature after all. Sure, we had an overproduction in the afternoon, but before that there wasn’t enough energy produced and we had to import it from abroad. After the overproduction we also had too little production and again we had to import. So we had to pay twice that day: once to import electricity in the morning and in the evening when renewables weren’t producing much. But we also had to pay for exporting our overproduction in the afternoon. So even on a optimal day with loads of wind and sun, there wasn’t even enough to provide green electricity throughout the whole day.

He really got me laughing when he was saying that “renewable energy” was “flexible”.

Flexible renewables? Did he really say that?

Yep, he did. He probably meant “intermittent” or “variable”. There is nothing flexible about electricity production via wind and solar. How do wind and solar compare to that conventional plants that are so hard to power down? Our current conventional power plants are old and don’t have the same flexibility that newer models have for powering down. But before all they are reliable sources of energy. It is possible to simulate the electricity consumption throughout the day and that is needed when providing electricity in a continuous way on the grid.

As far as I know this is not even remotely possible with that “flexible” wind and solar energy.

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One thought on “Avoiding blackouts just by replacing reliable power sources with intermittent ones

  1. Pingback: These items caught my eye – 10 August 2014 | grumpydenier

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