Manager’s Message – December 2022
More Than an Inch Deep
There is an expression describing an important characteristic necessary to be a successful politician, and it goes something like this: “You need to have an understanding of issues that is an inch deep and a mile wide.”
Being able to speak to a variety of people about differing topics is critical for anyone wanting a political career. Society’s lack of demand for reference checking or validation of truth makes this hazardous.
This lack of knowledge and understanding of consequences is extremely dangerous in the electric utility world. To many, if someone says something a lot, it is true.
We hear politicians say that removing dams is possible because wind and solar can replace hydroelectric output. “Remove the dams” is a mantra for environmental groups. Many believe the narrow focus attached to taking out dams is limited to restoration of ecosystems because there is a solution to the lost electric generation, which is easily replaced by wind and solar sources without trepidation. Wouldn’t it be great if it were this simple? It’s not, and the public needs to know the truth before being asked to support removal of critical pieces of our infrastructure and security.
Hydroelectric dams produce electricity 24 hours a day in a predictable, controllable fashion based on snowfall and stream flows. Those models are created and confidently used to calculate generation months in advance of when the power is needed. The snow or water stored behind the dams is fuel to be used in the coming months.
If the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining, no electricity is generated, nor is there a captive fuel source for future generation. Large-scale battery storage is neither economical nor readily available to meet the needs of present-day use. Having a guaranteed resource to be used in the future is critical to prevent massive power outages and only baseload generation—sources available without interruption—can provide that need.
Getting a bit deeper, wholesale electric systems are sensitive and specifically calibrated to operate synchronously with one another throughout the grid in a tight bandwidth. That means there can’t be large swings produced by different generators.
Wind and solar are inconsistent, which creates problems only protected against by having baseline sources acting as backups, such as coal, hydro and nuclear. Why have 2 if 1 will suffice? That is extremely inefficient and expensive. Even if wind and solar power were viable via battery storage, there is no practical way to deliver grid-level resilience without another form of production as insurance to regulate power. Again, that redundancy negates the argument that wind and solar alone are viable options as sole sources of grid level power.
According to the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, the interconnection of large, distributed energy resources —wind and solar—can cause significant voltage issues in terms of out-of-limit voltages and voltage variability. That says generators are either capable of doing their jobs predictably or they need to be backed up by expensive sources.
In the end, we can’t remove dams without having a baseline generation source to take their place. Only generators with guaranteed fuel sources can meet that requirement, and we have them in the form of dams. That is more than an inch of information, but not nearly the whole discussion.
To be continued.