Friday, April 22, 2011

Like the Internet, but for Energy

Lapland Landscape with Telephone Line

The Green Party was one of the big losers in the recent Finnish election. Their number of seats went from 15 to 10. They lost voters both to the left and the right, with people defecting to the Left Coalition, the Social Democrats, and the National Coalition. Being one of the defectors, I'm not surprised at all. It looks like the only thing they can agree on is "no more nukes" plus a general social liberalism shared by both the Left and National Coalitions, which isn't much to build on.

If you Greens want my vote back, you're going to have to do better.

You fucked up big-time in the electoral campaign. Trying to make political hay from Fukushima with your big "no more nukes" posters, after sitting in a governing coalition that approved permits for two more, is as transparently cynical as electioneering gets. Being allowed to vote against it after tabling the proposal, knowing that it would pass, doesn't make it any better. We're not that stupid.

You badly need a positive vision, not a laundry-list of things you're against. This whole energy discussion was a perfect example. Nuclear? No way. Hydro? Nuh-uh, it'll inconvenience the fish. Coal and oil? Of course not! Wind? Only if it won't make the landscape ugly. So what then? Simple, just shut down our paper and pulp industry, it's what's using up all the electricity.

For a party who's supposed to be thinking globally, that is outrageously irresponsible. Shutting down our energy-hungry industries will simply get them to move somewhere else. Finland might be able to meet its Kyoto obligations, but somebody else won't. We won't be helping the planet; we're just greenwashing our hands. Lame.

Thing is, there is a vision out there that would be perfectly suited for the Greens. It's ecological, progressive, and global. It makes use of the cooperation mechanisms European Green parties already have in place. As a bonus, it would even give the European Union a whole new meaning at the very moment its raison d'ĂȘtre until now is in crisis. And it's not even new.

The main problem with wind and solar power is that it only produces energy when it's blowing or shining, respectively. That means that it's not possible to base energy production on it locally. However, weather conditions average out over a large enough area, and over time. If it were possible to transfer power from where it's produced to where it's needed, and store power when it's produced for use when it's needed, the problem would be solved.

A group at Stanford University has been researching this, and recently came up with a scenario that would have fossil fuels and nuclear power phased out totally over 20-40 years. I'm no expert, but from where I'm at it looks totally feasible, technically that is. Politically, however, it's a challenge. That's where the Greens come in.

The scenario is based on a smart grid, which automatically and instantly moves power from where it's produced to where it's needed, and allows plugging in power generation and storage devices anywhere on it. So, for example, if you drive an electric car, you can plug it in to be charged; if there's a spike in power demand, the grid will draw off, say, 10% of the battery (and credit your account for the energy taken). If you install solar panels or a little wind turbine on your roof, any surplus power you generate will go into the grid, and whatever extra you need will be drawn off it.

Now, if wind and solar are the backbone for energy production in this kind of grid, it has to be very big. A country-sized grid won't do it. It has to be continent-sized. Only that's big enough to average out local weather conditions that would otherwise lead to too big fluctuations in power production. The Stanford paper calculates that with such a grid in place, it'd be possible to generate about 90% of power by wind and solar, with the remainder—adjustable capacity—produced by hydropower, tidal power, and other renewables.

The beauty of this solution is that it would start producing benefits immediately, even as construction starts locally. Existing power sources, both centralized and decentralized, could be plugged into it, and as new technologies emerge, they can be integrated into it with no trouble. If we extended it to North Africa, we could build as much solar power capacity in the Sahara as anybody would want—which would have the added benefit of us having to get serious about the political instability there.

Finally, there's not limit to the possibility of extending the grid. If Russia wants on board, welcome. China? Awesome. Turkey, Syria, Iran? Ahlan wasahlan. The bigger it is, the more everyone will benefit. Like the Internet, but for energy.

The challenge is that this requires political underpinnings that currently don't exist. The idea of national energy self-sufficiency would have to be scrapped. Since energy is one of the most strategically important assets a country has, that makes the whole national sovereignty thing look rather outdated. We would be dependent on each other in a much more immediate and concrete fashion than through the creaky currency union and its political trappings that we currently have.

Why aren't the Greens—in Finland and elsewhere—banging away at this vision? You could drop the "no more nukes" sloganeering, since in this scenario nuclear power would become uncompetitive and unnecessary, and would be phased out of its own accord. The only reason to have it would be to dispose of existing nuclear waste and atomic weapons in fourth-generation plants, which I still think is the only responsible way to handle that.

Seriously, Greens. Get your act together. Show us some vision that goes beyond saying "no" to stuff you don't like. You have the internationalist outlook and the genuine care for ecology that it would take to get this ball rolling. Do it.


  1. I fail to see why would this scenario make nuclear uncompetitive. If the price per kilowatt is still lower than the wind/solar/etc.

  2. Well, if it doesn't, then nuclear would still be a part of the mix. I'd have no problem with that, as long as it's done right. As in, not like it's being done now, from Leningrad-1 to Indian Point via Fukushima.

    However, from what little I've been able to gather, it appears that wind and solar have a higher EROI than nukes, in which case nukes simply wouldn't be competitive, if the distribution and storage problems are solved.

