“The Grid” Analysis of America’s Energy

Image result for the grid fraying wires book

Renewable sources are still far from overtaking energy supply fully because the grid just isn’t robust enough to deal with the fluctuations in electricity being made. Oftentimes, solar panels produce more than 100% power needed in the day, and flounders at night. The extra power made in the day cannot be put aside for use later. Thus, night time demand is usually supported by firing up of more power plants. These power plants are not efficient unless ran at full capacity.

First of all, the grid is very old. It is the same grid, for the most part, that was first built from 1950s. The grid is also unstable, susceptible to crumbling at the slightest perturbance, and get overloaded easily leading to blackouts.

Back in the days, DC grids were developed based on multiple private companies each with their own generating station and lines. The first step towards universalizing access to power was invention of AC power.

Samuel Insull, Thomas Edison’s assistant, was the one that led to the centralization of the grid. He bought over infrastructure and private companies, consolidating “load” and persuading factories to purchase cheaper off-peak power resulting in more switching to general grid from private power.

Then there was a regulation, PURPA to allow for small power plants to do cogeneration (using leftover steam to generate useful heat). This broke up the monopoly structure. And in even more recent times electricity start becoming a traded commodity. Too much electricity start travelling to far, burning and degrading the lines. Upkeep of grid lines are declining as customers do not wanna pay more. Power plants often do not keep up with maintenance, or try to evade inspections.

The biggest challenge utility faces today is the problem of peak demand. Peak times happen around 5pm. That’s unfortunately when the renewables are starting to become asleep/inactive. Thus most of US evenings are powered by fossil fuels. Utilities in the past used to have up to 30% capacity margins (ie. they can fire up to 30% more power in times of emergency), while now it’s only down around 10%. While consumption of energy surges. But the entire concept of having power plants sitting idle for half the time when there’s no demand is a huge waste. It costs the same whether the plant is idle, or going full steam, and it is even more costly when they start firing up additional plants to make up for the excess capacity needed.

Smart metering is the one tool that utilities can consider upgrading themselves to keep their businesses running. Shedding 5-10% during peak hours could eliminate powering up of dirty power plants. Utilities could also monitor and control electricity (unbeknownst to some).

The bad thing about home-based grid solar is that the normal citizens who are not using solar or who cannot afford solar systems pay higher electricity rates which are used to curtail the loss of utility customers. In 2013, Germany’s two largest utilities lost $6 billion as corporate are getting off the grid. This leads to the “utility death spiral” leaving utilities with stranded assets like those big expensive power plants but aren’t used. Their initial colossal investment in fossil fuels ended in unprecedented losses.

Electric cars could well be the most viable solution for smoothing out the instability of the grid. Much like huge batteries on wheels, they could act to balance out peak load by feeding power into the grid (when they’re docked into the 2-way charger). Besides their flexibility to go anywhere and readily provide power back to the grid, they are also in lower demand at night when peak load happens. This would tie perfectly with rooftop solar when the solar power wanes at night, and the “car batteries” are plugged in to fill in the gap. Cars are only utilized about 3% daily. So if we can make use of them effectively as storage, they can be used up to 95%.

However, the drawbacks are that electric car batteries are the main holdbacks for consumers who are concerned with their lifespan and range. Which all comes down to price and costs. Denmark has provided zero tax incentive (usually 100% of car price), and also lifelong free batteries for electric cars. Another question is the costs of infrastructure for the massive expansion of charging spots in order to make the “cars as storage” dream a reality.

Tesla’s growth in China

Following my previous post on electric car batteries’ sluggish development, news just came in that Tesla signed a deal with China’s real-estate developer Soho to expand their car-charging outlets in Beijing.

The deal would comprise a total of 9 charging spots around Soho’s properties in the downtown area of Beijing.

On June 11 2014, Tesla also promised to build 40 more charging points around China (according to an agreement signed with Yantai Holdings).

Now one would wonder, is an increment of 9 charging stations going to make any dent in the development of electric car market? The Chinese government targets to have a goal more than 5 million electric cars by 2020 – that is merely another 15 more years from now.

Adding charging outlets would unequivocally make the switch to an electric car more alluring because it is simply more convenient to travel and recharge your car when you need it. However, considering China’s land mass and the presence of its monolithic rivals Sinopec and CNPC (PetroChina),  it would probably take longer than hoped for to reach a state of energy nirvana.

China is the world’s second-biggest oil consumer and has a growing appetite for oil that may one day surpass that of the U.S. which views Canada’s oil sands as a pillar of its future energy needs. Canada is increasingly looking to China to sell its vast oil reserves after the U.S. delayed a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline that would bring oil from Canada to refineries in the U.S. Gulf Coast.

Quick Trivia

  • Tesla delivered the first model S cars in Shanghai and Beijing in April 2014
  • There are 3 supercharging stations in China, located in Beijing and Shanghai.
  • Superchargers, owned and built by the company, allow Tesla car owners to replenish their battery life as much as 16 times faster than at public charging stations and for free.
  • Norway, which has the highest electric-car ownership per capita, had 4,029 charging points and 127 quick charging stations. They get incentives for owning electric cars such as tax-exemption, free parking, charging and are exempt from road tolls.

References: Bloomberg, facts and details

The slow demise of Li-air batteries for electric cars

Yet another development in the electric car industry: IBM and Joint Center for Energy Storage Research lab (JCESR) funded by US-government announced that they would unwind their research titled “Battery 500 Project” for lithium-air batteries which started back in 2009.

The director of this project, Winfried Wilcke, announced his new-found fondness towards sodium-air batteries instead of lithium-air ones. He believes now that the sodium equivalents would be more economically competitive as compared to the lithium-air ones.

Here’s a table of comparison for the different types of electric car batteries:

 Type Lithium-air batteries (2009) Lithium-ion batteries (1991)

Sodium-air batteries

  • Oxygen interacting with Lithium to generate electricity.
  • Cathodes like cobalt
  • Most common in electric cars
  • Oxygen interacting with Na to generate electricity.
  • 500 mph on single charge
  • Cheap carbon cathode
  • Higher energy density than Li-ion and Na-air batteries
  • High energy density
  • Very stable
  • NaO2 formed and decompose into Na, O2 which is reversible process, efficient
  • Na cheaper & more abundant than Li
  • Relatively unstable
  • Production of waste product lithium carbonate
  • Added weight and cost due to the need to maintain conditions of the electrodes

  • 100 mph on single charge
  • Expensive metal oxide cathode
  • Energy capacity/storage life depletes after each cycle.
  • Can only recharge approx 10 times.

Batteries Comparison Table ©The Green Plebeian

What happens during battery discharge:

  • The metal (Na or Li) is oxidized at the anode/electrolyte interface, and the resulting electron is transferred to the outer circuit. At the cathode, oxygen is reduced to a superoxide species that may form a metal superoxide in the presence of the oxidized metal.
  • The metal superoxide in a Li-oxygen cell is highly unstable and reacts further.
  • The metal superoxide in a Na-oxygen cell is much more stable and doesn’t decompose further, allowing the reaction to be reversed.

Speaking to an Electrical Engineering friend of mine, I found out that research and development in the clean battery field is still lagging behind other renewables, partly because of the difficulty to make breakthroughs in its limitations. However, with the increasing rate of market expansion of electric cars throughout the world (See post on Tesla), the next generation of highly usable and efficient batteries could be well on its way to revolutionize the automobile industry.