Tag Archives: renewable energy

The Grid: News of its Death Is Premature

The latest claptrap ricocheting off the walls of the business and environmental media echo chambers is word of the inevitable decline and death of the electric grid…or not.  It is more likely to succumb to neglect, along with the rest of our infrastructure, than to technological displacement by renewable technologies any time in the foreseeable future.

Nonetheless, the subject is a tug-of-war between two rival camps of idiocy.  One is comprised of the fossil fuel feudalists and their various front organizations who are fighting the growth of renewables at any scale as a perceived threat to the inevitable decline of cheap and easy carbon.  The other camp  is a combination of visionaries and eco-huckster capitalists who believe in a Disney World (both capitalist and fantasy) future but ignore the social and economic inertia that impedes reasonable progress at best, and their wildest dreams, to be sure.  The utilities themselves in varying degrees are more inclined to be on the side of the Feudalists  than the Fantasy folks.

The following quote is indicative of the kind of siloed, echo-chamber consensus that propagates the illusion of inevitability:

“Utilities are afraid that solar power will be to the electrical grid what PCs were to mainframes, or e-mail to the Postal Service: a technology that will simply kill its predecessors. Coal and nuclear power are both doomed, and the profit-making power grid with it. That’s all to our benefit.”

The writer may not realize this, but personal computers have not dispatched the mainframe; they have merely augmented it.  The Mainframe of yore has morphed into the server farm of now; Big Iron still lives. If it didn’t, there wouldn’t be The Cloud and Big Data.  And, while information is more widely distributed than in the ’70s through the internet, ironically it is every bit as centralized and concentrated as previously.  Just ask your government, or Jeff Bezos, or Eric Schmidt or Mark Zuckerberg.

And email has assuredly impacted the Post Office, but it has not rendered it to the dust bin of history yet, nor is it likely to in the near future.  Congress has reserved that privilege to itself.  The Post Office can still evolve, adapting its network to new and evolving needs, if allowed. But the same sclerotic forces that would kill renewables are doing their best to slay the postal service and any other institutions of social and economic unification.

The electric grid is most definitely in transition, but it is by no means a ‘dead man walking’ for the next half century for three very simple reasons.

1) The technology to replace it with renewable energy is not there, will not be sufficiently developed by the end of this decade, and will take three to four decades or more to propagate to scale.

2) Much of the generation of renewables will be on industrial scale wind, wave  and solar farms (the equivalent of mainframes, if you will) in places of best advantage, for transport to places of greatest need.  Hence, the grid, on some scale, in some configuration, lives. And some power consumers will never have the means to deploy stand-alone renewables without augmentation from the grid.

3) The ultimate system will be a hybrid of distributed and industrial scale generation integrated in a truly intelligent grid because neither option by itself will meet a variety of circumstances than can compromise each.

The Grid is The Net, It will evolve technologically, but it is unlikely to be replaced.  The fact that phone companies are seeking to dis-own their land lines as subscription declines is not the death of the telephone network; it is simply moving to wireless technology, but it is still a centrally managed and financed network.

What is disconcerting in this nonsensical rumination about the inevitable death of The Grid is that it distracts us from the real issues affecting the grid and its constituent utilities:  an orderly technological,  financial and regulatory transition to a differently configured and operational reality.

The notion of ‘going off the grid’ for most of us is more a fantasy than a future.  For those of you with solar panels on your house, ask yourselves: if your system was wiped out by a hurricane, along with many others in your town, how quickly would you be able to replace your panels and get back to business?  Alternatively, how long would it take the utility to re-string lines to your house?  Aside from storms, how many office buildings are likely to meet their own needs from home-grown renewable generation any time in the intermediate term future?  Can we get Metro-North to run its trains on anything but industrial grade electric generation in the intermediate term?

And finally, much as many of us would welcome the demise of coal, it is notable that a growing number of thought leaders in the climate change community are becoming resigned to the need for carbon sequestration technology, given the growing consensus that coal will be with us much longer than our fondest hopes would allow, for a variety of reasons.

Among the major concerns that the utilities and everyone else should be concerned about are:

–  resurrection of the grid that is from its current state of decay due to deferred maintenance;

–  armor the grid against cyber-attack or otherwise mitigate the risks of conventional sabotage;

–  armor the grid against probable extremes and transitions in climate;

–  create a grid that is more modular in design and thereby more scalable and adaptable to the various fluctuations in energy generation, distribution and utilization technology and patterns of usage:

–  evolve a more enlightened management capable of managing a more sophisticated grid;

–  evolve a more sophisticated citizenry willing to accept that this is an infrastructure that we will all depend on in varying degrees, and therefore we must all support.

The Grid is not dead or at death’s doorstep.

But we must not let it linger in agony, or its agony will be our own.

Onward.

