Days of future passed: a look backwards and forwards

It seems a good time, at the start of a new year, but not quite the start of a new decade, to review the past year and take a speculative look at the future. We are only a year away from the magical decadal dateline, and this prompts the question of why we place so much importance on decadal benchmarks, e.g. 2020, 2030, 2050, 2100, etc., as if these divisions are significant. What happened to the rolling 10 year plan? Why do things have to be based on decadal dates rather than basing a plan on say mid 2027?

Mike Rycroft

The big event of the year was the release of the draft the 2018 integrated resource plan for electricity (IRP2018), which focuses on short term renewable energy (RE) projects and ignores coal and other conventional sources. The plan ignores storage completely and seems to be based on the outdated concept of using geographic diversity of RE sources to achieve a reliable electricity supply.

The development of cheap bulk storage that can add dispatchability to RE sources makes this concept obsolete, unnecessarily complicated, and non-viable as a long term solution. In addition there is a resurgence of interest in nuclear as a low CO2 source, which can change the picture completely.

The IRP was based on the so-called least-cost principle, which looks at cost and ignores value, and is completely dependent on the validity of input data. If the world is moving in a different direction, we would look foolish to cling to an outdated plan.

The IRP does avoid commitment beyond 2030, a wise move considering the extent of uncertainty in future developments, although some sectors seem to believe that the plan is final, and we can ignore coal and nuclear in the future. The impact of this choice on balance of payments, considering that all the equipment will be imported and largely financed by foreign loans, which will result in a large portion of the tariffs paid by consumers leaving the country for the next 20 years, has not been considered.

It is unnecessary to say that a large amount of discussion and controversy has arisen around the draft plan. The report of the parliamentary committee on energy regarding IRP2018 is also judiciously cautious about committing to a single energy source, and demand predictions are seen as a source of concern, particularly taken in the light of calls for re-industrialisation. The committee’s call for a two year review cycle and investigation of the robustness of modelling is seen as a positive move.

This year has seen the emergence of pro-nuclear civic organisations, who are becoming more active and more vocal, as seen by the organisation of a rally in berlin late in the year. Support is also coming from environmental organisations concerned about the increasing use of coal in Germany, where an ancient forest is being destroyed to gain access to lignite deposits to fuel new coal fired power stations. Germany may well rue the decision to close down nuclear power stations which led to the building of new coal plant. The departure of the German chancellor responsible for the anti-nuclear policy may change things dramatically in Germany. In addition there has been an emergence of support coming from unexpected quarters for nuclear, including the UN and other political organisations.

A surprise twist has emerged in the nuclear agreement saga in South Africa, where the judgement handed down by the courts that put an end to the SA/Russian pact is seen to possibly be applicable to the DoE’s REIPPPP as well. It seems that the basic reason, viz., that the agreement was not run through a public consultation process, applies to the REIPPPP as well. This possibility was noted at the time of the case, but has now been taken up by sectors affected by the REIPPPP, and is due for hearing early in 2019.

One wonders what the outcome will be if the court decides the REIPPPP process was also unconstitutional. Those who prided themselves on stopping the nuclear pact may have unknowingly created an unpleasant consequence for the RE industry, and should remember that the law applies equally to all.

Internationally, there is an emphasis on small modular nuclear reactors, and it seems that South Africa might be continuing with the pebble bed model, albeit in a very subtle and discreet manner. Some western countries , including the UK , USA and others have a SSMR development programmes and some even have projected market dates. It may be that this is where our nuclear future lies.

There seems to be a move back to the concept of baseload, albeit supplied by RE in this case. The need for baseload has been denied by experts in the field, claiming that the need for a minimum level of continuous generation could be met by combining RE sources etc. In an unanticipated twist, the rapid development and drop in price of storage is feeding a move back to the concept of dispatchable generation, and several large solar PV plants are being equipped with long term storage systems, to allow dispatch after generation has ceased. Combining storage with baseload plant could also provide flexible dispatch to baseload systems.

There has been an attempt in recent years to move away from demand-based-generation to generation-based-consumption to accommodate the variable output from RE systems. The rapid growth of storage now makes another system, which for lack of a better name I am calling “demand-based-dispatch”, possible, whether dispatch is from generation, energy stored by generators, energy stored in the grid, or energy stored at the consumer. This allows the consumer to decide on consumption patterns which is much more effective and efficient for production than complicated DSM and load shifting programs.

