Assorted links

by on October 12, 2011 at 6:07 am in Uncategorized | Permalink

1. Are transmission lines holding back green energy?

2. U. Chicago’s ambitious plan to build out law and economics.

3. Sims and causality.

4. Round-up of complaints choirs, excellent link, rich with content and humor.

5. Markets in everything.

6. Further Russ Roberts response on TGS, Karl Smith responds to Russ.  My view is not “no male progress since 1969,” but rather far less than we would have expected at the time.

dan1111 October 12, 2011 at 6:50 am

#1 – Why don’t they just build new lines underground? They can build the wind turbines underground, too, while they are at it. They would be less unsightly, and, best of all, the problem of unpredictable power output would be completely solved.

anon October 12, 2011 at 8:11 am


Oh, and it’s very expensive to put high voltage lines underground.

NAME REDACTED October 12, 2011 at 8:20 am

1) Underground transmission lines have massive losses over distance. because in an AC line, the power is carried in the field surrounding the line. Because ground is mildly conducting you get losses from the ground. This is why you want long range lines to be very high up.

2) lol on the turbines underground.

Andrew' October 12, 2011 at 8:49 am

I see the grid as an alternative to storage. Ideally, large solar farms would have transmission lines bored through the center of the earth to the other side.

AndrewL October 12, 2011 at 12:41 pm

It may not be that outrageous. It could theoretically possibly to harness thermally driven airflow in an abandoned mine. Say the mine was in a U shape in the earth and one corner of the U has in a region of hot rocks, it could produce enough airflow to spin some turbines.

dan1111 October 12, 2011 at 9:44 am

Thanks for the constructive criticism of the underground power lines, but examine my original proposal carefully, and you will see that the lines don’t have to be high voltage, nor will losses be a concern.

NAME REDACTED October 12, 2011 at 9:56 pm

Unless they are superconducting they have to be high voltage and AC. Otherwise losses will exceed transmission.

careless October 13, 2011 at 9:41 pm

Jebus, he was making a joke about underground non-spinning turbines with a constant (zero) load

JWatts October 12, 2011 at 11:09 am

That will not work on any scale:
a) Long distance lines have to be high voltage as loss is inversely related to voltage i.e. low voltage lines are terribly inefficient over long distances.
b) Burying lines is much, much more expensive than putting them above ground
c) It’s pointless anyway, since the same NIMBY sentiment is going to restrict you digging through their land and roads nearly as much as laying lines across them.

dan1111 October 12, 2011 at 11:27 am

Far be it from me to disagree with someone named Watts on the subject of power lines.

JWatts October 12, 2011 at 12:49 pm

Yeah, but the punch line is I’m an Electrical Engineer. ;)

anon October 12, 2011 at 9:31 pm


NAME REDACTED October 12, 2011 at 10:02 pm


E. Barandiaran October 12, 2011 at 7:22 am

#1. So it’s quite clear that political hurdles are holding back green energy. Indeed, the same political hurdles mentioned in the article have been holding back the adjustment of all advanced economies and many non-advanced economies to shocks to the world market economy in the past 25 years. The limited supply response everywhere –except of course in China, India and the other countries that opened up to the world economy since the 1980s– should have been the focus of all those that talk about stagnation. The failure to increase supplies of commodities enough to reverse most of the large change in their relative prices is what TGS preachers should be studying.

TallDave October 12, 2011 at 8:06 am

1. No. The problems of a faraway unreliable source of power are not solved with more lines.

People generally want the lights on 100% of the time, not 80% or 90%. This fact has enormous consequences for the utility of non-predictable power flows. If your power sourse needs a backup plant that produces power reliably, your generally better off not building it at all and just using the backup plant to produce your power. The only exception to this is if running the backup source is far more expensive, which is generally not the case for wind or solar and will not be anytime in the next 20 years.

NAME REDACTED October 12, 2011 at 8:20 am


TallDave October 12, 2011 at 8:21 am

For the scheme to work, the marginal gain in operating costs during operating times at the new plant would have to be larger than the cost to build the new source, or

Np + (Nop)u + Ni(1-u) + Rp + (Rop)(1-u) + (Ri)u < Rp + Rop

where N is your new unreliable source, R is the reliable, u is uptime at your new source, i is idling cost, p is plant costs, and op is operating costs.

Andrew' October 12, 2011 at 9:09 am

I suspect what you will see is exactly what TallDave refers to. If you have a heads-up choice you will go with a single source. If you have a dam in your back yard which is nicknamed “Windy Dam”, you will build hydropower and a wind farm and figure it out.

