The U.S. Grid Isn’t Ready For A Major Shift To Renewables

Yves here. The fallout from the Texas grid collapse during its deep freeze continues. The Texas independent energy market monitor Carrie Bevins has written the Public Utility Commission of Texas to recommend that $16 billion of charges by the grid manager Ercot be unwound because Ercot kept the $9,000 per megawatt hour price in place (versus a typical price of $25 a megawatt hour) for a full 33 hours after the power emergency was over. From the Financial Times:

Retroactively revising prices “is not ideal”, she [Bevins] said, but “allowing them to remain will result in substantial and unjustified economic harm”.

Such a move would require Ercot, which acts as a payment clearing house for the market, to claw back money already paid through its invoice settlement system, a process never carried out on anything akin to the scale that would be needed…

At a Texas Senate hearing on Thursday, Kenan Ogelman, Ercot’s vice-president of commercial operations, said the state’s wholesale power market was in “distress”. About $1.7bn of power bills were unpaid, a figure he said was likely to keep rising.

Brazos Electric Power Cooperative, the state’s largest and oldest power co-op, has been the largest casualty, declaring bankruptcy this week after failing to pay more than $2bn in bills it received from Ercot.

The market watchdog’s recommendation echoed warnings from many companies — both retail providers and generators that had to buy power on the wholesale market to meet supply commitments — of further bankruptcies to come.

Per reader Dan K: “Pro tip: when you turn off the autopilot, it stays off until you turn it back on.:

And Bloomberg:

The erroneous charges exceed the total cost of power traded in real-time in all of 2020, said Bivens, who spent 14 years at Ercot, where she most recently was director of market operations before becoming its watchdog. “It’s a mind-blowing amount of money.”

While prices neared the $9,000 cap on the first day of the blackouts, they soon dipped to $1,200 — a fluctuation that the utility commission later attributed to a computer glitch. The panel, which oversees the state’s power system, ordered Ercot to manually set the price at the maximum to incentivize generators to feed more electricity into the grid during the period of supply scarcity. The market monitor argues that Ercot should have reset prices once rotating blackouts ended because, at the point, the emergency was over…

Bivens acknowledged the market monitor isn’t typically in favor of repricing, but noted in her letter to the commission that the move wouldn’t result in any revenue shortfalls for generators. Instead, the new price would reflect the actual supply, demand and reserves during the period.

Of course, there’s plenty of whining. Again from Bloomberg:

Texas Competitive Power Advocates, a trade association representing generators, said retroactively changing prices could discourage future investments in Texas’s electricity market. “Changing prices after the fact creates additional instability and uncertainty,” Michele Richmond, the group’s executive director, said in an email.

Recall that the widespread power outage knock-on effects hit Mexico. From Reuters:

The cold snap…knocked out power to more than 4 million people in Texas..It has halted about one-fifth of the nation’s refining capacity and halted nearly all oil and natural gas production in west Texas…

Texas’s outages also affected power generation in Mexico, with exports of natural gas via pipeline dropping off by about 75% over the last week, according to preliminary Refinitiv Eikon data.

One of the few upsides of this calamity is that it’s bringing more attention to the sorry state of the American grid, both its excessive “tight coupling” and the apparent lack of supply buffers.

By Irina Slav, a writer for with over a decade of experience writing on the oil and gas industry. Originally published at OilPrice

The blame game for the massive power outages in Texas last month continues. The dominant argument is that renewables had an ignorable part to play in the crisis, with natural gas and coal the indirect culprits due to their reduced availability resulting from infrastructure freezing and diverting supplies for heating purposes.

Yet what the real problem actually lies in, not just in Texas but everywhere where energy demand is growing, is grid reliability and resiliency.

“When it comes to the U.S. electrical grid, it is the largest interconnected machine on Earth: 200,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines and 5.5 million miles of local distribution lines, linking thousands of generating plants to factories, homes and businesses,” Westhaven Power, a California utility, told Oilprice.

This is one massive system, and the sources that feed it electricity have become increasingly diversified. And while the shortage of natural gas was a big reason for the power outages in Texas, it was certainly not a shortage of gas that caused the blackouts in California last summer during a heatwave. Grid reliability has come to the fore because the decarbonization of electricity generation is not all fun, games, and zero-emission power.

The U.S. grid, as it is now, cannot support the massive shift to low-carbon power generation, Westhaven Power says. Operators need better control of regional grids to be able to anticipate dangerous situations like the ones in Texas and California, but obtaining it would become trickier with more intermittent wind and solar feeding the grid, the utility explains.