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Clim-Ergy: A Strategic Rubik’s Cube

The news of late in the climate and energy circles has been interesting.  Little factoids are entering the collective consciousness, like meteoroids piercing the upper atmosphere, burning brightly, and burning out.  But leaving in their fading trace the unsettling question: what else is up there waiting to come down, and where will it land?

We in the northeastern US have been celebrating the one year anniversary of Sandy not only with remembrance of the event, but with the discomforting realization that the way back is not nearly as quick or easy as one might have wished.  For public officials with any degree of comprehension, it is also a harbinger of things to come.

The headlines out of the IPCC in September obsessed over the 95% certainty among scientists that humans are significant contributors to global warming, the stuff that may cause more Sandys, and Colorado floods, and contagious Australian wildfires, and Sister Sandy killer storms in Europe, protracted drought in Texas where frackers are competing with farmers for scarce water that will become too little for either, and…the beat goes on.

But the real news in Climate circles is not the 95%, but the talk of a carbon budget: the global maximum of emissions that the planet can endure before ‘going postal’ (as we used to say before workplace and public space violence became trendy and went viral).  As scientists and policy makers debate the limits and timing of reaching a climatic point of no return, the news from disparate perspectives becomes increasingly foggy.

–  We hear that CO2 emissions are increasing at a declining rate, which gives false comfort because it is attributed to switch to natural gas, increased energy efficiency, and a moribund economy, and is largely limited to the United States, which is becoming a diminishing factor in the global carbon budget. What happens if the world economy recovers?  But right now, THAT does not seem to be an imminent prospect.

–  A chorus of voices are still singing the praises of frack-gas and the US’s ‘game-changing’ energy independence, as if that’s in the bag.  But off-stage, a growing chorus of voices are raising concerns that should have been addressed from the beginning regarding various levels of pollution and emissions. Fracking is reaching a critical mass and age that is manifesting its true self in ways that can no longer be concealed by corporate PR and governmental concerted ignorance.  While the fracking data is still fragmented and subject to active partisan dispute, it is accumulating, and will likely resolve to some credible consensus on environmental impact in the next five years.

–  Meanwhile, in parallel with the environmental questions on fracking technology, the question of fracking’s ultimate productive and economic viability is beginning to emerge, as the folks at the now defunct blog, The Oil Drum, suggested that it would. Growing, if disputed, evidence is suggesting that fracking is displaying the ‘Red Queen Syndrome’: that in order to sustain production levels, it must run ever faster to add new wells in order to compensate for the rapid decline of earlier wells.  In other words, increases in drilling activity will add to a declining increase in aggregate supply until the cumulative demand of capital to sustain is no longer justified by the productive results.  That becomes ‘problematic’, as they say, because in business and public policy circles the operating assumption is that cheap gas will fuel a prosperous and growing future.  What happens IF you kick that leg out from under the economic stool.  (Forget the environment, it’s not important.)

–  But, speaking of the environment and aside from natural gas, there is the growing sense that whatever we do in the USofA with our hypothetical abundance of gas, other major players are retreating from their positions in carbon reduction (Canada, Britain, Australia most prominently), which suggests that the global increase in CO2, if momentarily in hiatus due to an economic time out, will march on again whether the economy grows appreciably or not.    The energy budget will collide with the carbon budget if renewables cannot take up the slack, which, by most responsible and credible projections, they will not in sufficient time.

While the remnants of the British Empire retreat from commitments to reduce carbon, Germany and Spain are trying to work off a hang-over from their binge spending on renewables that have created economic dislocations in their energy markets, and in Spain’s case contributed to distress in its public finances.  A cautionary tale to those who would rush headlong into renewables transition without clearly thinking through its economic ramifications in transition. The common thread between the situation in Europe with energy economics dislocation and the depression of gas prices resulting from the fracking boom is that in both cases, government or industry forces rushed headlong into a perceived opportunity without contemplating long term consequences. In one case, government regulation failed; in the other, the market failed. In both cases, foresight and discipline failed. In the end, we’re collectively poorer.

Meanwhile, Shell, as one prominent fossil fuel energy company, seems to be suffering multiple personality disorder.  It has retreated from some fracking investments, to try again for the more secure? prospects off Alaska’s coast, from which it retreated last year. What a difference a year makes. Either they are dismissing last winter as a spell of bad luck, or they’ve vastly improved their capacity to deal with bad luck, or they’re convinced that the Coast Guard has vastly improved its capabilities to pull their sorry assets out of trouble, if needed.  Good luck.

Still from another cubical, a Shell executive opines that the US has oversold the potential of fracking and been perhaps a tad overexuberant in pursuing and promoting its potential. But, that’s just one man’s opinion.  And yet another Shell executive, former Chairman Hofmeister, allows that ‘everybody knows that some fracking wells go bad’. This could win the 2013 award for understatement, but let’s not rush to judgment.

