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great diary, good points excellently summarised, restrained use of graphs. :)

as masterplan it looks viable, solid, realistic and prescient, all the more so for not counting on some phantom new invention that will turn all these calculations into irrelevance.

the numbers don't lie, they portray simple common sense. people can nitpick about the details of how much EROI each solution yields, but the general picture is quite clear, freight by electric rail is a no-brainer, as is massive rollout of solar/wind and node-dispersion for a more robust grid ecology.

there's one thing that confuses me though. why on earth can't solar panels power their own tracking devices, or does the E needed to turn the trackers cost more sunlight than it gains? i get bruce's answer about PV panels' costs lowering so it's cheaper to slap on more panels than build trackers for them. there's so much flat roof space to cover before we'd need to argue much about that right away, but slapping more panels will infringe on more space, another 'externality'? 20-30 years from now we will be still looking at many superannuated PV setups, technically obsolete almost right out of the boxes, but still yielding electricity as new, better efficiency models spring up around and beside them.

excellent, professional work Bruce, fine comments too, 5 ET *** .

Thanks for a stimulating read!

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Wed Jul 24th, 2013 at 09:35:15 AM EST
Its an issue of capital cost and maintenance costs.

The economic problem with harvesting already available volatile renewable energy resources is that since there is no fuel cost, the bulk of the cost is capital costs. And much of the balance are maintenance costs that must be paid for the system to operate independent of the quantity of energy being harvested.

The widespread installation of solar power in favorable locations will reduce the cost of electricity, by reducing the periods that require the fire-up of peak power plants, so that the market clearing price will be coming from lower cost producers.

Anything that substantially increases the capital costs causes problems with the finance of the installation. And up-front costs are costs that get compound interest placed on top, relative to the refunding that takes place over time as the power is sold, or implicitly as the power replaced power that would have been bought.

Add in a need, if its a householder responsibility, to be able to get somebody in to maintain the tracking unit or, if its an organizational responsibility, to have a workforce of people trained to fix problems with tracking units, as well as secondary problems like wires fraying or working lose as a result of repeated motion stress on connectors.

... and tracking is not necessarily worth the cost.

Now, there are different types of tracking. There is path tracking, the most complex, there is horizontal tracking, which has a similar range of movement but is much simpler, and there is vertical tracking. And there is daily tracking and seasonal tracking, since the optimal fixed position is different at different times of year. And tracking can be active or time-based ... a household installation, the simplest tracking is having two settings for vertical angle and going up on the roof twice a year to shift the vertical angle, around spring and fall equinox

That's not to say that tracking shouldn't be evaluated, but it won't always be the optimal solution. In some cases, it may be better to simply buy more solar panels. And as the cost-efficiency of solar panels increases, and at a much more rapid rate than the cost-efficiency of tracking motors and the extra components to the framing, the number of installations for which tracking makes economic sense is likely to decline over time.


I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Wed Jul 24th, 2013 at 11:41:00 AM EST
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I am afraid that makes no sense. The backup plant must be funded.
by oliver on Wed Jul 24th, 2013 at 04:29:13 PM EST
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... "the backup plant must be funded" does not give any indication exactly what it is that you think makes no sense.

If solar power panels are installed to the orientation that delivers power when the grid most needs it, the average utilization of back up power goes down. There will still be some days with little or no solar power delivered, so the back up capacity is entirely unaffected by the difference between orienting to maximum average output per day, tracking to deliver maximum available output per day, and orienting to deliver power most useful to the grid.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Wed Jul 24th, 2013 at 04:40:00 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Maintaining the whole backup capacity means that prices must go up a lot, since power plants whose costs are dominated by fuel are very rare. And the trend is against them.
by oliver on Wed Jul 24th, 2013 at 05:44:46 PM EST
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Why do you assume that all backup capacity for a given grid must be provided by fueled power?

