Appalachian Basin

The Natural Gas Bridge to Nowhere?

Those supporting natural gas development have described the natural gas boom as the bridge to renewable energy.  The other side of the hydraulic fracturing  argument call it the bridge to nowhere and say instead we should be developing renewable energy on a larger scale.  An electrical grid expert talks about why large scale renewable energy would bring our grid to a halt. 

I recently had the opportunity to attend a presentation by Maggie Koerth-Baker, titled “The Past, Present and Future of America’s Electric Infrastructure.”  Baker is someone I would consider an expert in the field of electrical infrastructure.  Her overall message was not one against renewables or fossil fuels, but one that gave the facts on why we cannot cut out fossil fuels and how a full scale development of renewable energy is currently not possible with our current electrical infrastructure.

Who is Maggie Koerth-Baker

Baker is currently the science editor at BoingBoing.net as well as a columnist for the New York Times Magazine.  Her column “Eureka” covers the intersection between science and culture.  Stepping outside the world of magazines, Baker is also the author of the best-selling book, “Before the Lights Go Out: Conquering the Energy Crisis Before It Conquers Us”, which has to do with how our energy systems were built, how they work today and how they will influence what we can and cannot do over the next 30 years.  A lot of the presentation Baker gave had to do with the topics in her book.

Our Electrical Grid

I like to compare our electric grid to a lazy river you would see at a water park because the grid is more than just a wire connecting to a power plant.  It’s actually a circuit, its wires connecting power plants to customers and back around to the power plants again and you need to have that continuous circuit or you will have blackouts.  (00:45) 

Our electrical grid viewed as a lazy river

Our electrical grid viewed as a lazy river

Baker explained how the electrical wires we see do much more than just supply us with electricity.  She then went into the parameters by which our electrical grid must always operate:

  • The electricity that flows along the grid must move at a constant speed (Frequency)
  • The electricity must move at a constant depth (Voltage)

In order to maintain these two parameters we must always keep a perfect balance between electric supply and electric demand.  If our system gets out of whack by even fractions of a percent, blackouts or brownouts can occur.  This is where the term intermitancy comes into play.  A big downfall with renewable energy is the simple fact that the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine all the time.  A steady form of power must be present to assist when renewable forms are not performing.  Natural gas has been viewed as this assistant to renewable energy.

Another interesting part of Baker’s presentation was how we use more energy today to produce electricity than for any other reason in the United States.  It essentially takes more energy to light our light bulbs and run our computers than it does to drive our cars.

Another thing to help you put this into context is if you look at American homes, since the 1970’s our houses have gone way up in being more energy efficient.  However, if you look at the amount of energy used by the housing sector that hasn’t really changed. In fact, it’s actually gone up just a little bit.  We  don’t use less even though our houses are more energy efficient and that’s because the amount of things we plug into our houses that use electricity has gone up exponentially.  We now have more televisions, more appliances, more gadgets and computers.  All of these things add up to pretty much negate energy efficiency benefits. (12:00)

See Baker’s full presentation below:

Renewable Energy & Our Grid

We have heard it before and seen the signs “Renewable Energy Now”  but what if we really did do a full scale development of renewable energy?  Below is what Gasland Director, Josh Fox had to say about renewable energy:

We have the capability of running everything in this country – including our fleet of 240 million cars – off of electricity from wind and from solar and from hydropower. Fox said that society should be changing over “to renewable energy and doing it vigorously and quickly.  And we could be doing that in New York. – Josh Fox to the Associated Press

Without the ability to store energy this would be an impossible feat to accomplish.  Like I stated earlier the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine.  This creates intermitency; however, one way to avoid this risk of intermitency would be to invest in smart grids or batteries large enough to store this power when it’s over producing to be used when there isn’t enough energy in the grid.

These electric grid batteries are the size of a semi truck and cost several hundreds of millions of dollars and has to be shipped over from Japan.  There’s no where in the Western Hemisphere that makes these things.  We don’t have any of these on the grids not to mention and storage at all.  (17:40) 

The other problem with not having any storage option on our grid it makes it harder for us to integrate wind and solar.  That’s because when our grid evolved it evolved in concert with the forms of energy we had around us.  (19:00)

I don’t think Josh Fox thought about everything that goes into providing us our energy when he made this statement.  Developing renewable energy on a full scale would not only require the cost of solar panels and windmills but also the added cost of a battery infrastructure to make the intermitency a non issue.

Power Grid Batteries

Power Grid Batteries

This issue of intermitency in respect to renewable energy is not a huge issue now, but it could be down the road if more people decide to invest in renewable energy on a larger scale.  According to Baker experts have said that we can get 20-30 percent of our energy from wind and solar before we have to make big changes to how our electrical grid functions (19:50).  At the end of the presentation Baker left us with this:

Energy is not your personal choices. Energy isn’t even the sources of power we choose. Energy is systems and until we change those systems we’re not going to make a lot of headway on the choices or sources (30:58).

It’s clear that embracing a full scale development of renewable energy could possibly cripple our electrical grid as it stands.  Using natural gas as that bridge gives us time and an infusion of economic prosperity to invest in the right infrastructure to make renewable energy more feasible.

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