The problem of expanding the power grid to deliver the supposed gold rush of alternative energy to the supposed gold rush of battery-powered vehicles, electric furnaces and so on is not trivial. Canary Media concedes that “Small-scale renewables and batteries could team up to replace large fossil-fueled plants – it just takes a whole lot of little devices to match what big, old power plants can do. For now, truly massive fleets of decentralized clean-energy devices, also known as virtual power plants, remain a rarity. The clean energy industry needs to deliver more proof that decentralized energy can provide reliable, clean energy on a large scale.” But then it rather predictably says it’s doing so and fails to convince, either with regard to storage or distribution. Especially as utilities are starting to get tense as time gets short.
According to the Canary Media piece:
“the decades-old Japanese trading house Itochu… manufactures a home-battery product through subsidiary NF, then sells it with the Gridshare software developed by British startup Moixa… Since 2017, Itochu has quietly built up a fleet across Japan of 36,000 home batteries under its control, and that’s just the beginning.”
Yeah. You ain’t foolin’, because the scale of this venture remains trivial. Quite unlike the challenge of distributing the power in both directions.
Apparently “The current contingent totals 352 megawatt-hours of storage” which “rivals some of the largest grid-scale battery plants in existence, suggesting that thousands of tiny batteries really can add up to the scale of big central power plants.” But who’s going to build all the wires?
In another piece, the same outfit explains what a consumer looking to electrify everything really needs to do:
“[Before] you buy an electric heat pump to replace a fossil-fuel-fired furnace, it’s a good idea to weatherize your home so it doesn’t take as much energy to heat and cool. Planning on installing solar panels? What size you get depends on how much energy you’ll need once your home is all-electric. Do you want to spring for a battery so you can draw on your stored solar power in the evenings, perhaps to charge an EV? Can your electrical panel handle all this, or will it require an upgrade? And how much time and money is all of this going to cost? If you’re overwhelmed by these myriad considerations, you’re not alone.”
No kidding. Notwithstanding the emergence of outfits like Denver-based Helio Home which offer to create a “holistic net zero plan” for each client. Though you have to wade through a lot of hype before discovering that “So far, Helio Home has served more than 100 homes in the Denver area, helping each to avoid emitting, on average, 5 to 8 metric tons of carbon a year.”
Peanuts. Holistic peanuts, but still peanuts. (Even less impressive is another firm they describe that helps Hawaiians set up smart electric water heaters the utility can turn off when wind and solar can’t do the job, which somehow double as “grid batteries” by absorbing excess energy when the solar panels produce too much at the wrong time.)
An opinion piece by Steve Milloy in The Wall Street Journal tried to calm people down a bit by noting that:
“‘Net zero’ and its corollary, the ‘energy transition,’ are talked about so often and so loosely that many take them for granted as worthy goals that could be accomplished with greater buy-in from political and business leaders. But two new reports from the utility industry should put an end to such loose talk. In September, the Electric Power Research Institute, the research arm of the U.S. electric utility industry, released a report titled “Net-Zero 2050: U.S. Economy-Wide Deep Decarbonization Scenario Analysis.”
Now this document points out that even on the generation side it’s a pipe dream. As for the grid:
“The EPRI report states: ‘This study does not include a detailed assessment of factors such as supply chain constraints [and] operational reliability and resiliency’ of a net-zero electricity grid. How a net-zero grid could be built and function would be an issue worth studying if it were possible in the first place. But it simply isn’t…. The curious thing about the report is that it has largely remained an EPRI secret.”
Not really. People don’t want to know about it. Or about the other one:
“The other recent report is ‘2022 Long-Term Reliability Assessment’ from the North American Electric Reliability Corp., a government-certified grid-reliability and standard-setting group. NERC concluded that fossil-fuel plants are being removed from the grid too fast to meet continuing electricity demand, and that is putting most of the country at risk of grid failure and blackouts during extreme weather. The U.S. just got another taste of this during the Christmas electric-grid emergency.”
(Pakistan also had a brutal dose of this reality recently.)