Also, how common natural gas peakers are is determined by how useful they are in a fueled power system, in which we imagine that the average minimum amount of power required over a day are special "baseload" electrons, which have to be provided for separately from "following load" electrons and "peak load" electrons. Some similar peaker plant, say ammonia peakers, could be as common as a complement to the balance as they are required to be.

Indeed, if it takes time to build up an appropriate capacity of Direct Carbon Fuel Cell for the more efficient use of biocoal, then since baseload power plants would be driven out of business by a 40:20 mix of wind and solar, we would have ample opportunity to pick the most useful of the shut down coal power plants to use for biocoal power production in the event of a shortfall of solar/wind. After all, about half of a given shortfall will be predictable a day or more in advance.

And this concern with issues of dispatchable sustainable renewable power to complement the volatile harvested renewable power seems to be difficult to understand in the context, since you answered my comment which was a a response to melo's question about why solar panels are so often installed without tracking units. I don't see the connection between how sustainable renewable dispatchable power sources and storage fits into the issue of whether or not solar panels have tracking.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Wed Jul 24th, 2013 at 11:23:35 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I assume that because it is the most optimistic assumption for keeping costs down. You said that renewable sources can generate electricity cheaply. I don't see how that matters. The price of electricity must cover the cost of keeping the whole generation capacity operational.
Now you say that shortfalls will be predictable. I don't see how that is supposed to fix the basic problem. Unless the generation capacity is controllable you will need just as much backup. Or you need storage.
by oliver on Thu Jul 25th, 2013 at 02:12:56 AM EST
[ Parent ]
When you write
You said that renewable sources can generate electricity cheaply. I don't see how that matters. The price of electricity must cover the cost of keeping the whole generation capacity operational. Now you say that shortfalls will be predictable. ...

... it seems as if you are operating under the impression that harvesting of volatile sustainable renewable energy is the only available sustainable, renewable energy, so that when I talk about the predictability of harvested supply, that is talking about the entire sustainable, renewable supply portfolio.

You might infer that I was not assuming that all sustainable, renewable power sources involves the harvesting of volatile energy sources, otherwise "dispatchable sustainable renewable energy" would not exist.

However, the dispatchable sustainable, renewable power sources like dammed hydropower and biocoal tend to have a limited total supply, and a strategy that takes that into account is to integrate as much abundant volatile harvesting capacity into the grid as is practicable and organize the generation of power from the dispatchable energy sources around to firm the generation of that harvested power.

When you treat it is irrelevant that half of the variation in the harvesting of volatile sustainable renewable energy is predictable, you are ignoring that not all of the dispatchable sustainable renewable energy can respond to fluctuations in load as rapidly as dammed hydropower. If you are using biocoal in a conventional coal power plant, it requires a ramp up period. If you are using biocoal in direct carbon fuel cells, the biocoal slurry would not be used for long term storage but rather prepared on demand.

However, a day's advance notice is ample for bringing other dispatchable sustainable renewable power sources on line, so it make sense to reserve rapid ramp-up dispatchable power such as dammed hydropower (which can have their firming capacity extended with reverse pumped hydro, or, looking ahead, may be supplemented by ammonia peakers) for the non-predictable component of the supply gap between load and harvested supply.


I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Thu Jul 25th, 2013 at 02:31:43 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Gas-fired peakers are dirt cheap. They are really nothing but enlarged jet-engines. They can be profitable even if they are only run a few days or weeks per year. Especially as long as gas is cheap, and gas does seem to have a pretty bright future.

Peak oil is not an energy crisis. It is a liquid fuel crisis.
by Starvid on Thu Jul 25th, 2013 at 09:27:13 AM EST
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... burn natural gas because its the fuel available that's cheap enough to burn at the low efficiency of peaker plants.

The basic technology has a range of fuels that it can be adapted to work with, so fueling peaker plants adapted to some sustainable renewable fuel, whether biogas or some readily stored product produced with excess harvested energy supply is not tightly constrained in its fuel choice.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Thu Jul 25th, 2013 at 02:38:25 PM EST
[ Parent ]

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