I started this blog writing on climate change but soon became confounded by two obstacles—one, the complexities of the problem and two, as a non-scientist, trying to penetrate the fog of global politics surrounding it.
To respond to Bill McKibben’s somewhat rosy case for renewables, my friend Peter Yedidia thought to enlist his former colleague on an Africa project to tell us on Zoom why McKibben’s view came up short. We also wanted to know how he looks at the immediate future of power distribution.
A retired aerospace engineer, Guy Immega has worked for many years on the problems and the promise of renewables and the electrical grid. Per his bio, “From 1980-1985, Guy was the Renewable Energy Coordinator for the Province of British Columbia (Canada). He contracted an engineering survey of small-hydroelectric sites and organized the first wind and solar installations feeding the electrical grid.”
Guy is still very much involved in the global aspects of electrical power, its distribution, and its economic dynamics. Here is some of what he told us about these issues, a bit edited and shortened.
We’ve got to stop burning coal. We must stop it. Stop it now. But we can’t because there are some places like India where you can’t stop it. Probably can’t stop it in China either. These countries have economic pressures that make it almost impossible to stop because they need the cheap energy from coal.
Coal is a fossil gift from the past and we simply have to stop burning it. The problem is you’re not trying to compete using solar. Solar has already won, it’s a done deal. There will be a small refinements in solar where it will get more and more efficient, but the efficiencies will be just small percentages here and there.
The solar singularity has arrived. Solar is cheap. Solar is reliable, but solar will not supply a base load. And that’s what you have to compete with. One way to make power available is to build a coal-fired power plant. Another way is to have giant batteries on the grid. Another way is to have all the Tesla cars plugged into the grid at night. You can’t just say buy solar because solar is cheap. That’s a one-dimensional answer to a multi-dimensional problem. So the real issue is what is the cheapest way to maintain the right mix—so you can always turn on the lights, right?
There are a dozen ways that you can smooth the power out, but they’re all expensive and a little bit awkward and not easy to control. So if you want power at night, batteries are still more expensive than coal. That’s the issue. And so we’re looking at dozens of small tricks to maintain stability on the grid. I’m an advocate for the smart grid though there are lots of politics around the smart grid that I don’t pretend to understand.
You need to be able to absorb renewables like wind and solar into the grid. And one way to do this is to ship the power where it’s needed instantly. If you can move the power around with “power wheeling” (it’s an actual technical term) that means that you can ship power from Maine to California cheaply.
And so if a wind farm is going great guns on the coast somewhere, and you don’t need the power locally, then you ship it somewhere else. One of the problems with Hawaii is that the local Hawaiian power grid turns off windmills when there’s too much extra power. When you install a wind farm in Hawaii, you have to sign a contract that you will shut the turbines down when they tell you because their grid gets overwhelmed with wind power and they can’t control it. They have no way to store it. And there it is, the gnarly problem. I like that word gnarly. It’s a gnarly problem—distributing energy easily and smartly.
In British Columbia we were able to wheel power to Washington state, one of our big customers. Do you remember when you had the Enron crisis in California? They were turning off their local power plants and buying our power. Well, it’s ridiculous what happened. British Columbia gouged California and sold power at the highest possible price because California was desperate for electricity and we wheeled it down there and collected the money. And then later California sued. And we had to pay back $750 million of gouged funds. So, you know, that’s another little power morality tale.
I’m sure the coal industry is putting political pressure on Joe Manchin, but this can’t last. If coal doesn’t make economic sense, then they’ll jump to something that does. But the problem is technological at its foundation, and that is cheap energy storage. We aren’t there yet, and nobody’s come along with a magic bullet.
So the fact that discrete elements like solar are cheaper than coal is, well, that’s nice but that doesn’t get us there. And that’s the big gap I see and, for me anyway, McKibben’s article is really misleading. Well, that’s why I was disappointed with it.
You know, we hear the dire forecasts—basically that if we don’t get off our ass, we’re going to be hopelessly behind and never catch up. But given the current state of affairs, you could have said that a year ago, or two years ago, or three years ago. Now with all the attention focused on the war in Ukraine, how many people are really paying any attention to that IPCC report yesterday?
Yet that report is such a big shock that nobody knows what to do with it. We’re being told that doom awaits us, and nobody has a solution. If you look at the numbers what the IPCC has been advocating is emissions control. So they’re saying we have to stop burning fossil fuels. All very good, and emissions control is the restraint necessary, but nobody’s doing enough of it.
Nobody’s keeping up. Canada is not keeping up with its commitments. You know, India is going to burn coal because it’s pulling itself out of poverty with coal and they just won’t stop. They will not stop burning coal. And so we’re going to have problems clamping down on emissions. And what will happen is you’ll have more and more wild and extreme weather events. Another reason to stop burning coal is that we can’t further acidify the ocean. Ocean acidification is a huge problem, and cooling the climate won’t stop that.
There’s so much coal in the world that it’s infinite. I’m using coal as a metaphor for fossil fuel. It’s the dirtiest, it’s the nastiest, and it’s the most abundant. Germany decided that nuclear was bad, and they would switch off all their nuclear power plants.
And so they put up some wind farms in the North Sea. Good for them, but that’s not enough. They’ve got to have Russian oil and gas and this is a big problem now with Ukraine in the picture. So they have to get off oil and gas and they want to get off nuclear. So what they do is burn coal. They have huge coal mines in Germany, and coal is keeping the lights on and industrial Germany alive.
So I guess what I’m saying is take it piecemeal. I don’t know of any other way. We had to find as many small fixes as possible. In World War II they had victory gardens, people growing vegetables in their backyard. That was a little piecemeal solution to an agricultural crisis. Conservation is good, finding ways to use less energy, but that’s not enough either. It’s just part of the mix. We need top-down solutions, too. That includes large scale storage—grid scale batteries. We need wheeling of power on a smart grid. We need to use every trick to make it possible to absorb more clean renewable power.
Finally, the IPCC should reconsider geoengineering solutions to actively cool the climate. But that’s another topic.
2 Replies to “Power to the People”
Notwithstanding the infrastructure-related complexities detailed by Guy, I take McKibben’s main message — that the two core elements of renewable energy (wind and solar) are now cheaper than fossil-fuel produced energy — to be very good news. I venture that this fact is new news to many people, and it should increase the pressure on industry and governments to get off their fat asses.
Amen that. Each of us has to use less and do what we can to maximize the renewable portion of what we use. The idea of shared international interests is a tough sell and not getting any easier.