Academics and the grid Part I: I don’t think that study means what you think it means
By Planning Engineer (Russell Schussler)
The media, individuals, and policy makers are prone to serious misunderstanding of studies, reports and pronouncements coming from academic experts. It is important to carefully read and interpret academic publications to understand what has been studied and what is being claimed. Far too many dismiss the many wide-ranging formidable challenges inherent in green energy efforts due to their misreading and misunderstanding of academic publications.
This brings to top of mind a “joke” I once heard at a seminar for new power engineers. A Professor of Electrical Engineering was expounding on the differences between engineers and scientists. He explained:
Both engineers and scientists want to understand the world and both want to solve problems. Engineers worry about how much something costs. Scientists don’t worry about the cost; they just want the truth. So, the difference between an engineer and a scientist is that an engineer at least has some common sense.
There’s been a lot of discussion about the differences between scientists and engineers. The boundaries can get blurry and often are non-existent. In the energy power system arena, perhaps to my past professor’s chagrin, I’m afraid the more important boundary might be between academics and practicing engineers. Academics can approach the grid with some detachment while practicing engineers must keep it running 24/7/365. Practicing engineers have skin in the game and typically face consequences for errors and shortcomings, while academics and unfortunately many policy makers are more insulated. This brings to mind Thomas Sowell’s guidance, “It is hard to imagine a more stupid or more dangerous way of making decisions than by putting those decisions in the hands of people who pay no price for being wrong.”
As I like to say, the electric grid is the largest, most wonderful, most complex machine ever. Meeting the electric needs of our nation depends on many specialists and experts in far ranging efforts including generation, transmission, distribution, maintenance, and operations as well as within the many subfields encompassing these broad areas. The grid must operate seamlessly across a variety of conditions without pause. Recognizing the difference between what theory suggests and practical knowledge demonstrates is critical.
Academics have the luxury of focusing on one or a limited number of problems at a time. The traditional scientific method of hypothesis testing through experimentation is better suited to studies involving limited numbers of variables. Wicked complex systems full of all sorts of inconvenient interactions and feedback tend not to always work as might be suggested by theory from experimentations. As described in this posting, Balance and the Grid, focusing on just one problem can in the end cause net harm, and in many cases, the feedback can make the outcome of the problem attacked worse. I will leave it to readers to ponder recent events and see if they can come up with an example where experts focused too narrowly on a single problem and developed solutions which were later shown to have serious repercussions.
The grid and power supply arrangements are an extremely complex system. The interplay and interactions among the components are extensive and complicated. Change a puzzle piece and the entire puzzle changes. Actions taken to address one problem will typically create new problems and also aggravate other problems. The negative effects of such system “fixes” may or may not be visible for some time. It’s a rare academic who can successfully grapple with the great complexities of the power system. Specialization is an easier approach. While findings from academics and specialists can have great value, their findings should not be taken to extremes. The typical course for successful “revolutionary” ideas is that after some struggles to implement working applications they eventually make a modest improvement within some niche of the industry.
Many read academic papers and jump past all the hard work of assessment to the conclusion that whatever is proposed can be done in the near term on widespread level with great benefit. Initial promise is a necessary step but nowhere near a sufficient indicator of eventual success. But mis- readings of studies often lead to such conclusions. Consider what happens at the simplest level. An academic will look at a particular energy resource, or set of resources, and calculate how much power could they could theoretically provide. Comparing this capability to actual needs, it might be stated that this resource could provide X% (all) of an area’s power need. Although the actual “study” did not look at many of the major items of importance, such as timing of the energy relative to load needs, let alone issues around transmission or distribution of the energy, the paper may be quoted and cited as evidence that this substitution can be done. Just because a resource can produce enough megawatt hours of energy to replace another “less desirable” resource, does not mean it can be substituted as part of the power system. But the media and others may include that paper as evidence that renewable can replace conventional technology.
It is understandable that not everything can be studied at the same time. Also, there is always the possibility of raising near infinite objections as to what was not considered. That certainly is a ditch on the other side of the road that we could fall in. But the ditch of concern here is failing to consider the most basic fundamentals around energy provision. Before any large generating resource can be connected to the grid, detailed interconnections studies must be performed to make sure that single resource works adequately with the system. Assuming that the widespread adoption and integration of many new generating resources can easily be accomplished is naïve. One needs to remain skeptical and questioning around proposals for major change until a myriad of basic requirements of the power supply system have been given due consideration.
Many readers here may have noted the numerous times over the years when I’ve discussed grid concerns, and a reader in the comments had directed me to some article in a prestigious journal from a highly credentialed academic. I check out the articles and often they are quite good, but usually the article does not even address the concerns that I have raised. Readers will offer me as a rebuttal, some publication showing at some basic level how wind and solar resources may contribute to the grid.
