Our Coming Insecure Energy Future: The Network Conundrum

This post makes a simple point which I am not sure has been made this directly elsewhere, at least in the popular press or major policy debates. Many businesses and consumers, at least in advanced economies, are set to face more inconsistent energy supply. It may not wind up being “all that inconsistent” in many cases, but that depends on the caliber of management and design, when as we have pointed out seem to be declining in a very big way across the public and private sector in the West.

The reason has nothing to do with energy independence or the virtue of various green energy sources. It has to do with network design.

The most stable networks are either centralized or extremely distributed. An electric utility providing power to a certain geographic area is centralized. Gas stations are extremely distributed. Now one can have bad implementation of a centralized network (think PG&E and its aging and decrepit line system….which even so appears to have pretty good uptime despite also managing to set large swathes of California on fire.

We have discussed network architecture in the context of trading markets, but I don’t seen this concept applied (much, at all) to future network energy design, or to the extent it has been, the concern has gotten very little traction. In fact, I don’t see much thinking about the network at all. The implicit assumption, sort of like the great unwashed public being asked to make its own Covid risk assessment, is that businesses and consumers will judge their need for redundancy, storage, or other backups and plan accordingly.

Here is an overview from a trading market perspective. Craig Heimark was a derivatives trader and later Chief Technology Officer of O’Connor & Associates, in the day when O’Connor ran the biggest computer network in the world except for DARPA’s. From a 2014 post we wrote with Heimark on high frequency trading and the flash crash:

Perversely, much of the regulation of the last twenty years has been nominally in the interest of “market efficiency” but has come at the expense of market integrity. Far too many of the arguments and studies saying the promotion of competition among exchanges (and dark pools) has led to greater efficiency look at the efficiency as measured by the bid ask spread (plus fees) only of trading in the top stocks (because if they are trade weighted so that is where all the volume is). But this greater efficiency comes at the expense of no reciprocal liquidity obligation (witness the flash crash) as well as reduced liquidity in less frequently traded stocks.

The societal benefit of trading is to reduce cost to raise capital for actual companies. Does anyone really think that narrowing the spread on Google by a penny or two makes any difference to its weighted average cost of capital? In contrast, incidents like the flash crash and the feeling the market is rigged keep many small investors away from the market. The penalty for reduced liquidity in small stocks may actually be material to small company capital formation.

And these small investors are right to be concerned. The old exchange system was a hub and spoke model, which was a stable system architecture. The internet was an outgrowth of a DARPA project to make a communication system so decentralized that it could not be taken out by a nuclear strike. Hub and spoke models are stable, but subject to an outage, say by a nuclear bomb or electrical failure. What chaos theorists have found is that highly decentralized networks are stable, as are single node networks (like exchanges), but that slightly decentralized networks are fragile. And that is what we have now thanks to the SEC’s misguided efforts to “modernize” the stock market via Regulation NMS.

So regulators have left investors with the worse possible market structure. We no longer have liquidity obligations to make orderly markets as we had with the old model.

The energy transition analogue to “market efficiency” is “greener”. There is a lot of debate on whether some hyped sources like blue and green hydrogen are even really green, or whether others that do lower carbon consumption, even when pretty fully loaded, still have high, and potentially unacceptably high, other environmental costs. Like “market efficiency” where how much we have is a choice, we also have choices as to “how green” and how pervasively to try to force the implementation of cleaner energy resources (recall there are limits and the potential for blowback, witness Poles in fall-winter 2022 making greater use of dirty coal, wood and allegedly even worse nasties in home furnaces).

However, in the current world of energy supply, crudely speaking, you have regulated power providers as the overwhelming source of homes and business establishments. The implication of more but not super distributed energy sources is more instability, which here means interruptions and outages. Recall the dead Tesla charging stations in the recent Chicago super cold snap as an example. And the failure to require a common interface so any EV can use any charging station also confirms the lack of official interest in network/availability issues. Inadequate or not well distributed charging stations were likely to be a problem but allowing supplier balkanization was guaranteed to make it worse (yes, Tesla has relented somewhat by allowing charging by CCS-enabled vehicles to charge at its stations, but this situation should never have been allowed to happen in the first place).

