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I was working on a relatively near future time-line (20-30 years), and there is a scene in which the POV character has to sabotage the local power supply.

Now my initial guess was that it'd be a field of tree-like solar-to-electricity converters, so I could just figure out a way to make a lotta smoke, or wait until night and sabotage the battery storage. But then I looked up some numbers and alternative sources like solar/wind/humans-in-pods-as-batteries account for a tiny and surprisingly unreliable percentage of total energy, with lots of coal- and gas-based standbys needed, and that looks set to continue far into the future.

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So does my (anti)hero need to sneak into a coal power plant after all? Or perhaps I could alter the setting a bit: How far into the future do I have to go to have renewables consistently (not just for a few minutes at peak production) and reliably provide a vast majority of the power being produced?

The goal here is not a forecast, although I won't turn those away if you got them, but rather your sense of what would be plausible.

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    $\begingroup$ BP is not burning toes. I hope. Tonne of Oil Equivalent. $\endgroup$ – Serban Tanasa Mar 25 '15 at 2:53
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    $\begingroup$ You should definitely look into Pumped Storage Hydroelectric and its options of sabotage. Solar works during the day, Wind only during the wind. Batteries can last minutes at a time with city-wide power requirement, merely to switch over to alternatives. "Pumped Storage" is the real "battery" for renewable energy and there's a thousand creative ways of sabotaging it. $\endgroup$ – SF. Mar 25 '15 at 6:44
  • $\begingroup$ Related: my answer to How would humanity enter a Dark Age? $\endgroup$ – a CVn Mar 25 '15 at 9:02
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Actually, the reason solar and wind are so unreliable is because we have so little of them that local variations in weather can have a huge effect on the total amount generated. Having more installations over a larger area will help a lot with that.

You will still need something to smooth over variations, but it can in theory managed by storing energy produced by renewables. As a practical matter in the near future you are concerned about much of energy will be produced by nuclear power, natural gas, and other existing power sources that are less polluting than oil or coal.

That said power plants are long term investments so currently running or planned coal power plants are unlikely to go anywhere that fast. And oil will probably be vital to transportation and vehicle use for several decades as well.

But the big issue with your scenario is that you do not sabotage power by attacking power production, you sabotage it by attacking power distribution. While I imagine even the US has updated its grid to be more modern and less vulnerable, those long, hard to supervise, and relatively fragile power lines are still the achilles heel of modern power infrastructure. And this will probably become even more pronounced as more of power starts to be produced by distributed, relatively low density, renewable sources instead of large, concentrated, power plants.

So just cook up some simple explosives (or even incendiaries) and timers and cause damage to sufficient number of power lines that it will overwhelm the ability of the grid operator to reroute and repair for the desired period of time. There are plenty of variables, so unless you spell out the configuration of the grid, the number and placement of your devices, and the resources available to the grid operator, you can make the black out last as long as you wish with some hand waving.

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    $\begingroup$ "it can be managed by storing energy" sure, a lot of our energy problems would go away if we were able to do the most important thing that's impossible to do with electricity on any practical scale. If you can do that, there's no point to using anything but nukes. Also, these local variations are often big enough to cover entire countries. Maybe US can build over a large enough area, most other countries can't. $\endgroup$ – Mike L. Mar 25 '15 at 8:05
  • $\begingroup$ @MikeL. Large scale energy storage is already used, it is not really particularly cost effective at the moment (with few exceptions), but it is growing and actively developed. And grids actually already cross national borders because power production and power consumption do not necessarily meet due to a variety of reasons. Hydro power and renewables are sensitive to geography and climate, nuclear power to regulations and politics. $\endgroup$ – Ville Niemi Mar 25 '15 at 8:42
  • $\begingroup$ One of the interesting current prospects for storing energy is as hydrogen, which is energy dense and relatively transportable. That may well end up being an intermediate step between - for example - offshore renewables and urban energy requirements. $\endgroup$ – glenatron Mar 25 '15 at 10:49
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    $\begingroup$ @glenatron except it's not efficient, you don't get much back when converting hydrogen back to energy $\endgroup$ – ratchet freak Mar 25 '15 at 12:25
  • $\begingroup$ @VilleNiemi Well, currently you only get pumped-storage hydroplants, but those are strictly geographically limited and ecologists tend to object to cutting down mountains. And while grids do cross national borders, a windstorm in the North Sea affects all of the north of Europe (and will occasionally collapse the transmission network, but that's a different story). $\endgroup$ – Mike L. Mar 25 '15 at 12:43
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Depends in large part if you define nuclear as renewable (most would say cleaner but not renewable)-- if so, it's plausible now albeit a bit of a stretch. This does make the story have a bit of a different flair, so that's something you'll want to consider.

