Reliability of Energy Sources

The reliability of an energy source is an important economic factor. Since large sums of electricity cannot be stored at a time, energy supply must meet energy demand in real time. This means that when the most electricity is being used, the most electricity must be simultaneously created, and vice-versa.

This creates an interesting and constantly changing problem facing energy companies. They not only need to predict electrical output throughout the year, but also throughout the day. After predicting the energy needed, they will need to actually produce it. If their prediction is wrong or they are unable to create the energy needed, ratepayers could experience a shortage or the energy company could waste a lot of money via wasted electricity.

Since this is the case, extensive research has gone into electricity usage over time. Looking at a figure provided by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, we can see that electricity usage on October 22, 2010 in New England peaked at 8 in the morning, called the morning ramp, and 6 to 7 PM, which is the peak demand time. This data follows a regular pattern of electrical use. High use when people get up in the morning, and high use right when they get home from work. These are times when the most electrical supply is needed.

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This kind of data is also collected on a month to month basis. As seen in the figure below provided by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, electrical use goes in cycles with low use in the springs and falls and high use in the winters and summers. This is generally due to the use of heaters and air conditioners during these months.

CoalNatGasElecGenMatches

 

With this, the reliability of energy sources must be considered. Nuclear, natural gas, and coal are all time independent. You can always burn coal or natural gas, and you can always run nuclear reactors no matter the time of day or time of year. For renewables like wind and solar, this is not the case. The wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine.

For solar, there are many parts in the country, including Colorado, in which the sun doesn’t shine during peak energy usage.  At 7 and 8 AM in Colorado in the winter time, the sun has hardly risen. By 5 PM, the sun has completely set in the winter thus completely missing the peak hour of usage. Furthermore, what if we experience large cloud cover or storms during times of high energy demands? Surely, there will be a shortage.

For wind, the story is similar. Luckily, the wind isn’t as variable upon seasons as the sun is, thus giving wind more chances of possible electrical generation time, but definitely not guaranteed time. There is no way to guarantee a satisfactory amount of wind will be blowing to ensure it will meet energy demands, thus making it unreliable.

Due to how unreliable renewable energy is, many countries, like Germany, are paying to keep coal generators in reserve in case the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining. In the case of Germany, the government is paying billions of dollars to keep inactive coal generators in reserve. However, not only is it expensive to keep up the maintenance of these inactive coal generators, it is also expensive to flip these generators on and off (Porter).

A similar story occurred in South Australia. South Australia became heavily dependent on wind energy, though due to its unreliability, prices were unstable and surged frequently. The surges placed prices as high as $14,000 per megawatt-hour, frequently surged above $1,000 per megawatt-hour, and averaged at about $360 per megawatt-hour. The electrical prices seen in Victoria, Queensland, and New South Whales are around $50-$60 per megawatt-hour. Due to the surging prices, the South Australian government is begging and incentivizing gas-powered stations to begin operation again as reserve.

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What does it mean to be agnostic on energy?

Simplistically, it means that we support the free market methods of finding a preferable energy source, whether it be renewables, fracking, nuclear energy, or some other energy production method.

It seems that there are many conservatives and libertarians across the United States that are against renewable energy, namely wind and solar, in and of itself. However, this shows a complete misunderstanding of the free market position. Oil and natural gas are not libertarian sources of energy, whatever that may mean. The whole point of a free market is that it is undesigned. There are no winner and losers chosen, but instead our energy source is “chosen” through consumer demand, prices, supply, and a multitude of other factors.

The truth is that I have a soft spot for renewable and clean energy. The environment is important to me, and I wish for people for years to come to enjoy the same Rocky Mountains I have enjoyed my entire life. I hope most people would think it would be absurd to claim otherwise. However, I still do not think it is appropriate for the government to mandate or skew markets for the sake of what a few may determine is a preferable energy supply, as it would most certainly be arbitrary.

For example if I were to choose, I would probably choose nuclear energy as a preferable form of energy production as it is clean, really awesome (totally not a value statement), and relatively effective. However, nuclear energy is not perfect as it can be really expensive to build the infrastructure for and takes incredibly specialized professionals to do the job. If some environmental leftists were to choose, I assume they would choose wind energy. Wind energy production doesn’t create emissions, and the wind is a resource that won’t be going away anytime soon. However, wind is not a reliable enough source of energy to depend on and the materials used to build these farms are not environmentally friendly either. Similar things could be said about solar energy. If a traditional conservative were to choose, they might choose hydraulic fracturing, which is relatively cheap and cleaner than crude oil drilling. However, fracking is not emissions-free and is also not currently politically desirable in many ways.

So when we set up a system that chooses winner and losers, the winner is only dependent on who the chooser is, which is not something that I think anyone is particularly interested in.

However, that does not mean we can’t have an effect on the energy being used today. We certainly can, but we can’t use government preferences for these ends. Consumer demand is a powerful element of a market, and it is something that we all can affect. If you are interested in cleaner energy, educate people about it. Make people really desire having cleaner energy or whatever form of energy you think is best. This isn’t an impossible task, but it is more difficult than using the government as a tool to your ends.

Furthermore, as surprising as this may sound, we must check our own privileges when discussing sound energy policy. Yes, the environment is important and we should protect it, but this does come with a higher bill. While this higher bill is mostly affordable to the high and middle class, the same can’t be said for the less fortunate and lower class. While they would certainly benefit from a cleaner environment, I am not sure they would find the tradeoff of being able to afford more food, better clothes, and so on desirable. However in a free market of energy, they could make such a choice if they so desire.

When it comes down to it sound energy policy is quite difficult, and even more so when you think the government should pick winners and losers in the market. People think that it is so easy when they post things to Facebook like “of course the government needs to subsidize renewable energy” yet they know very little about the costs of such a policy and who it effects. Likewise, people think it is so easy to say “oil and gas is the cheapest therefore the best”, but they don’t even bother to consider the externalities of such a decision or how different people may value its environmental effects.

Trevor Burrus, a research fellow at the Cato Institute, recently wrote about the difficulties of gun policy in which he explains that the gun control argument is not as obvious of an argument as its advocates would like you to believe and the gun rights argument is not as obvious of an argument as its advocates would like you to believe. The same could be said about energy policy, and most policy matters. It is hard. It is nuanced. There is no cure all policy or energy source, for that matter.

This is why I am agnostic on energy sources, and this is why the free market is so important. There are certainly market failures in addressing issues throughout history, but freeing up the market takes the hard decisions out of the hands of an arbitrary decider, or deciders, and into a complex system in which we all are a part of.