On Earth Day 2009, Jon Wellinghoff, the newly appointed chairman of the U. S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission declared that “baseload capacity is going to become an anachronism.” He went on to compare power plants to computers, further exposing the limits of his technical knowledge
“People talk about, ‘Oh, we need baseload.’ It’s like people saying we need more computing power, we need mainframes. We don’t need mainframes, we have distributed computing.”
Apparently, he believes that electricity can be produced and moved at will and that the box on his desk that his secretary uses to check his email and calendar represents an independent computing device that manages to get his email without the benefit of centralized servers, routing hubs, switches or even reliable power. The last time I checked, there were still a lot of large scale computing devices being sold – sure, they may be composites of many small microprocessors but they have very similar characteristics and functions of the good old mainframes that we used to know and love.
My headline for this post reflects the fact that this man has been appointed to a position of strong regulatory power with authority to make significant decisions on the future shape of the U. S. power grid.
Not surprisingly, the National Association of Manufacturers and the Chamber of Commerce blogs have some rather negative thoughts about the pronouncements. Both of those groups are full of people who produce and move the material wealth that lawyers like Wellinghoff take for granted and they realize just how important it is to have reliable electrical power that is not dependent on the whims of the weather.
Also not surprisingly, Joe Romm at Climate Progress could not be happier with the path toward a renewable only powered smart grid as envisioned by Wellinghoff. Here is the comment I left on that blog:
I am now reassured. A career lawyer who has spent 30 years focused on clients from the renewable energy industry has declared that his former and future clients can save the world. All they need is a smart grid that can shape the load to meet what they can provide.
By his own description the grid controllers have to be smart and automatic load controllers rather than trained and knowledgeable human beings who control the power production to meet the demand.
The demand controllers will have to work fast – the wind and sun often disappear at the collectors with little to know warning and then come back almost as quickly. Anyone who has tried to fly a kite or sail a boat understands just how variable the wind is in any given location. Those demand controllers will also have to be programmed with cold logic so that they can curtail any and all loads necessary to keep the grid from collapsing – anyone who has ever studied the weather knows that the wind and sun can be non-existent for days at a time over wide swaths of land. No caring or trained human could manage that job given the tools of just renewable energy as described by Wellinghoff.
I guess all those years I spent studying electricity, power, energy, fuels, chemistry, physics, mechanics, and national policy were as wasted as the lessons that I learned in church about caring for the needs of my fellow humans or the ethics that I learned as a leader.
I should have just become a lawyer so I could learn that there is a way to pass laws to make electrons do as they are bid.
Time to go to work. Besides, the sun has been down for more than 9 hours and the thermal storage is getting a bit low. It is pretty still out there as well. The nearest place with any solar power at all is across the Atlantic ocean and looking at the weather map it looks like I there might be enough wind energy available for about 1/5 – 1/3 of the rated capacity. I wonder which one of my neighbors will be lucky enough so that the grid controllers will keep his lights on and his computer humming.