What Cost to Make a 100% Carbon-Free Grid Resilient?

Source: “Cost Projections for Utility-Scale Battery Storage,” National Renewable Energy Laboratory

by James A. Bacon

The Northam administration has set the goal of achieving a zero-carbon energy grid by 2045, that is, an energy grid that uses zero fossil fuels. Natural gas and coal would be replaced in the Clean Energy Virginia plan Governor Ralph Northam announced yesterday, with “new investments in solar, onshore wind, offshore wind, energy efficiency, and battery storage.”

The key to making a 100% renewable electric grid work is battery storage. Solar and wind power are inherently intermittent, dependent upon weather conditions that cannot be controlled. Renewables advocates say the way to even out the fluctuations in power output is to store excess power in batteries when the sun is shining and the wind blowing, and to release the power when conditions are cloudy and calm. While the cost of battery storage is extremely high now — batteries are used at present mainly to regulate minute fluctuations in voltage and frequency — costs per kilowatt hour (kWh) are expected to decline dramatically, as seen in the chart above.

The questions then become, how much battery storage capacity will we need? How will reliance upon batteries change the need for redundant renewable power facilities? And how much will the package cost?

The Governor’s clean-energy Executive Order of 2019 allowed for nuclear energy in the power-generating mix, but none of his pronouncements since then have mentioned nuclear. The most vocal and influential environmental groups in Virginia oppose an extension of the licenses for Dominion Energy’s four nuclear power units, which are approaching 60 years in operation. Given the environmentalists’ demonstrated power to block energy infrastructure projects, for purposes of discussion in this post, I will examine the scenario in which Virginia’s electric grid gets zero power from fossil fuels and zero from nuclear by 2045.

One advantage of solar and wind is that they have become the lowest-cost sources of electric power. This chart by investment firm Lazard shows the advantage of solar and wind when the Levelized Cost of Energy (LCOE), which includes up-front capital costs, operating costs, and fuel costs over the price of a project, is taken into account.


Click on the image to enlarge it. You’ll see that combined-cycle natural gas is the only fossil fuel that comes close to wind and solar. These numbers show why it is crucial to include a significant solar component in Virginia’s energy mix. (The LCOE for offshore wind in Virginia will be much higher than the average shown above because the infrastructure to install offshore wind turbines is so immature).

However, the Lazard analysis looks at individual energy projects, not the entire electric-generating system. When we look at an entire system comprised of renewable energy built around solar, wind, and battery storage, the picture looks very different. Even a balanced renewables/nuclear/natural gas generating portfolio requires some redundancy for the purpose of maintaining a reliable supply of electric power. A renewables/battery storage porfolio would require far more.

As even zealous advocates of renewable energy acknowledge, the big drawback to solar and wind is that they produce electricity intermittently. Grid operators don’t control when they produce power — weather patterns do. Therefore, a zero-carbon grid needs a way to supply electricity when clouds block the sun and the winds die down. The proffered solution is to create massive arrays of lithium-ion batteries. This cost is not taken into account in LCOE analysis.

At present the cost of batteries is too high to consider them as a source of large-scale energy storage. However, technological advances are driving down the cost. According to a National Renewable Energy Laboratory report, “Cost Projections for Utility-Scale Battery Storage,” the cost of lithium-ion battery systems could decline by anywhere between 25% and 80% by 2050, with a mid-range forecast of 60%.

It’s a good thing that costs are coming down because Virginia will need a lot of battery storage. Let’s start with the challenge of providing electricity over the cycle of daily usage.

Governor Northam has mandated 5,200 megawatts of electricity capacity from offshore wind energy by 2034. Assuming that number is achievable, wind would account for roughly 25% of electric output in a carbon-free grid by 2050, while solar would produce the other 75%. (These are rough numbers. They assume that gains in energy efficiency will roughly balance out the impact of economic growth, and that electricity consumption will be roughly the same in 2050 as it is today. The numbers also ignore hydro and biomass, which are expected to make minor contributions.)

The obvious problem with a 75% solar grid is that solar panels do not generate electricity when the sun goes down but people are still consuming electricity. Electric power consumption at night runs about 60% of the daytime peak in this U.S. Energy Information Administration graph of New England’s electric load curve. (I’ve seen comparable graphs for Dominion’s service territory but could not find one on the Web this morning as I was writing this post.)

On average, a zero-carbon electric grid would have to store enough electricity in batteries during the day to supply roughly 12 hours of night-time electricity demand. In the current system, natural gas and nuclear supply the base-load power. The problem is that we can’t plan an electric grid based on averages. The grid has to accommodate peaks. In Virginia, consumption peaks during the summer. The days are longer — in Virginia, there are roughly 14 1/2 daylight hours in July — which means the solar panels get to work overtime. Goody! However, in the winter, the days are shorter.  In January, there are as few as 9 1/2 daylight hours. Although electric consumption tends to be lower on average in the winter than the summer, there are extreme weather events — solar vortexes — in which winter demand spikes. In other words, the system must be capable of storing enough electricity for 15 hours, not just 12, under predictable “normal” conditions — and even more for uncommon events.

The generating capacity of Virginia electric utilities in 2018 was 24,000 megawatts, according to the U.S Energy Information Administration (EIA). That includes output by Dominion, Appalachian Power, the electric co-ops, and various minor entities. Making the simplifying assumption that half of daily electricity consumption in January occurs between 6 p.m. sunset and 8:30 a.m. sunrise when there is zero solar power output, and also assuming that 80% of the state’s electricity comes from solar, we can calculate that Virginia will need battery storage capacity equivalent to 9,600 megawatts to offset the night-time solar shutdown under normal conditions.

