Groundhog Day For America’s Energy Grid

Yves here. It’s striking how the US can have emergencies bearing down on them, here in the form of energy grids held together with gum and baling wire, and no one does much of anything. And yet the US wants to roll out more electric cars without having the foundations in place.

By Felicity Bradstock, a freelance writer specialising in Energy and Finance. Originally published at OilPrice

  • Texas and California are once again facing potential energy crises as their aging energy grids struggle to cope with soaring demand.
  • Despite promises from both the federal and state governments, the very same problems appear to be occurring in the United States.
  • Without rapid and heavy investment in the U.S. energy infrastructure, energy shortages and even blackouts can be expected to continue.

After multiple energy crises across several states last year due to America’s aging infrastructure and failing grid system, Americans are once again being asked to curb their energy usage as they face another summer of sweltering temperatures and potential blackouts. Grand promises to improve infrastructure have amounted to little, with no obvious improvements across the most critical areas, as U.S. energy infrastructure remains inadequate as demand grows.

Last year, several Texans died after a strong winter storm took down the grid and water, with many relying on generators to provide vital heating for as long as a week. Oil production decreased by approximately 1.2 million bpd due to freezing pipelines and a lack of electricity to key infrastructure. Due to repeated delays in federal action, local players drew up their own strategies to tackle the crises. The Texas Railroad Commission approved new rules for critical designation of natural gas infrastructure during energy emergencies and the Public Utility Commission (PUC) of Texas published a report called Never Again, aimed at avoiding energy failures like that of the February 2021 storm. And yet little seems to have changed to date.

During the past two years, Californian wildfires and record high temperatures disrupted the state’s outdated grid system, leading to blackouts during soaring temperatures. Dating back to the 1960s and 1970s, California’s electricity network has failed to meet the rising demand in the face of more regular severe weather events. It seems that the state government is in the habit of waiting until the grid fails before it provides funding to fix it. Many of the wildfires that devastated California’s woodland were caused by electrical equipment and power line failures, demonstrating the dire situation.

Yet, there continues to be a huge gap between President Biden’s and the Department of Energy’s (DoE) funding promises and the action on the ground. As part of Biden’s $1 trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the “Building a Better Grid” Initiative aims to update the country’s grid systemwhile modernizing it to support renewable energy developments. The initiative is expected to make the grid more resilient to the impact of climate change, improve renewable energy delivery, and create more jobs. However, little progress has been made due to several challenges, such as state-level pushback and a lack of coordination across different local governments and regulators.

And now, Texans are being asked once again to curb their electricity usage during the scorching summer months, as the state’s grid system has yet to be updated to deal with the rise in demand and increasingly common extreme weather events being seen year-on-year. Last week, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which is responsible for around 90 percent of Texan electricity, asked residents and businesses in the state to increase their thermostat temperatures by one degree or more to ease consumption. It also requested that Texans avoid using major appliances between 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. last Monday.

Temperatures in Texas reached 109 degrees last week, with 50 million Americans facing heat warnings across the country in response to a heatwave. Energy suppliers in several states are worried about delivering electricity to residents and avoiding blackouts after previous failures in the face of extreme weather. As heatwaves and very cold winters become more commonplace, the grid in many states is not built to withstand the demands placed on it.

ERCOT projected energy shortages, partly due to issues with renewable energy projects due to the lack of energy storage systems in place to counter fluctuations in availability. The group stated, “The heat wave that has settled on Texas and much of the central United States is driving increased electric use.” It added, “While solar power is generally reaching near full generation capacity, wind generation is currently generating significantly less than what it historically generated in this time period.”

And there have already been questions about whether California will face similar issues going into the summer months. State officials predict that extreme heat and other climate change events may threaten California’s electrical grid. Electricity provision may not be able to keep up with the rise in demand. Not only is the aging grid unable to meet the needs of the population but several renewable energy projects may be hindered by droughts and wildfires.

A recent analysis of existing power supplies, new sources expected to come online, and the potential for extreme events suggested that there may be blackouts during the summer months in California due to the gap between the supply and demand of electricity, particularly during peak hours. Experts now suggest that officials will need to account for regular crisis events when calculating the state’s electricity supply, allowing for a greater buffer than previously, potentially 22.5 percent above projected peak demand.

As Texas and California face another summer of energy uncertainties and potential blackouts, it demonstrates the dire state of U.S. energy infrastructure. Without rapid and heavy investment, several states are expected to face similar problems as weather conditions worsen each year.

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  1. The Rev Kev

    There was a recent survey that showed how Americans were losing faith in nearly all their institutions and I think that this is one reason why. An earlier generation of American would see what the problem was with the electricity grid, call on talented engineers to explain the situation and how to fix it, marshal the people and the resources and especially the people to get this job done and it would be. And there are plenty of examples from the past of this sort of stuff getting done like the highway network, Hoover dam, the electrification of the countryside, etc. The resources are there to fix this grid. There would be certainly the people as well. But it seems that the will is not there unless some corporations get huge giveaways or Wall Street profits or some people especially reap wealth from this ever happening. But as none of those stars are aligning, nothing much is being done about it.