Dean October 12, 2011 at 11:55 am

That’s the basis for generation in the Pacific Northwest; Bonneville operates a major federal hydro system that flows (pun intended) well with the giant new wind projects there. The problem is that they’re short on transmission capacity to California. There are currently only a few high voltage lines that are available, so you see a lot of waste every spring as hydro peaks and wind stays constant. Build another line running south and you gain extra flexibility. Transmission effectively increases the size of power markets, which makes them more diverse and deeper.

Outside of the NW, you can back wind up with natural gas, since those generators are dirt cheap and easy to ramp up/down. The risk there is price volatility of the fuel, but that can be hedged. That makes sense for a share of wind generation up to around 40% or so of demand. More than that and you run into issues of voltage support and reactive power.

TallDave October 12, 2011 at 12:37 pm

Backing up with hydro makes zero sense for the reasons stated below.

Natural gas could make sense, but I’m thinking natural gas has to be pretty darn expensive before wind is so much cheaper that it makes sense to have a mostly idle natural gas power plant plus a mostly active wind farm rather than just an active gas plant.

TallDave October 12, 2011 at 12:42 pm

Although, that assumes high reliability for hydro, which might not always be the case.. I suppose seasonal variations in hydro availability could help wind’s viability (though I’d think wind variability is so high you’d be running a high risk of being short). I guess I’d have to see some numbers.

Dean October 12, 2011 at 1:37 pm

It’s less seasonal variations in hydro then the fact that dams have a solid storage capacity and limited total output per season. In that case, the stored water balances out the intermittentency of wind.

TallDave October 13, 2011 at 7:43 am

Yes, in that case it could work out. But even then, wind is much more expensive than hydro, so you don’t want to forego any hydro in favor of wind, which you have to do in order to have backup capacity.

I suspect when one runs the numbers it is found that just building coal, nukes, or gas plants that are reliable usually end up being cheaper, just because you don’t have to hold back any hydro. Wind is being built for reasons other than cost.

TallDave October 12, 2011 at 12:30 pm

Definitely not Andrew’. If you already have enough hydro (by far the cheapest source of power), why would you bother with wind?

And if you don’t have enough hydro, that still doesn’t make wind a good idea. Here’s the issue: say you need 2GW of power. If you’re getting 1.5GW from hydro, you can’t just say “OK, we’ll build 500MW of wind” because people want their lights on all the time — you need to be able to supply 2GW all the time.

If your backup is hydro, you don’t need wind. For wind to make sense, you need a backup power system which is more expensive to operate than wind. Otherwise, you just run the backup and don’t build wind at all.

This is why I say unreliable power is almost worthless.

JWatts October 12, 2011 at 12:59 pm

Expensive natural gas makes an effective backup to Wind Power. You can just look at the Wind Power as a fuel savings measure in that case. But yes, now that the price of natural gas has plummeted the cost savings aren’t as significant, (probably negative).

Even in the case of a ‘cheap fuel’, say hydro power it makes sense to some degree. You effectively have a limited amount of hydro power. You can’t create more. The US has no significant sources of untapped inland hydro power. So you can look at Wind Power as extending the power of the hydro power.

If the hydro power can only supply 70% of the yearly demand in an area and storage capacity is not a concern (i.e the dams not going to overflow forcing you to use it) then Wind Power with a capacity factor of 30% can meet the rest of the demand for the area.

Dean October 12, 2011 at 1:07 pm

The thing that’s so great about hydro is that dams provide built in storage. Your hydro generation fills in seamlessly when wind generation drops. In turn, the wind lets you get the most out of the hydro reserves. You may have 1.5GW of hydro capacity, but if you run that all year you’re going to end up with an empty reservoir. You’re overlooking the fact that hydro resources themselves are variable season by season and have to be conserved. Water supplies are fairly predictable, but operators have no control over the total quantity. The reason the two balance together so well is that wind’s variance is balanced by the storage capacity of the reservoir, so the variance is much less important.

Dan Weber October 12, 2011 at 3:56 pm

Yeah, hydro is an very good backup for intermittent storage. You can get full power from it for quite some time if you need be. (My understanding is that spinning the generators up/down isn’t as fast as a natural gas plant,

I think the intermittent nature of wind and solar cause some loss of its value, but they’re not worthless. If I had a magic box from somewhere that:

1. put out somewhere between 1 MW and 1000 MW of energy constantly for a minute,
2. but then changed to another number in that range, within 50% of the old value, for each new minute,
3. and gave me a 30-second warning of what the new number would be

there would be some value in that. Part of the worth would depend on the reliability of other things feeding into the grid, and also of the amount of things on the grid which are demand sensitive.