Here is the range of NREL cost estimates for battery storage per kilowatt hour (kWh):

Note on definitions: One megawatt of electric output over one hour equals one “megawatt/hour.” One megawatt/hour is equivalent to 1,000 kilowatt/hours.

The medium-scenario cost in 2050 for storing and releasing 9,600 megawatts of electricity over a 14-hour period will be about $4.2 billion. That’s a lot of money, but compared to the cost of re-licensing a nuclear plant, it might make sense.

Here’s the tricky part. This exercise assumes that the solar panels are generating at maximum “nameplate” capacity. In fact, they never do. When it’s cloudy, solar output drops to 10% to 15% of normal — a potentially devastating loss of output. And cloudy days are fairly common in Virginia. According to this graph, more than one day in three is cloudy.

What happens if Virginia experiences a stretch of four or five days of cloudy weather, and solar output drops to 10% to 15% of normal during the entire stretch? You’ll need enough battery storage capacity to supply seven to eight times the electricity they normally do for a single day, maybe ten times that — 70 or 80 times normal capacity — to handle a stretch of five cloudy days. All of a sudden, we’re talking about an investment of tens or hundreds of billions of dollars in battery storage capacity.

That is totally impractical, especially if other states are pursuing the same 100% renewable strategy. Demand for lithium will skyrocket, prices will soar, and the cost of lithium batteries will become prohibitive. As an alternative to create redundancy in batteries, a 100% zero-carbon grid could add redundancy in solar capacity. Build more solar panels to supply electricity to fewer batteries. If solar output diminishes to one-seventh normal, just built seven times as many solar panels! Cost-wise, we’d have a similar result: We’d have to support tens or hundreds of billions of dollars in redundant capacity, this time in solar panels rather than storage batteries.

I have explored only one layer of the challenge here. We also need to consider the impact of extreme weather events — from hurricanes to calms — on offshore wind turbines. We need to take into account the impact of extreme cold on battery efficiency. And we need to examine how much electricity we could import from outside the state, and how much we would need to expand our electric transmission system to meet a shortfall. It gets very complicated.

Here’s the bottom line: Virginia can’t build a renewable electric grid to work “most of the time.” It must be resilient enough to supply electricity during periods of peak demand and in conditions of not-uncommon weather. No matter how “smart” we make our grid, now matter how many micro-grids and rooftop solar installations we create, a 100% carbon-free grid would require massive redundancy — tens of billions of dollars’ worth — in order to create that resiliency. The architects of the 100% carbon-free grid have not come close to grappling with this issue.

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50 responses to “What Cost to Make a 100% Carbon-Free Grid Resilient?

  1. Once again, we don’t have to innovate. In fact, we have missed that boat. We see it happening in Australia already. Just watch them…

    https://cleantechnica.com/2018/11/17/50-mwh-tesla-battery-commissioned-at-australian-solar-power-plant/

    “Why is that? Are they being paid off by George Soros and Tom Steyer? Are they saddling their residents with burdensome new utility rates so they can reap enormous financial rewards? Have they simply been brainwashed by green energy activists who slip pillow speakers under their heads at night playing an endless stream of socialist pablum?

    No, they are doing it because renewable energy coupled with battery storage makes more economic sense and is more resilient than conventional methods of generating and distributing electricity.”

  2. Virginia already owns the world’s largest electric battery which is better known as the Bath County Pumped Storage Station. It says they use more electricity than they generate; it is a net consumer, rather than producer of power. Pumping water uphill requires more electricity than the six turbines can generate. The plant is 80% efficient; for every four kilowatts of electricity generated, five kilowatts are consumed. That helps store power in low use periods, but I think the purpose is to smooth out the nuclear generation the state also has some of. We also have Smith Mountain Lake playing second fiddle.

    • Technically, Smith Mountain Lake is a battery.

    • You might be stunned by the tiny capacity factor at Bath County, the small amount of time it actually spends generating power through its turbines. What is stores is money, as will be the case if a similar facility gets built in SW VA.

  3. James Wyatt Whitehead V

    What would Robert Conrad have to say about this? “This is no regular battery. Go ahead call it a regular battery. I dare you.”
    :small

  4. You have done a lot of work here Jim. Certainly this discussion needs to take place. However, I have a couple of comments.

    Most of the battery estimates are based on an extension of the current lithium ion battery chemistries. It is possible that within a year or so, an entirely new generation of batteries will be available that will greatly increase energy density, drastically lowering the cost and extending storage capacity and discharge times. I won’t go into this further, because as we used to say in the computer industry, it is still “vaporware.”

    The greater point is that this discussion about how to create an energy system based primarily on renewable inputs is using design principles from the last century. It is like the military trying to fight the next war in the same way they did the last one. It doesn’t turn out well.

    A modern energy system will use design principles considerably different from our current system, if it is to be successful. First, it will need to supply much less energy to create the same or greater economic output. Or perhaps about the same as today, if you include the electrification of the transportation industry (which becomes part of the storage assets).

    Longer-term storage must be part of the equation too to deal with the weather and seasonal variations that you discuss. That’s where energy storage options such as hydrogen, compressed air, kinetic energy, and intermediate-term options such as thermal storage come into play.

    Between 2030 and 2050 other technologies might be available that use solar input without the day-night or cloudy-day issues that you bring up.

