Beware the Duck of Doom

April 22, 2013

A recent post by Steve Weissman of Berkeley Law on Legal Planet, an environmental law and policy blog, highlights a chart that looks like a duck. The duck chart was produced by the California Independent System Operator, the organization in charge of managing the state's power grid. Weissman calls it the "Duck of Doom" -- with good reason.


The numbers along the horizontal axis are the hours of the day. The fattening body of the duck shows the addition of more and more wind and solar power (WSP) over the coming years. More WSP is a good thing. But as the chart makes clear most of this will be available during the daylight hours, with very little during the peak usage period from around sundown to midnight.  

The rush to renewables will require conventional generators to ramp up and down quickly and by large amounts -- at potentially significant economic and environmental cost -- in order to accommodate an abundance of WSP during the day and a paucity at night.

This isn't a death sentence for renewables. There are strategies we can employ to reap the benefits while minimizing the costs -- intelligent spatial diversification and hydroelectric pumped storage, for example. But we need to identify the best solutions early on in order to put the necessary infrastructure in place. The Duck of Doom highlights the general need to get smart and get serious about long-term planning for WSP.

I recently previewed my forthcoming research on this issue in the case of South Africa. I find Weissman's conclusions to be spot-on not only for California but also for South Africa and many other locales that are doing the right thing by investing heavily in wind and solar:

"No one is pretending that there won’t be significant challenges. This involves nothing less than requiring utilities to rethink the way they provide service, undertaking comprehensive (truly integrated) system planning, and enhancing the extent to which the system operator owns the goal of eliminating carbon (fossil-fueled power) from the grid...There is a need, more than anything else, for a long-term vision: an intention not only to be ready for the duck when it arrives, but also to achieve a decarbonized grid in the years that follow."


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