Intermittency revisited

by Solarevolution March 27, 2013 14:00

A new detailed analysis has been published on the intermittency of renewables, "Household Solar Photovoltaics: Supplier of Marginal Abatement, or Primary Source of Low-Emission Power?"

Here are some observations about this article:

  • Any future scenario involving the continuing indulgence or coddling of fossil fuel interests is delusional. Catastrophic climate change is at the door. Even if our only issue were peak oil, it is already too late for a smooth "transition" or "energy conservation." We are in a state of emergency and it is time to stop kidding ourselves about our plight, especially within the well-informed but small peak oil / EROI / climate change / renewables community. More than ever, the world needs clear, honest, deep understanding. The politicians and the business community will catch on only when we get real ourselves and "tell it like it is."
  • Given the high risk of social disruption due to climate change, the only rational future for nuclear power (including nuclear weaponry) is rapid decommissioning and secure sequestration. The last thing humanity needs is coastal nuclear power plants flooded by sea level rise and on-river nuclear power plants running out of cooling water while marauders are out on the front lawns of the nuclear industry custodians. Others may be in denial about this risk, but we need not indulge their fantasies of a nuclear resurgence. 
  • That leaves us with only one sane course of action: demand destruction combined with renewables. Any challenges to high EROI renewables carry the responsibility to find high EROI solutions. If batteries don't cut the mustard, then forget batteries. If the main challenge is intermittency, then it is time for us to set the bar higher and put qualified intermittency engineers to work. Many serious developers are working on low cost, high capacity, high round-trip efficiency storage. And they aren't wasting their time on batteries. If trees can survive the night (and winter even in Alaska, Canada, Scandinavia and Siberia), then so can humans. 
    • By the way, a good peer reviewed scientific report on the costs and impacts of intermittency can be obtained from the UKERC:
      It explains the important concept of "root mean square error" and debunks a lot of the myths about intermittent generation.
  • Likewise, if we need a smarter grid to make renewables work, then we need to put more smart people to work, and pronto. One can identify the challenge and the inadequacy of efforts to date. Fine. Then what happens? (Robert Heinlein's admonition comes to mind: "Always listen to experts. They will tell you what can't be done and why. Then do it.")   
  • Residential rooftop solar has a place but it carries the challenges of high installation cost, poor orientation/shading, roof penetrations, etc. These issues stand in the way of large scale high EROI deployment. 
  • Better we look elsewhere. Stronger candidates are low profile commercial buildings, parking lots and streets (integrated with grade-separated transportation).
  • Nor does the need for scale necessarily imply huge remote solar farms out in the deserts. That's appropriate if we are up to something out there in the first place, but extensive transmission and environmental costs can be mitigated by integrating most renewables into the urban fabric.
  • Charlie Hall's claim that society's EROI has to be on the order of magnitude of 10 is similarly built upon the premise of many steps between, e.g., the well and the wheel. No wonder he's right. We fly rednecks from Houston to extract oil offshore in Angola, ship it to refineries in Rotterdam, conjure magic potions and send it off to who knows where by truck no less, and then run it through a 15% efficient engine pushing around mostly metal. What a waste! By uniting generation and application (source and sink) within a single physical structure, much of that inefficiency can be readily eliminated and the minimum EROI can get back down to a reasonable number. 
  • There is no significant future for electric cars (and thus V2G). Using the Biblical cliche, it doesn't make sense to put new wine in old wine skins. In the context of peak oil, humanity is poised to eliminate the treacherous bad engineering (misnamed "auto"-mobile / "free"-way) that willy-nilly juxtaposes children, pedestrians and bicyclists (not to mention pets, squirrels and deer) against heavy fast-moving machines on the same terrestrial plane. With grade-separated Solar Skyways, for example, we can reclaim the streets for people-not-machines and meet our energy needs as well. In the process, with a 10X improved solution, we can drastically cut the source-to-sink steps which whittle away at full EROI  / LCA / efficiency considerations.
For any new scientific inquiry, we must question the assumptions which underpin the conclusions reached. If one picks a marginal set of underlying premises, one will get marginal results.

And though one's conclusions may be valid within the present political framework and technology mindset, the science behind EROI and LCA relate first and foremost to physics, not BAU economics or political intransigence. As long as we are considering such scenarios as high residential rooftop solar deployment, it makes sense to also put forth bold scenarios with sound physics, irrespective of the political / industrial challenges we face. In the emerging milieu of severe natural consequences, bold is where the opportunities can be found.  


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