    1. Buzz Meeks

      It was called the New Deal. Wholesale demolition of which started with St. Ronnie the Drooler Reagan and pretty much “Mission Accomplished “ with Slick Willie Clinton. Weasel Bush just borrowed the slogan for his carrier landing.
      A lot of things wouldn’t be where they are now if there was still active regulatory agencies in this country. It would have happened like the space program or Hubble and Webb telescopes.

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        It would take at least a decade of thousands of intensive Teach Ins all over the country to spread some word and information about what the ” new deal” was and what people did for themselves/eachother through the “new deal”. And it would take years to grow a legitimate political party-movement towards restoring the “new deal” and giving it ” newer deal” add-ons where appropriate.

        It could be the tragedy of our situation that decades no longer exist to accomplish that thing which can only be accomplished over decades.

        People who think that Survivalism is the only option for some people amid the Last Breakdown should begin planning and acting for Separate Survival now and going forward.

        And those people who think New Deal Teach Ins might make a difference should go ahead and hold them.

        1. You're soaking in it!

          Maybe teach ins are the answer. If people only knew what was going on they would force change to happen. That’s what happened during the war against Vietnam. Is that what happened during the war against Vietnam?

          1. drumlin woodchuckles

            It was part of an information spreading effort. I don’t know how much it contributed to any public upsurge against the war. But I know it was attempted.

            The Populists ( real ones) did their own version of that during the 1880s-1890s in an even broader and deeper way, from what little I have read. They grew themselves into a many membered and heavily informed movement. They might have grown big enough to be a commanding Party on their own but they instead supported the Democrats and William Jennings Bryan. They didn’t win. What if they had waited till they reached commanding size and power on their own, without any DemParty help or alliance? I don’t know.

            But the multi-year membership education effort was part of their growth.

            1. You're soaking in it!

              I guess thinking about Debs,he only supported Bryan the first time, and then did help found a separate party. I guess he and his party were never able to get through back then either,. although they did pretty good considering. Looking at how Wilson treated him and the party, Lambert’s comment “Never change, democrats” has a lot longer history than any of us!

        2. Procopius

          The thing that allowed the New Deal was The Great Depression. Have no fear, when the Republicans take the trifecta we’ll have another one of those. By then the Democrats should have new leadership.

          1. drumlin woodchuckles

            The current leadership is very good at recruiting and advancing younger versions of itself
            and keeping any newer dealish rebels excluded at the far fringes of the party.

            I don’t think that Kamalabama or Buttagug or stuff like that there will ever permit any sort of Newer Deal response to anything.

      2. You're soaking in it!

        The resources are there to fix this grid.

        Let’s not be so passive Rev! Some specific people have needs, let’s say in this case electricity to keep them alive and comfortable. Also, some specific people have resources at their disposal, ones that include political muscle to set goals, access to engineers, money ro pay them etc . What is to be done, as the man once said?

    2. Copeland

      Anecdote from a recent 2 week road trip regarding the condition of the highways: Oregon, Washington and especially Montana had superb highways, no complaints whatsoever. Idaho however was a mess, I-90 was in dreadful condition. Wonder if it has anything to do with the political culture there?

  2. expr

    Part of the problem in the previous case was that Texas is not (significantly) connect to the rest of the country
    from wikipedia
    “The Texas Interconnection is maintained as a separate grid for political, rather than technical reasons,[1] but can also draw some power from other grids using DC ties. By not crossing state lines, the synchronous power grid is in most respects not subject to federal (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) regulation.[“

    1. Mike Smitka

      Yes, we saw the lack of interconnectivity after 3/11 in Japan, when western Japan operating at 50 hertz was unable to supply power to eastern Japan (metro Tokyo, Fukushima) operating at 60 hertz. There are semi-independent grids within each region, but the east-west divide was the one that mattered after the quake and (mostly) tsunami shut down power generation across a wide swath of the east.

  3. Solarjay

    A few thoughts about this article.
    1. The mention of lost oil production due to cold Weather is just meat to the lions. Texas doesn’t burn oil for electricity. And they didn’t have a lack of oil to make gasoline.

    2. Yes the infrastructure is not up to it.
    Wind in Texas is about 20% of energy production with a max capacity of 30 billion watts, but low wind speeds have dropped to 8% of the its capacity or like 2.4GW. While wind isn’t always at 100%, the loss of say 15-20GW is a huge hit and hard to work around.

    Germany is having or had not sure the same issue with very low wind and this was causing more coal usage on top of the other more coal use because of the lack of NG.

    3. Battery storage. The cost to install say 15GW x 4 days?. About 1.4 TWH.
    At a cost of about 300,000$ per MWH or about $450 billion or more.
    And then you have to fill those batteries too.
    4. It’s why really behind the scenes all renewables are 100% backed up by dispatchable energy. Dispatchable energy is something that can be turned on or off regardless of the weather or time of day. Like gas or coal. Nuclear is base load.

    5. As Yves said, adding more electrical loads such as EV, cooking, hot water, heating/cooling outs even more stress on the system. This stress comes in 2 broad forms. 1. Energy production, is there enough at ALL times? And 2. Can the actual wires carry enough at ALL times.