    Basing our future grid on a network model, using primarily distributed resources (generation and storage), nested microgrids, etc. will provide a much more reliable system than the hub and spoke design that we have today.

    I know your argument is that a system dependent entirely on renewables won’t work in 2050. You might be right, if you design it in the way that you are suggesting.

    That is why we need to redesign the way our utilities are regulated so that they won’t continue the old outmoded system until 2050.

    There is no doubt we need a reliable energy system. Adding shiny new gizmos to a creaky old design is not the way to get there.

    • Tom, you make some good points. When new forms of energy storage emerge — whether batteries or hydrogen or compressed air — we need to incorporate them into our vision for the grid. Until then, though, as you say, it’s just vaporware. We should maintain enough flexibility to exploit those storage systems when they do become commercially viable. But I think it’s crazy to rush head-long toward a 100% renewable grid on the assumption that they will be there when we need them.

      Even scarier to me than Northam’s 100%-carbon-free-by-2045 is the new plan just hatched by Biden and Bernie — 100%-by-2035. Fifteen years from now? That’s delusional!

      I do agree that we need to change the way utilities are regulated in Virginia. I’d like to see a system that is more competitive and more responsive to market forces.

    • We’ve got to change the way we regulate so that we incentivize different things than the current system produces. The distributed system I envision isn’t like what we have. When you start playing around with how entities make money, the certainty they get for ]what they make, and what they control, it frightens folks.

      Tom, I fully agree that we need to move toward a totally different system and that includes the regulation of utilities. We’ve got to keep talking about that system so people buy in and help make it happen.

  5. I don’t see that Virginia is rushing head-long towards a 100% renewable grid. We are just trying to catch up to where many other states already are. Most of the solar comes in after 2030.

    We have established a deadline of 2045 for Dominion and 2050 for the rest of the state. That is a long time, at the current pace of technological innovation. It is also in line with what many other states and other countries are doing.

    Energy regulation is a state issue. I am not sure how much federal legislation can change that. Certainly there can be incentives and disincentives (such as a national carbon tax) that would greatly influence things.

    What I am concerned about is that our incentive for utilities to build more and own it all will cause a rush to develop before the best technologies are available or before others are allowed to participate, in order to lock up maximum profits.

    • I believe that setting a goal so far out, 2045, 2050 or later, is basically an admission that you are hoping for new technologies! And we’ve chased one holy grail in this field after another, and might find one yet. There were people at the shipyard looking at finding a way to use coal more cleanly, and others seeking to tap the ocean waves…. But leaving “energy regulation” to the states would not be logical, hence bodies such at FERC and the regional transmission organizations….

      • Steve,

        I have found FERC to be anything but logical. They don’t even follow their own enabling legislation and guidelines. The Regional Transmission Organizations and Independent System Operators are much better, because they are non-profit organizations.

        The typical utility planning cycle is 15 years, so going out 2 cycles is not an admission that you need new technologies, only that you need some time to plan to properly assimilate the proven ones that can be implemented.

        What would our computer and cellphone industries be like today if we were as resistant to putting new innovations to use? Our current grid is a hodgepodge of technologies that do not communicate or inter-operate, some as much as 65 years old.

      • FERC and the RTO’s are currently controlled by the existing industry, Steve. Until we change that, we’re not going to get innovation. We’re going to keep locking in the current system for far too long.

  6. So if renewables are so good, why isn’t someone undercutting the incumbent power companies by offering lower prices for the same amount of energy consumed? Dollars to donuts that, if bona fide competitors offered this, Dominion could not preserve its legislative monopoly on anything but transmission.

    If there were bona fides with renewable energy, there would be no need to punish consumers with carbon taxes or consumption credits.

    Why is the energy market different from the telecommunications market? Back in the early 1980s, I worked on the introduction of measured local service because the thought was flat-rated local service would become too unaffordable to many people because of the phase-out of the subsidies to local service from long distance services. And, of course, today anyone can buy a very affordable package of all-distance calling.

    I’m not arguing against making electric appliances more efficient. But a lower incremental cost of service should translate into lower consumer prices. Why is the power market different or is it dominated by rent-seekers across the board?

  7. Talk all you want about so-called Green Energy, but realize that while wind, solar, and hydro might be zero-carbon energy, they are not green energy. Modern storage batteries with all their exotic minerals require moving huge amounts of earth to yield a small quantity of rare earth materials. Wind turbines still need lots of steel and plastic – stuff that comes from the ground. someday all those huge turbine towers must be replaced and recycled. Solar too, while perfectly using the sun as its source, requires more huge amounts of earth product.

    Resource extraction of carbon energy like oil, gas, or coal is simply replaced by other kinds of resource extraction. A lithium electric car battery weighs about 1,000 pounds but requires about 500,000 pounds of earth extraction to yield its various minerals.

    Alas, nuclear power, the greenest, most efficient energy form in terms of life cycle costs and in materials used, to yield a KW of electricity, is off the table apparently.

    • You are correct that many new technologies use rare earth elements – computers, cellphones, batteries, solar and wind generation. The initial mining does make a mess. But all of these technologies are designed to reuse the rare materials, so as to reduce new materials required for the next generation.

      Next generation batteries are designed to use a much lower percentage of lithium (which is not large to begin with) and replace it with greater amounts of more common elements such as nickel.

      Batteries in cars can be re-used without modification for electricity storage for years of added life, because that use is not nearly as demanding as the rapid current flows required to accelerate a car. Then the battery packs will be recycled for new uses.

