Around the same time that I started writing previous post, I came across the article Guaranteeing power at all times is absurd (Dutch ahead) about our energy security. It is an opinion piece by Belgian economist Etienne De Callataÿ after our new Federal Government announced its intention of closing our nuclear infrastructure by 2025.
In that article, he makes the case that security of electricity supply should not be top priority for our Government and goes as far to write that one or two days of blackout per year is not the end of the world…
I think that I can somehow understand his reasoning, but first let’s look how De Callataÿ explains his strategy.
He starts by acknowledging that production by intermittent power sources is irregular and storage very expensive. He then continues to write that nuclear (and natural gas) can help with securing the supply, but these are centrally managed. Therefor this backup could be insufficient in case of a confluence of circumstances, like maintenance, a defect, a construction failure or sabotage. He then argues that trying to prevent every single possible blackout by following every possible deficit or surplus caused by solar and wind would cost a lot of money because it involves backup capacity that is rarely used. His solution is to prepare for blackouts and compensate those who were unfortunate to experience it (translated from Dutch):
Get consumers involved, and you’ll see that quite a few of them can live with temporary, pre-announced interruptions for which they will be compensated. Rather than heavy additional costs by maintaining sufficient capacity (whether through nuclear or gas-fired power stations) to absorb the combination of demand peaks and the production valleys of renewable energy.
I can understand the part of centrally power generation by large reactors/plants. Such a setup could have a big impact on grid stability in case of a confluence of circumstances (however, even having a central power generation, blackouts are very rare until now and they were fixed within a few hours). What I don’t understand however is that he seems to be happy with replacing it by a system depending on the weather. Sure, solar and wind are not centralized, but they are by no means reliable electricity sources. The output of solar and wind varies a lot and needs to be balanced in order to follow demand, replicating the output of a failing conventional plant on a regular basis.
This means that there should be a backup system and this brings us to the second part of De Callataÿ’s equation. He writes that guaranteeing power at all times is absurd because maintaining sufficient capacity to follow demand by means of renewable energy is very expensive.
I can understand this part also. The intermittency of solar and wind could lead to a situation in which there is no sun and hardly any wind. There will be virtually no production of electricity by solar and wind at this point, basically all demand needs to be met by backup sources (he names interconnectivity, flexibilization, storage and load shedding). However, this minimum only occurs on rare occasions. If such a minimum occurs this year, it doesn’t mean that it will happen next year also. It is even possible that a lower minimum will occur in the future. Or happens never again. Foreseeing enough capacity to meet the demand at the minimum means that capacity will be available that will rarely, if ever, be used. Yet that capacity needs to be build, operated and maintained. His solution is to balance between reliability and costs by lowering the reliability standard of the grid, compensating those who experienced eventual blackouts.
In his elan to convince the reader of his vision, De Callataÿ presents the experience of a blackout in a much too optimistic way. He describes it as “an evening without television and a candlelight dinner”, which “has a certain charm of its own”. This romantic picture might be true when a blackout happens in summer and then it would be bearable (although inconvenient for households as well as industry). However, blackouts in Belgium due to intermittency of power sources on the grid will very unlikely happen in summer. They most likely will happen in winter, when there is no sun at peak demand, leaving it to wind and backup to meet peak demand. If it is very cold, then also windmills can come into problems. Dark and cold, not exactly ideal to be without electricity for a couple days.
All in all, this article is interesting. This because it reveals that solar and wind differ from dispatchable power sources, which is not often mentioned in the media. The article confirms again that adding intermittent power sources to the grid will have consequences. It will come with a price, unless of course we are willing to sacrifice the current reliability of the grid.