    6. I actually expect to see coal make a big return in the next years. Even now due to the price of NG being so high and probably staying that way or having large price swings causing headaches, coal is just about the same price.
    We have a ton of coal, when the republicans take over they might pass some bills encouraging coal use.
    And I can’t blame people for wanting the lights, heat, cooling to stay on.

    Finally costs. We are constantly told wind and solar are the cheapest forms of energy which is correct at the narrow level of production per kWh. But when you factor the backup power ( dispatchable) needed this adds a lot of $ and then if you want storage that adds a ton and currently just isn’t up to the task of long duration: days,weeks,winter etc. regardless of the cost.

    I’m as pro wind and solar as one can be, but I also understand the limitations. Which is long term ( days, weeks) of storage not 4 hrs which is what people mean when they usually talk about storage. ( the 4 hrs has to do with the most cost effective way to use NMC lithium batteries)

    And yes a lot of money to infrastructure upgrades and I think a lot of FF power plants are coming.

    1. Doc

      You make a lot of good points, but money is not the problem. It is a lack of will. Money can be found for the most expensive military ever and we keep cough up billions for Ukraine. It is not a lack of funds. If this has been a known problem for decades, why has there been no investment? People hate change. Now that burning oil has become part of the culture war, it will be harder to make the switch. What I suspect will happen is that the US will continue to deteriorate as a country with more decisions being left to the States. We will see some states improve and other continue the decline. The people who can’t move will be left to suffer. America is not a country. My only question is how bad it has to be before people take political action.

      1. Earthling

        See what Rev Kev said above. We literally have no honest problem-solving by our leadership at the national level. There is a bit of it at the state level, but not much. Municipalities still respond to the citizenry to some degree, but there is constant pressure from the courthouse gang and large businesses to ignore them and cut deals to benefit this or that special interest.

        Most people don’t even know it’s bad; they are receiving PR baloney from every source of media they turn to. Most still think bad things happen, but if we just elect the right personalities next time, things will be fine. Perhaps it will take completely failed power grids and food lines to get their attention. Or perhaps even then the ladies of the View will ‘splain it all away as Trump’s or Russia’s fault, and our gullible people will believe it.

      2. Richard

        “…money is not the problem. It is a lack of will….”

        1) At the most basic level the problem is physics.
        2) More specifically, it is the fact that fossil fuels, which arrived as diffuse sunlight, were concentrated over millions of years by the action and make-up of the universe. Think of fossil fuels as batteries (currently being discharged) and you won’t be far wrong.

    2. Pelham

      Great points, and I’ve seen evidence elsewhere to support them all.

      But I can’t share your or anyone else’s enthusiasm about wind and solar, for the limitations you state but also for political purposes. For better and worse, the developed world is accustomed to abundant, low-cost energy. Any campaign to impose limits or conservation is absolutely bound to generate a political backlash that will thwart or even reverse any real progress toward addressing climate change. As I see it, there’s no getting around this hard, immutable limit.

      Therefore any realistic attempt to address climate change has to include a promise and ultimate delivery of even more abundant energy at even lower costs. This should have been the goal 50 years ago and should still be the goal today. Nuclear power generated by enormous power plants is probably the only solution in the meaningful medium term paired with an infrastructure focus in the US on securing the power grid. Meanwhile, research should be accelerated in the areas of new forms of nuclear power using thorium and the spent but still quite potent nuclear fuel we’re now storing.

      I know this may sound in part like a condemnation of spoiled consumers who simply can’t stand to have any convenience (reliable lighting and HVAC) limited in any way. But I think it’s reasonable for most people who through little or no fault of their own find themselves inescapably enmeshed in a modern world surrounded by black boxes they can’t understand and plugged into work that’s either demeaning or physically crushing to cling to the one flicker of promise that the incomprehensible technology and impenetrable power structures that govern their lives will eventually deliver at least an incrementally better, easier life.

      That hasn’t been happening in this country. For a very long time by nearly every measure life has been getting harder for most of us, to the point that across vast, vast sections of the country many people are living in conditions that are literally (and I do mean “literally”) worse than Third World. (Read Beth Macy’s “Dopesick” to understand what I mean.) How much more should we push them with a punitive climate-change agenda?

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        If “more abundant energy” at “even lower cost” is not a physical possibility within our current understanding of biogeophysics at this time, then promising it is unrealistic.

        Perhaps the people who are enmeshed in the current carbon-skyflooding system of abundant energy should all be informed, in their millions, of who got them enmeshed in this and should be credibly promised ( if there is any credibility left anywhere anymore) that the people who did this will all be made to pay for it.

        If the majority know for a fact that part of a future energy austerity program will also include the mass pauperization-or-worse of every member of the social upper classes who engineered this reality, perhaps the lower class majority might go along with the program.

    3. Lex

      Thanks, excellent summary. Coal isn’t very dispatchable though. It generally takes close to 24 hours to ramp up a coal unit. My local operator used to sell to the grid at a loss overnight rather than try to shut the units down completely; they’d run at the lowest level with operation stability.

      I don’t know that coal can make a big return. I’ve spent the last 5 years demolishing coal plants as fast as the operators can manage to do it. And the people I work with on the demolition side have been backed up with coal plant demolition that whole time, all over the country. The generators don’t want them anymore because gas plants are so much cheaper to build and operate. It has nothing to do with environmental regs on the decision making side, it’s all operational economics.