Another illustration: what happens to electric utilities, which in their most functional incarnation both generate and distribute power, you have erosion of their role due to more solar panels and other home/local/community generation? They will lose political support and will have less reason to invest at the level needed to assure reliable power in all but near-catastrophic conditions. And their incentives would be to skimp on line maintenance too. As far as I can tell, ad hoc responses as to how various power providers handle local solar users.

If anyone has seen an academic, engineering, or analytically rigorous think-tank treatment of the future energy supply problem from a network perspective, please provide a link in comments. Thanks!

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  1. marcel

    Science ran an interesting article on Distributed Energy Systems (2021), what they are, the issues etc…
    And this one on Energy Management Systems gives an outlook on how to manage it all.
    I haven’t seen an analysis at to how to build it, or at what cost (eg interconnection in US is barely existing).
    All of it is also a bit technosolutionist, as if global warming, lack of water resources don’t count.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Thanks and very much appreciated. The network one winds up conflating the two things old fashioned electric utilities do, which is produce and distribute. Will be interesting to see analytically how they deal with it.

      1. p fitzsimon

        The network is the grid and the utilities do recognize the problem. There’s a huge push to expand transmission facilities to handle the distributed energy resources. Unfortunately, substituting wind and solar for natural gas and coal is not the same as shutting down the fossil fuel supplied generators and plugging in the green supply.

        1. Yves Smith Post author

          No, the network is ALSO the power sources. You are missing the point. Utilities traditionally had their own power plants. They are now going to a few nodes but way short of widely distributed, which is the most unstable network design. This is guaranteed to produce less reliable supply, completely separate and apart from the variability of wind and solar output.

          1. ChrisPacific

            Some countries like New Zealand break out the transmission function separately, typically as a utility style provider. They’re responsible for maintaining security of supply by managing the physical infrastructure and assets for the grid, and by running a market to match generators with distributors. They also use the market themselves to maintain stability and reliability – for example by paying generators to bring more power online for frequency keeping and load matching, or sometimes by paying them to shut it down.

            Transmission benefits from being as centrally managed and cooperative as possible, and works best on a utility model. While generators do typically play in the distribution space as well, this allows them to (for example) buy power on the spot market if they see a spike in demand, or sell their excess in the opposite scenario.

            Not everybody does it this way, sometimes for ideological reasons. Texas runs its own grid separate from the rest of the US, with predictable results in times of crisis, like the ice storms a while back.

          2. p fitzsimon

            When I say the grid I include the generators (supply), transmission, and distribution. I live in New England in which the entire 6 state grid is operated by a single entity called ISO-NE (independent system operator-New England). The generators are free market entities and there are several hundred investor owned generators who bid multiple times a day to supply power. The utilities are regulated companies from whom subscribers like myself purchase KiloWatt Hours through the low voltage part of the grid that serves consumers. Transmission is also provided by separate private investor owned companies who are responsible for the high voltage part of the grid (network) which conducts power from the generators to the utilities. I receive one monthly invoice which bills for all three entities .
            Anyway, in my state we are under a state law which states the grid (network) will be 95% renewables generation by 2050. The brunt of this falls on ISO-NE who will be responsible for maintaining reliable delivery at market prices to consumers through it all. This morning the grid is using 60% natural gas, 22% nuclear and 5% renewables half of which is burning trash and wood. I think the whole plan borders on insanity.

      2. GF

        In order for the systems to function properly they need to have reliable connectivity. This large SunZia Wind and Transmission electrical distribution power line infrastructure project has been in the works for many years in the SW US:

        As can be seen from the article obstacles to deemed necessary network connectivity are ongoing.

    2. IMOR

      The EMS article you linked was indeed informative. The passage on smart meters was cautionary, even with no acknowledgement that so far they’ve been deployed mainly for top-down imposition of unpopular social policies and to save utility and distributor shareholders necessary reinvestment infrastrucure costs.