“What events in Texas and California demonstrate is the shortcomings of having highly-centralised power systems and the true value of resilience and flexibility in our energy grids, a value that is going to become even more vital as we continue to transition to renewable energy,” says Dr. Toby Gill, the chief executive of UK-based climate tech startup Intelligent Power Generation. Related: Debt Stricken Mexican Oil Major Pemex Scrambles To Boost Production

So what is there to do to reduce the risk of such occurrences in the future as the world—and the United States—moves inexorably towards a more renewables-heavy energy mix and, more importantly, as electricity demand booms.

The simplest and most straightforward answer is investments in strengthening the grid. Bloomberg’s Rachel Morison writes that global investments in grid infrastructure could rise to $28.7 trillion by 2050 assuming a triple increase in renewable power generation capacity and a 60-percent boom in electricity demand. These assumptions are quite safe: the drive to lower humankind’s carbon footprint is, in fact, a drive to electrify everything that can be electrified, so demand will increase as a consequence of that. How smart the “Electrify all” call is, however, is a different question.

“The risks for power consumers are rising as the typical home electrifies an increasing share of its energy consumption,” Sanjeet Sanghera, a BloombergNEF analyst, told Bloomberg’s Morison. “You are putting all your eggs in one basket.”

While it is one of the wiser rules in life that you should not put all your eggs in one basket, the dominant narrative among politicians seems to be that we have no other basket left but the electrification of everything. This means that we need to brace for the costs. Europe alone will need to spend $4.9 trillion on its grids, Morison notes, adding that as much as 45 percent of this investment will be used to strengthen the already existing infrastructure.

In addition to strengthening the centralized grid, there is also a solution in boosting the share of distributed power systems, according to experts. This would alleviate the consumption load on the grid, potentially reducing the risk of overloads and outages. It might also reduce—slightly—the size of investments that need to be made in new transmission infrastructure to connect new solar and wind installations to the grid.

“When our energy systems are pushed to their limits, through extreme weather changes as in both of these cases, and power generation sources are taken offline, the impact is felt at much greater scale,” IPG’s Gill told Oilprice. “If however, we have more segmented/distribution power sources, we lower our reliability on fewer large power sources, therefore reducing the number of towns and people affected when one or more of these go offline.”

“Reliability and resilience – even in the face of extreme events – is achieved through diversity, redundancy, and modularization. Co-locating energy supply with demand through microgrids and other DERs [distributed energy resources] is an important step in preventing widespread crises like this in the future,” according to Mark Feasel, Smart Grid president, Schneider Electric North America.

“In both cases [Texas and California], the strain could have been reduced with distributed resources, such as batteries and solar, as well as demand response tools, like smart thermostats with utility control,” says K.C. Boyce, vice president of human insights firm Escalent’s energy division. “However, Texas has limited distributed resources and demand response, and while California has lots of distributed resources, it doesn’t have a good way of coordinating those resources, nor does it really have demand response tools to call on.”

So, it seems that decentralizing the grid could go quite a long way towards reducing risks and ensuring a stable power supply. Of course, it will also cost money. But with the right incentives, this kind of investment might be more palpable for consumers than higher electricity bills because utilities are centrally strengthening the grid. In any case, one thing is clear, and it is that grids, as they are at the moment, will not be able to cope successfully with the changes in the energy mix.

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  1. Mike R.

    Almost everyone looks to renewables as the “magic solution” to our climate change and end of oil eras.
    The reality is far different. The world needs to start reducing it’s energy consumption.
    No “leaders” want to go there.

    1. Jeff

      We already have reduced consumption. How many led bulbs are in your house? Here in California, even though our population hadt increased significantly in 20 years, energy production has not.

      You’re right… It’s a production issue.

    2. Larry Gilman

      There is no big lie about renewables to dispel, only a many-sided reality to grasp: We need renewables, efficiency, demand-side management, and storage; we need to adapt grids (per Yves and decades of engineering advice), decarbonize functions now supported directly by fossil fuels, and use less world overall, being in a state of gross ecological overshoot. Three quick points:

      1) The shift to renewables is urgently necessary and can even be profitable, since wind and solar are now cheaper per kWh than coal, gas, and nuclear — but it’s not magic (not sufficient).

      2) Per unit of economic activity, we’re already reducing energy consumption: energy intensity, BTUs per $ of GDP, has been decreasing for decades both in the US and globally, mostly due to increased end-use efficiency. US energy intensity decreased 58% from 1990 to 2015.