  3. I'm curious about this. While solar and wind, even on a continental scale, won' t produce a reliable answer to the baseload, any increase in them is still a reduction in demand. Not only that, chances are that it's a form of power a lot more reliable as far as Euro/kWh than anything predicated on burning or fissioning non-renewable stuff mined from the Earth.
    It'll also mean more local production, which might ironically increase reliability of the grid and lessen the need to rely on it. I understand that the problem with large solar farms and wind farms in sufficiently remote regions in the US for example is that you cannot actually transfer power that far before it vanishes as heat in transmission lines, short of superconducting transport, so I'm not sure what they suggest to bring power from Spain to Finland, for example.
    As far as electric cars, they're a prime candidate for some sort of automated load shedding / load scheduling to help further.

  4. Why d'you figure it wouldn't be reliable enough, if implemented on a scale big enough to average out local weather conditions?

    According to Wikipedia, the longest cost-effective transmission distance for electricity (as high-voltage DC power) is 7000 km. Helsinki to Madrid is 3000 km, so that'd be more than enough. By the same article, you could even zap it across as AC, which is cost-effective up to 4000 km.

    Another idea that I like is running lines to the coast, and using any surplus power to produce hydrogen from seawater. That can be stored, shipped, and burned to power vehicles or in power plants, to adjust for peak loads.

  5. Check out this article on why nuclear probably wouldn't be competitive.,8599,2059453,00.html?xid=fblike

    Petteri, great post, I am also very disappointed in the Greens, we need a real visionary liberal party but they haven't been able to step up to the challenge. The energy policy is one big issue and as soon as I saw the Stanford paper I thought that finally there is an option. And you are right how this would be the next step forwards into interdependency across nations, something that the economic interdependency of EU was also about and which always acts as a stabilizating force.

  6. There are some initiatives started in Canada to begin the big grid scenario. People in many communities can use solar/wind connected to the grid & get credit for any power they generate. Many have gotten negative power bills, in other words the utility is paying them for the power. There is also a big push on geothermal energy. My parent neighbor is building a self-sustaining house right now with geo-thermal heating & solar electric. It'll be done by the fall. In Vancouver there are electric trolley busses that generate their own power and feed back into the grid. These are just beginning but the idea, eventually is a totally self-sustaining situation in 30-40 years. Supplementation until then, if necessary is done by hydro dams, which is where a lot of power comes from already.

    All this is completely doable. It's just a question of will and effort. The engineering is already there.

  7. In EU, the political obstacles are bigger than in North America, though. Over there, even Canada alone might be big enough to make this fly; if it can agree with the USA about it, that'll certainly do it. Europe is more complicated with all those sovereign states with funny ideas about self-sufficiency. This sort of thing could be a great motive to dismantle some of that stuff, but technology alone won't do it; it needs the political vision to go with it.

    And yeah, it is totally doable; we don't need any more primary research, it's "only" a matter of building it. It'll be a hell of a hard sell in Finland at least, because solar power isn't viable due to our latitude, and wind alone can't guarantee our precious self-sufficiency.

    (For the record, I'm not big on this whole self-sufficiency thing; it's largely illusory to start with, and I'd much prefer being interconnected deeply enough to forestall the kind of bullshit from happening that self-sufficiency is supposed to be for.)

  8. Yeah, I don't see how this is going to go through in the political circles at all...
    But it is a good idea and I think countries should start doing what NellaLou said. If every house has to put in some kind of power generation inside it (wind, solar, geothermal...) then that would at least help some. I think that should be the first step.

    Something like : every new building project needs, by law, to have some kind of power generation.

  9. Problem is that that won't help, without the grid to absorb the surplus, provide the real-time electricity auction to regulate supply and demand, and move the power wherever there's most demand. The grid has to come first; after that, supply should follow. That's a major investment, and not the kind that power companies are likely to do on their own—not least because it'll open up competition and produce power savings, thereby reducing their profit margins for what they're selling now.

  10. Just out of curiousity, what do you think widespread solar farming would do to the global climate? It's a simple energy balance, and if we absorb all that thermal energy with acres of panels, then that energy isn't going into the ground and being radiated back to the atmosphere. Unintended consequences and all, and the irony of the enviro-nuts (not you, but the folks you're wanting to be your vanguard)potentially throwing the globe into an ice age is particularly tasty.

  11. I'm not an expert, but I did see some calculation about this which ended up as "nothing." The solar energy eventually ends up converted into heat and radiated away, it just takes a few more turns spinning some wheels on the way. This is quite different from the greenhouse effect, which traps heat in the atmosphere, preventing it from being radiated away, and thereby alters the thermal balance of the system.

    In any case, if there was a cooling effect, that'd be dead simple to counteract – just put something black next to each panel absorbing and re-radiating the same amount of heat.

  12. And how much more likely do you think this is going to be implemented rather than Germans in the Portuguese parliament in the next decade? :P

  13. None at all, as things currently stand. But things change. Sometimes they change quite quickly. If, say, Green parties from three bigger EU countries started to seriously run with this, who knows what could happen.

    If just one Green party from one EU country started pushing for it with other Green parties, that might happen. And if just one mover-and-shaker in that Green party took notice and started to howl about it within that Green party, it might get that started.