  2. crandall

    Thank you for this insightful and stimulating post. I have not seen serious attempts to approach questions of increased uptake of renewables from a network quality perspective, only endless volumes of praise for the brave new world of “distributed generation.”

    The underlying problem (and what in my mind ironically prevents this from being as bad as it seems, not because it’s not an issue, but because things are already so much worse than people are aware) is that electricity networks are already functionally decentralized, in that traditional regulated utilities’ ability to plan, construct, and operate their systems with a reasonable balance between system stability and cost of service have been effectively undermined in most of the world in the push for deregulation in the 1990’s and 2000s. Utilities outside of the US Southeast and Northwest do not have the capacity to meet their customers’ electricity needs, and so are required to procure it from hundreds of independent suppliers in limited-transparency exchanges or via OTC agreements. The visions of hundreds of thousands of mini renewable power plants, whether solar, battery, or virtual, each supplying some of their own power as well as selling some to a traditional utility, amount to an extension of the same setup, this time with aggregators taking a cut by standing between distributed generation owners and utilities responsible for supply and grid stability. While I think the greater the decentralization, the worse, no matter how fast distributed versus utility scale generation comes on to the grid, things will continue to degrade until changes are made in this model.

    1. MicaT

      There are lots of people talking at the top of their lungs about what renewables actually do and don’t, how it affects the grid. But it’s not in the MSM for sure and not the government.
      Here is just one person who has a pretty broad number of guests on his pod cast that provide information about this topic and many other energy related topics, good place to start.


      1. crandall

        I mean just because (distributed) renewables have serious consequences from a network operation perspective doesn’t mean its worthwhile taking seriously those who think we can just continue to rely on combustion of fossil fuels to meet our energy needs without serious risk of total ecosystem collapse. You’re right that plenty of people are being critical of renewables, but they all seem to be under the delusion, like this gentleman appears to be, that the status quo is just fine.

        1. Yves Smith Post author

          You are again missing the point. Not considering the network issue is going to lead to more power interruptions than necessary and will confirm the skeptics’ belief that we can’t or can’t afford to transition because some (many?) won’t get reliable enough power. This is an own goal that could be prevented.

          1. crandall

            I fully agree; the grid is already less reliable than it should be, and poised to get worse as more distributed energy resources are added because of the network issue you bring up, which is great news for the enthusiastic renewable energy skeptics, and awful for those of us who would like to see decarbonization at a pace compatible with a functional society 25 years hence.

            I think the issue is uncritical adoption by some of the stance that green=decentralized, and the network issues you helpfully raise are only insurmountable within that framework. I am just contending that these network issues are political/regulatory rather than technological in nature and could be overcome, with for example reregulation of utilities and a clear mandate for stable grid operation and decarbonization, with private ownership of small-scale distributed generation permitted only on terms that enhance network security rather than undermine it.

            1. Jeremy Grimm

              I did not study or train as a Power Systems Engineer, but I did subscribe to the Proceedings of the IEEE for a short while in the late 1990s. My impression from reading the titles and introductory paragraphs of some of the publications is that the design of electric power networks and systems is a mature field that remains an area of active study:
              “The IEEE Power & Energy Society (IEEE PES), formerly the IEEE Power Engineering Society, is the oldest society of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) focused on the scientific and engineering knowledge about electric power and energy.” [WIKI]
              IEEE Power & Energy Society (PES)
              IEEE Open Access Journal of Power and Energy Vol 10 (2023)
              IEEE PES Resource Center
              “The Unruly Power Grid” [an article in IEEE Spectrum a couple decades ago]
              Advanced mathematical modeling suggests that big blackouts are inevitable
              With you, I believe the “…network issues are political/regulatory rather than technological in nature…” Within that frame, I believe the u.s. Grid is aged, poorly maintained, ill-supported with spare parts for many of the large transformers in its backbone, and haphazard in its design, ownership, regulation, governance, and management such that the addition of multiple sources of randomly intermittant power promise to further complicate an already complex network.