      To your point about transmission, in my region all the transmission (except my badly run socialized, local producer’s short distance transmission) is under a for-profit monopoly. Ten years ago they said 180 miles of new transmission line would be $1B. Two gas plants were built instead, we get to keep the very old transmission lines with the entire region dependent on a nearby switchyard that’s at least 50 years old. My city is connected by a single line of the same vintage. We can’t run our municipal gas plant at night because it’s piled onto bedrock and it vibrates everything within a mile when it runs. It’s also dependent on a gas line the state is fighting Canada to have shut down. We used to have two coal plants with ship delivery of fuel. Final grading of both sites after demolition is happening now. We also used to have about 300 jobs running those plants ($29/hr was the lowest pay). There are about 50 for both new gas plants. And the city lost 25% of its property tax revenue this year from the bigger coal plant.

      1. chris

        Breaking coal plants is a popular past time in the north east. All the bigger corporations are selling those old assets so that others can take responsibility for dealing with the demolition and sale of the scrap.

        I agree that unless a lot changes quickly there won’t be enough coal plants to resurrect to make a difference. Which is a shame in some respects because the US has the best coal in the world. I realize that’s kind of like saying we have the best vintage of meth but it is a fact that our coal is more energy dense and burns better than most of the coal you can mine in the rest of the world. That’s why people always entertain the idea that we can export the coal.

        Be careful if you’re one of the people doing the cutting. A lot of those demo companies really don’t know what they’re doing. Workers get hurt a lot.

    4. Dave in Austin

      Solarhay’s numbers are correct. Wind energy in TX is close to zero because there is no wind. No present energy storage systems makes sense economically. The winter storm was an unprecedented; ice froze on unheated windmill blades and valves froze shut on pipelines. Both problems have been fixed and Texas electric rates are among the lowest in the country; that’s why industries and people are moving here.

      On California… for 30 years the NIMBYS there (some my friends) yelled “Don’t trim my tree!”. Then when the crisis hit and untrimmed trees fell on power lines it was “Why those stupid people at Southern California Edison did this and they should pay.” So they did. The stock price went down and the bond yields went up. SoCal politely said: “We have no more money for systems upgrades because we are in financial trouble and, by the way, we are now shutting down your rural electric system every time there is high wind so we can’t be blamed”.

      Note that after the Texas freeze, ERCOT got right to work, wrote an absolutely accurate report on what had caused the outages, proposed changes and told us what the bill would be… and is now dealing with the unprecedented 108 degree days with barely a hiccup. There are many things that annoy me about Texas. But when it comes to facing an electrical crisis, we beat CA hands down for honesty and competence.

      Also, in Austin many people have Teslas that recharge at 220 volts. That requires a $2,000 home wiring installation payed for by the Tesla owner. But what isn’t so widely reported is that the “fast charge” system requires Austin Electric (a city-owned utility) to replace the transformers at a cost of what I hear is $10,000-$20,000 each. That cost is passed-on to the rate base. Many of these rate-payers are poor. So to achieve a social goal- more electric cars- the local utility is secretly passing on the cost of the local Tesla upgrades to poorer customers. The reason they do it in secret is obvious- the public would be angry.

      Finally, the weather in Austin is not “Groundhog Day- the same thing being repeated over-and-over. It is definitely a “New Day”. In June, I believe, Austin had 16 days that broke the high temperature record. In July we have had only ONE day that didn’t go over 100 degrees- an astonishing change and unprecedented in my 30 years of living here. Many days this past week the outside temperature reached 108-109 in the shade. These are shocking numbers. The local newspaper simply no longer reports them, I suspect because the idea of “Austin is turning into Phoenix” might slow down the city’s growth.

      Climate change is here. Life will change and the public in one form or another will have to pay for it and adjust to the new reality. There are unpalatable trade offs to be made. To quote from Peanuts: “We have met the enemy and they are us.”

      1. Joe Well

        Speaking of the climate warming, last year during a heat wave in Boston I actually saw a transformer catch fire above someone’s backyard. The equipment was not designed (often decades ago) for this kind of heat.

        Anyway, I told him he’d better check on his frozen food, since it would likely take them a while to replace it. He thought I was some kind of savant for being able to connect a broken transformer to a power outage…people think food comes from the grocery store and electricity comes from the wall socket.

        1. drumlin woodchuckles

          If he thinks you are savant because of that, he may solicit your opinion on other things. This could be your opportunity to do some retail below-the-radar persuasion about things and stuff.

      2. Synoia

        Your comments on 220 v electric service are incorrect. I have had 220 v incoming service for all the homes I’ve lived in in the US. Adding a 220 v outlet is a matter of adding a breaker wiring in a 220v outlet.

        My cost was about $50.

        1. chris

          Eh…no. Not really. The cost of installing 220V-240V service depends on a lot of things.

          Things like how far away the place where you’re trying to install the outlet is from the service panel. And whether there are any panel upgrades required. You may need to add a 2 pole breaker. Plus, when doing this for the purpose of car charging, you’re typically inspecting the whole system for other purposes, and the transformer as well. Dirty power can fry complex electronics. So you want to make sure you’re grounded appropriately and you’re not dropping a phase intermittently. And the range of voltage you’re supplying isn’t varying too much. You’ll want surge protection. You’ll also want to install smoke detectors and fire alarms adjacent to the charging port.

