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Beaucoup De Electric Cars? No Problem.

ID 63606811 © Michal Bednarek | Dreamstime.com

The threat of climate change in driving states to adopt ambitious carbon cutting plans. Of course, most nations–the U.S. being an exception–have signed on to the Paris Agreement targets. However, many others are going much further. The Danish government, for example, intends to have all transportation, heating and electricity be powered through renewables by 2050. France aims to cut emissions by 40% by 2030, respectively.

Cutting fossil fuels out, or almost out, is no easy task. In addition to investing in renewables, you’ve got to be sure the grid can handle it, and update it if it can’t. As many well intentioned actors have recently discovered, investing in clean energy without the proper grid to support it can be awfully wasteful. A few years ago, Germany’s government was forced to compensate various wind farms with $94 million after making them cut 1.2 percent of their production. China too has struggled to make use of all its wind energy capacity, losing an estimated 15 percent of its wind energy in 2015 according to state statistics.

Despite those setbacks, France recently released encouraging data on its grid’s potential. The country’s operator, RTE, announced last week that the grid could cope with the predicted increase in electric vehicles through 2035 in its current state. The hexagon nation already has about 223,000 electric vehicles out in the streets and expects that number to jump in the coming decade, getting to 15.6 million . Like some other eurozone countries, France has announced a ban on diesel and gasoline vehicles by 2040.

Notably, however, the summaries I’ve read of the report don't mention how well the grid will accommodate renewables and other alternate sources of power. My guess is that it will still need a major facelift.

Henry Craver's picture

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Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on May 18, 2019 7:33 am GMT

"As many well intentioned actors have recently discovered, investing in clean energy without the proper grid to support it can be awfully wasteful. A few years ago, Germany’s government was forced to compensate various wind farms with $94 million after making them cut 1.2 percent of their production. China too has struggled to make use of all its wind energy capacity, losing an estimated 15 percent of its wind energy in 2015 according to state statistics."

Henry, that European grids can handle EVs is encouraging, but you're confusing two different issues. German windfarms were forced to curtail production not because there wasn't a proper grid to support it, but because there weren't German consumers to use it when it was generated.

Electricity must be used as it's generated. Without demand you can't keep generating electricity and shoving it into transmission cables, where it waits for someone to use it. When renewable sources of energy generate more supply than there is demand they have to be curtailed, or their generation must be diverted to other service areas where demand exists to consume it.

If generation is not curtailed and there isn't enough demand to consume it, where does the energy go? The principle of energy conservation says it must go somewhere, so it becomes heat. Transmission cables get warmer, and warmer. If supply does not release some of this energy, the grid shuts itself down as a precautionary measure (if it didn't, wires would literally melt from their poles). It's not a matter of having a "proper grid" to support it - that grid doesn't exist.

These are fundamental laws of physics, and fundamental deficiencies of non-dispatchable sources of energy. It's not just a matter of not having enough energy when people need it, it's a matter of not having the exact amount of energy people need to use at the right time.

We could continue to waste time and money trying to figure out how to meet predictable demand with erratic, unpredictable supply, but why?

John Miller's picture
John Miller on May 18, 2019 9:58 pm GMT

Bob, what you might be aware of is that Germany relies significantly on adjacent EU countries, who are connected to their major power grids, to help balance their power grids’ supplies-demands and stabilities, 24/7.  A significant source of neighboring countries variable-controllable power supply-demands are hydropower plants with pumped storage.  Based on the data presented in this post, which shows even this multi-country power grids’ networks do not have the storage capacity or variable demand needed when Germany’s wind power generation far exceeds national and regional consumption capabilities.

This situation obviously supports the need for Germany-EU industrial scale power storage, such as batteries.  Thus far I am not aware that Germany plans to address this potential-needed solution.  One of the major causes is most likely capital costs.  A somewhat unique factor tied to Germany’s dedication to renewable wind power (and unfortunately not nuclear) is that this country’s Consumers’ power costs are up to 3-times many other Developed Countries, such as the U.S. for example.  Adding needed German power storage will likely result in their country’s Consumer costs increasing by an additional 25%-50%.  Obviously, a very politically challenging investment action.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on May 19, 2019 2:46 pm GMT

Good points all, John. I'm not aware whether pumped storage has the flexibility to meet sudden supply deficits. I do know, in California, the Helms pumped storage facility is being used to correct solar mid-day supply excesses by storing and generating simultaneously - essentially, serving as a giant resistor - to waste excess mid-day solar generation as heat.

All of these strategies make the fundamental (misplaced) assumption grids specifically designed to distribute energy from a limited number of sources to consumers can be used to effectively transfer energy from an unlimited number of sources. Increasing gas consumption shows they are still being used, and will continue to be used, as designed.

Currently, there isn't a single grid in the world which can reliably serve customers with renewables + storage, and trusting the price of battery storage to drop by four orders of magnitude, ever, is insanity. There is a social justice component to this renewables thing - rich people, in rich countries, dictating ever-more-expensive, complex solutions to a problem of their own making - which gets more irksome by the day. As if kicking the can down the road with emissions "targets" wasn't already irksome enough. Grr.

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