              I strongly doubt that solar panels and wind, unsupported by fossil fuels, will supply anywhere near the amount of electricity touted by the Green Energy ‘entrepreneurs’ who will profit from efforts funded by the u.s. government in Bidden’s ‘IRA’. How well is that bill working to lower prescription drug prices? Other than exhalations of hot air, I do not notice actions devoted to building a better Grid, so much as devoted to feathering Green beds. As Climate Chaos and resource depletion accelerate I suggest it is time to begin thinking of how Humankind can best use the electricity that will be available in the future, a future that will soon slam us in the face.

              If ever there is a genuine effort to reconfigure the electric Grid to make it fit for purpose and as reliable as possible for serving its applications, then we need to identify those applications within the context of the amount and nature of the electric power that will be available. This should also include considerations of where the electric power will be used. Many homes in the u.s. use electricity to run lights, air conditioners, heaters and forced air, stoves and ovens, refrigerators, washing machines, and clothes dryers. Where electricity is not used, the alternative used is fossil fuel or wood. Some discussion here considers adding electric cars into the mix. I do not believe it is overly pessimistic to regard most of these consumer applications for electric power as nice to have but of far less importance than the application of electric power in industry — assuming we might rebuild some u.s. native industry. I believe there are many materials processing techniques that require high temperatures difficult or impossible to attain from burning fossil fuels. I am also aware of one technology for heating glass that requires electric power to run a high-frequency microwave generator.
              — ref. https://www.gyrotrontech.com/
              I suspect many other techniques for more efficiently heating materials and controlling the heating process will be developed that will require electric power. Given my assumptions about an entirely different rational use of electric power I believe a very different electric Grid will be needed. I believe LED lights in the home running on direct current, as might be supplied by home local solar power and battery installations would be a good use of electricity … but most of the other home conveniences will need to be rethought. The future Grid should be designed to serve industry, and to minimize the distances that electricity is transported.

  3. fjallstrom

    I think thinking in (and searching for) terms of load balancing is better than thinking in terms of supply, because you need to load balance in real time, in both directions. You can’t stray to much up or down when it comes to electricity at any given time.

    In EU we have essentially two different levels, the national and the EU.

    The national level is as far as I have seen dominated by levelheaded engineers at state departments or national utilities. They handle the national grid and for better or worse are well positioned to push for rule changes that suits them. Say increase or decrease the price owners of solar panels get when they sell to the grid depending on how well it suits their interests. There are some interesting stuff happening in terms of micro load balancing services, in effect if you install large batteries or other technologies you can sell capacity to the national grid. It would be central control that uses your batteries, when central control needs it. And central control is national.

    On the EU level you have the push for more markets. In particular spot prices on a EU scale. This was largely what ran up electricty prices in all EU countries (and Efta, like Norway) in 2022. The crisis in 2022 was both less gas from Russia but also less nuclear power from France as about a quarter of the french nuclear power was taken off line due to safety concerns (if I understnad correctly corrosion found during an inspection meant similar reactors taken off line for inspection and more problems found, which is a problem you can’t ignore with nuclear power). 20 years ago that would have meant nose bleed levels of prices in Germany and France, but not for example in Scandinavia. Now the spot price is shared equally meaning really high prices over all (but possibly somewhat lower in Germany and France). This has created some push back against more EU integration. On the other hand the wind fall profits for the energy companies that weren’t affected were massive, in particular for national energy giants with a lot of inflence, which may limit the push back in practise.

    1. Ignacio

      Examining recent trends, the proliferation of grid-connected installations is already changing the supply and distribution landscape in ways that may differ from one country to another depending on the legal system and the economic incentives of all players which are not homogeneous in the EU. I can only speak about Spain where legislation has for decades been supply-side friendly. Roof-top solar is now said to provide about 3% of all distributed energy and its effect on electricity quotes is clearly visible in the times and periods of maximum solar potential. Most installations are designed in ways that a large chunk of solar production feeds the grid, more particularly in the case of residential installations.