There is a move in the RE industry to larger plant, with 500 MW solar becoming common and 2 to 4 GW plant on the cards. China has a 7 GW wind farm planned to expand to 20 GW on one site. According to a prominent Cigre official, it works better to generate at a large site remotely and transmit to load centre, e.g. large wind farms in Siberia, and the REDZ in South Africa.  RE farms in SA’s independent power producers programme are also increasing in size.

History has shown that attempts to fashion the future are often overtaken by realities that better serve the needs of the time, and there is also a difference between fantasy and reality. Much has been said about the supposed advantages of small distributed generation plant. As with many projects that attempt to predict and shape the future, there is a good chance that the envisioned DER and microgrid will be limited to off-grid and industrial application as the grid moves back towards centralised RE systems.

The proponents of the DER principle seem to have missed the fact that the claimed advantages of DER i.e. short installation time and the ability to build to match demand closely, are shared by centralised RE systems, being small scale modular in nature, and which can achieve these goals at a lower cost due to economy of scale.

Unfortunately for the visionaries, the existing monopolies will not be replaced by a network of small operators, and new conglomerates will emerge to dominate the market. Rooftop solar is likely to decline once the 20 year lifetime mark is reached , when cheap RE becomes available on the grid, and storage reaches an affordable level. This is shown by the fact that there is a small but growing move away from individual RT solar and storage to community based systems, (one inverter is cheaper than 50), which will probably morph into larger centralised systems or conglomerate ownership as time goes by.

Another issue which keeps raising its head is the world-wide grid, where all countries are  interconnected and there is a sharing of electricity between all. The authors of this idea seem to have overlooked the history of international energy politics. When oil was the lifeblood of nations, production was manipulated to control prices, and oil sanctions were used as political weapons. The same is now happening with Gas. How then can we expect that, when electricity becomes the main energy source, that the same situation will not happen? Interconnection means the import of electricity, and this could be controlled the same as oil or gas.

One could argue that all countries have RE sources, but not all have the means to produce equipment that harvests the resource. Solar PV and wind manufacturing industries are already confined to a few countries, and this constitutes a major concentration of power and control over the industry.

Wind energy is running into bad press with an increasing public opposition to wind turbines from civic and conservation organisations, and the announcement from the WHO that noise and vibration from wind turbines can cause health problems, and the publication of studies claiming that the presence of wind farms changes the micro-climate down-wind of the farm. The emergence of larger and larger wind turbines may be the cause of all the problems. Perhaps the manufacturers should consider other factors in their quest to build bigger and bigger machines. Are we not making the usual engineers error of pursuing the option which provides the greatest technical challenge rather than that which provides the greatest overall benefit?

The big growth area though is in storage, with the installation of large sites (such as the 100 MW/129 MWh in Australia) to stabilise the grid, a planned installation of a 100 MW/400 MWh plant in California to provide peaking support, and long term (>4 h) storage at several solar farms.  Most of the network based systems are being used for network support functions, such as frequency control, reactive power and network load levelling or investment deferment, but there is a growing application to variable generation output smoothing and reverse arbitration.

The biggest potential growth area in the immediate future is in behind-the-meter systems, where storage is being used to shift loads and shift BTM generation to obtain financial gains. Ignoring the rooftop solar applications, storage can provide a great advantage in load shifting and arbitrage, allowing the user to store cheap energy for later usage, reduce peak demand etc. A big driver is the scrapping or reduction of lucrative feed-in tariffs and net-metering schemes by many operators, leaving the owners faced with the reality that it’s better to use your own power than give it away.

Storage is creating new opportunities at both ends of the grid: The generator where surplus output is stored and sold when generation is low or demand is high, and the consumer where surplus generation is purchased when demand is low and used when demand is high. Somewhere along the line a balance will be reached between the two. Both have advantages in reducing line loading.

Altogether there seems to be a move away from complex plans and systems to more manageable tested and proven methods, enabled by developments in technology. There seems to be an emerging understanding that the complex interconnected networks dreamed of by the gurus just don’t work, and it’s easier to use dispatchable controllable network than a complex one which is at the mercy of forces of nature. Storage is making this possible.

Why create a future world complicated by multiple interconnected networks, distributed generation, domestic demand side management, distributed storage, consumer arbitrage, electric vehicle charging schedules, trading energy with your neighbours, etc.  The consumer has enough to worry about without getting involved in all these things. Ocam’s razor is still valid today: the simplest solution is usually the best one.

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