The Solar power / Water Nexus

The Solar power / Water Nexus | 11/07/14
by John Brian Shannon John Brian Shannon

Separate from discussions about airborne coal power plant emissions, are the high levels of water usage caused by obscenely high coal power plant water requirements. Water usage by power plants are directly proportional to the downstream water loss experienced by farmers, citizens, and other water users such as wildlife.

Water used by power plants
At a time of increasing water scarcity, water use by power plants varies widely. In some regions, that different water usage level is becoming an important part of the decision-making process for planners.

In some regions of the world, there exists acute competition for water resources as coal power station operators vie for water with agricultural, urban, and other users of water — while areas with plentiful water find their power plant choices aren’t constrained by water supply issues at all.

But the era of increasing water shortages and frequent drought seem here to stay in many regions, and the huge volumes of water required by some power plants is becoming a factor in the decision-making process as to which type of power plant is most suited for any given location.

Therefore, the conversation is now arcing towards the local availability of water and thence, to the most appropriate type of power station to propose for each location.

So let’s take a look at the water usage of five common types of power plants:

  • Coal: 1100 gallons per MWh
  • Nuclear: 800 gallons per MWh
  • Natural gas: 300 gallons per MWh
  • Solar: 0 gallons per MWh
  • Wind: 0 gallons per MWh.

While 1100 gallons per MWh doesn’t sound like much, America’s 680 coal-fired power plants use plenty of water especially when tallied on an annual basis.

The largest American coal-fired power station is in the state of Texas and it produces 1.6 GW of electricity, yet it is located in one of the driest regions on the North American continent. Go figure.

At one time as much as 55% of America’s electricity was produced via coal-fired generation and almost every home had a coal chute where the deliveryman dropped bags of coal directly into the homeowner’s basement every week or two.

But in the world of 2014, the United States sources 39% of its electricity from coal power plants and this percentage continues to decline even as domestic electricity demand is rising.

Texas Utility Going Coal-Free, Stepping Up Solar

In a recent column by Rosana Francescato, she writes;

“El Paso Electric Company doubles its utility-scale solar portfolio with large projects in Texas and New Mexico. As if that weren’t enough, the utility also plans to be coal-free by 2016.” — Rosana Franceescato

She goes on to tell us that EPE serves 400,000 customers in Texas and New Mexico and gives credit to the foresighted management team. El Paso Electric is already on-track to meet the proposed EPA carbon standard. Their nearby 50 MW Macho Springs solar power plant about to come online is on record as having the cheapest (PPA) electricity rate in the United States.

This solar power plant will displace 40,000 metric tonnes of CO2 while it powers 18,000 homes and save 340,000 metric tonnes of water annually, compared with a coal power plant of the same capacity. That’s quite a water savings in a region that has been drought-stricken in 13 of the last 20 years, only receiving 1 inch of rainfall per year.

In February 2014, EPE signed an agreement for the purchase all of the electricity produced by a nearby 10 MW solar installation that will 3800 homes when construction is completed by the end of 2014. And they are selling their 7% interest in a nearby coal power plant. Now there’s a responsible utility company that makes it look easy!

Solar’s H2O advantage

The manufacture of solar panels uses very little water, although maintenance of solar panels in the field may require small amounts of water that is often recycled for reuse after filtering out the dust and grit, while other types of energy may require huge volumes of water every day of the year.

Wind’s H2O advantage

Wind turbines and their towers also use very little water in their construction and installation, although some amount of water is required for mixing with the concrete base that the tower is mounted on at installation.

In the U.S. which is facing increasing water shortages and evermore drought conditions as global warming truly begins to take hold in North America, switching to a renewable energy grid would have profound ramifications. Estimates of water savings of up to 1 trillion gallons could be possible if utilities switched to 100% renewable wind and solar power with battery backup on tap for night-time loads and during low wind conditions.

Midway through that transition, the present water crisis in the U.S. would effectively be over. Yep, just like that. Over.

China’s Looming Water Crisis

China’s looming water crisis has planners moving to taper their coal and nuclear power generation construction programmes. You can’t operate these plants without the required water, even for a day. Yet, the people who live and grow crops and raise livestock in the surrounding areas need access to undiminished water supplies. What good is a coal power plant if everyone moves away due to a lack of water?

There are very legitimate reasons nowadays to switch to solar and wind generation — and the reduction of airborne emissions used to be the prime consideration and may remain so for some time, however, massive reductions in water consumption might now prove to be the dealmaker in some regions — and the emission reductions may now be viewed as the happy side benefit! Wow, that’s a switch!