      But since now and increasingly there are combined installations of roof-top solar modules plus electrification of heating and cooling systems and the trend is to make all these appliances to dialogue among them to take advantage of solar peak production 3 hours before and after midday. Cool in advance, heat in advance use hot water as an energy reservoir etc. The inclusion of batteries, still a little bit expensive, is increasing fast though from very low numbers in Spain. Some speculate that the current compensation mechanisms for PV surplus fed into the grid will be terminated relatively soon and there might even be penalties for production excesses, but who knows the future in advance.

  4. Stephen V

    As to “load balancing” — I learned this concept recently from a cab driver who used to work in the industry. He also was very concerned about the general lack of redundancy in our current system. The example he used was large transformers (IIRC) used in distribution. These are not off-the-shelf but can take years to replace.
    Is “load-shedding” as is done in South Africa in our future?

  5. Cervantes

    I’m not quite a cab driver who used to work in the industry, but before I became a tax collector for the crown here in Andalusia, I did go on some adventures in the industry, I mean the west Mediterranean. So I will say that there is a spectre of market fundamentalism at work here too. Most states have seen the impacts of too much market reform and aren’t actively trying for more. But FERC has learned no such lessons. FERC continues to impose third party market participant requirements to undercut local utility monopolists. (E.g., requiring RTO/market entities to treat DERs as dispatchable capacity resources.) Never mind that utilities actually are a natural monopoly, and a single monopoly challenged and regulated can actually serve public policy, while small bits of interloper companies tend to cream skim and do other things that undermine the monopolist and also public policy. Once again this is an area where the New Deal struck a very reasonable balance by keeping the energy monopolies confined to particular states or areas so that state regulators at least had a shot at holding these companies accountable, and there was little reason for FERC to intervene or do something to undermine state policies. We should have never repealed the PUHCA; if we could have that with the benefits of some the regional planning and integrated markets in the structure of SPP or MISO, we would be better off.

    1. eg

      I was waiting for someone to observe that utility networks like those of water or electricity are natural monopolies and ought to be regulated and governed as such, if not outright nationalized.

      But this notion is abhorrent to neoliberalism and therefore must not be acknowledged, so creeping dysfunction will remain our lot until the neoliberal hegemony is overthrown or our systems outright collapse because of its atomistic delusions.

      1. Keith Newman

        Re eg @8:32
        Obviously these industries should be nationalised. Indeed, I remember reading that 25% of US electricity production is owned by states or even municipalities. It’s not much talked about due to “the neoliberal hegemony” you noted. In Quebec, where I live, Hydro-Quebec is a crown corporation and the public is generally quite proud of it. It charges very low rates for modest users of electricity, say the consumption of someone in a 2 bedroom apartment, and quite a bit higher rates for higher consumption. The profits accrue to the province and rate hikes do occur but they are in line with inflation or less. The government has an obvious incentive to ensure the system is well maintained since it owns it and would face political flak if it allowed it to become run down – pretty much the opposite incentives of a for-profit producer. Interestingly the City of Ottawa, near where I live, has its own electricity generation system based on hydro dams. Its rates are even lower than mine.
        Electricity generation is mostly publicly owned in Canada with some notable exceptions, Alberta for example.
        As an unrelated aside, Quebec has half a dozen casinos which are also owned by the government. The workers are unionised and pay and benefits are decent. I have a cousin who works in one. They prominently display anti-gambling signs. Again the long arm of government making itself felt.

      2. Susan the other

        The highly concentrated synergistic networks like cities all wired up for access are just conglomerations of smaller units of access. And adjacent. Smaller cities joining up with the bigger ones and becoming neighborhoods for convenience. But “centralizing” rural networks requires long lines of access and energy is lost all along the lines. That’s not very efficient on a conservation level. So logically then, very decentralized, maybe individualized, access to energy makes good sense rurally if there is a way to individualize the generation of electricity that is efficient and sustainable? Besides everyone using a diesel generator. If that’s one of the obvious questions then we can expect to see a big transformation in generation and transmission technology. Either that or a gargantuan effort to renew our decaying cities to keep them resilient. So this line of logic almost makes the case for an intermediate solution that, so far, has been the least efficient. Maybe because sustainable network design requires more social design.