          So the estimate of 2k$ for the outlet is reasonable in a lot of markets assuming you don’t have to pull the wires (usually multiple) too far. But the cost of doing it right could be higher. Dave’s point about the transformer replacement is kinda valid. He’s right that those costs are passed on to people least likely to afford it or use it. But a lot of those utility companies should have replaced the transformers years ago so they’re just catching up on something they should be doing anyway.

          1. Ron Rutter

            Wow. Your electrical system must be archaic. As long as you have a 200 amp service, easy peasy.

    5. You're soaking in it!

      US Coal has already made the big return, you just are selling it abroad as opposed to burning it at home. And political parties in the US are both pretty squarely on the same sides of the issue. There is a reason Manchin makes the big decisions (check out his day job sometime for a laugh), and good luck finding a republican congressman living within 100 miles of a coal burning power plant. Whatever happened to that guy Cheyney anyways?

      1. chris

        A big return might be overselling it. We’re still importing coal and we’re not exporting as much coal as we were in 80’s. The numbers for 2021 and 2022 are still preliminary. But it looks like we have increased exports. Just not as much as people keeping hoping we will.

    6. Doug Home

      I’d put a few dollars on nuclear. I’m not a fan of nuclear (waste, cost & time) but I think it’s inevitable that nuclear will be needed. To quote IEA boss, Birol: “Achieving net zero globally will be harder without nuclear.” For once, the IEA might be ahead of the curve.

      Thanks to 30 years of (often, deliberate) delay in starting an energy transition; there is no way that renewables can do the job (I’m a long time fan of solar) of bringing down emissions fast enough to even slow the acceleration in global temperature and still keep the lights on.

      As the climate news gets progressively worse and the danger more obvious; there will be an even bigger push back on coal investments from the financiers and the public. Nuclear will have its day. The EU has already shown the way by declaring nuclear as a renewable, ffs!! Until (if) renewables reach the required scale – 2080? (or hydrogen delivers on its hype); I think nuclear will be used to firm-up the grid. In old-fashioned terminology – supply baseload.

      These won’t be the humungous GW monsters that take 25 years to build and bankrupt everybody involved. It will be down to 300MW small modular reactors (SMRs) costing a couple of hundred million each and taking 5 years to build. About the size of a big warehouse. Possibly, portable, which will be good when sea levels rise and/or the river suppling the cooling water dries up – as has just happened in southern France – for the third time.

      Poland – the EU’s biggest fossil fuel polluter is signing up to use a fleet of SMRs to replace their best polluters in-class coal burners. They plan to keep the turbines and bolt 3 or whatever SMRs on to them. Not a bad idea as electricity production can keep going during the switch. France, home of the EDF monsters, is planning the same. China, who is buildin more nuclear than the rest of the world combined – same. CCS developer, Canada’s SaskPower, is also going the nuclear way. Which tells you a lot about carbon capture. I fully expect Germany to follow, in spite of its ban. They really have no option if the want to try and keep their fast disappearing emissions target.

      Considering nuclear’s still unresolved waste issue, which a fleet of SMRs will add considerably to; its boils down to this fairly cold-blooded calculation: Is the any point in worrying about what to do about a ten thousand tonne pile of glowing plutonium with a half-life 21,400 years when the planet could reach an out of control and uninhabitable +7C environment in a 100? (Old political solution – kick the can down the road.)

      Life is about options.
      Unfortunately, nuclear has become an unavoidable option.

      1. chris

        I think SMRs are a fool’s gamble right now. You pay 3/4 of what a typical nuclear generating station costs for 1/2 the power. You still deal with all the crazy NRC regs. You still deal with interminable public reviews and delays. And you’ll deal with all that in an environment where the experts from the last nuclear construction surge are all dead. We don’t have anywhere near the same level of experienced engineers, welders, etc. That we did 30, 40, 50 years ago.

        I think we’ll see experimental battery storage before we see any kind of real nuclear Renaissance.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      What happens in Texas must be forced to stay in Texas. Texas must never ever be allowed to touch and contaminate any of the non-Texas national grids. Stupid sentimental liberals somehow think that allowing the Texas grid to touch the National Grids would somehow upgrade the Texas grid to a National Level. But the Texans would immediately conspire to tear the National Grids all the way down to Texas’s level.

      They must not be allowed to do that.

      Don’t Texantaminate America’s grids.

      Let them eat Freedom.

      1. Dave in Austin

        For better or worse Texas chose to isolate the grid and thus not be subject to federal authority. The locals were afraid those nasty people in OK and AK would steal all our natural gas, turn it into electricity and sell it back to honest, hard working Texans.