If you don't count nuclear, then maybe go geothermal-- it's got a ways to go, but maybe in fifty years you could have house by house geothermal (again a lot more that your antihero has to do by going house to house by neighborhood to neighborhood).

Lastly, you could plausibly say 20-30 years in the future for wind, depending on where it is set. Germany is rapidly on that track 9% right now, but 50% in some states. If you set it in Saxony-Anhalt, it is certainly plausible that down the road it could be 100% wind (also a bit difficult to sabotage, but they tend to break down on their own, your hero probably only has to stop the repair trucks for a little while).

PS:

If you want to know how you can get 100% renewable today, set it in Costa Rica.

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    $\begingroup$ Brazil used to be 100% hydroeletric (and still is a lot by not 100% anymore) then a power crysis forced the government to build natgas powered plants and there are plans to build more hydroplants in the amazon (almost no plants there yet) and nukes. Conclusion : Some time in the future Costa rica will have to increase the number of options if its going to grow. As soon as you build all dams and explore all hydological resources you havenowhere to grow. $\endgroup$ – Jorge Aldo Mar 25 '15 at 2:46
  • $\begingroup$ Costa Rica Rocks! $\endgroup$ – Aaru Mar 26 '15 at 2:20
  • $\begingroup$ @JorgeAldo interesting point, did not know that- but I can see how it would be limiting. I wish them the best of luck though! $\endgroup$ – erikpartridge Mar 26 '15 at 2:20
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Your original situation may not be as unrealistic as you are thinking. Renewables are following a learning curve law called Swanson's Law; think of Moore's law and computers.

So for instance, solar in the US should be increasing its install base fairly rapidly to 10% of total energy produced. Which would likely cause huge problems for your hero as that would likely come from having more houses and businesses producing and using solar energy, including with improvements via batteries and capacitors.

You have to realize that you are getting your information from BP which is an Oil company and they are very clearly assuming a linear growth rate for both renewables and for non-asian non-OECD economies. These are not safe assumptions to make really, and assuming that non-OECD economies will invest in Coal or Gas over renewable is actually a bad assumption to make.

For the USA, assuming that there will be Coal and Gas fired power plants in 30 years is a very safe bet; the Green River formation alone ensures that; but for much of the rest of the world, and even for the US, even if oil stays relatively cheap, renewables are going to take up a much larger role in our power supply.

Also, note that Nuclear power is pretty much going away; the US nuclear reactor fleet is all past it's original end of life and in its 20 year extension; it is not yet known if it is safe to operate the reactors past that 20 year extension; that part alone proves BP's projections to be wrong.

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  • $\begingroup$ What makes you think renewables are going to grow exponentially? There is a hard limit to how much energy you can extract from a unit of area by building it up with solar panels or wind turbines, so the only way to have exponential growth is to have an exponential construction rate, which is obviously unsustainable. Growth in Europe is pretty much 100% due to mind-bogglingly humongous subsidies that us end consumers end up footing. $\endgroup$ – Mike L. Mar 25 '15 at 8:24
  • $\begingroup$ Cost per watt of solar and wind is already getting to be competitive without subsidies even in the US; and solar cell prices are still dropping. There are capacity limits, especially for somewhere like the US, but exponential growth is driven by exponential price drops and improvements. $\endgroup$ – John_H Mar 25 '15 at 14:04
  • $\begingroup$ For wind maybe, there it's competitive with a gas plant, but not yet with a coal or with a nuke, not by a long shot. The best current solar panels are 13x more expensive per kWh than nukes. They produce about a percent of my country's energy, yet 20% of my electricity bill goes towards subsidizing them. But anyways, sustainable exponential growth is impossible, because you'll quickly run out of space to install them, and the Watt limit per square meter is really harsh. $\endgroup$ – Mike L. Mar 25 '15 at 14:12
  • $\begingroup$ I've been hearing this since 1975. Still hasn't started, $\endgroup$ – Oldcat Mar 25 '15 at 23:01
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Consider this: Solar Thermal.

Create your lotta smoke, but do so in a way that creates a grimy coating on all of the solar reflectors. This will reduce their concentrating ability, and will result in a drop in power output.