      3) Which is still of course far from enough, as emissions are still rising. Fortunately, even apart from supply decarbonization, we are nowhere near the practical bounds of end-use efficiency, which can offset most of the demand increase otherwise entailed by electrification — or more, if one estimates the resource less stodgily. Electrification and renewables make, by the way, a good sandwich: “[E]lectrification has the potential to reduce variability or ‘peaky-ness’ of load, which can aid in the integration of new resources—-particularly variable renewable resources” (NREL).

      But to consume too much world with supreme efficiency, powered by renewables, is still to consume too much world. Green overshoot is still overshoot, still a death trip — perhaps a version of your own point. Since decoupling isn’t really a thing and overshoot is, degrowth shall occur — but how can we have it equably and humanely? Yves et al. are better suited to discuss: dammit Jim, I’m an engineer, not an economist. Eager to learn.



      1. heresy101

        The small SF Bay Area municipal utility that I worked for had its load of 430 GWH in the late 1980’s drop to about 340 GWH in the late 1990’s even though the population increased and EV’s became 5% of customer’s cars. This continual downward trend made it hard to develop load forecasts because you couldn’t be sure it would continue.

        The major reasons for this decrease was the Federal mandated reduction in appliance electricity usage (was rolled back under President Pyschopath), LED TV’s replacing CRT’s and plasma TVs, mass installation of LEDs, refrigerators cutting usage in half, and the addition of heat pump heating among other changes.

        1. juno mas

          Yes. And if the US were to implement CA’s buidling energy standards (appliances, insulation, dual-pane windows, etc.) a Green New Deal-like transformation in energy consumption would take place.

  2. Alex Morfesis

    This sounds as though a Rico act filing should be pieced together…”to incentivize generators to…”…and the “trade group”…trade group or illegal coordination ??? Anti trust lawsuits might seem to be in order….as to the grid designed when the world still used horses to carry commerce, we feed only one level of power and then buy items with transformers built into a plug and lose energy…we send power across lines over distances where closer connection and reduced distances might reduce the carbon footprint…we have these massive wind turbines to insure when they fail, a simple repair can not be in order…

  3. You're soaking in it

    I have yet to see a single article about the future of electric power that mentions reducing consumption. Sure, renew and reconfigure the grids; a society that cared for itself would make that a public priority. Sure, encourage the development of alternatives to fossil fuels; that could ease the inevitable disappearance of what’s left. But the future is less, orders of magnitude less, and ignoring it in every single discussion just convinces me that there is a high level commitment to a Thelma and Louise ending from our supervisors.

    1. Zamfir

      The trouble there, I think, is that reduction has a curve of increasing difficulty. And it becomes steep long before we get to the appropriate amounts.

      Like, how would you reduce consumption across the country by a factor of 1.5? That’s obviously very possible, and might well end up being more pleasant than the current situation. It’s mostly matter of investing in efficiency.

      A factor 2 or 3? At that stage, people will have to give up some things that they find genuinely important. That might be needed, but it makes it harder to accomplish in few decades.

      Beyond that, I would genuinely question feasibility – at least, on the time scale that we need. To give an example, there is an existing building stock. There is only so much possible to insulate of existing buildings, you can’t move buildings closer together to reduce transportation – and as Texas just showed, there is a point where a lower thermostat become unlivable. Beyond that point, a further reduction of energy consumption implies the destruction and replacement of a good chuck of the building stock, a complete re-zoning of the country, relocation of most of the people. Basically, China of the last decades, but even faster, and without the associated CO2 emissions, and without the promise of nicer living at the end.

      I think it’s literally impossible to do this in time, even if it had massive support. But we do need that level of greenhouse gas emissions. Not a factor 2 or 3, but 10 or more. And that implies low-CO2 energy for heating, for cooling, for transportation.

      I think this applies across the board. Reduction is not going to cut it, not even a very aggressive level of reduction.

      1. Laura in So Cal

        To echo this on a personal level, about 10 years ago I was part of a Yahoo Group challenge to reduce your environmental impact. Everyone was challenged to get their own baseline numbers for electricity gas & propane, gasoline, water consumption and how much trash they generated etc., compare that to national numbers, and try to reduce it. What most people found was that they could get to about 1/2 of the national averages without much difficulty, but after that it required real life style changes like moving, getting rid of a car, changing your job, stop traveling etc.

        1. juno mas

          . . . so think of the children. Or the alternative of no action. Let’s go down swinging.

    2. MDW

      True – for example, Texas has terribly inefficient cooling/heating systems. Central air systems are power hogs. Lighting up empty buildings at night is madness. There are other ways to save energy if we really focused on it.