  4. chuck roast

    They are called “public utilities” for a reason. Because they are natural monopolies that services all members of the public. Consequently the electrical grid and its associated generating capacity should be owned and operated by the citizenry for the benefit of the general public. But this is America where everybody has gotta’ grift. Corporate private ownership of these vital public services promotes rent seeking, underinvestment and market fragmentation. Public utilities commissions that “regulate” the activities of these natural monopolies are typically controlled and staffed by the same corporations that have privatized the utilities. Disinvestment promotes dysfunction and invites government bailouts. Bailouts attempt to alleviate the public pain of private ownership and deliver back-door windfall profits to all of the well connected. In the old neighborhood, we used to call this ‘guys playing pocket-pool.’ We are in need of a serious discussion on the wide-spread prevalence of pocket-pool. See the power of Cleveland Municipal Light.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      Such a discussion could be part of a broader ” New Deal Teach-In Project” over the next few years.

  5. ambrit

    A mini-scale component observation here.
    The local electric power company has been upgrading the electric power lines on our inner ring suburb street. The “old” infrastructure dates back to the 1960s with an ‘upgrade in the 1970s. So, new and taller poles, new and heavier wires, some newer transformers where needed, (I was told the transformer that feeds our house along with four others was already past it’s calculated effective life span.) Also an interconnection to another ‘strand’ of the wire grid. [We live near the end of a ‘strand’ of the wire grid. The ‘strand’ ended at the end of our block. Across the cross street, another ‘strand’ ended. Now they are joined, and upgraded.]
    The point of this comment is just how much work even a simple project like this one takes to complete.
    Consider the rolling stock involved in this “simple” project, and that this rolling stock was utilized, in various combinations, for three to four weeks. Three and sometines four mid-sized bucket trucks, along with a pole carrier, (consisting of a heavy duty pulling rig and a pole carrier trailer,) and a big wire spool truck, (a heavy duty pulling truck and a dedicated trailer rig,) a bucket truck tricked out with a large auger to drill the hole for the pole, a big bucket truck designed with a pole “grabber” to pick up the poles and drop them into the holes, a flatbed truck to deliver and prepare smaller components, such as the cross trees, (which were all metal,) and a dually extra-cab pickup truck for the foreman and to run odd jobs while the crews worked. {I saw it run off several times over the month to pick up parts and sometimes, get lunch for the crews; deadlines I am guessing.}
    All of the above takes money, time, parts, and trained workers to accomplish.
    Consider the work crews. No “Hispanics” [as in braceros or mojados,] here. The crews were a fair mix of Americanos. Whites and blacks with a single oriental looking fellow over the month’s time. All worked like well trained crew. Hard hats, gloves, big time electrical safety equipment, and probably stuff I did not see were used religiously. The crews were well clothed, with heavy duty work boots on all feet. I have seen ‘pick up’ workers on commercial jobs traipsing around in tennis sneakers before. Believe me, steel toe boots are used on commercial jobs for good reasons, said reasons often involving very heavy weights falling generally short distances with crushing force. All were trained to ‘sing out’ when they saw problems. ( I say that a foreman generally only listens to the calls of trained crew. All else is noise.)
    The training of crews takes time, often a year or more. No “learning to code” here. It takes hands on experience. Mistakes have to be made and then analyzed for the worker’s education. This has to happen for every single worker. That takes time, and a cadre of trained workers to supply the educational ‘institutional memory’ to accomplish.
    From reading this site and others over the last few years I have come to the conclusion that “Financialization” is the enemy of a functional infrastructure.
    Thus, I echo Cato the Elder: “Wall Street delenda est!”
    Our future as a functioning nation depends on it.

    1. The Rev Kev

      Don’t ask me why but I found your account of that project very satisfying to read. Something about seeing competence in action I guess.

  6. steven

    Fixes: you don’t have to be an electrical engineer, rocket scientist or Elon Musk to know what has to be done. All you have to do is give up the notion someone should be able to make a ton of money doing it, like The Rev Kev says. Also maybe the idea you are entitled to all the electricity you want and time you want it.

    And you don’t have to burn coal, natural gas, or uranium to get dispatchable power. Gravity is everywhere, 24/7. Water isn’t but we are not talking just pumped storage. Somebody besides a politician beholden to Wall Street just needs to pick a few of the top contenders and do what it takes to make them work, whether it is rolling rocks down hills or pumping gases underground.

    But most important is changing the mission of the grid to distributed generation and storage. If you are fortunate enough to be able to afford putting solar on your roof and battery backup in your driveway – say with a Ford Lightning, you will learn quickly enough what you need to do to keep the lights on if the dire predictions about the grid materialize.

    For everyone, having the source of electricity generation and storage as close to the end user is an obvious necessity if we are really concerned about grid reliability and efficiency. For anyone but the accountants and executives of the nation’s electrical utilities, this isn’t rocket science. Right now, however, it appears the powers that be are buying or being bought by the notion that electrical utilities should own both renewable energy sources and the storage to make the power they generate available when the sun isn’t shining or the wind blowing.

    P.S. Here in Tucson the electric utility, TEP, wants to construct a high voltage power line through what is currently considered a scenic corridor. Having convinced the state’s utility commission to pass tariffs that make it profitable for no one but themselves to own renewable energy sources, they appear to be on the path to do the same thing with regard to distributed storage.. All this so they and their good buddy Elon Musk can continue to buy and sell PowerWalls and grid storage batteries.