      3. KLG

        “utility networks like those of water or electricity are natural monopolies and ought to be regulated and governed as such, if not outright nationalized.”

        I have lived for an extended period in four places where I had an account with the water and power companies. Regarding water, three of these locations had a local Water Authority that served the public well at a reasonable price. The Water Authority Board knew who their clients were and mostly acted accordingly. In the other location, the water company had a local name but was a subsidiary of a large firm based elsewhere. Service was spotty and rates were outrageous. Before we left, an initiative for the unified city/county government to buy the system failed miserably in the face of an advertising campaign that raised the specter of government control! Virtually every easement/right-of-way had been granted to the original local water company for free as a public good, but no one seemed to listen. Now? It has been a while, but my friends pay about 400% more than we do in our current middling city. Service is slow. But, hey, the thieving local government isn’t involved!

        Regarding electricity, I am paying for the most recent, possibly penultimate nuclear power unit in the United States. Unit Three came on line years late and billions over budget: “In 2018 costs were estimated to be about $25 billion. By 2021 they were estimated to be over $28.5 billion. In 2023 costs had increased to $34 billion, with work still to be completed on Vogtle 4.” Regulatory Capture is an astonishing thing to behold.

  6. aporetic

    Thanks, very interesting! From an academic point: some of the topics dealt with in this article are central to the relatively new field social studies of energy. It came out of classical studies of energy, such as (historian) Thomas Hughes Networks of Power (a 1983 study of western electricity systems). It now has it’s own journals, such as this one, where questions of renewables and de-stabilization of load are central questions: https://www.sciencedirect.com/journal/energy-research-and-social-science
    For instance: how will dynamic pricing shift household routines, i.e. if it’s cheaper to wash clothes or shower in the middle of the night?

  7. Otto Reply

    An oldie but goodie, Buckminster Fuller’s Global Energy Grid.

    “I have summarized my discovery of the option of humanity to become omnieconomically and sustainably successful on our planet while phasing out forever all use of fossil fuels and atomic energy generation other than the Sun. I have presented my plan for using our increasing technical ability to construct high-voltage, superconductive transmission lines and implement an around-the-world electrical energy grid integrating the daytime and nighttime hemispheres, thus swiftly increasing the operating capacity of the world’s electrical energy system and, concomitantly, living standard in an unprecedented feat of international cooperation.”
    Cosmosgraphy, 1993, Fuller and Kuromiya

    Clearly this scheme would require global collaboration beyond what seems feasible today. This is the most recent piece about the idea I could find w/ a quick search: Buckminster Fuller: Father of the worldwide grid

    The Global Energy Network Institute was formed in support of Fuller’s ideas, but the most recent news blurb is from 2013. So I guess it ran out of steam. (ahem)

    1. fjallstrom

      The company in question is the Norwegian state owned power company. Norway has lots of hydro power and some wind power, so they sell load balancing services abroad. Also exports load balancing technology like the rotating power storage in your example. I have also seen pumped storage in Scotland. And they own lots of wind in other countries.

  8. Giordano Bruno

    Why do we have private ownership of distributed energy? Our national energy policy is a holdover from a century ago when independent operators built power plants and strung wires. Government responded by granting monopolies with the thinking that public utility commissions would ensure these monopolies met the needs of consumers. Utility monopolies like California’s PG& E proceded to capture their respective PUCs giving us a national energy policy that is driven by quarterly dividends rather than long range planning in service to the public. These monopolies then went about changing the laws and buying up all of the public utilities built by local communities with local community money.

    None of this is necessary. The Tennessee Valley Athority built and manages a public utility without ever consuming a single dime in taxes. It raised capital just like local communities raised capital with public utility bonds. My point is there is no need for private capital investment to build and maintain a public utility.