  4. Paul S

    Using the California outages as a foil for increased renewables is pretty disingenuous. Distributed solar and offshore wind avoid all of the issues associated with transmission lines and fires. [To be fair, some of the quotes towards the end of the piece walk back some assertions made at the beginning]

      1. Mantid

        Regarding offshore wind, at Or. St. Univ. they’ve been running tidal electrical generation for a few years and are continuing to work out the kinks – salt problems being dealt with. As the article stated near the end, diversification is the key. A human needs a house, a house needs a roof, install solar on every roof with batteries in the garage or shed. Each solar install feeds the grid when there’s excess (people at work on a Sunny day) and use the distribution grid to spread rooftop solar from large roofed facilities (parking structures, schools, shopping malls….). We can do this, but “we” will not include petrol products, though they’ll have their place (plastics, lubricants).

        1. Larry Gilman

          Just to be clear, I was being sarcastic. Salt is of course not a practicality killer for modern offshore wind, which is already being deployed at many-GW scale by some of the most reliable electrical systems on the planet (primarily in Europe). And per, “The U.S. offshore wind market is expected to see massive growth in the next decade. The U.S. Department of Energy’s Offshore Wind Technologies Market Report estimates a potential generating capacity of 25,824 megawatts in the project development pipeline at the end of 2018.”

          Salt, schmalt.

        2. Ben Joseph

          But they can’t over charge for local solar, hence the crazy solar farm construct.

  5. Rod

    Co-locating energy supply with demand through microgrids and other DERs [distributed energy resources] is an important step in preventing widespread crises like this in the future,” according to Mark Feasel, Smart Grid president, Schneider Electric North America. my bold

    This article gets to the point that Multiple Methods, with different intents and purposes, are the coming solution. Conservation to Consumption, Micro Grid to DC Transmission, No One Big Pill (which is a bummer for 21st century america) solution.

    The quicker we embrace that, the better shot at a future our grandkids will have.

  6. Bob


    Here are some of the the things that we would do well to remember when the electrical grid and electrical generation is being discussed.

    As part of the push for electrification in the 30’s a deal was struck in which a local (state) utility was granted a monopoly for it’s service area. And the state Public Utility Commissions (PUC) were established to ensure that the utilities were made to play nice, that is have reasonable and customary rates. In the beginning the PUCs were somewhat adversarial. It time though the utilities and the PUCs began to work together with the PUCs generally setting up a cost plus pricing scheme. That is the cost of generation and delivery plus some percentage – often 3 – 5 %.

    Of course this monopolization and consolidation focused the electrical system on large centralized electrical generation with all of the economies of scale and the standardization of power. So at that time and even today there are real advantages to large central plant / grid arrangements.

    The issue with renewables as far as the utilities are concerned is two fold –

    First there is no fuel cost for renewables. This means that the generators have a greatly reduced revenue stream from a cost plus arrangement.
    Second the advent of Photovoltaic (PV) generation and to a lesser extent wind turbines now allow for fuel free distributed generation.

    Be very careful in thinking about the electrical grid and electrical generation. It is a complicated, intricate system with a good deal of history.
    Renewables and advances in efficiency particularly in lighting have the local utilities fighting as hard as possible to maintain their revenue stream. The utilities often control the narrative.

  7. PlutoniumKun

    Articles like this frustrate me a little as they lose the big picture.

    The fundamental problem with the US grid is not renewables, or fossil fuels, or nuclear, its that there has been decades of underinvestment, and it will cost trillions to catch up, whatever you do for power generation. Any figure that gets bandied about as the ‘cost’ of renewables needs to be compared to the ongoing cost of repair and replacement and renewal. Its not clear at all that renewables significantly increase grid costs compared to the other – much depends on the existing pattern of the grid, the alternatives to the renewables, and the distribution of available sites for those renewables (or nuclear plants, as they have very particular locational requirements too).

    The big lost opportunity in all this was back in 2009, when Obama was apparently dissuaded from putting forward a national smart grid on the grounds that it could not be built in time to act as a stimulus. Needless to say, this advice was from economists, not from grid managers or engineers.

    There are many ways that renewables can release pressure on existing grids – most obviously by matching local generating capacity to local grid network capacity – scaling matters. The latest wind turbines are very useful for this as they are so large now that they don’t have to be erected on high grounds or particularly windy areas to generate cheap power. There is also an increasing tendency worldwide for solar and wind installations to feature battery storage as this permits upscaling without requiring local power line upgrades. Off-shore wind can also piggyback on undersea power connections, as is already happening in the Irish Sea and the North Sea in Europe. Long distance DC interconnectors make more economic sense if they run past offshore windfarms, and vice versa.

