Interconnection Queues, Cluster Munitions, and Geothermal
Progress on all fronts!
Positive News in Interconnection Queues
Grid interconnection queues have been a popular story in the last few years. My post on the topic is from 2021. And most of the commentary is dire. But we have good news from the Southwest Power Pool (SPP), the grid manager for the Great Plains region. Their 2022 annual report states:
"The huge increase in GI requests in recent years has created a backlog in which some customers have had to wait a significant amount of time for their request to be studied. In 2022 SPP made tremendous strides in clearing that backlog, however. The queue backlog reached its peak at more than 650 projects representing 120 gigawatts of generating capacity, but by December 2022 SPP had reduced it to fewer than 400 projects representing less than 70 gigawatts of generation. "
SPP's study tracking spreadsheet suggests they will catch up by the end of 2024.
SPP has made progress by switching to a cohort model and increasing the barriers to submitting an interconnection request. Previously the engineers would analyze one project at a time and then let the applicant know how much they'd have to pay in interconnection costs (mostly power line upgrades). The upgrade costs can vary wildly based on location and aren't clear ahead of time. So developers would spam the grid operators with requests and only build the projects with low interconnection costs. And it was unfair that the project that triggered any upgrades was often responsible for all the costs even if it would benefit many other projects. Not an efficient way to do things!
Moving to cohorts reduces the engineering calculations because modeling a case with fifty new generators isn't dramatically harder than modeling one new generator. Cohorts also make it easier to share upgrade costs among projects. And giving priority to developers that have financing and customers lined up reduces the disruption from spam. Most of the progress in SPP has come from removing dead wood early and allowing the engineers to focus on high-intention projects.
SPP's progress matters because it proves that grid operators can be efficient under the existing Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) rules. Some other operators, like California ISO or PJM Interconnect, are really lagging and could go faster if they put their minds to it.
SPP already has years of experience with wind applications, while other grid operators are only now getting slammed with an avalanche of solar and batteries. And SPP only has one real synchronized connection with Midwest ISO, its other boundaries (the western grid, Texas, and Canada) don’t require coordination. Boundaries between system operators could become troublesome if we dramatically increase transmission. The generators in one area will have more impact on their neighbors. Eventually, all the operators will need to be on the same cohort schedule to minimize the engineering required for deconfliction.
Cluster Munitions to Ukraine?
Reports came out recently the US might donate some of our giant cluster munition stockpiles to Ukraine. Many countries signed a treaty banning these weapons, but the US, Ukraine, and Russia did not participate.
The US weapons are called Dual Purpose Improved Conventional Munitions (DPICM). They were designed in the Cold War to destroy Soviet artillery and troop formations. They can be 10x as effective as traditional artillery shells because the spread of bomblets over a wide area makes up for artillery’s inherent inaccuracy. They are also absurdly cheap.
We can see why Ukraine wants the munitions if we do some simple math. Russia has built a network of open trenches for its infantry and supports them with mines and artillery. It is costly to attack these positions in lives and equipment. The trenches are less than a meter wide, and our smart weapons tend to only be accurate within 5-10 meters. So you might need 10-15 guided bombs or artillery shells to impact one small section of trenching. A DPICM artillery shell has around 80 bomblets that saturate hundreds of square meters. A shell costs 10x-80x less than a precision-guided artillery shell. A small, inexpensive barrage can clear hundreds of meters of trench in a few seconds.
Ukraine is having some success using precision-guided munitions to destroy Russian artillery, but having DPICM would give them much more capability. Soldiers need an exact fix on the enemy gun before using smart weapons, which usually requires a drone scout. It can be hard to operate drones far behind enemy lines, and it isn’t easy to pinpoint the guns because they might move before a drone can sortie to the location. With cluster munitions, you only need to know the rough position, which artillery radars can provide. Counterfire with DPICM can rain down on the enemy only seconds after their guns fire. Ukrainian artillery could respond immediately to Russian artillery shelling the attacking Ukrainian troops. That capability will become even more critical as Russian artillery shifts to mortars and other hard-to-spot or kill guns.
One of the negatives of DPICM shells is unexploded bomblets, as many as 10% won’t explode and become mines. That presents a problem for a rapidly maneuvering force like the US Army. The Army’s usage of DPICM declined from the first Gulf War to the second Gulf War because precision-guided munitions had fewer drawbacks when the US already had an overwhelming advantage. But Russia has heavily mined occupied Ukraine, and adding more unexploded ordnance will only marginally add to the issue. Ukraine would see all the benefits and limited downsides when using our DPICM shells.
The politics of cluster munitions are fraught, but no alternative has been able to replicate their effectiveness, and they could save many Ukrainian lives. The US military has only halfheartedly researched new generations of cluster munitions with lower rates of duds. That looks like a mistake, given the realities of war.
2023 Geothermal Update
I wrote a new post updating the recent industry progress. The advancements are significant, and Eavor has reached product-market fit with hot, dry rock geothermal. The industry has a long way to go to compete widely in producing electricity, but process heat should now be profitable in many locations.