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A bright future for U.S. blackouts

29 May 2024 | News Roundup

Canary Media says “Landmark transmission reform could dramatically speed US energy transition”. Transition to complete dysfunction, apparently. The New York Times blares that “New Rules to Overhaul Electric Grids Could Boost Wind and Solar Power; Federal regulators on Monday approved sweeping changes to how America’s electric grids are planned and funded, in a move that supporters hope could spur thousands of miles of new high-voltage power lines and make it easier to add more wind and solar energy.” And get rid of the types of generators that actually work.

The story progresses (emphasis added):

“Experts have warned that there aren’t nearly enough high-voltage power lines being built today, putting the country at greater risk of blackouts from extreme weather while making it harder to shift to renewable sources of energy and cope with rising electricity demand. A big reason for the slow pace of grid expansion is that operators rarely plan for the long term, the commission said. The nation’s three main electric grids are overseen by a patchwork of utilities and regional grid operators that mainly focus on ensuring the reliability of electricity to homes and businesses. When it comes to building new transmission lines, grid operators tend to be reactive, responding after a wind-farm developer asks to connect to the existing network or once a reliability problem is spotted.”

When you reproach existing providers for a “focus on ensuring the reliability of electricity to homes and businesses” then it’s pretty clear that putting planning in the hands of people who think actually having reliable power is an obstacle to progress will increase the risk of blackouts. And just in case anyone involved in the planning process has any remaining semblance of common sense:

“The new federal rule, which was two years in the making, requires grid operators around the country to identify needs 20 years into the future, taking into account factors like changes in the energy mix, the growing number of states that require wind and solar power and the risks of extreme weather.”

Right. Instead of basing infrastructure decisions on what is happening or plausibly might, we have to pretend we know what’s going to happen 20 years in the future taking into account those fabled “risks of extreme weather” even though in the real world it’s not increasing, unlike computer models put into overdrive by RCP8.5 and other ludicrous government-favoured scenarios.

To his credit one of the three FERC commissioners, which seems an absurdly low number for such a massive and ambitious agency, voted against the new rule, saying it “utterly fails to protect consumers” and “was intended to facilitate a massive transfer of wealth from consumers to for-profit, special interests, particularly wind and solar developers.” But the piece warned us that he was “the lone Republican” so what does he know?

To continue trying to be fair, Canary Media even observes that Mark Christie, the lone Republican and the dissenter, might be right that the new rules are a dramatic overreach Constitutionally and might be struck down as infringing on states’ legitimate jurisdiction. But the moment passes and the lucidity fades. The two Democrats warn that the current system:

“is untenable given the challenges the country’s grid faces. Those challenges go beyond the urgent need to eliminate carbon emissions from the power sector. The country also faces increasing blackout risks — a product of more extreme weather as well as an inability to build and connect clean energy projects fast enough to replace economically uncompetitive fossil-fueled power plants.”

Oy. Inability to build costly unreliable clean energy projects fast enough to replace cheap reliable fossil fuel plants that are being rendered uneconomic by bad policy decisions. And not enough powerlines to connect the plants that aren’t being built. And they think the risk of blackouts is due to “extreme weather”? How about “extreme optimism” and “extreme unreality” blowing in from Balnibarbi? Including one of the Democrat commissioners saying “On top of all of this, extreme weather events have become the norm” which is unconnected to any sort of factual evidence. But everybody knows. At least everybody he hangs out with knows.

Canary Media also warns of a “zombie coal plant” in Maryland that can’t be shut down even though everyone hates it, including the company that owns it, because of bad government planning. But they don’t draw the lesson that governments are bad at planning. Instead they conclude that they should be better at it, before blurting out this inconvenient truth:

“To be fair, the engineering challenges in ensuring a reliable grid aren’t simple to solve.”

Now we’re getting somewhere. Or nowhere.

Heatmap Daily is just as excited and even less cautious:

“The solar arrays and wind farms that the federal tax code and many state policies promote and subsidize can’t serve all that new electric demand from cars and heat pumps (not to mention existing demand for electricity) if they can’t connect to the grid. That’s where the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission steps in – not by funding or mandating the construction of new energy transmission infrastructure, but by laying out the rules for planning it.”

However badly. The actual results of government planning are delay, uncertainty and vulnerability including “a “queue” of projects waiting to connect that’s around 90% renewables” despite the fact that governments around the U.S. and around the democratic world are in principle totally committed to renewables and making them happen at least in their minds. In reality, not so much:

“All of this is especially distressing as the energy transition will require a vast expansion of our transmission capacity. Increased demand from electrification, new manufacturing, data centers, state policies that mandate the use of renewable energy, federal policies like the Inflation Reduction Act, and corporate policies that mandate the procurement of non-carbon-emitting power is transforming the grid.”