JP White October 12, 2011 at 4:11 pm

Hydro does provide a technical solution to intermittent power production. But only by having stored hydro systems that pump water up hill to a reservoir. The reservoir acts as a battery, storing the energy as gravitational potential energy (and it has decent efficiency, about 50-60% as I recall.) Then you draw as needed. It is a technical solution, but not a feasible solution. The scale of the hydroelectric installations necessary would never be tolerated by the greens. Witness the fact that we haven’t built a major dam in ~40 years, and this would require something like 30x the present installations. And that isn’t even considering the cost. These sort of systems are already in use throughout the world, acting as peaking units. We have one here in California to support the nuclear plants, which have the opposite problem – you can’t throttle them down, so you need storage for late night power generation.

Dan Weber October 12, 2011 at 4:21 pm

No, a traditional hydro plant can back up an intermittent source.

At its simplest, you open up the gates at the hydro plant when the intermittent source goes down, and shut them when the intermittent source comes back.

(There are more complications than that — like you need to keep the hydro plant spinning at some level if you want them to go again, as well as the time it takes to reach your new level of production — but that’s the 50,000-foot overview.)

We aren’t solving for a single variable.

Dean October 12, 2011 at 5:45 pm

JP White,

You’re talking about a separate problem, which is night time off-peak generation by wind. Solving that would add additional value to wind, for sure, but it’s not that big of a deal. Coal and nuclear plants have the same issue (can’t be turned on/off), and it’s why night time generation prices can often hit $0. The discussion here about hydro is that by offsetting hydro use, you’re effectively using the reservoir behind the dam as energy storage.

JP White October 12, 2011 at 7:40 pm

@Dean – I would agree with you if the amount of wind power being backed up is a small fraction of the installed hydro base, and if that base was not already being used to back up nuclear and coal. You have to realize that most small hydros operate off of natural flow. If you don’t use it, it’s lost. So only the large reservoir hydros can be used to back up the intermittent power. And they are already being used as peakers to assist nuclear / coal.

@Dan – Most hydro plants actually motor (IE draw power from the grid) when not generating. This keeps them in sync with the grid, and allows you to turn them on in seconds. Which makes them pretty much perfect for backup of intermittent sources IF they weren’t already used for peaking. So to get additional capacity, you’re going to have to build a lot more hydro plants (good luck.)

TallDave October 13, 2011 at 7:50 am

Yep, backing up with hydro is that like asking your All-Star to back up a guy who can barely walk up a flight of stairs without stopping to catch his breath. Hydro is the most cost-efficient source of power, wind is still one of the least. You don’t want to keep hydro on the bench behind wind.

MIchael Foody October 12, 2011 at 8:50 am

People want power 100% of the time, agreed. However this can be solved with a superior grid. You can then dynamically allocate power from reliable sources to unreliable sources over a greater area. Now obviously it doesn’t make sense to go through this trouble to pay more for power but the whole idea behind solar and wind power is that coal and has unpriced externalities that make it significantly more expensive than it appears. Take the American SW, much of it’s energy need is met by hydroelectric power if you had a superior grid you could pair this reliable source of power with an unreliable source of power from solar and meet the needs of a larger area. A superior grid allows you to integrate diverse and distant power sources to function as a sort of securtitization of energy from local shocks and predictable fluctuations in output.

dan1111 October 12, 2011 at 10:53 am

The problem with this is that all of it increases the cost of wind power. In order to make wind power work, you have to maintain more transmission lines in order to move excess power the vast distances to where it is needed. You also need excess capacity in other forms of power generation to pick up the slack.

This is on top of wind power’s very high cost to begin with.

JWatts October 12, 2011 at 11:18 am

I agree that Long Distance lines built to Wind Fields are an associated cost. But you’ll note that Texas with much less red tape hasn’t had to spend a lot of money building power lines. The cost isn’t so high when there isn’t as much regulation. You’ll also note that Texas is producing the most Wind Power (by far the most).

And Wind Power has a premium, but it’s not really in the very high cost category to which solar power still belongs. At this point, Wind Power is probably comparable to Nuclear power in levelized power costs.

Dean October 12, 2011 at 11:57 am

It’s easy to run long transmission lines of cheap, empty land in the Texas desert. Same deal for the proposed corridor from the Dakotas to the Great Lakes region.

Steve C. October 12, 2011 at 12:46 pm

I take it you don’t live here. If you did you would know that we are paying for those lines via state imposed requirements for renewable power. (thanks Governor Bush)

Ease of routing aside (and it’s not as easy as you think, see the protests over Palo Duro Canyon) Pickens has abandoned much of his development to focus on exploiting natural gas, where he’s made several fortunes. (although not always for his limited partners)

Doesn’t it make more sense to build gas fired generators where the customers are? The distribution lines are in place and the natural gas transmission lines run to population centers. Less loss, less cost.

