Blackouts: candlelight dinners and evenings without television?

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.

8 thoughts on “Blackouts: candlelight dinners and evenings without television?

  1. rogercaiazza

    In the quest for the 100% zero-emissions energy system everything has to be electrified. When blackouts occur in the winter it may not be only for a couple of days. It might be for more and if it is really cold people will freeze in the dark and won’t be able to flee in their electric cars. These people who think not having a reliable electric system will only mean ”an evening without television and a candlelight dinner”, which “has a certain charm of its own” are dangerous.

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    1. trustyetverify Post author

      I don’t give this strategy much chance for that reason. It would also be extremely difficult for our politicians to sell such a plan to the public.

      By the way, he got quite some flak over his statements in this article (and in another similar article).

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        1. trustyetverify Post author

          Luckily, it is just the opinion of the guy, it has not infected our new Government (yet). But, just as you, I am also a bit scared witnessing that a renowned economist deems it necessary to ventilate this message in not just one, but in two newspapers. One in French and the other one in Dutch, so for some reason he wanted to broadcast this as wide as possible…

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  2. vuurklip

    An evening without TV is great. However, when power fails, the water supply also fails – when reservoirs run out and are not refilled by electric pumps. Your cell phone dies when the the local tower’s batteries run out and do not get re-loaded. How about factories shutting down. Hospital’s operating theatres?

    I thing Mr De Callataÿ watches too much TV and drinks too much of the Cool Aid. He should go out into the world.

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    1. trustyetverify Post author

      Heating might also fail during a blackout. For example, my home is heated by natural gas and it is my experience that although the system itself will still function without electricity, the circulation pump certainly will not. The heated water therefor will not be able to reach the radiators. This is a real issue in winter when it freezes outside. A candlelight dinner under those conditions might not be that enjoyable, especially at the end of day two…

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  3. Chris Morris

    It seems that I have been under the mistaken impression that a reliable secure electricity grid was one of the prime factors in judging what is a first world country. It seems Mr De Calletay believes in a different opinion. May I suggest that his neighbourhood (for I am sure he doesn’t mix with the hoi polloi) be the first to be switched off when the generation from the unreliables runs short. Then we can judge his true commitment to the cause.

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