Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Better power lines, dammit!

Steam pollution

The Times' Matthew Wald finds that warming rivers may hamper the water cooling on which all steam-generating reactors depend:

 Using computer projections of climate change possible outcomes, the researchers wrote that generating capacity in the United States could fall 4.4 to 16 percent on hot days from 2031 to 2060. And the number of days when river water is at a temperature that is now considered extremely high will be triple the number today, on average, they said.
But here's the spit-take moment:
It found that in addition to making electricity harder to generate, warm weather would make peaks in electricity demand even higher. That would raise costs, it said, because utilities might need more generating stations that would run for only a few hours a year, during the peak summer demand periods.
It also pointed out that if rainfall patterns changed, hydroelectric dams would be less productive.

The solutions to this problem are not obvious. Wind generation might not help much, because the wind usually does not blow much in hot weather. Solar photovoltaic cells could help, but they do not generate much in the last hour before sunset, and not at all after that. That is the period in which many utilities experience peak demand, as people return home from work and turn on air-conditioners, television sets and ovens.
Mr. Wald is talking about the energy of the future -- two to four decades out, no less! -- but assuming we will still be saddled with the same inefficient power grid in which -- due to technology, local energy monopolies, and a Balkanized regulatory environment -- power is mostly generated and consumed within a couple hundred mile radius.

Make it easy to exchange power over a few thousand miles, practical with the current lines, or even further, with HVDC upgrades, and you do have an easy solution to peak demand at sunset -- get the power from somewhere it's not sunset. Spread your turbines over a wider area so that torpid spells idle only a fraction of them. Build your nuclear plants in cooler climes and send the power southward (or northward, as the case may be.) And so on.

Seems like a pretty obvious solution to me -- and one that happens to involve opening up local monopolies to competition and simplifying and streamlining local regulations. Seems like Heartland would want to get right on that. Perhaps they're a bit preoccupied.

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