    Put in simple terms, every country needs a long term power plan which integrates generation capacity (including choosing what fossil fuel plants are kept on standby to allow a full transition to carbon free sources), grid investment, and demand management (the latter being the most ignored, but possibly in the future the most important element). You can’t separate them. This is the first stage in managing power needs for the future, you can’t get anywhere without addressing the core planning needs.

    1. heresy101

      To get a visual image of what PK is talking about take a look at the wind turbines (4,731) at Tehachapi Pass where much of the CA wind energy is coming from now. Most of these turbines are under 1 MW.

      The new floating wind turbines are coming in the 14 MW range.
      The current floating wind turbines in Scotland are only 6 MW.

    2. George

      This “There is also an increasing tendency worldwide for solar and wind installations to feature battery storage…” Am I wrong to assume the advances in Power Wall storage capacity would encourage a disconnect from the grid? The reason being Tesla and others promote home generation and storage as first steps to energy independence. Granted these PW systems are expensive but if done correctly, ( air conditioners require addition Wall ) can not this be seen as a way to wean us off utility tied dependence?

      Either way utilities are missing the boat not offering through lease and install these roof top generating and garage storage systems because I see them as an answer to any long term planning and their own longevity. This being much the way I feel an electric vehicle today is only lacking self generation for battery cycle renewal. With all the better battery technology happening today we are very close to solving some parts of this. Thank you for your thoughts.

  8. Peter Lynch

    Bob – nice summary, all true. However, the future demands a new 21st-century grid. If Alexander Bell came back today he would say: WOW, you guys have come far. If Edison came back he would say – what have you guys been doing for the past 100 years – not much progress. We need a new grid to handle the future which is renewables NOT fossil fuels and in the end, it will be MUCH cheaper, healthier for all Americans, and far far better for Earth, the only planet we currently live on. The utilities have to move with the flow or get out of the way. We have no time for these old utility tricks of blocking innovation so they can keep making money.

  9. chuck roast

    On a more granular level, I’m curious if Ercot encouraged automatic bill paying. Theoretically, if a gas customer allowed Ercot access to his or her checking or credit card account then they could have been cleaned out. I don’t allow the swine access to my financial accounts for precisely this reason.

    1. Kelly in Texas

      Yes, Griddy had MANY customers who had auto-pay. There were multiple stories of people who had their bank accounts cleaned out before they were even aware it was going on. One story mentioned a lady who had her account zeroed and her bank had some sort of over draught plan for her and covered it. So she not only got cleaned out but now owes the bank even more PLUS a healthy fee.

      1. MDW

        Griddy had 29K customers – with over 7.7 million meters in ERCOT, not a big number. An ERCOT has no say over companies’ billing practices.

  10. Zamfir

    I find that “decentralized” is a very fuzzy concept, when it comes to the power grid.

    In the extreme, it’s clear what a “decentralized” grid looks like: small geographic areas each have their own suppliers, storage and consumers of electric power, with a local “grid” that is managed locally (perhaps automatically). Without permanent connections to other microgrids. But this is very rare. In practice, microgrids are nearly always connected to a wider grid, which they use all the time. They rely heavily on that grid, without the main grid, the microgrid cannot not guarantee continuous high-power service. And most users are not prepared to deal with that (or even much aware of the possibility).

    Quite often, “distributed” power means even less than microgrids connected to a main grid. It just means that many small power generators are connected to the main grid. Those generators are “decentral”, technically and often also commercially and organizationally. But in other ways the system becomes more centralized. All those decentral generators eventually deal with the same grid operator, the same spot market or clearinghouse, etc, they don’t deal with end consumers except through those central entities.

    Solar and wind pull heavily in that direction. The weather is too much the same locally, it’s better to average out fluctuations over a large area. Preferably, an area larger than a single weather system. This is pushing grids to become interdependent on the scale of continents. It’s “decentral” in the sense that there are many small cogs in the system, but I am not sure how well the cogs would function on their own.

    In theory, batteries could enable meaningfully independent microgrids. But that implies an overcapacity of batteries. Every microgrid would have enough batteries to handle its own fluctuations. Now batteries may be getting cheaper, but even rosy projections don’t make them so cheap to become overabundant. As far as I can tell, we’ll need every kWh of storage used efficiently, to deal with increasing levels of intermittent renewables.

    1. Bob

      Remember that some operations have their own generation assets.

      Notably Hospitals, Data Centers, sewage pumping stations, emergency services, nd others. In addition some industrial operations have generation assets – think sulfuric acid plants that burn sulfur , lumber drying operation that burn wood, sewage treatment plants that burn methane, and so on.

      The reason that these industrial operations do not engage in a distributed power scheme is that the electric utilities (IOUs) exercise their monopoly right to stop any such generation. This often referred to an offer that cannot be refused.