    1. Amfortas the hippie

      hydraulic despotism.
      that’s the model(ht: frank herbert)
      the power companies have been against solar and wind forever….i remember an old man in waller texas or thereabouts, a retired aircraft engineer.
      he took an airplane prop and made a wind genny out of it…got off the grid(this is early 80’s, i think)
      power company said…as well as local ordincances…said he had to be hooked up to the grid.
      he said fine, but you all buy my excess power.
      ie: grid tie before there was a name for it
      they took him to court, and they and the local gov made him out to be a crazy and dangerous freak.
      it was in the little local newspapers of the time, but i’ve never found a mention online(didnt look til after google’s crapification)
      power companies want Power…period.
      and no competition allowed.
      entitled cowards.

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        How much would he have had to pay to be “hooked up” to the grid while using zero grid power?
        That thought was so unthinkable back then that no one would have even had the words to think it in.

        But that thought might be thinkable now.

        If you HAVE to be hooked up to the grid, does that mean you HAVE to use any of the grid’s power?
        Or can you keep your own personal power system separate from the grid, use only your own power, and discharge any excess by shining big lights into the sky? Or at least running your excess power back into the grid without getting paid for it?

        Because the less power people use from the grid, the less coal, gas and oil the grid masters will buy to make power with. And the sellers of coal, gas and oil are also our enemies. And the less grid power we use, the less money the grid spends with the merchants of coal, gas and oil.

        So . . . . does the self-sufficient home-electricity maker hate the merchants of coal , gas and oil enough to eat the cost of being attached to the grid while using zero grid power . . . . if that is the legal price of having your own home-power at home?

        Hatred makes the world go round. Is the home producer of home power prepared to help make the world go round?

        1. Solarjay

          Yes they can force you to have grid power but no they cannot force you to use it. If your personal energy system is physically not connected to the grid then they shouldn’t be able to stop you.
          But there are big grey areas.
          For example, in NM, you cannot install a solar system that “could” sell back without utility approval.
          There are many inverters that have a zero export feature meaning all your solar is used in the house, and none gets exported to the grid. And that is not allowed here.
          Mind you that with zero export kWh meters any energy you export it increases your bill because the meter only counts up regardless of which way the electricity is going.

          1. drumlin woodchuckles

            ” That is not allowed here.”

            What is it that is not allowed there? Is it that you are not allowed to have inverters that have a “no export” feature? Is it that you are not allowed to have inverters at all? So as to force you to use strictly and only DC appliances within your own house if you make your own power?

            What exactly and specifically is it that is ” not allowed here”?

            Also, when you say that ” with zero export kWh meters any energy you export it increases your bill” . . . do you mean that since you are exporting your surplus energy back to the grid for free, of course it won’t decrease your bill and therefor any grid power you use will of course increase your bill? Or do you mean that they will literally charge you money to graciously accept the power you are exporting back into the grid?

            1. drumlin woodchuckles

              It looks like so far my question has been deemed not-worthy of a response. And it may indeed not be.

              But here’s why I think it may be. Those rules are written by shyster-lawyers and if I were in position to do anything like that on a real house, if I had one, I would like to know what dirty little shysterlaw tricks are hidden in the language of what is and is not allowed.

              1. chris

                Your question has merit but it all depends on the local inspectors and the infamous “Authority Having Jurisdiction” (AHJ). It’s not a dirty trick. It’s that some places literally define a residence you’re allowed to live in as having a connection to the local power grid.

                In some US jurisdictions you can’t get a permit to occupy a residence unless it is connected to the grid. If you lose your connection to the grid, or to water supply, your house can be deemed unfit for occupancy. Some states are updating their building codes to allow for off grid structures and “tiny houses”. Some are not. It’s a slow proces.

                If you’re in the US and you’re interested, you can check out the model codes that most jurisdictions adopt or modify for residential construction for free. Here’s the link. You usually have to jump through a few more hoops to see everything you need in the NEC/NFPA 70, but it’s usually available in every jurisdiction for free too. I think you need an account with NFPA to view the version I use but I don’t remember.

                Remember that most of those codes are written on tombstones. People died because of the details that are now specified didn’t exist at the time of some accident. A big reason why grid connections are mandated is so that power supply to an area is controlled safely. It helps electricians and others know what to expect when they’re working in the home. It sets a basic level of fire safety in the home. I understand it’s frustrating to hear that you can’t do something that you want with your property. And I’m sure that there are some utilities that have figured out what it costs them if you get off the grid. But my understanding working in construction industries for a long time is that this all for safety and standardization more than profits.

                1. drumlin woodchuckles

                  As long as you have your connection to the grid, are you also permitted to have a whole separate DC system inside your house which is totally air-gapped from any contact with the grid whatsoever? And if you are allowed to have it, are you allowed to use it?

                  If you are, you can make your own power and store it in your own big heavy deep-cycle batteries and run your own DC survival appliances inside your house so long as you keep paying the hook-up charge for your theoretical connection to the grid. Right?

                  Or if you had an inverter for your home-made DC power, you could feed that power into your own AC appliances, and if you run out of home-made power you could switch over to grid power, right? That would be legal, right?