      You are right to be concerned about the energy required to manufacture items and what happens to them at the end of their useful life.

      However, you should be aware that construction of a nuclear plant is by far the most energy intensive of any source of generation. Making cement is the single greatest source of greenhouse gas in the world. Nuclear plants use a monumental amount of concrete and steel (rebar) for safety purposes.

      The waste stream from nuclear plants cannot be recycled, including radioactive reactor vessels, steam generators and other components. The waste fuel must be kept isolated for 10,000 years, although some proposals exist to have different reactor designs that can make use of the spent fuel. But those are still very much on the drawing boards with uncertain economics.

      • Can batteries eventually be superseded by super capacitors?

        I am by no means an expert on the technology but Lamborghini has recently made some reasonably impressive progress with them (e.g. their “hybrid” Sian). To me, super capacitors are a bit underwhelming from a power provision standpoint at this time but they are a LOT lighter than any battery, they use less raw materials and their development is still in its infancy as those things go.

  8. TMT,

    Because the sale of electricity from anyone other than the utility authorized to serve a specified territory is essentially outlawed in Virginia. That is the monopoly power that is causing energy prices to rise so much in Virginia.

    Other states have limited the monopoly to the wires, with a variety of providers of electricity and services able to compete, which lowers prices. The utilities are still give a monopoly over the wires to avoid unnecessary duplication, and they are paid for the use of those wires and are the ones in charge of doing the billing to customers.

    The Bell Telephone Company had a similar nationwide monopoly until it was broken up. Co-ops were left to serve the expensive, hard to serve areas – just as they do with electricity.

    • There were many local telephone operating companies that were neither part of Bell nor cooperatives. Contel and GTE were probably the biggest. These were known as independents.

      Bell was more of a monopoly than many realized–they were part of AT&T which also owned Western Electric, who made (or slapped their own name on) just about every piece of equipment Bell used. Now one thing that’s very interesting about Western Electric is that (1) Bell operating companies almost exclusively purchased Western Electric equipment and (2) Independents almost exclusively purchased equipment from other suppliers (like ITT, Stromberg Carlson, Automatic Electric, Northern Electric, etc.)

      Why? Likely because Western Electric equipment was sold to the Bell operating companies at a price premium, and Bell operating companies were required to purchase it, which meant that AT&T got more profit that wasn’t considered as such by regulators because it was considered as expense (for capital equipment), not profit.

      Independents weren’t too interested in overpaying for Western Electric equipment, so they used very little of it.

      • Interesting information, thanks.

        Unfortunately, families and businesses in Virginia are also not too interested in overpaying for energy, but at this time have little choice.

      • I’m sure you’ve heard of the Carterfone case. Perhaps the greatest example of corporate overreach in US history.

        • The Carterfone case came 12 years after the Hush-A-Phone case. AT&T made some (quite frankly) unbelievable claims that the Hush-A-Phone (which was more or less a rubber cup that fit over the handset) would cause damage to their system.

    • I think we are talking past each other. Indeed, Dominion owns Virginia’s state government, lock, stock and barrel. As many have written in the past, there is probably economic justification (a “natural monopoly”) for transmission and distribution facilities and services. There is no justification for complete power generation and retail services monopolies.

      Where I’m heading is that, if renewable power generating costs are, indeed, significantly lower than embedded costs for fossil fuel power generation and those companies have capacity to serve a significant portion of customer demand, educating the public about these facts would, IMO, cause sufficient citizen unrest about the Dominion generation and retail monopolies, such that despite Dominion’s political power, the GA would cave to citizen demand and eliminate these two monopolies. “But for existing law, purchasing green power would reduce your monthly electric bill for X kwh by Y%.”

      Moreover, this would eliminate the need for carbon taxes and trading credits that will most certainly wind in Wall Street trading to harm of the public.

      In the absence of these developments, I conclude: 1) there aren’t real savings in using renewable energy; 2) the energy reform is just more crony capitalism; or 3) both.

  9. Why do I constantly hear that “battery technology” is bound to rapidly improve allowing for electrical storage at scale and at an acceptable cost. Gordon Moore said nothing about batteries. Why is a rapid improvement in battery technology considered inevitable? Just wishful thinking by those who push a solution that would only make economic sense if batteries went through a rapid cost/effectiveness transformation? I wish it, therefore it must be so?

  10. DJ,

    Moore’s Law does not apply to battery technology because it is not silicon-based, it is electro-chemical. Although, Bloomberg reported that battery prices fell by 32% last year. That is almost the Moore’s law pace of 2x the power or one-half the price every 18 months (actually twice the density of transistors every 18 months – but it has been generalized).

    I think people are getting way ahead of the game expecting batteries to get us through the night in the next few years. That is not necessary. There are many cost-effective solutions for batteries today: for voltage and frequency control, temporary supply backup, time shifting, etc.

    The use of batteries coupled with solar are a good example. On Kaua’i, batteries store excess solar energy during the day and release energy to meet the evening peak demand. The need for diesel generators are totally displaced most of the time. Bids for combined solar-battery installations in California are as low as 2.7 cents per kWh.

    This time shifting capability to lower peaks, or to even-out variations in demand and supply will probably be the best use for batteries in the next five years (in addition to power conditioning). They will be much cheaper than spending $500 million for a new peaking unit (plus interest and profit) and then adding fuel and maintenance expenses.

    About half of a commercial customer’s monthly bill is a demand charge priced on their peak usage. If batteries can be used to fulfill some of that peak demand, it will result in considerable savings.