      As an example Hospitals often have a requirement to “exercise” their generators on a scheduled basis. This exercise is part of a program to keep equipment ready to come on line at a moments notice. Further Hospitals are generally required to have enough fuel (generally #2) storage to meet a sustained outage.

      So there is capacity however it is constrained by regulation by the local PUC, insurance requirements, EPA emissions requirements. This is designed to protect the local IOU.

  11. Larry Gilman

    Some good points here, but wind and solar are not “pushing grids to become interdependent on the scale of continents.” While it’s true that the variability of renewable generators is smoothed by geographic diversity, which implies interconnection across sufficiently large (though not continental) scale, grids are already continent-spanning for reasons that have nothing to do with renewables, e.g. in Europe and the continental US, where just two interconnected (not “interdependent”) grids link sea to shining sea (minus Texas).

    It’s also worth mentioning that decentralization isn’t synonymous with moving toward a quilt of islandable microgrids each stuffed with storage. That is merely one (extreme) possibility.

    How to make renewably-powered decentralized grids work is pretty much the field of smart-grid engineering. It’s big. To grab just one high-level article out of the Google Scholar hat: here. Or look at the “autonomous energy grids” framework for decentralized power systems being produced by the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

    Bottom line: reliable, renewable decentralization of power is eminently feasible across a whole landscape of possible configurations. The engineering challenge is not possibility but optimality. That’s good news.

    1. Zamfir

      As an analogy, is a supermarket chain “decentralized”? Most of the action and decision s happen in the stores. But HQ is in charge, in the end. And if HQ has problem with an IT system (or cashflow), all the stores don’t get resupplied.

      That AEG program, for example, has some similarities with a supermarket chain. It may distribute control systems geographically, but they are intended to function as one system, run by the central grid operator. A typical quote from one of the linked papers:

      “The algorithm enables (groups of) DERs to pursue given performance objectives, while adjusting their (aggregate) powers to respond to services requested by grid operators and to maintain electrical quantities within engineering limits”

      It’s a system where the central grid says, hey we need more power and a bit of phase shift, and the local nodes look if they should change some setpoints on the PV inverter, or stop charging the car, or temporarily turn down the may be distributed, but from an organization POV it’s a system where the grid operator controls a lot more than they do today.

      1. Larry Gilman

        “it may be distributed, but from an organization POV it’s a system where the grid operator controls a lot more than they do today.”

        Not quite how I’m reading the NREL site, which says: “The [Autonomous Energy Grids] effort envisions a self-driving power system—a very ‘aware’ network of technologies and distributed controls that work together to efficiently match bi-directional energy supply to energy demand. This is a hard pivot from today’s system, in which centralized control is used to manage one-way electricity flows to consumers along power lines that spoke out from central generators. Instead, AEG grids are composed within one another, like a fractalized group of microgrids.”

        There can be no grids, smart or dumb, without some form of control of something by something else, but from the organization POV, NREL’s AEG approach is actually decentralizing in tendency. Though yes, being “smart” does entail finer-grained control.

  12. Jeremy Grimm

    The root problem behind “grid reliability and resiliency” is the ownership structure and control of the grid. Utilities are a natural monopoly that should be nationalized. As long as private owners and Neoliberal Market ideology control the grid there will be problems of “grid reliability and resiliency”. The U.S. once had a more reliable and resilient grid under mixed public and private ownership with flawed quasi-government control. This public utility system came under Neoliberal attack resulting in a transfer of ownership and control into largely private hands. For decades after, Market ‘efficiency’ directed rent taking and the wholesale looting of grid assets. The disasters in California and Texas are far from the only disasters affecting the grid in the last two decades, but they have our attention for the moment. If the Government steps in to fix the grid what will stop those who presently own and control the grid from continuing their looting? If the Government makes the grid whole it makes the grid owners whole as well. It refills the value available for them to loot — not unlike bailing out the financial system in 2008 or saving equity assets in 2020.

    Resiliency is a curious concept when applied to the grid. The U.S. no longer manufactures many of the large transformers that drive the grid backbone. I have read that orders for some of the larger grid transformers have lead times of a couple of years. Large transformers are expensive. Private owners have no reason to sink money into keeping a ‘resilient’ inventory of giant transformers. I have no idea how many suppliers could build these transformers. If the supply lines for these transformers are as ‘efficient’ as the supply lines for other goods it becomes easy to imagine scenarios of combined effects resulting in much longer lead times than couple of years.