The problem of scale seems to baffle people. Canary, again, is excited that “The Elon Musk–led EV giant will make at least 3,500 charging stations available to non-Teslas as the Biden administration unveils funding for a national charging network.” But how many gas stations are there in the United States? It seems to be a harder question to answer than you’d think, but it’s somewhere well north of 120,000 and could even be close to 200,000. And we know how to get gasoline to them. We do not know how to get electricity to 150,000 charging stations. And remember limitations on EV range mean they’d need more.
In fact, Blacklock’s reports, the Canadian government thinks forcing us to go 100% electric in our cars alone “would require the installation of at least 442,000 public charging stations”. And guess what?
“‘Infrastructure along highway corridors is essential to ensure connectivity,’ said the report [Canada’s Public Charging Infrastructure Needs: Updated Projections from the Department of Natural Resources]. ‘The long distance between populated areas in Canada means many of these corridors do not serve high volumes.’”
Popular Mechanics observes that “Bill Gates Says High-Voltage Power Lines Will Save America” and then adds that “He’s Right.” Before granting that “Building transmission lines, however, is easier said than done.”
Again, you ain’t foolin’. As they further add:
“Gates isn’t the first person to realize America’s dire situation when it comes to transmission lines. By one estimate, the U.S. needs to triple its current transmission capacity if it hopes to be carbon neutral in 30 years. Gates notes in his blog that transmission infrastructure is largely a policy problem (planning, paying, and permitting) and that innovation has its place, whether designing dynamic line ratings or power flow controls. However, building transmission lines is an absolute minefield of challenges that has stifled its expansion for decades.”
Now here, presenting it as fundamentally a regulatory problem, you are foolin’. Not because governments resist efforts at streamlining with about the only efficiency they ever display. Because it’s an engineering problem above all else. Triple its current transmission capacity? Have you been in an American city (or Canadian, or anywhere prosperous) and noticed how many wires there already are?
Well, Gates to the rescue with, um, vagueness: “Gates doesn’t outline exactly how he’ll help tackle this transmission line shortfall (though his organization Breakthrough Energy has funded efforts to update the power grid), but it’s clear he’s gearing up for the fight”.
Climate Home News insists that “Cables become cool”, saying “As putting up solar panels and wind turbines becomes increasingly profitable without subsidies, governments are turning their attention to transmission lines.” Without subsidies? Do tell.
In fact tell Australia, where Prime Minister:
“Anthony Albanese will offer households financial incentives to switch from gas to electricity in an uncosted deal with the Greens to wave through the government’s legislation to intervene on power prices. The deal, announced by Greens leader Adam Bandt, could see households offered concessional loans to switch gas hot-water systems, or appliances such as ovens and heaters, to electric alternatives.”
Putting aside the question of why incentives for the supposedly cheaper stuff are needed, which The Australian did note was somewhat troubling (as in “Australian billionaire Mike Cannon-Brookes’ Grok Ventures estimated in May that converting the average Australian home to 100 per cent electric power would cost about $100,000 each”) we want to tell Australia, and everyone, that Canary Media is right that “After all, there’s no use making clean electricity if you can’t get it to anyone who needs it.”
They’re just wrong that the Indian government putting $1 billion into linking Himalayan renewables projects with “states that people actually live in” or some Washington outfit lending Colombia $70 million means anything. Ontario’s looking at $400 billion and if you know anything about government cost estimates, and other typical problems, it’s just a token down-payment on the real cost.
Plus, story after story admits, “there are fears that having to consult with every community the cables pass through could slow the project down more than is helpful in a climate crisis.” Whereas just ramming big industrial projects through people’s neighbourhoods and various ecosystems sounds a lot like the thing you’re trying to replace not the one you’re trying to replace it with.
Including in America, where Canary Media explains that:
“Strengthening it [the U.S. grid] to support the decarbonization of the country’s electricity system will take hundreds of billions of dollars of new investment, according to multiple studies. But money alone won’t be enough. It will also require a rapid evolution of the regulatory structures that determine how high-voltage transmission lines get built. Tricky regulatory issues include how to site the lines without running roughshod over landowner rights or harming the environment, how to speed up the construction process, and how to determine who should cover the costs.”
Moreover the cost of hooking up a new project to the grid used to be about 10% of its total cost but is now generally between 50% and 100% more. Which isn’t what happens when scaling up brings costs down sharply.