    We are being unrealistic in our demands about batteries. It’s like telling your six year-old, “if you can’t drive on the highway yet, what good are you?”

    Batteries will never be all of the solution, but an important part of a mix of technologies that work harmoniously together to give us reliable energy. It is a fallacious argument to say we should wait to deploy the cheapest source of electricity (renewables) until we can get through the night without conventional units. We have ample ways to provide reliable service today, even without batteries. But batteries will be a better way to do it as they become cheaper and more capable.

    Tesla expects to have $250 /kWh batteries available by the end of the year or a bit later. That is below the “Low” graph that Jim started the article with. Technological advances often happen faster than we expect.

    • “Moore’s Law does not apply to battery technology because it is not silicon-based, it is electro-chemical.”

      Exactly. But people hear “technology” and think “computing technology”. So, a generalized belief in rapid improvement seems normal to them.

      “I think people are getting way ahead of the game expecting batteries to get us through the night in the next few years.”

      I agree. So, are we pushing too fast on “all green energy” plans while wishing for magical batteries?

      “Tesla expects to have $250 /kWh batteries available by the end of the year or a bit later.”

      Three years ago I looked into a solar roof and power wall from Tesla. Not ready. Looked again a year later. Still not ready. I replaced my roof (which needed to be done) with a good old fashioned roof. Tesla is often … ahem … optimistic.

      Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to stiff Dominion with a solar roof and batteries. Nothing would make me happier than finally seeing Dominion get their comeuppance after decades of buying off our state politicians. In a world of distributed energy generation, solar power and batter storage I think Dominion will have a very hard time maintaining a monopoly. Thank goodness. Goodbye and good riddance. I just think that’s some way off.

      • Residential use will be the last to see the economic use of batteries. Grid-scale applications for many uses will come first, then load shifting for commercial and industrial enterprises. Residential will come later, depending on battery costs, electricity rates, time of use metering, etc.

        Current laws in Virginia make it difficult to self-generate although they were loosened up a bit in the last session.

    • $250 for one kilowatt of battery capacity really isn’t that great, considering that a run-of-the-mill deep cycle lead-acid marine battery is rated for 110 amp-hours @ 12V which by my math makes it a 1.320 kilowatt battery. And it costs under $100.

  11. Some of man’s greatest accomplishments began as an ink drawing on a paper napkin.

  12. $250 per kWh? For Lion? Great!

    Basic lead-acid car battery is 90 amps at a nominal 12v, that’s roughly 1kW, and costs about $250 for a 5-year 300 deep cycle. Of course, delivery time is usually over 20 hours for lead-acid.

    So basically, they’re telling you in a few years, they’ll be able to manufacture a Lion for the same cost giving you 1kW with a 4-hour drawdown time, fast recharging and more like 1000s of cycles over probably twice the lifetime.

    Remember, cycles are important. Fossil fuels have one cycle.

    They’re already showing the feasibility of a large solar farm and delivery system at the Gannawarra facility in Australia. I don’t see the issue.

  13. Even if you use fossil fuel generation, using batteries on the grid is coming. Period. It will result in a fuel savings if you can run the generator at, say, 60% 24-7 rather than having to ramp up and down to meet demand, and letting the battery charge and discharge to cover the bumps.

    Think of your car engine. If you gear the transmission to meet speed demands at 2000 rpm then you save fuel. In my first car, 4th gear gave me 70mph at 3500 rpm. My current car has a 7-gear transmission. In top gear, 70 ccomes at 2000 rpm.

    • Lead-acid batteries have been cheaper than Li-ion. But they don’t have the cycling capability, rapid response, or life-span of Lion designs, as you mention.

      You got it right about the value of batteries to fossil units. The grid doesn’t know how the electricity was produced anyway. But you mention a very important point. Gas-fired combined cycle units (such as the last three new units that Dominion built) can run in the simple cycle mode (like peaking units) but they lose efficiency.

      With batteries to smooth out variations in supply and demand, the gas-fired units can run in their optimum mode most of the day. All of the hoopla is about batteries and renewables, but it is the fossil units that will benefit the most from them.

  14. The basic issue or movement we are discussing is Electrification.
    Some years ago, an Electrification Coalition was formed by utilities and others interesting in lobbying for an all electric future – electric cars etc. With the states politically in control by the utilities, there is of course some significant state support for that movement. Makes complete sense right? Mandate renewable power, and mandate electric cars, and fossil fuels are not needed. Utopia for some.

  15. And better health for all. All over the world, and even in the U.S., we saw how much the air cleared up when we stayed at home instead of commuting every day. We can have that without an economic setback, as we transition away from petroleum as a transportation fuel.

    Batteries in vehicles can be used as low-cost grid storage in ways that lower the cost of vehicle ownership.

    Autonomous driving will require fewer vehicles to transport the same number of people.

    There is a lot to figure out. It won’t be utopia, but it could be a cleaner, healthier, lower-cost future for many.

    • As an avid motorcyclist I am fundamentally opposed to autonomous vehicles.

    • How is the vehicle owner going to be compensated for the use of the battery in their vehicle for grid storage? Since every cycle reduces the life of the battery, it would be expected that the owner be compensated for the electric company’s use of their battery.

      • Vehicle to grid storage is still in its infancy. There is a growing but still a low penetration of EVs and charging infrastructure. But essentially, “there will be an app for that.”