    1. heresy101

      “Utilities are a natural monopoly that should be nationalized. As long as private owners and Neoliberal Market ideology control the grid there will be problems of “grid reliability and resiliency”.”
      This describes the grid problem better than the article. Combine the murder PG&E, the PUC being in bed with the IOUs, and the neoliberal operation of the grid by CAISO and you are guaranteed to have failures and deaths in California.

  13. Jason

    Does anyone know of a clear accounting of embodied energy issues when it comes to renewables? In layperson’s terms, I should add.

    I’ve been intrigued (I’ll use that word instead of “scared even further out of my wits”) by the issue of embodied energy since coming across an article titled The Monster Footprint of Digital Technology which may have been linked to here at NC. Apparently, embodied energy is often either outright ignored or severely (criminally?) minimized.

    1. Larry Gilman

      “Does anyone know of a clear accounting of embodied energy issues when it comes to renewables?”

      Good question. A lot of research over many years has tracked embodied energy in renewable and other energy systems (where embodied energy is often characterized as an “energy payback” period — how long it takes a solar panel or other energy-generating gizmo to produce the energy that was used to manufacture it and will be required to dispose of it, after which the generator’s output is pure gain).

      The verdict: Payback of embodied energy is very fast for both solar and wind systems. For solar arrays, it’s on the order of 2 years (varies with technology, sunniness of the location, and other variables): see, for example, this review paper from 8 years ago. The trend is continually toward faster paybacks due to technology improvements, with embodied energy skimming lower and lower. These calculations include “balance of system,” like the racks that hold up the PV panels.

      Wind turbines also pay back very early in their multi-decadal lifecycle. They typically pay off their embodied-energy debt in months.

      Since solar and wind systems typically last for decades, they spent about 90% of their time (or more) producing energy over and above what is needed to make and dispose of them.

        1. Larry Gilman

          Levelized cost of energy (LCOE) is a monetary metric, not an energy-content metric. LCOE tells you how much a kWh of energy from a given source costs in inflation-levelized $ after you have included all costs from manufacture, financing, decommissioning, etc.

          LCOE does not say anything in particular about embedded energy or payback of energy debt. The two do not always track; one can’t read each from the other. E.g., the LCOE of newbuild nuclear is the highest of any large-scale power-generating technology, but its energy payback period is relatively modest.

  14. MDW

    This is not incorrect: ““[r]eliability and resilience – even in the face of extreme events – is achieved through diversity, redundancy, and modularization. Co-locating energy supply with demand through microgrids and other DERs [distributed energy resources] is an important step in preventing widespread crises like this in the future,” according to Mark Feasel, Smart Grid president, Schneider Electric North America;” however, the problem in ERCOT is much, much larger.
    Diversification is good, but it will take a long time to achieve to the extent that it’d have a significant impact. ERCOT has been working lately on rules, processes, and procedures to incorporate DERs and energy storage into the grid structure (interconnections, operations, settlement, etc.). It took a long time to get to this point because of the opposition of some market participants (MPs).
    Precisely because the system is so complex, things move slowly, as all effects, implications, and consequences must be thoroughly evaluated. But there was that case of a grocery store in Houston that managed to stay open during a hurricane because it had signed up for a microgrid arrangement – so we do have positive examples.
    The real scandal is that, even after the 2011 storm, generators were not made to carry out winter weatherization (it costs money and some have said that it’d make plants less efficient in the summer). So, this is less about “the grid” (by which we understand transmission lines), and more about the generators (and also gas supply lines).
    The weatherization provision was stripped from the 2011 Senate Bill 1133, which addressed that winter’s storm. Also, a representative of a wind power company at the Feb. 2021 Senate committee hearing claimed that there is no ‘commercially viable’ way to winterize wind turbines (am not clear on this, need to do more research, but we have turbines operating in the north, so how do they do it?). About 16GW of wind did not come online because of the weather vs almost 30GW of thermal units, including nuclear, that failed for diverse reasons (some had gas supply issues, but mostly weatherization, or lack thereof).
    But even a bigger scandal is the attitude of generators – e.g., Vistra, Calpine – who filed comments in support of retaining all the ill-gotten gains. Carrie B. (IMM) sent a good letter to the Commission – Independent Market Monitor second letter – but there has been extensive (though not always visible) gen pushback – so, we’ll see (
    So, let this sink in – first, they do not winterize; then they fail to come online and provide power, being partly responsible for high prices (the wonderful TX el market is designed to have high prices, up to $9,000/MWh, when reserves are low); and then they argue that they should be able to retain all profits – because to do otherwise would be interfering in the market! Never mind that the high prices that lasted from Feb. 15-19, 2021, were to some extent the result of an administrative intervention by the Commission (orders from Feb. 15 and 16).
    Some very determined journalist could really sink his or her teeth into this – because gens are now engaged in a major campaign to stop any claw-back or re-settlement. And ERCOT is fully supportive – issuing eye-watering invoices for millions and hundred of millions, but refusing to resettle the charges (thus forcing some MPs into bankruptcies).
    We already have a bankruptcy by Brazos Co-op (got a bill for $2.1 billion, yes b); CPS Energy (San Antonio – the largest municipally owned utility in the US) said it’d have to dip into its reserves and borrow $500 million to pay the bill from ERCOT. Never mind all the other MPs, some small – they will all likely go out of business (if no resettlement), leaving Texas ratepayers to pick up what is quaintly called ‘uplift’ (i.e., all the unpaid invoices).
    If you really want to get into the weeds, read this filing by Rayburn Electric Co-op ( (Texas has lots of co-ops because it was once not profitable to ‘electrify’ the state’s rural areas) – it explains clearly the problem with pricing.
    Any electric system contains, by definition, some level of volatility or uncertainty because – no matter how sophisticated the forecasting tools – you can never predict 100% the supply and demand, and yet, they must be balanced every second of the day. In ERCOT, over the last ten years, this already shaky (made more so by deregulation) beast was deliberately made even more volatile by introducing pricing rules that escalate prices, as reserves fall. Perhaps not too bad under normal conditions – when reserves may fall for one or a few intervals (15 min. each) – but a disaster in waiting, given the extremes we’ve seen (heat, cold, hurricanes, fires). And the dependence on the totally deregulated natural gas market, with lax oversight over facilities by the Texas Railroad Commission, did not help.
    ERCOT has an energy-only market, which means gens get paid only for the energy generated and consumed, not capacity. For years, they’ve advocated for a capacity market, but this is opposed by the industrial customers. This may be the gen opportunity – probably deal-making going on behind closed doors.
    Well, now we have a decision (today) by the PUC not to re-price energy prices during the time, when no load shed occurred – because… wait for it… ‘we are protecting consumers’ from presumably unintended consequences. That is $16 billion of ill-gotten gains, mostly to generators (but maybe to some other lucky MPs). Even the staff was shocked by the decision.

