Firming Power on the Way to a Clean Grid

June 2, 2021

A lot of the confusion ginned up about the transition to a clean grid seems to be from the assumption that we flip a switch, turn off all the fossil plants, and instantly turn on a full wind and solar portfolio.
That’s obviously not how it’s going to play out – there will be a gradual replacement of coal plants, and plans for new gas generation are already being put on hold as solar, wind and batteries continue to become more competitive.

Serious grid modelers presume that as clean energy rises above 50 percent in the US nationally, that existing gas generators will more and more be deployed in a firming and backup role, especially during those times of extremely low wind and solar output. This is relatively simple to model without assuming any new technology, which is almost certain to arise if the past 15 years is any guide.
I discussed these scenarios with former Lawrence Lab researcher Jonathan Koomey while researching my most recent Yale Climate Connections vid.

I spoke last year to Amol Phadke, and Sonia Aggarwal, authors of one of the most authoritative studies of the grid’s future, a “90 Percent by 2035” scenario from the University of California, Berkeley, below.

6 Responses to “Firming Power on the Way to a Clean Grid”

  1. Gingerbaker Says:

    I confess I am a little disappointed by the idea that RE should be considered economical if it merely can be installed at a price point equal to what people are already paying for fossil fuel energy.

    We should be paying significantly LESS than fossil fuel rates for energy that doesn’t require fuels.

    And then the question becomes – is the updated map that shows us where RE should be sited going to change? What would that map look like if our goal as a nation is to provide secure abundant reliable electricity to everyone at 1/2 or 1/3 the price they are paying today?

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      Carbon taxes should be figured into every ton of coal, barrel of crude and cubic meters* of natural gas…and I want a pony.

      *Default extra fees on natural gas for leakage waived only if strong evidence there is no significant amount leaking…and I want a second pony.

    • greenman3610 Says:

      transmission, storage, all cost money.
      Likely that a renewable grid will eventually cost less, but a fair amount of infrastructure has to be built and rebuilt.

  2. ecoquant Says:

    Great presenting the issue, because few are discussing this, but it is incomplete.

    Surely, the transition period is mottled, and some reliance on gas, good or not, is to be expected. But the trouble is that if the end point of the transition is no gas, how are the owners of present gas assets — or builders of new, improved gas asserts — to be properly compensated for their risk? They might not be compensated. They might not, therefore, want to play the game.

    Accordingly, it’s prudent to have a non-gas backup.

    Before addressing that, something which really needs to be examined is why it is the gas that the transition needs to rely upon gas? Is it because of some fundamental limitation of the transmission grid, dependent upon how it is architected presently, where dense generation is expected to happen at a relatively few number of points, and it is incompatible with diffuse generation at a larger number? Is it because of some economic constraint, where the transition betewen holders of fossil fuel generation are so disconnected from those with zero Carbon energy generation that they are incapable of cooridating with one another? Or is it a lack of imagination, where people cannot understand the network of electrical distribution and how software and digital computation and technology can be used to manage it? Or is it an acknowledgement of the latte, but a fear of the susceptibility of such a construct to cyberterrorist attack or some other such flimflam fear?

    • John Oneill Says:

      Reliance on gas is obviously because wind and solar go for periods providing little power, and modern societies need power all the time.
      The closure of fossil free plants that don’t need any ‘firming’ continues. The year before Vermont Yankee closed, the New England grid got 43% of power from gas, 34% from nuclear. The year after, it was 49% from gas, 29% from nuclear – near enough to a straight swap. The gas plants are getting 13 million dollars to store oil for cold snaps, when gas supplies are tight. Nuclear got no credit for having a year’s fuel already in the plant.
      New York’s Indian Point Energy Centre has closed, and the two gigawatts of steady power it provided will be replaced to about 80% by gas – the Cricket Valley plant, using fracked gas, was built in anticipation of the closure. (Ten percent solar and ten percent energy efficiency will do the rest.)
      San Onofre’s two reactors used to provide 9% of California’s power, so when the plant was closed in 2011, the percentage of power from fossil fuels in the State, which had been falling for the previous three years, went back up from 47% to 62% ( hydro had also fallen 6% ). Since then, wind and solar have reduced fossil fuel’s share back to about 46%, but you can expect those gains to be wiped out when Diablo Canyon’s two reactors, which also make about 9% of California’s power, are shut down in four years.

  3. Gingerbaker Says:

    “… wind and solar go for periods providing little power, …”

    That depends on the size of the geographic region you are talking about. If you are talking nationally, the statement is completely false. The capacity factors of wind and solar peak and valley at different times of the year, and never approach zero on a national level.

    Which is why most sane people talk about the need for an updated grid.

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