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Showing posts from August, 2017

Why the Electricity Market Needs Reprogramming

The Energy Department’s study of the power grid is 187 pages long but it can be summarized in five words: the energy markets are failing us.

"Society places value on attributes of electricity provision beyond those compensated by the current design of the wholesale market," the study found.

Economists like to say that markets "optimize" production and consumption; that is, they set prices in a way that induces suppliers to bring forth the right amount of whatever is being traded, and lets consumers make wise decisions about how much to use, all in a way that improves everybody’s welfare. That’s true, as far as it goes.


But markets are a little like computer programs; they only do what they’re told to. The best they can do is to optimize the factor they’ve been told to use, in this case, price. The market is a tyrant with a hyper-focused goal. The electricity markets are set up almost entirely to optimize price.
But if the economy needs anything else, some policy …

How Does a Solar Eclipse Impact the Electric Grid?

Millions of Americans traveled long distances in hopes of getting a front-row seat for the dance of the heavens today, watching the moon eclipse the sun, from Portland, Oregon, to Charleston, South Carolina. Hundreds more had spent months preparing for an odd complication of the event: the very sudden loss of up to 9,000 megawatts as solar panels were cast into shadow, and then its very quick return. The lost production is the equivalent of about fifteen good-sized coal plants.

How do you keep the lights on when the sun suddenly goes out? The loss and rebound of generation is much larger than the system usually faces, but experts made some serious advance preparation, and were hopeful  largely because of the diversity of generators. Nuclear plants continue to provide the backbone of the system, and generators running on natural gas were called on to power up quickly, and as the sun reappeared, power down even faster.

Such diversity is important because the system has to function throu…

Packing for Mars? Don’t forget the nuclear reactor.

Did you see the movie The Martian? The hero, Mark Watney, an astronaut given up for dead by NASA, uses a radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG), a sort-of "space battery," to keep warm during his trek across Mars.
The movie is science fiction but these devices are real- NASA has been using RTGs to power satellites for nearly forty years, and they've been used on major trips to the moon and other planets. But NASA recently announced plans to use nuclear power in a different way- one that hasn't been fully attempted in fifty years. 
The RTGs like Mark Watney’s harness the heat from passive radioactive decay and produce a few hundred watts of electricity, which on Earth would be enough to run a handful of household appliances. But a mission to Mars would require far more power. Now, NASA is working on a reactor that splits atoms, as reactors on Earth do, to make 100 times more electricity than an RTG. The initial plan calls for 40 kilowatts, which on Earth would meet…