Of course, the benefits of solar and wind power will still include no ongoing fuel costs, very low maintenance and the lowest Merit Order ranking (the wholesale kWh price of electricity) of any energy.

Granted, there are locations where renewable energy doesn’t make sense, such as some Arctic or Antarctic regions. In these places solar simply isn’t worthwhile and wind levels may not be sufficient to make the economic case. Biomass may be a partial solution in these areas and there may be the opportunity for geothermal energy — although finding ‘hot rocks’ underground near population centres is much more unlikely than many people may realize.

But in the future, the vast majority of locations will be powered by renewable energy paired with a battery backup or a conventional grid connection — or both. And its a future that’s getting closer every day.

Doubling Renewable Energy will Save Money & Avoid Climate Catastrophe, says IRENA

IRENA | 5 Jun 2014

A 36% renewable energy in the global energy mix is possible, affordable and helps mitigate climate change

The world faces an important energy choice, according to a new report launched by the International Renewable Energy Agency in New York today. “REmap 2030” says that scaling-up renewable energy to 36% of the world’s total final energy consumption by 2030 is possible, affordable and will keep the world on a trajectory consistent with a CO2 level of 450 ppm, the widely accepted threshold to limit global temperature increase to two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by 2100.

The report demonstrates that the investment cost for this global expansion of renewable energy is offset by savings of up to $740 billion per year on costs associated with pollution from fossil fuels.

Image courtesy of IRENA
Image courtesy of IRENA

The central policy question is this: What energy sources do we want to invest in?

Our data shows that renewable energy can help avert catastrophic climate change and save the world money, if all costs are considered,” said Adnan Z. Amin, Director-General of IRENA, in New York.

In answering this question, ‘REmap 2030’ makes a clear case for renewables. It shows the transition is affordable based on existing technologies, and that the benefits go well beyond the positive climate impact.

Countries today face a clear choice for a sustainable energy future.

Doubling renewable energy to 36% of global energy consumption will reduce the global demand for oil and gas by approximately 15% and for coal by 26%, cutting energy-related pollution and adverse health effects as well as increasing energy security for countries dependent on energy imports. It would also create a net gain of nearly one million jobs by 2030.

Image courtesy of IRENA
Image courtesy of IRENA

We can double the renewable energy share in the global energy mix, but we are not on that path now.

To realize the world’s renewable energy potential, all governments need to step up their efforts. We need to act now. — Dolf Gielen, Director of IRENA’s Innovation and Technology Centre, added.

IRENA recommends focusing on five key areas:

planning realistic but ambitious transition pathways; creating enabling business environments; managing knowledge of technology options and their deployment; ensuring smooth integration of renewables into the existing infrastructure; and unleashing innovation.

“REmap 2030” builds on the analysis of the energy requirements in 26 countries that account for 75% of global total final energy consumption. IRENA collaborated with countries and research institutions in the development of the report, which derives its objective from the United Nations Secretary General’s Sustainable Energy for All (SE4ALL) initiative. The report was launched today at the SE4ALL Forum at the United Nations Headquarters.

To download the full report, factsheets and other materials visit

The ‘Variability’ of Renewable and Non-renewable energy

The ‘Variability’ of Renewable and Non-renewable energy | 29/05/14
by John Brian Shannon John Brian Shannon

The ongoing debate about the effects of the Variability of Renewable Energy on national electrical grids

Merit Order ranking control room
Most utility companies have Merit Order ranking control rooms similar to this one where decisions are made about which power producer will contribute to the grid in real time. Microprocessors make the instant decisions, while humans are present to oversee operations and plan ahead.

Solar Variability

Some people argue that solar photovoltaic (solar panels) produce ‘variable’ electricity flows — and they assume that makes solar unsuitable for use in our modern electrical grid system.

And it’s true, the Sun doesn’t shine at night. Also, if you are discussing only one solar panel installation in one farmer’s field, then yes, there is the variability of intermittent cloud cover to consider, which may temporarily lower the output of that particular solar installation.

But when grid-connected solar arrays are installed over vast areas in a large state such as Texas or throughout the Northeastern U.S.A. for example, it all balances out and no one goes without power as solar panels produce prodigious amounts of electricity during the high-demand daytime hours. If it’s cloudy in one location thereby lowering solar panel outputs, then it is likely to be sunny in 100 other solar locations within that large state or region.

Therefore, solar ‘variability’ disappears with many, widely scattered installations and with interconnection to the grid. So much for that accusation.

NOTE: The marginal ranking (which reflects the wholesale kWh electricity price) for solar is (0) and that ranking never varies. (More on this later)

Wind Variability

The situation with wind power is essentially the same, One major difference though; In many parts of the world the wind tends to blow at its most constant rate at night, which helps to add power to the grid while the Sun is asleep.