Meanwhile, a few degrees south of the Arctic, Brazil’s wunderkind files for bankruptcy, doing potential serious damage to the myth of Brazil’s presumptive energy future (a parable of relevance to the US?)  Now there’s nothing particularly newsworthy about the fact that oil exploration is risky business for big guys and little guys, and there’s nothing newsworthy about some self-styled capitalist buccaneer overplaying his hand, but the intersection of the two, and its ripple effects on Brazil are instructive of what can happen when greed, desperation and hubris are mixed and shaken in an economic cocktail, as is also occurring in China and Russia now. And Clim-Ergy will likely produce many more such situations.

–  Consistent with the above, it is notable that a group of scientists has urged environmentalists to look more kindly on nuclear energy as an antidote to continued and growing reliance on carbon based fuels, and a last-ditch strategy to curb CO2.  That’s kind of like asking a chronically ill person to consider treatment by a witch doctor, because the local medical facility has been closed.  Mind you, I have nothing against nukes.  It’s a clean fuel, if you ignore the waste.  By the way, what ARE we doing with that stuff?

As I write this blog, Super Typhoon Haiyan has just whacked the Philippines, and is lining up Vietnam in its sights.  Imagine what a comparable storm retracing Sandy’s path might do with 147 mph winds. But Sandy was a freak.  Won’t happen again.

*  *  *

So, where does all of this net out? What’s the bottom-line, as they say? Here are a few random inferences:

1.  In five years, environmental concerns with catch up with fracking. It will be greatly circumscribed in its application by the tougher and relevant regulations that should have guided it from the beginning. (Yes, ladies and gentlemen, we are capable of fore-thought. We just choose not to use it too often.  Although, Dick Cheney certainly did.)

2.  At about the same time, a critical mass of drilling and statistical history of productivity will have been attained, and will show that frack-gas nirvana is a mirage.  If environmental factors don’t constrain its development, economic factors will.

3.  As a consequence of #2, natural gas prices will rise significantly over current fantasies of future affordability, causing a rush back to the drawing board to rethink business and public policy realities in the context of that energy reality.  Even a continuing limp economy may not be enough to offset the impact of demand relative to supply.

4.  Within five to ten years, the cumulative economic impacts of natural events will convince the 80% of the population who currently prefer to sit on the fence that the Ignorati on Clim-Ergy, both on the Left and the Right, must be ignored, and SOMETHING must be done to address the trajectory of events that are beyond rational dispute, even if they still defy nice, neat statistical categorization and correlation based on provable science. Something must be done, but what?

5.  But by then, it will be too late.  We will be locked into a trajectory that will take decades and more likely centuries to work out. It may already be too late, but we will have worsened it over the next ten years by frantic and ignorant efforts to sustain the economically unsustainable at the expense of the environment. The consequence will be an ironic form of poetic justice when the environment renders payback in stark economic consequences.

6. Equally frustrating will be costly and ineffective responses engaged in desperation. An equivalent brain-trust to the one that will get us there, will try to get us back with visions of geo-engineering solutions, but with no greater capacity or will to consider unintended consequences of our consistently myopic, short-term thinking.  The only safety brake on our natural group-think tendency for collective incompetence will be the fact that we won’t be able to afford these schemes, if we can agree on them. We will squander precious funds on token efforts that will not scale to effect.

*  *  *

Of course, many ‘pragmatists’ will read these words and dismiss them as Chicken-Little-sky-is-falling nonsense. On the other hand, we KNOW that other civilizations before us have collapsed, which is to say that on some level there is historical precedent which makes the scenario possible. We may just do it on a far grander scale because ‘we have the technology’.

Meteorites happen.  Mankind can make it happen.  In the end, the result’s the same.

In the mean time, don’t let The Future get you down. Party on, Dudes and Dudettes! Par-tay on!

Onward.

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The False Economics of Fossil Fuels

Reading Bernard Weinstein’s letter in the Time’s November 2 edition, I am reminded that we continue to fail to grasp the failure of our supposedly 'free market system' to effectively price key commodities, if that is in fact its intent, and not merely a philosophical mantra.  Let us begin with the first sentence of Mr. Weinstein's letter:

 “As “Future of Solar and Wind Power May Hinge on Federal Aid” (Energy, special section, Oct. 26) points out, the renewable power industry has become addicted to federal subsidies and probably can’t stand on its own without them.”

We can acknowledge that the renewable energy industry is addicted to federal subsidies at present and for the foreseeable future.  But let us apply Mr. Weinstein’s metaphor of addiction fairly.  Society is addicted to fossil fuel dependent energy.  If we are the junkies, Big Oil and Coal are the pushers.

 

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