  15. drumlin woodchuckles

    Whatever else we do or don’t do about the grid problems in Texas, we must keep the Texas grid rigidly air-gapped from the National Grids. No point of contact must ever be permitted between the Texas grid and the rest of the grid, in order to keep the Texan Ruling Class from tearing the National Grids down to a Texan level.

    What happens in Texas must be forced to stay in Texas. Don’t Texantaminate the National Grids.

  16. Robert C

    The real issue that is being avoided in most discussions is global population growth. If it continues to grow at the current rate, no amount of electric cars will get us out of this crisis. Once the global population reaches 10+ billion where will all the food come from… most folks eat meat (beef, chicken, lamb, goat, pork), these will require an ever increasing amount of grazing land (cutting down forest/woodland) to provide the grazing acreage needed. Eliminating increasing amounts of forest/woodland will hamper the ability to remove carbon from the atmosphere. Perhaps there needs to be a global 1 child per couple mandate to get the immediate problems under some sort of control?

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      Some kinds of grassland bio-sequester little or no skycarbon. Some kinds of forest bio-sequester a lot of skycarbon.

      The Amazon rainforest holds and sequesters a lot of skycarbon. The poverty crapgrass grown on its place after it is burned down holds near-zero carbon.

      The prairie topsoils of Illinois and Iowas were ten feet deep in some places. They were black with carbon all the way down. That was all skycarbon pulled down by the combination of multi-species grasses/buffalo/ other animals/ Indian fire management. Someone should do a soil depth/carbon audit of forest land in the same or analagous areas. See if it has even as much carbon in it as prairie soil.

  17. Larry Gilman

    Because I’m among other things a copyeditor, and therefore literally live by nitpicking . . . In original piece: “But with the right incentives, this kind of investment might be more palpable for consumers than higher electricity bills . . ”

    Perhaps “palatable” was intended, not “palpable”?

  18. Ep3

    “like smart thermostats with utility control,”

    Yves I do not like this at all. The citizens need to make these decisions bcuz they choose to do the right thing. If you have the utility company turning down thermostats, you are going to have white males disconnecting their thermostats. & then turning them up to 90 then opening the windows to heat the outside just to feel the power of doing what they want without someone telling them what to do.
    Each house should be electrically independent. Even tho elon musk’s solar tiles are a fake fraud, that technology should be under development.

  19. Mikey Joe

    Time is of the essence.
    Only a few months until Texas has 105+ summer temperatures.
    And 9 months until next winter.

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