In fact, complementary installations of solar and wind help to balance each other through the day/night cycle — and through the changing seasons. There is even an optimum ratio between the number of solar panels and the number of wind turbines to better complement the other, but I won’t bore you with the details.

NOTE: The marginal ranking for wind is (0) and that ranking never varies.

Natural Gas Variability

What? Natural gas is not variable!

Oh really? Over the course of the past 60 years, how has the natural gas price per gigajoule changed? Got you there. The natural gas price has increased by orders of magnitude and wild price fluctuations are quite common.

OK, that’s not ‘output variability’ but it is a variable factor with regard to energy pricing. And that’s a variable that actually matters to consumers.

Natural gas prices have swung wildly over the years forcing utilities to peg their rates to the highest expected natural gas rate. No wonder investors love natural gas!

So there is ‘supply variability’ and wholesale ‘price variability’ with natural gas, which is why it is the last choice for utility companies as they meet the peak demand hours of the day. Gas is a good but expensive option, however, it comes with its own variability baggage.

We won’t even talk about the associated CO2 cost to the environment. (OK, it’s about $40 per tonne of CO2 emitted)

Coal variability

Not to the same degree as natural gas, but coal also faces price swings and potential supply disruptions — again forcing utility companies to set their rates against unforeseeable labour strikes at a mine, a railway, or shipping line — and against coal mine accidents that can shut down a mine for weeks, or market-generated price spikes.

These things are impossible to foresee, so this ‘averaging up’ of the price results in higher energy bills for consumers and better returns for investors.

Yes, there is variability in coal supply, in coal supply lines, in coal power plant maintenance cycles which can have a plant offline for weeks, and coal market pricing. These things can affect total annual output, and is yet another kind of ‘variability’. (Again, that doesn’t factor-in the other costs to society such as increased healthcare costs from burning coal which releases tonnes of airborne heavy metals, soot, and nasty pollutants besides CO2 which some estimates put at $40-60 per tonne emitted — in addition to the environmental cost of $40 per tonne for plain old CO2 emissions)

NOTE: Should we talk here about how much water coal plants use every year? More than all the other energy producers put together, and then some.

Hydro power variability

What? Hydro power is not variable!

Oh yes it is. Nowadays thanks to global warming, many hydro dams in the U.S. can barely keep water in the reservoir from August through November. They cannot produce their full rated power in a drought, in late summer, during maintenance, or during earthquake swarms. Just sayin’ hi California!

An impressive-looking body of water behind the dam is meaningless when the water level isn’t high enough to ‘spill over the dam’. If the water level isn’t high enough to spin the turbines then all that water is just for show. Take a picture!

In 1984, the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River generated enough power on its own to provide electricity for 700,000 homes because the water level of Lake Mead behind the dam was at its highest point on record.

But since 1999, water levels have dropped significantly, and Hoover Dam produces electricity for only about 350,000 homes. — CleanTechnica

And then there is this problem; Global warming and resultant drought conditions mean that some dams are essentially finished as power producing dams for the foreseeable future.

Again, we have output variability; But this time it is; 1) lower power output and variable output due to reduced reservoir levels caused by anthropogenic drought and 2) the months of year that hydro dams cannot produce their full rated power.

Price variability: This is what Merit Order ranking is about

Merit Order ranking is a system used by most electric utilities to allow different types of electrical power producers to add power to the electric grid in real time. Thanks to a computerized grid, this occurs on a minute-by-minute basis every day of the year.

In the German example, electricity rates drop by up to 40% during the hours in which solar or wind are active, and this is what Merit Order ranking is all about; Using the cheapest available electricity source FIRST — and then filling the gaps with more expensive electrical power generation.

Solar and wind electricity are rated at 0 (default) on the Merit Order scale making them the default choice for utility companies when the Sun is shining, or when the wind is blowing, or both.

Why? No fuel cost. That’s the difference. And bonus, no environmental or healthcare hazards with solar and wind either.

Once all of the available solar and wind Merit Order ranking (0) capacity is brought online by the utility company, then (1) nuclear, (2) coal, and (3) natural gas (in that order) are ramped up as required to match demand, according to the marginal cost of each type of energy. (German Merit Order rankings)

NOTE: In the U.S. the normal Merit Order rankings are; default (0) for solar and wind, (1) coal, (2) nuclear, and (3) natural gas, although this order can change in some parts of the United States and around the world. Merit Order is based on cost per kWh only and different regions of the country have different fuel costs.