    Another exception to private utility monopolies is the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power that built a high voltage direct current (HVDC) link from Washington State hydropower to Los Angeles county in the 1960s using federal money made available by the JFK administration. Today, the LADWP gets over 50% of all power consumed in Los Angeles county from the state of Washington under long term contracts that are never subject to brownouts.

    Renewable energy like that provided by Washington State hydropower is not profitable from the perspective of privately owned utilities because there’s no vertical energy trade. It is the short-term financial objectives of privately owned utilities that has prevented the US from implementing HVDC transmission so as to efficiently bring remote renewable energy sources to population centers, just like China has been doing on a massive scale for the last 20 years. https://privatebank.jpmorgan.com/content/dam/jpm-wm-aem/global/pb/en/insights/eye-on-the-market/high-voltage-direct-current-lines-china-leads-us-lags.pdf

  9. Jeff H

    We also have the problem of diminished capacity for design, implementation, and maintenance of a functional energy grid. Electrical engineering isn’t a flashy high paying career choice except for those specializing in the tiny fiddley bits that consume power. My career choice was electronics. Even back in the 70’s power generation and distribution were not high draw.
    A quick look at this site https://datausa.io/profile/cip/electrical-engineering there is a decline in graduates and power generation/distribution is an embarrassingly small percentage.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      You miss the point. This is a defect of the network architecture. Having Tesla versus other charging stations makes it impossible to have a even a somewhat distributed network. Comparatively few nodes = more failure prone. That is inherent with charging stations and even more so with balkanized charging stations.

      Even within the charging station architecture, the Chinese approach is more robust. Cars come into the station and have their batteries swapped out for fully charged ones. So say some charging stations lose power. They could have charged batteries brought in from nearby station when they ran out of their current supply of charged batteries until their chargers got fixed. That is closer to a well distributed network because the points at the end of the nodes are more resilient.

      1. CA


        January 23, 2024

        China’s EV charging piles see robust growth in 2023

        China saw a 51-percent year-on-year growth in the number of public charging piles for electric vehicles (EVs) in 2023, an industry insider said Monday.

        The number of public charging piles rose by 930,000 in 2023 from the previous year, Cui Dongshu, secretary general of the China Passenger Car Association, said.

        By December, the country had nearly 2.73 million public charging piles.

        Nearly 2.46 million new private charging piles were added in 2023, bringing the total number to about 5.87 million by December, according to Cui…

        1. CA

          Summing the Chinese experience, there are already more than 8.6 million charging piles in China.  Movement to rural China has become pronounced.  Batteries are almost entirely recyclable.  Research and development work on batteries is being emphasized.

          As for energy production and delivery for charging, the overwhelming emphasis is on renewable production and delivery by an increasing ultra-high voltage transmission network from production to delivery destinations.  The point of ultra-high voltage transmission, is that energy is not dissipated along the way.

      2. shermanj

        Yves Smith makes very good points here. Some early electric cars (1910s) had swappable battery units that worked well and greatly extended the range of the vehicle in a couple of minutes. And, the big problem is a lack of standardization of charging protocols and connectors. Also, people should have lower current charging stations in weather sheltered garages where they live and should learn the reasonable rules for safely, reliably operating an EV.

  10. shermanj

    I am a retired engineer with a background in many areas of technology. for decades I’ve been a Community Benefit Activist. Through research and experience, we know Energy should evolve to being electricity (mostly excluding natural gas, oil, nuclear). it should not be subsidizing huge corporations. It should abandon massive expansions of a national grid that wastes ~10% just sending it to distant places. It should emphasize local generation using wind and photovoltaic with a local reliability boosting network. It should provide as many incentives to individuals and small businesses and maybe local governments as it has to the huge abusive for-profit energy corporations.

  11. Steven

    the Chinese approach is more robust. Cars come into the station and have their batteries swapped out for fully charged ones.

    Swappable EV batteries comes as a bit of a surprise. I believe Renault had a version of the early Nissan LEAFs that had them but it never took off, at least in Europe. I’ve been under the impression that batteries are so deeply embedded in the architecture of EVs it is very difficult, read expensive, to swap them. (Making it easier, if possible, would do a lot for the resale value of EVs as well.)

