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Creating a New Myth

November 21, 2014

It’s undeniable that wind and solar are unreliable: When the wind stops blowing and clouds cover the sun, wind and solar don’t generate electricity.

This fact has caused defenders of wind and solar, such as energybiz magazine, to create a new myth:

Coal, natural gas and nuclear power plants are also unreliable.

Here is how ebergybiz magazine describes this new myth:

“Grid operators adapted familiar techniques over the past century for managing the intermittence of big thermal power plants that are unavailable 10% to 12% of the time.”

This is a blatant attempt to distort and misrepresent the facts.

All power plants are periodically shut down for scheduled maintenance.

These are planned and scheduled, so that grid operators know in advance when to bring other plants on line to replace the power lost during periods of scheduled maintenance.

Plants aren’t shut down for maintenance on a whim, or without adequate notice to plan for replacement power.

It’s true, base load plants do trip off-line, but it’s rare, so rare in fact that it’s newsworthy when it happens.

Scheduled maintenance typically requires 6 to 10 weeks of downtime every three years or so. During these periods, repairs are made to equipment and measurements are taken to determine the extent of wear on various components, e.g., turbine buckets and blades, boiler tubes and the insulation of generators. Other work typically includes periodic bore scoping of turbine rotors, inspection of all ancillary equipment and controls and, in the case of nuclear power plants, refueling of reactors.

These downtimes are also scheduled for the spring and fall when there is less demand for electricity.

Large steam turbine and generator

Large steam turbine and generator

I have personally participated in many such planned plant shutdowns. These shutdowns help ensure reliability and help prevent failures.

Planned and scheduled shutdowns of base load power plants are a far cry from the unplanned and unexpected stoppages of wind and solar, where the wind can suddenly stop blowing, and the sun can suddenly be covered with clouds.

Baseload power plants, i.e., coal-fired, natural gas and nuclear power plants, operate 24 hours per day, 7 days per week, 52 weeks per year, except during periods of scheduled maintenance.

This is unlike wind and solar, where wind won’t generate electricity on hot summer days when power is needed for air conditioning, and where solar doesn’t generate electricity at night.

Wind and solar are unreliable and require gas turbines to be kept in spinning reserve, ready to quickly replace the sudden loss of electricity from wind and solar.

This need for backup is why a new myth about coal-fired, natural gas and nuclear power plants is being created.

The myth is designed to get people to believe that wind and solar are the same as base load power plants.

As the energybiz article proclaims:

“There’s no reason to suppose renewables’ integration costs are bigger [than for base load power plants].”

Why is it necessary to create this new myth?

Because wind and solar incur extra costs, required to keep backup power plants ready to go online when the wind stops blowing and the sun stops shining.

That’s the fact, so a myth is created to beguile people into thinking otherwise.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. November 21, 2014 12:27 pm

    It’s not that rare for plants to trip off-line, I’d say about 50% of the coal plants unavailability is due to that, even if it’s much lower for nuclear plant since so much money is spent on maintenance that unexpected event are very rare.

    However 94% of planned availability for one plant, means only a 0.36% risks that 2 plants will be off-line simultaneously and almost none that 3 plants will be off-line simultaneously. When you have a large fleet, over the year, the level of production you can rely on at a 99,99 probability is the one of your fleet minus 3 or 4 units.

    Not only is the availability of wind and solar much lower, but it’s correlated. If there’s no wind, then there’s likely also no or little wind for all the other turbine, up to very wide area. For European countries, the level of production you consistently get at a 95% probability is about 4% of the capacity, already almost nothing. At 99,9%, it’s 1%.

    • November 21, 2014 1:04 pm

      Thanks. I appreciate your comments. I’m not sure coal-fired power plants trip off line as much as you indicate, but your analysis of availability make stye question moot.

  2. November 21, 2014 3:35 pm

    Thanks, Donn. Plugged today’s column into my “Variability” page here:

    • November 21, 2014 4:01 pm

      Great. I appreciate your including this in your column.

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