(The one cost that is never factored-in to the kWh price is the cost of disposal for nuclear ‘spent fuel’ and for good reason, but that’s a discussion for a different day)

The Fraunhofer Institute found – as far back as 2007 – that as a result of the Merit Order ranking system – solar power had reduced the price of electricity on the EPEX exchange by 10 percent on the average, with reductions peaking at up to 40 percent in the early afternoon when the most solar power is generated.

Here’s how the Merit Order works

All available sources of electrical generation are ranked by their marginal costs, from cheapest to most expensive, with the cheapest having the most merit.

The marginal cost is the cost of producing one additional unit of electricity. Electricity sources with a higher fuel cost have a higher marginal cost. If one unit of fuel costs $X, 2 units will cost $X times 2. This ranking is called the order of merit of each source, or the Merit Order.

Using Merit Order to decide means the source with the lowest marginal cost must be used first when there is a need to add more power to the grid – like during sunny afternoon peak hours.

Using the lowest marginal costs first was designed so that cheaper fuels were used first to save consumers money. In the German market, this was nuclear, then coal, then natural gas.

But 2 hours of sunshine cost no more than 1 of sunshine: therefore it has a lower marginal cost than coal – or any source with any fuel cost whatsoever.

So, under the Merit Order ranking of relative marginal costs, devised before there was this much fuel-free energy available on the grid, solar always has the lowest marginal cost during these peaks because two units of solar is no more expensive than one. — Susan Kraemer

It’s as simple as this; With no fuel cost, solar and wind cost less.

Although solar and wind are expensive to construct initially (but not as expensive as large hydro-electric dams or large nuclear power plants!) there are no ongoing fuel costs, nor fuel transportation costs, nor fuel supply disruptions, nor lack of rainfalls, to factor into the final retail electricity price.

As solar panel and wind turbine prices continue to drop thereby encouraging more solar and wind installations, we will hear more about Merit Order ranking and less about variability. And that’s as it should be, as all types of grid energy face at least one variability factor or more.

Only solar, wind, hydro-electric, and nuclear have a predictable kWh price every day of the year. Coal, natural gas, and bunker fuel do not. And that’s everything in the utility business.

Although utility companies were slower than consumers to embrace renewable energy, some are now seeing potential benefit for their business and henceforth things will begin to change. So we can say goodbye to the chatter about renewable energy variability and utility companies can eventually say goodbye fuel-related price spikes.

Buckle up, because big changes are coming over the next few years to the existing utility model that will benefit consumers and the environment alike.

SOTU speech supports SAFE energy program

SOTU Jan 27, 2014
SOTU Jan 27,2014. (Official White House Photo by Amanda Lucidon)

PRESS RELEASE January 28, 2014

White House Continues Support for an Energy Security Trust to Combat American Oil Dependence

Washington, D.C. – Securing America’s Future Energy (SAFE) applauds the White House’s continued commitment to improving American energy security and protecting our economy by linking supply and demand policies to combat our country’s oil dependence. The White House’s version of an Energy Security Trust Fund (ESTF) is again included in this year’s State of the Union’s broader set of proposed policies. President Obama continues to propose funding the Trust with $200 million annually in mandatory spending transferred directly from federal royalty revenue generated by oil and gas production.

As the author of a similar policy that inspired the President’s proposal, SAFE has proposed the establishment of an Energy Security Trust Fund that would use revenues from oil and gas development on federal lands and waters currently unavailable to the industry to pay for research and development (R&D) of technologies that have the potential to significantly displace oil in the transportation sector, such as improvements to electric vehicle batteries and compressed natural gas (CNG) storage tanks.

After topping $900 billion in 2012, American spending on petroleum fuels remains at near-record levels. Oil dependence continues to pose a severe threat to America’s economy and national security, tying our fate to the highly unpredictable, cartel-influence global oil market.

The Energy Security Trust Fund concept enjoys bipartisan support and is under active consideration on Capitol Hill. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Ranking Republican on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, has released a detailed energy policy blueprint endorsing an approach similar to SAFE’s.

SAFE is encouraged by continued support for the Energy Security Trust Fund and looks forward to the next steps in advancing American energy security.

Key facts about the Energy Security Trust Fund:

What is the Energy Security Trust Fund?

  • SAFE proposed the creation of an Energy Security Trust Fund (ESTF) in its National Strategy for Energy Security, which was released in December of 2012.
  • The fund creates a mechanism to harness revenues from expanded domestic energy production in order to invest in developing the transportation technologies and fuels of the future.
  • President Obama proposed the creation of a similar policy, an Energy Security Trust, in his 2013 State of the Union address and cited SAFE’s Energy Security Leadership Council as the source of his idea. Although the source of funding is different between SAFE and the President’s proposals, the use of oil revenues to fund breakthroughs in transportation is a common theme in both versions.