And to fix it? What’s this? A “1,300-page rule has not yet been released” but excites everyone who’s anyone:

“FERC commissioners and staff described new requirements that regional transmission organizations adopt the long view, extending their planning horizon over a 20-year period and calling for updates every five years. This means grid planners will have to take into account factors making the grid cleaner, including corporate commitments to purchase clean energy, public policy pushing renewables, the retirement of fossil fuel plants, and utilities’ own designs for the future. But that’s just the planning process. When it comes to actually building — and paying for — new transmission, FERC is requiring regional transmission planners to consult a specific set of economic and reliability benefits like reducing congestion on the grid and resilience against extreme weather and lower costs when selecting projects.”

If you call that a streamlined process, we’re calling you an ambulance. A week earlier Canary Media had warned that “Looming power grid rules could make or break the US energy transition” and our bet is on “break”. Not that there’s anything to break, really.

The whole thing is a terrible practical and intellectual mess, with renewables a combination of wild dreams, excessive subsidies and sorry outcomes. And now FERC is asking everyone who can’t plan their way out of a zombie coal plant to foresee exactly what will happen in 20 years and govern themselves accordingly, based on 1,300 pages of red tape.

9 comments on “A bright future for U.S. blackouts”

  1. "All of this is especially distressing as the energy transition will require a vast expansion of our transmission capacity. "
    If you replace the phrase 'energy transition' with its Germanic equivalent 'energiewende' you might get an idea of where the US is heading. Energiewende has wreaked havoc on the German industrial base and has resulted in such absurdities as demolishing a wind farm in order to open a coal mine to keep the lights on.

  2. Morons in government! Fortunately, the government neither owns nor controls the grid and the looming apocalyptic demise of liberal politicians will likely reverse any empty headed regulations spawned by fat, witless bureaucrats!

  3. You cannot have a reliable grid by replacing reliable fossil fuel sources with unreliable renewables.Einstein was right,insanity is doing the same things
    over and over and expecting different results.

  4. Not much comfort derived from the realization that the US Jacobins and Bolsheviks running the state are just as deranged and evil as those of the deranged dominion.

  5. Back in the real world of Southern England, contractors have started this week on replacing our 80-year old gas pipes with longer-lasting new gas pipes. Perhaps someone knows something of which our imbecile government is ignorant.

  6. The National Transmission Needs Study concluded that about 138,000 miles of new transmission lines are necessary by 2035. The recent rate of construction was 1,700 new miles per year. So the project would take only eighty years. It's not going to happen in eleven years. Another study estimated 813,000 miles, which would only require 1,350 years. Details in chapter 4 of my book "Where Will We Get Our Energy? A Comprehensive Quantitative System Engineering Study of the Relationship between Climate, Science, and Technology." Everything quantified. No vague handwaving. Dots connected. 350 bibliographic citations so you can check that I didn't just make up stuff.

  7. In the 80’s I worked in Damascus, Syria for a while. Due to electrical supply issues, they had rolling blackouts. When a section of town went black…stores, businesses, and many others started their generators. Diesel fumes, CO, blue smoke and the sound of Honda generators would suddenly fill the streets. CO2 emissions probably dropped a bit overall, but air quality certainly dropped significantly. I’m pretty sure the cost to society of the thousands of Honda generators exceeded the cost of building a bigger power plant. Reduced CO2 was not a topic of conversation, the spotty availability of electricity certainly was.

  8. One point missing from this discussion is the need to construct hundreds of Synchronous Converters at substations to make wind and solar connectable to existing grids. The lack of inertia from these Green power sources puts additional demands on any grid they are plugged into. There is no substitute for "spinning reserve' when it comes to reliable, usable generation. In addition, SC are extremely wasteful of energy, as shown by the massive banks of cooling heat exchangers associated with them. The scolding tone of the original article reveals the true intent of the push for so-called green energy--spend lots of rate payer money, destroy reliability, and make China wealthy.

  9. William Van Snyder,
    Just read the hard cover version of your book.VERY GOOD!!! As proof of this, allow me to direct your attention to some "typos" :
    pp.33( 7th line from bottom)"....anywhere in the troposphere is on the order "or" nanoseconds." Should read "of".
    pp.82(first sentence,second paragraph)".... amount could be produced in 189 years."This appears to contradict the number given in table 6.2, presented on pp.81 which shows 180.4.
    pp.164( second to last sentence on that page)"...a cultural bogeyman with staying"lower". Should read"power".
    pp.195( 1st sentence, 3rd paragraph)".....radioactive decay decay heat generation......." One too many "decay"?

    As I mentioned above, it has been a very good read but the final chapters about nuclear left me regretting not paying more attention 45 years ago in science/math classes!

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