    ‘Balkanization’ (as in standards 101) is certainly a problem – one of which the major EV OEMs seem to be aware; witness the adoption of Tesla’s NACS. But there are larger problems connected to sizing charging stations with capacities to service loads under wildly varying demand conditions. An alternative to shipping ‘power to the people’ might be dual purposing ‘gas stations’ as neighborhood distributed storage locations.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      I looked as this one some early EV studies I did. The issue on swappable batteries was not the car design. It was the amount of space you’d need at each swapping station for all those batteries and how you’d move them in and out of charging to where the cars drove in and out. The finding then (recall early batteries were bigger) was you’d need more space than typical gas station size and that was not realistic.

      1. CA


        December 10, 2023

        China EV Industry: Dalian debuts battery swap station for electric trucks

        About one in four passenger cars sold in China last year was electric. But the rate is much lower for commercial trucks, which are the bigger culprits for pollution and emission. One obstacle for trucks to switch to new energy is recharging time. So China is building more battery swap stations.

        CHEN MENGFEI Dalian “Even the fastest EV charging stations today can not match the speed of simply filling the petrol tanks. But this can.”

        When the lightweight truck parks at the swapping station, a mechanical tray approaches it from behind, unlocking the embedded battery beneath the vehicle.

        The tray slides out the battery and places it onto the charging shelves, then installs a new battery, reversing its previous actions.

        CHEN MENGFEI Dalian “The process takes about five minutes, and costs about 90 yuan for the car to run another 200 kilometers. The same mileage using petrol would cost about 400 kuai. Even including the price of renting these batteries, it’s still on 1/3 of the price of using petrol.”

        SUN FENG General Manager, Dalian City Construction Investment Power Industry Integration Co. “This center axis sliding battery swap system we built is the first of its kind in China. And it has acquired more than 70 technology patents.”

        CHEN MENGFEI Dalian “Of course battery-swap technology, and their advantages are not new. Tesla had hyped it then abandoned it. One Chinese carmaker is building them at a loss. So what’s this company’s game plan?”

        SUN FENG General Manager, Dalian City Construction Investment, Power Industry Integration Co. “In simple terms, the niche market we’ve chosen is for urban short-distance vehicles that need to be on the road constantly every day. Business vehicles, referred to as ‘B-end vehicles.’ It’s not just a desire to swap batteries. It’s a necessity for them to do so.”

        The company says each station has the capacity to do 200 swaps a day, and at 47 swaps the operation will break even.

        This is the first battery swap station for lightweight trucks in northeastern China and if this business model proves successful, it could be applied to many more cities….

  12. JW

    The more unreliable generation is put on a system the more you need back-up and storage facilities.
    For both these needs you need a mixture of ‘ready to run’ generation on hot stand by ( usually GTs or CCGTs); batteries , although they are only useful for very short term use; and other storage like pump storage or potentially hydrogen storage.
    Without getting into the technical feasibility of anything other than gas stations on hot stand by ( the main problem being consecutive years of low wind values). Who exactly pays for all this? As well as all the extra transmission and distribution cables etc.

  13. CA


    Arnaud Bertrand @RnaudBertrand

    I still remember when, in a 2011 Bloomberg interview, Musk was literally laughing at the very notion of Chinese car companies competing with Tesla.

    Thirteen years later, the same Musk: “Chinese car companies are the most competitive companies in the world… If no barriers are established, they will pretty much demolish most other car companies in the world. They are extremely good.”


    Elon Musk: China automakers would ‘demolish’ rivals without trade barriers
    Tesla CEO says competitor BYD still an important battery supplier

    PALO ALTO, U.S. — Tesla CEO Elon Musk said Chinese automakers would “demolish” most of the world’s other car companies if there were no trade barriers.

    “Our observation is generally that the Chinese car companies are the most competitive car companies in the world,” the tech billionaire said on Wednesday at a Tesla earnings call when asked if he saw any opportunities for partnerships with Chinese manufacturers.

    8:01 AM · Jan 25, 2024

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