The power company (or whomever is monitoring the energy network) will notice this within minutes - it's logical to assume that they compare measured power with an estimate based on real-time cloud cover and time of day. Either their systems will detect the smoke as an anomaly significant enough to require operator attention, or the system will spot a discrepancy with actual output and expected output after the smoke clears.

But the damage has been done!

Someone has to clean all the reflectors now - a time consuming and expensive process. Especially with all the safety considerations you need in order to not oven-bake your maintenance crew. The cleaning process is going to result in a larger drop in power output than the grime itself - possible even causing an entire site shutdown (source: I worked for an Australian company that prototyped two small, but notable, power-towers).

Local Supplies

One potential problem with your scene is the reliance on a local power supply. When designing the energy network, the ability to withstand local disruptions is basically the primary consideration. Redundancy is something that you can expect to exist - often in the form of neighbouring supplies working harder to offset your shortcomings. Other common forms are your aforementioned gas-fuelled power plants.

Of course, there's nothing stopping you from sabotaging those too. ;P

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  • $\begingroup$ Creating a cloud of smoke sufficiently full of particles which would adhere to the mirrors, and large enough to engulf the field long enough to deposit those particles throughout the field for long enough to collect crippling amounts onto the collectors, would be quite a feat. Not to mention the thermal battery being able to smooth out production over a considerable time period. This would be orders of magnitude more difficult than a simple bomb on the molten salt storage. $\endgroup$ – pluckedkiwi Apr 1 '15 at 18:01
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Not sure if I fully agree with the approach...power generation is exceedingly hard to damage due to the extent of our electric distribution grid. Western North America is on the same grid...destroying some power plant off in California will see power re-routed from as far north as Alberta Canada (yes, I am saying destroying a plant in California will cause a gas powered plant in Canada to fire up to fill the supply lost in California). Destroying a single power production facility may cause a few temporary blackouts, but unless you massively impact production (several facilities...maybe take out the hoover dam?) you won't do much by sabotaging a single plant.

The answer to this is to aim at the distribution grid. It is designed as hub and spoke...a series of central power transfer stations transfer power back and forth over the longer distances. Once the hub is hit, it's split into several smaller substations and each of those substations spoke off into the grid that actually services houses and businesses. If you want to take out power to an area...hit the hub that services it.

More to your specific question...power is produced on demand. The electricity currently powering your lights was likely generated 5 to 10 minutes ago tops. Humans don't use energy steadily through the day...our peak period in home use is dinner time, just as the sun is setting with the appliances running (dishes and washers?) while during the day with everyone at work, our energy consumption drops. The advantage to fossil fuel energy production is we can tailor our energy production to meet demand...turn on a couple extra gas fueled power plants at 5pm to meet the rush and turn them off after midnight when consumption drops. Now the problem with renewables is they provide a constant stream of power through the day...giving us too much when it's not really needed and not providing enough to meet our peak period usage.

So my answer to your question is kinda straight forward...to get renewables as our predominant source you need a reliable method of storing electricity on a mass scale to come about that's capable of storing electricity that these renewable sources are producing on off hours for use on peak periods. Chemical batteries really aren't a solution here (although a decentralized system of batteries,basically a set of car batteries at every house, could work)...so something newer (and innovative) needs to come about in our 'battery' technology. Once that's in, the shift to renewables is alot easier. Ideally, let's go with 10 years to discover, 5 years to bicker about it, 5 years to implement, and a 10 year transition to renewables. Earliest I see this transition gets to about 2040.

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Photovoltaics and wind turbines

If going by solar/eolic you will have to wait for more efficient energy storages. Batteries and supercapacitors get more efficient each year, other storage means exists, like compressed air under ocean or in caves or direct conversion to fuels (as in gen. eng. bacteria/algae that converts CO2 into gasoline iirc under tests). Major factor limiting eolic/solar is a way to store energy for later use. The compressed air tanks under ocean are being built or alread done (i believe there is one in germany already).

Thermosolar energy as power source

Those are more like a coal power plant (rankine cycle) but the source of heat is the sun. Usually they use mirrors to concentrate solar light into a boiler to generate steam to be used in a normal rankine cycle engine (thus having to stop at night). But a more modern approach to thermosolar is to use the mirrors to concentrate light into a block of metal were salts circulate. This salt (in molten state) is pumped to a insulated tank. Pumps them circulate molten salts across heat exchangers were water gets boiled to run a usual rankine engine. This allows those plants to supply energy more like a gas or col plant would (at night, using heat stored on the salts). Some of those plants are already running (iirc theres one in spain), and more are being built.