                  What if you made a huge surplus of homemade power beyond what you could ever use. Could you feed it back into the grid without any hope of ever getting paid for it? Or would the grid masters Charge YOU money for even DEIGNING to acCEPT your free un-charged-for surplus home-power all nicely inverted and fed back into the grid-masters grid? That also is the kind of thing I am wondering about in theory.

                  How far does the persecution of “make your own power” go?

              2. chris

                Ack. I had a longer comment with links get eaten I think.

                Short answer, no, it’s not a trick. In some jurisdictions the definition of a residence is a place that has a grid connection. Things are slowly changing so that codes and therefore local jurisdictions allow for off grid and tiny house buildings.

            2. Solarjay

              Had an internet outage.

              Not an NM only utility thing.

              To your main point. Unless you get permit and your utility does net metering, yes if you were to install a bootleg solar and feed power to the grid then for every kWh, that would add to your bill the normal cost per kWh.

              1 kWh is 15 cents, then your bill would go up 15 cents.

          2. Dave in Austin

            My guess is that “For example, in NM, you cannot install a solar system that “could” sell back without utility approval.” means if you have utility power on the same circuits that the solar is on it has to meet the utility standards. This makes good technical sense.

            I know people in NM who power everything from water pumps to electric fences and out-building with solar- but there is no interconnect with the utility. I keep waiting for the “garage shade roof with solar and a battery”- unconnected to the electical system- to debut in sunny parts of west Texas and NM. The keyis “Not connected to the grid”.

    2. Solarjay

      A few things Steven. Pumped storage is a great option but with water is very site specific, you need a lot of water and a really good amount of head( vertical elevation) to make it practical. Double the height for the same flow and you get double the power. So height is critical.

      The idea of micro grids which it appears you are advocating, just doesn’t work. Texas is a massive grid, and it’s not large enough to access different weather ( solar/wind). The islands of Hawaii are installing power lines between them because they are too small. One island might be in clouds and have no solar while another has extra.
      As someone who’s worked in the micro grid world for 25 years it’s a concept that doesn’t work. Macro when dealing with non dispatchable energy is the only choice.
      If however you have your own dispatchable power then sure being your own island can work, up until that power plant breaks or needs service and you don’t have any or enough backup to power the loads.

      What I was trying to convey earlier is not that wind and solar don’t have their place, they do. But that the answer is more dispatchable energy.
      And yes power bills will go up because they have been held artificially low because there hasn’t been enough base load and peak load plants built. That people thought you can replace a coal plant with solar alone is bonkers.

      Natural gas is the better fuel for demand power because they are faster starting, but I think that NG is mostly going to export because it’ll bring more $ in the form of LNG.
      And yes they have been tearing down coal plants, but I suspect they will be building them up again.
      With this Supreme Court, the self distruction of the Dems, the increased pricing of renewables because of new regulations and laws, the need for more energy, difficulty in getting transmission lines for renewables + actual plants and no way will people except no power, more FF plants are going to built.

      California is now contemplating not shutting Diablo canyon nuclear plant because they are just now realizing that they don’t have energy/power to replace it and what they would replace it is a lot of NG.

      Head meet wall.

      1. Steven

        This goes way beyond just water & pumped storage. I’m headed out the door for a social engagement now so maybe someone else can fill you in on all the other possibilities. I’ll try to find some if there are no suggestions.

        And I am not talking about microgrids in an either-or context. There is still a place for utilities – but in grid management not in generating or even, at least exclusively, storing electricity.

  7. Cristobal

    If we can´t get the various parties that control the grid to agree, and put it under eithr the national government or a consortiium of local governments (get the private owners out of it on both the transmission and generating sides) I think we are spinning our wheels. Since it is extremely unlikely to happen, it may be time for the grid to die. It could be replaced by local or regional transmission networks. Municipal systems were once common, and could be reconstituted using mostly renewables to serve households and users with modest demand. It would certainly cause a commotion among the big userrs, who would have to provide their own, coordinate with other big usrs, and probably have to negotiate with governments that control hydroelectric, nuclear of FF sources. Transmission loss on the grid is not huge, but it is significant and that would be saved. The investors who have been milking the grid for years would have to find another reliable revenue stream. .

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      And if they could be deprived of any other reliable revenue stream to switch over to , their money itself would die on the vine.

      And so would their power over the rest of us.

  8. Jeremy Grimm

    If we still had a government concerned for and responsive to the Populace, the last few decades of mismanagement could make no clearer argument that the provision of electric power, including maintaining and modifying the electric Grid, should be a national public utility.

  9. podcastkid

    Alright smart people.

    This may seem trite, but, if 50% of bloggers switched to interacting only with sites having minimal visual graphics (like this one)…in terms of energy world over, how many fewer coal cars per year would need to travel down the tracks?

    Hate to see the net go, but with p-vortex coming down to TX and all the fires near power lines, seems like at least intermittent disruptions may end up likely. But, for when the power’s on, sure would be cool if there were an FM station in my town that would send TEXT-ONLY versions of all new NC, Nader, and Consortium items straight to my desktop (I never do net on the phone, or movies picked up through air via “home internet”). How many Political Misfits and Critical Hour (audio only) podcasts could such a station splice in with all that?


    1. podcastkid

      I’ll guess…only two audio podcasts at a time? Only two all the time (and they’d be new ones).

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