Owners of uneconomic coal plants in the US have tried many ways to keep operating, even when it is not profitable to do so, such as out-of-market subsidies and re-regulation (as we discussed in Episode #41), bailouts and wholesale market controls (as we discussed in Episode #70), and seeking capacity payments or other novel payments for alleged reliability (as we discussed in our trilogy of shows on decarbonizing power markets, Episodes #90, #97, and #105).
But there’s another tactic, variously known as “self-committing” or “self-scheduling,” and it happens when a utility that owns a coal-fired power plant elects to operate the plant no matter what the going rate for power is, even if that price is below its operating costs. Fully regulated utilities oftentimes can pass the costs of operation onto their customers even when they’re electing to run at a loss, without having to go to the trouble of asking for additional cost recovery from a regulator, or getting a legislator or wholesale market operator to give them a handout in one form or another. And it all happens more or less invisibly to customers and regulators. Only a researcher with a sharp eye and expert knowledge of what to look for would even detect these uneconomic operations, such as our guest in this episode.
[This episode has been released ahead of schedule to coincide with the publication of the paper it covers. Enjoy! --Ed.]
Is it really feasible to run the world on 100% renewables, including supply and demand matching at all times and places? Would doing so require vast amounts of seasonal storage? Are exotic new technologies like next-generation flexible nuclear power plants or coal plants equipped with carbon capture and storage (CCS) equipment needed to balance out variable renewables at a reasonable cost?
In this episode, Dr. Christopher Clack offers a very detailed, deep critique of the 100% wind, water and solar model proposed by Stanford’s Mark Jacobson in 2015, and explains where the model falls short. We also discuss a recent paper by Jesse Jenkins from MIT and Samuel Thernstrom from the Energy Innovation Reform Project, which reviewed some recent papers on what “deep decarbonization” might imply for our future energy mix. This 90-minute, super-wonky chat over a few pints of IPA is guaranteed to leave you reeling…and hopefully, more informed about the best policy pathways to a mostly renewable future.
What combination of power generators on the U.S. grid produces reliable power at the lowest cost? Or, what’s the most renewable energy that can be deployed at a given grid power cost, and what kind of transmission capacity is needed to support it? How would the U.S. grid be different if it were one, unified grid with more high-voltage direct current (HVDC) transmission capacity? What’s the most productive design for a wind farm? How might weather and a changing climate affect future electricity production from wind and solar farms? And how much renewable power is really feasible on the U.S. grid?
These have been devilishly difficult questions to answer, but now advanced mathematical simulations are beginning to make it possible to answer them much more quickly…and if quantum computing becomes a reality, we could answer them instantly.
In an homage to Comedy Central’s Drunk History, this episode features a conversation conducted over several pints of IPA with a mathematician who recently developed such a simulator while he was working at NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) in Boulder, CO. His insights on how the grid of the future might actually function are fascinating, and will likely shatter some of your pre-existing beliefs. It also contains a few nuggets for the serious math geeks out there.