Say 2025-2030 is a good date.

  • typed from cellphone virtual keyboard. Later i will add sources
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  • $\begingroup$ 10-15 years? I would be blown away. $\endgroup$ – Serban Tanasa Mar 25 '15 at 22:52
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Future energy scenario will be ruled by a new form of energy production called LENR (Low Energy Nuclear Reaction). Fleishman and Pons was the pioneers. At the time the most accreditated experiment in the field is Andrea Rossi's ECat that got a COP = 3 in energy production (1KW in - 3KW out). That result is confirmed by two indipendent tests (here the second one named THE LUGANO REPORT: http://amsacta.unibo.it/4084/). After some technical refinements a running prototype of ECat is currently getting a COP > 10 (unconfirmed). Recently a russian scientist Alexander Parkomov reported he replicated Rossi results with a similar COP of 3. The world is moving in the LENR direction (a lot of universities, NASA, Lokeed,...). And in 5 years it will be available at the industrial level. Domestic applications will follow. The current drop of the oil price started exactly in the day that the Lugano Report was published. Is it a coincidence ? Or is LENR starting the fight against carbon fuel ?

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  • $\begingroup$ Note the post date. $\endgroup$ – MSalters Oct 10 '17 at 12:55
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Go for the control center, or the grid

The fuel part of a power plant is usually very robust and hard to sabotage; how are you going to sabotage a pile of coal, hm?

But what is not at all as robust is the control center, not the power grid.

Power generation must always deliver as much energy as is needed that very second. Not less, because then you get brown-outs. Not more, because then you start blowing out equipment due to over-voltages/over-currents.

To maintain the balance, you need a sophisticated control center that always keeps the production matched with the demand.

Sabotage the control center, and you force the power-plant offline.

Note: this is exactly how Tom Clancy's Red Storm Rising starts; a huge and delicate industrial complex is destroyed by attacking the control center.

The power grid is another key part in keeping supply and demand balanced. If the grid malfunctions, then the effects can be felt far and wide. The two biggest blackouts in Europe and the US were entirely because of grid malfunctions.

The "fun" part: as we get more and more renewables, our power systems become more vulnerable to control and grid issues.

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An often overlooked aspect of our search for renewable energy is the idea that carbon-based fuels are themselves theoretically renewable. When burned, high-carbon fossil fuels produces carbon-monoxide, carbon-dioxide and other low-carbon gases. Plants gather and reconcentrate those gases into high-carbon compounds during photosynthesis. Then, after millenia, those plants decay back into the burnable fossil fuels which our modern world requires.

Currently, our sciences can't do any better at photosynthesis for the reconcentration portion of this cycle, but we can process dead plant matter into burnable fossil fuels in the lab. Give us 20-30 years, and we could have factories turning airborne low-carbon gasses into burnable liquid fuels. We might even be doing it on a scale and with an efficiency that reverses our current global warming concerns. The fuel of tomorrow might very well be a synthetic version of the current fuel of today; a.k.a. gasoline.

Hydrocarbons, whether in liquid form or solid, are miraculous compounds. As far as we know, hydrocarbons are the universe's most efficient method for storing intelligence and life. It would therefore not be surprising, if hydrocarbons also turned out to be the most convenient and portable method for storing energy. If that turns out to be the case and if we make the necessary scientific advances to create a synthectic carbon cycle, your protagonist might find themselves attacking a synthetic fuel depot rather han an actual energy producing plant.

Blowing up a region's fuel reserves would harm a government's energy network in a similar way as blowing up a power plant might do. But I think the loss of the fuel reserves would have a more immediate negative effect, especially if it occurred at a time of year when energy consumption was at it's highest.

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  • $\begingroup$ If you want factories (plural) doing this in 20-30 years, where is the serious research now? Because with lots of technologies in our real world in recent times, that's about the time scale you're looking at from basic research and laboratory experiments to wide-scale deployment. Look at computers (early electronic computers in the late 1940s and 1950s, personal computers taking off in the 70s and 80s), nuclear (early work in the 1940s, widespread by the 60s or 70s), etc. I'm sure there are counterexamples as well, but there are plenty of examples showing approximately that time scale. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Mar 25 '15 at 9:00

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