JWatts October 12, 2011 at 1:03 pm

It may be easy to run transmission lines through cheap, empty Texas desert lands, it’s not easy to run it through cheap, empty California desert lands. The red tape and regulation is the difference.

TallDave October 12, 2011 at 12:33 pm

Yes, it gives you more backup options, but they’re probably going to be so expensive you’re better off not having wind at all. No matter how awesome your grid is, you still have the same basic problem of needing to provide power all the time.

NAME REDACTED October 12, 2011 at 8:18 am

Are greenies holding back transmission lines?

JWatts October 12, 2011 at 11:14 am

Yes and Nuclear Power.

Tangurena October 12, 2011 at 2:39 pm

The NIMBYs and the BANANAs are the ones that cause the problems. Although some of the ones called greenies are trying to stop wind generation because it chews up birds and scares away the UFOs.

dearieme October 12, 2011 at 9:19 am

I wish to register a complaint. Whingeing bloody choirs are boring.

Tyler Cowen October 12, 2011 at 9:35 am

Sing it please, sing that complaint, and I’ll link to you too.

dearieme October 12, 2011 at 10:13 am

I could whistle it. I used to be good at whistling dirty songs.

JWatts October 12, 2011 at 11:13 am

Wait what’s the point in whistling a dirty song? ;)

Tangurena October 12, 2011 at 2:40 pm

Less complaints from HR at the office?

bunker brown October 12, 2011 at 2:01 pm

Law and Economics? Really? We need more law schools? And is there a lack of Economists?

What we need are more medical and dental schools.

NAME REDACTED October 12, 2011 at 10:07 pm

But unlike law and economics, their supply is heavily restricted.

John Personna October 12, 2011 at 2:47 pm

I was listening to Daniel Yergin on NPR, and I was reminded that it is about “wedges” and realistic adoption rates.

IMO, worrying about 100% renewable is silly. The question should be always local. What resource can serve this community, and does it have transmission?

Seth C October 12, 2011 at 7:28 pm

4. is a cultural Rosetta Stone. History has always failed to adequately record the minor annoyances of a given people in a given time.

Tom October 12, 2011 at 11:03 pm

More Law and Economics, just what the world needs – more B-School grad Judges ruling on issues like global warming where their knowledge of the issue is based on a Glenn Beck book. The whole movement is good in theory, but what good is ruling based on cost/benefit analysis when the judge doesn’t know the subject? Thank you, Gary Becker and RIchard Posner.

The General October 13, 2011 at 10:51 am

Because if they didn’t learn econ, they would know the subject? Eh?

prior_approval October 13, 2011 at 6:56 am

‘Backing up with hydro makes zero sense for the reasons stated below.’
Strange – the Danes, Germans, Norwegians, and Swedes seem to disagree with you. But then, those countries tend to be noted for a variety of things the U.S. isn’t – export oriented innovation, for example. And oddly, the Chinese don’t seem to agree either, being a major customer of those export oriented innovations. Balancing a power grid involves a number of components and skills – at best, the U.S. has managed to hold on to its roughly late 1970s state of the art grid, even if it is no longer actually able to build critical components. Though luckily, there is this group of export oriented infrastructure companies – oddly located in the group of countries noted above – that can, using technology that is a decade or two old, though the terms involve payment up front and an adequate lead time for production. A good overview can be found here –

(Of course, based on the following history, some people might say that Siemens is also an American company –
‘ Siemens Power Generation, Inc (SPGI) is a power generation company based in the United States run by the German Siemens AG Corporation.

SPGI was formed by the acquisition and merger of the non-nuclear energy divisions of Westinghouse Electric Company by the Siemens power generation division in 1997; the organisation was then known as Siemens Westinghouse and underwent a change to its present name in 2005.

Siemens Power Generation has a large number of offices and plants in the United States including Orlando, Florida; Charlotte, North Carolina; Fort Payne, Alabama; Winston-Salem, North Carolina; Alpharetta, Georgia; as well as Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, and overseas. Siemens Power Generation also runs the Siemens Westinghouse Competition, an international science and technology competition.’

No, Siemens is not an American company – Westinghouse used to be American, but that was a half generation ago. Because really, who cares about making things when the real money is in having other people make things. Other people like Siemens – wait, I think the logic slipped there somehow, though I’m fairly certain somebody on this blog can explain why not being able to maintain your own electrical grid is economically advantageous, through some definition of ‘advantageous’ that no one living in that list of countries at the beginning would actually understand.)

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