        At least another generation of batteries (or two) will have been released by the time all this happens that will increase the number of charging-discharging cycles by 2-4 times. They can discharge the car battery for home use too, in emergencies or to reduce costs if we move to more time of use pricing with smart-meters.

        There is a lot of opportunity for innovation. We just need to open up our energy system in Virginia to allow for it. Our current model is to have the utility control it all, which will reduce choices and increase prices. Other states are exploring new regulatory models. We should too.

        It is still possible for the utilities to prosper in this scenario. They just would not control the whole marketplace. Imagine how much differently the cell phone evolution would have played out if we had remained under the control of the Bell monopoly.

  16. “It won’t be utopia, but it could be a cleaner, healthier, lower-cost future for many.”

    When do we see the lower cost? Environmentalists promising lower energy costs (per the same unit of consumption) are lying as baldly as Obama did when he said his plan for health care reform would lower annual premiums by more than $2000, while allowing people to keep their doctor.

    Autonomous vehicles. Aren’t you assuming vehicle sharing too? It’s one thing to assume driverless vehicles. But something much different for people giving up the ability to control their own transportation. And in a post-COVID 19 world, how many people will want to get in a vehicle used by who knows whom?

    I see a world with ongoing warming because the world is warming (albeit less than what would happen with no switch from fossil fuels) but one with a significantly diminished quality of life. Environmentalists don’t generally like other people, especially ones who don’t’ want to live the same aesthetic life.

  17. TMT,

    You make an excellent point. There is ample experience that shows that electricity produced by renewables can be cheaper than energy produced by fossil-fired and nuclear generation.

    But when it is put in the ratebase, as Dominion has been authorized to do, the savings to customers disappear. The benefit is transferred to the shareholders. Having these projects owned by the utilities adds no value, but plenty of expense.

    We are coming out of a major global cooling cycle, so we have been in a warming uptrend which is accelerated by human activity. The earth has been warmer than it is now. But it was inhabited by an entirely different set of plants and animals.

    Human civilization has flourished during a brief, relatively stable period of temperature conditions. That is changing, and we are helping to speed up the change. We have a choice to make things worse, or give ourselves more time to adapt.

    A transportation system dominated by EVs will have many variations. I believe that truck driving is the largest single occupation in the nation, but young people are not coming into the industry. The shipping industry is running short of drivers and autonomous trucks will keep the freight moving and reduce labor costs.

    Tesla has an app that allows owners of their vehicles to let others use (and pay) for their vehicle while they are at work, or anytime. It requires Level 5 autonomy to be approved so that the vehicle can go on its own to pick up passengers or goods for delivery. In any case, there will be fewer vehicles on the road as car usage goes from less than 5% of the time to much higher levels. This is bad news for car manufacturers, especially those firmly entrenched with internal combustion engine vehicles.

    My experience in dealing with environmentalists, even those who were yelling at me for trying to build multi-billion dollar utility projects, was that they were generally social, cared about their communities, and wanted to be stewards of the earth, not masters of it.

    I was also being yelled at by the utility engineers (my dad was one of them) who felt the “crazy” environmentalists should be ignored. But by hearing what they said and obeying the laws, we developed better projects that did less damage.

    I would caution us all to avoid labels. Very seldom does “one size fit all.”

    • Tom – so why didn’t the environmentalist groups in Virginia fight the inclusion of renewable power investments in the utility rate base? That would have benefited consumers. I regard the environmental movement as the enemy of the average consumer.

      I do think autonomous trucks will be a big thing. So will robotization. I’ve been helping a major retailer track FCC rules to use more robots in its warehousing and distribution operations.

      And if it’s wrong to screw with mother nature, we should curb excess carbon emissions but not try to slow the normal warming cycle we are in.

      • TMT, Environmental groups have been fighting to get renewable power investments into the utility rate base. I can give you 30 years of examples. They, and consumer groups who supported them, had no success as long as Big Coal was dominant. Our utilities have historically been closely tied to coal and other fossil fuels.

        I remember how angry I got when Sen. Norment sent off a group to analyze something with specific instructions to not include the external costs of coal. Virginia has been determined not to enter the next Century of energy and has been hanging on to the past for dear life. Maybe we’re finally moving forward.

        • Fighting to get rate base inclusion for renewable energy. That’s much of the problem. Their inclusion harms ratepayers. The price per unit of energy for renewable power sources is higher when the investments are put into the rate base than than if they are purchased outside and passed on to customers as an expense. Dominion gets a 10% return on its capital investments. No one gets that today, including independent power generators.

          If environmental groups cared about ordinary people, they would have opposed the energy reform bills because they permit price gouging by Dominion. I don’t care whether I’m screwed by big coal or big wind. I don’t want to be screwed period.

          • I spoke with several sponsors of the main bill that authorized Dominion to put offshore wind in the ratebase without SCC review.

            I said that putting renewables in the ratebase would greatly add to energy prices and put constraints on the development of new energy technologies.

            The main thrust of the legislation was to encourage cleaner production of electricity, given Dominion’s reluctance to do so. Dominion engaged in negotiations early in the process and extracted the trade for getting renewables in the ratebase in exchange for supporting the bill, as I understand it.

            The utility is responsible for the price increases. But in reality, we all are. As long as we maintain a regulatory scheme that pays utilities more only when they build more, we will see a steady stream of energy price increases. Tens and tens of billions in added energy costs are already baked into the various bills passed since 2015 that favor energy providers over their customers.