How would the Fund be seeded?

  • SAFE has proposed that the ESTF be seeded with revenues from oil and gas development on federal lands and waters that are currently unavailable to the industry, up to $500 million annually.
  • President Obama has proposed seeding the Fund from existing royalty streams, up to $200 million annually.
  • Neither proposal would pose any additional financial burden on oil companies.
  • The funding structure should be established as mandatory spending to provide consistent funding to accelerate breakthroughs in technologies that increase America’s energy security.

What should the Fund be used for?

  • The purpose of the fund would be to aggressively invest in research, development and demonstration (R&D) of advanced transportation technologies and fuels.
  • The Fund should be housed and administered by the Department of Energy, and projects will be funded through a competitive, peer-reviewed process.
  • The Fund would not provide direct funding for commercialization activities.
  • The 2011 “Quadrennial Technology Review” asserted that the “DOE is underinvested in the transportation sector, relative to the stationary sector…Yet, reliance on oil is the greatest immediate threat to U.S. economic and national security…”

What is the fiscal impact of the Fund?

  • SAFE’s proposal would not have any fiscal impact because revenues generated by new oil and gas drilling in areas not currently available to the industry are not in the budget.

Who supports the Energy Security Trust Fund?

  • The Washington Examiner endorsed SAFE’s proposal in November 2013: “SAFE has an energy proposal that merits bipartisan support.”
  • Senator Murkowski made a similar proposal in her “Vision 20/20” document and has solicited feedback on her draft legislation.
  • SAFE continues to work with both Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate and believes that bipartisan and bicameral legislation will be introduced this year.


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BP Energy Outlook sees 2035 Emissions Increasing by 29%

by Joshua S Hill

BP Energy released their BP Energy Outlook 2035 on Wednesday, outlining global energy demand predictions for the coming decades, as well as showing that global carbon dioxide emissions are expected to grow by 29% by 2035.

BP Energy Outlook predicts emissions will increase 29% from present levels, by 2035
BP Energy Outlook predicts emissions will increase 29% from present levels, by 2035. Image by Shutterstock

According to the report, global energy demand continues to grow, but is looking to slow soon, as the current growth is primarily being driven by emerging economies, such as China and India.

The report predicts that global energy consumption is expected to grow by 41% between 2012 and 2035, compared to 55% over the last 23 years, and 30% over the last ten. Of the 41% expected over the next 23 years, 95% is expected to come from emerging economies, whereas energy use in the advanced economies of North America, Europe, and the Asia-Pacific region, is expected to grow relatively slowly.

Bob Dudley, BP Group Chief Executive commented:

“The Outlook leads us to three big questions:
Is there enough energy to meet growing demand?
Can we meet demand reliably?
And what are the consequences of meeting demand?

In other words, is the supply sufficient, secure and sustainable?

On the first question, our answer is a resounding ‘yes’.

The growth rate for global demand is slower than what we have seen in previous decades, largely as a result of increasing energy efficiency.

Trends in global technology, investment and policy leave us confident that production will be able to keep pace.

New energy forms such as shale gas, tight oil, and renewables will account for a significant share of the growth in global supply.”

In regards to carbon dioxide emissions, BP are predicting a rise of 29% over the next 23 years, with all of that growth coming from emerging economies.

The Outlook does provide some bright spots, however, suggesting that emissions growth is expected to slow as natural gas and renewables start to replace coal and oil, while emissions are expected to decline in Europe and the US.

“This process shows the power of economic forces and competition,” said BP Chief Economist Christof Rühl.

Put simply, people are finding ways to use energy more efficiently because it saves them money.

This is also good for the environment – the less energy we use the less carbon we emit. For example CO2 emissions in the US are back at 1990s’ levels.”

The full summary of the Outlook can be viewed here, as well as access to remarks by Bob Dudley, and presentation slides.

This article, BP Energy Outlook Predict Emissions To Soar 29% By 2030, is syndicated from Clean Technica and is posted here with permission.

About the Author

Joshua S HillJoshua S Hill I’m a Christian, a nerd, a geek, a liberal left-winger, and believe that we’re pretty quickly directing planet-Earth into hell in a handbasket! I work as Associate Editor for the Important Media Network and write for CleanTechnica and Planetsave. I also write for Fantasy Book Review (, Amazing Stories, the Stabley Times and Medium.   I love words with a passion, both creating them and reading them.