Monday, August 18, 2014

It Takes More Than Turbines

The Telegraph ran a brief story earlier this month about UK regulators paying wind farms in Scotland nearly £3.0M to not generate so much electricity for one day.  High winds due to the remnants of Hurricane Bertha coincided with a period with low local demand for electricity, and the grid lacked capacity to carry the available power elsewhere.  Such situations are neither new, nor confined to the UK: in both 2011 and 2012, the Bonneville Power Administration ordered wind generators in Oregon shut down to avoid oversupply problems.  The problems in both cases are not that the grid isn't smart enough to handle the intermittent nature of wind; the problem is that the grid lacks sheer bulk transport capability to move the excess wind power to someplace it could be used.

The map to the left is a portion of a graphic from an NPR story about the US power grid, showing the US portion of the Western Interconnect.  The bold orange lines represent a proposal by the American Wind Energy Association for an overlay high-level grid that would allow full use of wind when it is available in a geographically diverse set of sites.  This overlay grid passes "close" [1] to all of the major population centers in the West, as well as the best of the wind resources.

Building a reliable grid from intermittent renewable sources requires not just geographic diversity, but source diversity as well.  The AWEA overlay also happens to pass close to excellent solar resources in the desert Southwest, undeveloped hydro resources in the Northwest, geothermal resources in the Great Basin, and sites suitable for pumped hydro energy storage.  Balancing all of those resources against demand across eleven states (plus western Canada and a bit of Mexico) is a complex but doable task, given enough bulk transport.  Speaking broadly, the situation in Oregon with too much supply and not enough demand shouldn't happen.  If there really are no consumers for it, it ought to be pumping water uphill against future need.

The AWEA isn't the only group that draws proposals for overlay super grids [2].  In the Western Interconnect, they all tend to look similar.  As I've noted in other posts, geography plays a big role.  The people are concentrated in a small number of areas; the easy routes for transportation or transmission are few and obvious; the energy resources are where they are, many of them either close to one or more demand centers, or along one of the routes between those demand centers.  This is a good part of the reason that people can draw up nuts-and-bolts sorts of plans for a heavily-renewable power grid in the Western Interconnect.  The other parts of the country present a much more difficult challenge.  And as always, I raise the question of whether those other parts of the country will demand a single national energy policy that makes the West's efforts difficult or impossible.

[1] "Close" in the West can be rather different than close in other parts of the country.  As in, "it's only a hundred miles", or "it only has to cross one mountain range".

[2] The AWEA map does get used a lot, though.  Part of that is probably that it shows up in Wikipedia's Wikimedia Commons, unencumbered by copyright.  An interesting feature of the full national map is that it doesn't show any additions in the Southeast part of the country, where wind resources are rather poor.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

TABOR Conspiracy Theory

I let myself believe in conspiracy theories on alternate Tuesdays; that'll be relevent in a moment.

TABOR -- the Colorado Taxpayers Bill of Rights -- added a section to the Colorado state constitution in 1992 that, among other things, said the state legislature couldn't pass tax increases, they could only refer such measures to the voters.  In 2011, a group of state legislators sued the State of Colorado, asserting that setting tax rates is a fundamental job of government, and that by denying the state legislature that power, the state constitution was in violation of the Guarantee Clause of the US Constitution.  If it's been a while since you read the Constitution, that's the sentence which requires every state to have "a republican form of government."

The conventional wisdom at the time was that the suit would be short-lived.  To borrow from the defense's summary, the federal court would promptly find that this fell under the Supreme Court's political-question doctrine, that the plaintiffs lacked standing, and that the case would be dismissed.  Things have not, so far, worked out that way.  The district court judge ruled that the plaintiffs did have standing; this case differed from the political-question precedents; and the arguments should be made at trial rather than in a preliminary hearing.  The defense appealed.

A three-judge panel of the federal appeals court, arguing de novo, ruled the same way: sufficiently different from the precedents, plaintiffs had standing, and ordered the case returned to district court for trial.  The defense appealed to the entire court for a rehearing.  This past Tuesday, I read that the full appeals court declined to rehear the case, thereby affirming the ruling by the three-judge panel.  Presumably, the defense will now appeal to the Supreme Court, so it will be at least a few months before anything interesting can happen.  The quickest would be if the Supremes declined to hear the appeal, in which case the district court would schedule a trial date; the wheels of justice do grind slowly.

My impression is that the defense has been poorly prepared throughout.  That they were assuming that "political question, no standing, case dismissed" alone would carry the day.  When I read about the latest development, I was struck by the possibility that this was intentional and not just a matter of overconfidence.  Both parties have found themselves tied in knots by TABOR when they controlled the legislature following a recession: the Republicans following the 2000-01 recession, and the Democrats following the one in 2007-09.  The single-subject amendment to the Colorado constitution in 1994 makes it unlikely that TABOR could be removed in its entirety; it would have to be cleared a bit at a time (some experts think as many as 20 separate amendments would be necessary under the current rules).  "What," I thought on Tuesday, "if the secret plan is to lose the TABOR lawsuit and let the federal courts accomplish what the politicians can't?"

Nah, that's too crazy even for me on a Tuesday.