  18. If you want to save money as a homeowner, consider investing in a residential solar array and net meter the power to your utility as we do here in our community with the Central Virginia Electric Coop. With a low cost loan of around 2.5 %, the cost to install and pay for that system monthly will generally run less than your monthly electric payment and you will end up with a working asset for some 40 years after paying off your loan. We have reduced our energy costs by some 20% even while paying for our 2 yr. old solar arrays and intend to continue growing solar here with the target of ultimately supplying our own energy partnered with upgraded battery storage as the price continues to drop.

    In 2018, a white paper by Utility Dive proposed that “Home solar alone could meet 40% of total U.S. electricity demand,” Residential solar is often missing in estimates of renewable energy growth, as the focus is usually on utilities and major grid supply. The report also notes that The U.S. grid is “old and frail and in need of massive upgrades”, but investment in large infrastructure could be the wrong path.
    The alternative is to “put the clean power where it’s used,” the paper argues. “Solar power on roofs and batteries in garages.” This does not mean “centralized assets are no longer necessary,” the report continues. How an “old and frail” grid can deliver those assets is has yet to be determined.

    The rate of residential solar development should not be underestimated as the growth is scaling up. In May 2019 – Wood Mackenzie Power & Renewables and the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) noted that the U.S. had reached more than 2 million solar PV installations, . The mark came just three years after the industry completed its 1 millionth installation, a feat that took 40 years to accomplish.

    (https://www.utilitydive.com/news/solar-at-the-crossroads-is-utility-scale-distributed-or-both-the-way-to-g/522376/)

    (https://www.seia.org/news/united-states-surpasses-2-million-solar-installations)

    • Most of the homes I’ve seen need to start with some basic energy efficiency improvements of insulation and air sealing before they even bother with solar.

      My thermal camera measured 104F in the top corner of the master bedroom cathedral ceiling in one house…this was half an hour after the sun went down. Elsewhere on that ceiling it was measuring 85F. The same house has a nice breeze coming through outlets on the exterior wall when the wind blows outside. This house also had one of the dampers for the HVAC system drywalled over when the basement was finished (by the original builder), and all the dampers were wide open indicating that NO attempt was ever made to balance the system.

      That house was built in 1987, not 1887. By 1987 we knew how to build houses that didn’t waste a bunch of energy. That knowledge was not generally applied in the homebuilding industry in Virginia due to a combination of customers that didn’t care, builders that didn’t care, building inspectors that didn’t care, and construction workers that didn’t care. It may also be that energy codes in Virginia lagged behind other states, as they have with other building codes.

      So that house…as much of an energy waste it is…is hardly a unique case. Virginia is chock full of houses like this. And the older they are, the worse they are.

      • As I posted in the past, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments requested staff to look into the issue of retrofitting and insulating houses in the Greater D.C. area. The range of estimated costs was so outrageously high the very “green” council members told the staff to drop the project. I heard this discussion in person from one of the staff’s director-level employees.

        If this were done, what would the cost be to renters? How do elderly people afford to do this? Just like the fact that we cannot repeal the laws of chemistry and physics, neither can we repeal the laws of economics.

        Slightly different subject. I’ve seen mention that there are major environmental lawsuits against pumped stored water facilities in Colorado and California. Does anyone know about these?

        • Just another example of how failure to do something has long term consequences. Had someone who cared been on-site when that 1987 house was being built, they could have, for a couple of hours and a couple hundred in materials, made it a lot more energy efficient than what it ended up being.

          It’s a LOT more difficult after it’s built. Easier to do it right the first time.

  19. “Dear Friends,

    Yesterday I raised hard questions about the $2 trillion that Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and Democrats in Congress want to spend on green energy.

    In response, sitting members of Congress publicly smeared me — and then denied me a chance to defend myself.

    Here’s the full ugly story: I Was Invited to Testify on Energy Policy. Then Democrats Didn’t Let Me Speak. written by Michael Shellenberger.

    Yesterday, shortly after giving expert testimony to Congress about energy policy, I had the startling experience of being smeared by sitting members of the United States House of Representatives.

    The context was a special House Committee hearing to evaluate a Democratic proposal similar to the one proposed by Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, which would spend $2 trillion over four years on renewables and other climate programs.

    Congressional interest in my testimony stems in part from the fact that I advocated for a Democratic energy proposal very similar to Biden’s between 2002 and 2009. Back then, the Obama administration justified the $90 billion it was spending on renewables as an economic stimulus, just as Biden’s campaign is doing today.

    But then, late in the hearing, Representatives Sean Casten of Illinois and Jared Huffman of California, both Democrats, used the whole of their allotted time to claim that I am not a real environmentalist, that I am not a qualified expert, and that I am motivated by money.

    Had I been given a chance to respond, I would have noted that: I have been a climate activist for 20 years; my new book, Apocalypse Never, has received strong praise from leading environmental scientists and scholars; the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently invited me to serve as an expert reviewer; and that I have always been financially independent of industry interests.

    But I wasn’t given the chance to say any of that. After Casten and Huffman lied about me, Rep. Garret Graves asked the committee’s chairperson, Rep. Kathy Castor of Florida, to let me respond. She refused and abruptly ended the hearing.

    What, exactly, had I said that was so dangerous as to lead Democrats to engage in character assassination and undermine liberal democratic norms? Nothing I hadn’t already said last January when I testified before Congress about climate change and energy.

    Back then, I testified that climate change is real but isn’t the end of the world nor even our most important environmental problem. I pointed to the inherent physical reasons renewables can’t power a high energy industrial civilization. And I noted that cheap and abundant natural gas and nuclear, not industrial solar and wind, have been the big drivers of emissions reductions.