Overwhelmingly the academic articles I read are good. Usually, the authors carefully describe the limitations of their findings and recommendations. Sometimes they hint as to what remains to be worked out. I’m afraid this does not stop individuals, the media, and some policy makers from ignoring the qualifications and limitations inherent in their findings. The situation is worse when they leave it to the reader to ferret out the limitations of their findings. In very rare instances some academics will go beyond what has been demonstrated with exaggerated claims. I don’t know if this is done through ignorance, accident, hubris or for purposes of self-advancement. I am afraid, that unfortunately, overstating findings can lead to greater publicity and personal gain. There is not much to be gained personally from being a cynic; optimism is a better path for self-advancement.
Potential enhancements to the grid are usually sold with great fanfare. Those of you who have had an interest in energy and the grid should think back over the years to all the articles you have read which touted some major breakthrough which was going to be a game changer. Such game changers at best are very slow to arise, if ever, in the energy industry. Thinking back a few decades, power electronics were becoming available in many applications that collectively were going to change the industry. Power electronics involve providing high voltage capability to semiconductor devices, combined with sophisticated computer controls. The technology was proven and in use on high voltage DC lines. Theoretically other applications could solve a lot of problem making the grid smarter, correcting voltages and controlling and directing flows on transmission lines.
The research papers looked good. While the touting of these technologies may have gone overboard, I did not read anything particularly dishonest or false. The problem was that many read of the potential and did not see anything to suggest that this technology should not be adopted immediately on a widespread manner to improve the system. Many bright capable people read up on the potential and foresaw near term change and benefit. My Board wanted a report on how we would be using this “new” capability. The devil was in the details, however. The challenges and costs associated with power electronic applications were more burdensome at that time than the problems they would solve in our area.
Years later I found it was worth tens of millions to install a large power electronic device called a Static Var Compensator (SVC) to have on standby to prevent a potential voltage collapse problem that had emerged on the grid. Today power electronics play many important roles in the grid. They are a major part of what makes a grid “smart”. They enable asynchronous wind and solar generation to be converted to alternating current on the grid. Power electronics support voltages and help keep the system stable in many ways in varying situations. But they did not take the industry by storm in a short time frame as envisioned by the early reports. They were first employed in niches where they provided particular benefits. As experience was gained and improvements made, they grew to become more and more important. They key to adoption was that installations were built on successive successes. I suspect top-down mandates to broadly use such devices might have actually hindered development and adoption.
The path for innovation for the grid is most likely to follow the model of power electronics. Academics propose and refine an approach for the enhancement of the grid and/or power supply. Detailed serious evaluations of the approach take place and maybe additional research is warranted. Engineers determine specific areas where the new approaches might be most successful and the approach can be employed or tested. Project successes will be followed by further improvements and refinements and led to greater expansion as warranted.
That model seems preferable to this one: Academics propose and refine an approach for the enhancement of the grid and/or power supply (or a complete transition of the grid). The media and policy makers determine it is worthwhile. Policy makers and the public push for sweeping changes that are mandated. Everyone struggles to implement the new approach broadly in a sweeping near universal manner.
Academic research that promotes improvements to the power greed needs to be evaluated carefully with the understanding that the grid is a complex system full of interactions. Changes to the grid involve numerous hurdles. Language is often imprecise. For instance, when readers see a statement stating “Solar and wind could attain penetration levels of X”. What the statement really means is “Based on the factors I looked at and ignoring a vast number of critical requirements I have not looked at, solar and wind may be able to replace fossil resources at a level of X. But probably not.” Unfortunately, the statement is often interpreted as “Solar and wind can attain penetration levels of X with no significant concerns.”
Similarly, when a study quotes a cost, it should be understood that unless specified differently, the cost is for the specific problem at hand, invariably there will be many other costs added to implement this approach often dwarfing the provided number. If a study quotes a figure in the billions to provide connections for infrastructure to connect distant wind and solar to load centers and/or allow for diversity, you can be fairly certain that additional improvements to the underlying systems will rival or exceed the reported cost.
For those without a strong technical background, it’s hard sometimes to tell what is meant by various terms. There are many definitions of capacity factor. The difference between power and energy is critical though not always grasped. It’s understandable that individuals might be confused by academic studies and articles concerning the grid. Media reporters should do better. The results may be tragic when exaggerated and misunderstood findings influence policy makers and impact policy.
Look for a follow up piece titled, Academics and the Grid: Part 2 Are they Studying the Right Things? It will provide additional context and support for the central ideas here.
Thanks to Roger Caiazza for review and helpful comments
Postscript: I decided to write on this topic when somebody sent me this link as evidence that wind and solar could “easily” be made reliable. Perhaps some of the readers may be interested in discussing in the comment some hurdles not brought out in the article. Similarly, it looks like some of the optimism as to near term Fusion might need some tempering as well.