    I further made the case that climate change was distracting us from a far greater and more urgent threat, which is the global domination of nuclear energy by China and Russia, which could be disastrous for US interests and the future of liberalism and democracy around the world.

    Nations that partner with Russia or China to build nuclear plants are effectively absorbed into their sphere of influence. The line between soft power and hard power runs through nuclear energy. On the one side is cheap and clean electricity. On the other, a stepping stone to a weapons program.

    During today’s hearing, several Democratic members claimed that renewables today are cheaper than existing grid electricity. But if that were true, I replied, why do solar and wind developers require hundreds of billions of dollars from American taxpayers in the form of subsidies?

    The Democrats are basing their climate agenda on what California did. But California’s electricity rates since 2011 rose six times more than they did in the rest of the US, thanks mainly to the deployment of renewables and the infrastructure they require, such as transmission lines.
    %3Fresize%3D1000%252C599%26ssl%3D1&t=1596034141&ymreqid=3404d9f3-fcd6-a8b8-1c31-810001011f00&sig=BiKzxQNGfXfnXTIWqvwWyQ–~D
    Instead of answering that question, Democrats claimed that solar and wind projects were somehow part of the battle for environmental justice. In reality, I noted, solar and wind projects are imposed on poorer communities and successfully resisted by wealthier ones.

    In fact, a major new report found nearly 200 cases of human rights violations when renewable energy projects were imposed on poor communities. In Hawaii and Nebraska, indigenous leaders are resisting wind energy projects that threaten native bird species, including the nene and whooping crane, whose number one cause of mortality is transmission lines.

    Renewables also hurt working people by raising the cost of electricity for industries that offer good jobs with high pay. From 2011 to 2018, California’s industrial electricity prices rose 32 percent, while the average price in the other 49 states fell one percent.

    The good manufacturing jobs in renewables are mostly in China, which makes most of the world’s solar panels, including America’s, while the US is stuck with temporary low-wage service jobs installing solar panels and wind turbines, and doing energy efficiency retrofits. By contrast, nuclear power plants, which can operate for 80 years or longer, require high-wage, high-skilled, and permanent jobs for multiple generations.

    What’s going on? Why do Democrats, who imagine themselves to be on the side of working people and the poor, advocate for renewables and against nuclear? It’s hard not to notice that some of the Democrats’ largest donors, including Tom Steyer and Mike Bloomberg, are renewable energy and natural gas investors. Even one of my main antagonists, Rep. Casten, was a renewable energy investor before joining Congress.

    Democratic interest in subsidizing renewables comes at a time when industrial renewable energy projects are being blocked around the world, as even their boosters now admit. “Biden plots $2tn green revolution but faces wind and solar backlash,” read a Guardian headline a few days ago. And just yesterday, a new coalition of community and environmental activists formed the Energy and Wildlife Coalition to block industrial renewable energy projects around the world.

    The last time Democrats spent big on renewables, during the 2009 green stimulus, 10 members of former President Barack Obama’s finance committee, and more than 12 of his “bundlers,” benefited from $16.4 billion of the $20.5 billion in stimulus loans, as I note in my new book.

    Steyer, Bloomberg, and many other renewable energy investors also donate hundreds of millions of dollars to groups like the Sierra Club, which turn around and lobby for more spending on renewables, and for the closure of nuclear power plants. Killing nuclear plants is a lucrative business for competitor fossil fuel and renewable energy companies. That’s because nuclear plants generate such large amounts of electricity.

    In 2016, two top former aides to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo worked with a major Cuomo campaign contributor, the natural gas company Competitive Power Ventures, to close Indian Point nuclear plant. A federal indictment on influence peddling filed by Preet Bharara in 2016 alleged that Competitive Power Ventures and the Cuomo administration both recognized that if Indian Point were taken offline, it would be replaced by natural gas, not imported hydro and wind, as Democrats had claimed.

    Democrats have worked to shut down nuclear plants and replace them with fossil fuels and a smattering of renewables, since the 1970s, as I note in my new book, Apocalypse Never. They created detailed reports for policymakers purporting to show that neither nuclear plants nor fossil fuels are needed to meet electricity demand, thanks to energy efficiency and renewables. And yet, almost everywhere nuclear plants are closed, or not built, fossil fuels are burned instead.

    Now, if the Democrats’ $2 trillion climate proposal passes into law, a lot of very powerful people stand to make a lot of money, from winning tender for industrial projects such as building wind turbines and transmission lines all the way to the outright cash payments that we saw during Obama’s green stimulus.

    In the end, the war on nuclear energy threatens more than political corruption and higher emissions. At a time when China is committing a potential genocide against its Muslim citizens, and Russia’s president is expanding his domestic and international powers, the US should not allow these two nations to dominate nuclear power plant construction.

    If the US keeps closing nuclear plants and fails to build new ones, we will cede our ability to compete with the Russians and Chinese in building new nuclear plants abroad, which will undermine national security, and good industrial jobs at home. The threat posed by America’s illiberal, nuclear-building rivals will, like the crisis facing renewables, continue to grow, regardless of whether Democrats succeed in shutting me up.

    Michael Shellenberger is a Time Magazine “Hero of the Environment,” and president of Environmental Progress, an independent research and policy organization. He is the author of Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All. Follow him on Twitter @ShellenbergerMD.

    Michael Shellenberger
    President, Environmental Progress
    2569 Telegraph Avenue,
    Berkeley, CA 94704

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