In the poorly understood world of electrical generation and transmission, a strange tale is unfolding. The media won’t touch it with a ten-foot pole, for a number of reasons – first, it is miles over their head, and second, the conclusions run counter to their current bombastic narrative about the “renewable energy revolution”.
There is a risk in even discussing the situation, because in the powder-keg debate of climate change vs. lifestyle, the denier police are on high alert to brand your forehead with a big smoking D if you so much as breathe anything other than blind obedience.
But reality cannot be ignored, not for very long anyway. So now that I’ve put on my armour, here goes. I’ve mentioned the topic in the past few posts, but here’s the full situation: the more predominant wind and solar power become on a grid, the less functional the grid becomes.
An electrical grid has a massive task: to balance a continuous and near perfect synchronicity between power supplies and load on the grid. Neither is static, particularly in a world moving to wind and solar. It used to be that demand was variable and supply was constant (or controllable), but when both variables can fluctuate wildly there can be chaos. And in the world of electricity, chaos means “you get none”.
Two examples bring the point home clearly. I’ve mentioned these before briefly in recent posts; here are the more robust stories.
The UK suffered a widespread power outage on August 9 of last year. Though the power outage was only 90 minutes long, chaos erupted for more than seven hours – trains ground to a halt with no lights, air conditioning, or bathroom facilities, and passengers were stranded on them for many hours past the power outage itself. Traffic lights went on holiday, causing massive traffic jams and much of the country was paralyzed for the better part of a day. Thousands of irate citizens demanded answers, and the grid regulator stepped in to apologize profusely and, in a fit of political correctness, made sure to point out that neither a cyberattack nor unreliable wind power was to blame. As is often the case with guilty parties, the subconscious dragging of wind power into the equation was an indicator that it was indeed a factor. But it is political suicide to say so, and the regulator danced around the topic in typically British understated fashion.
The final official report on the incident included these soft, subtle, but unmistakable words: “Recommended Action: Review the security standards (SQSS) to determine whether it would be appropriate to provide for higher levels of resilience in the electricity system. This should be done in a structured way to ensure a proper balancing risks and costs… Recommended Action: Review the timescales for delivery of the Accelerated Loss of Mains Change Programme to reduce the risk of inadvertent tripping and disconnection of embedded generation, as GB moves to ever increasing levels of embedded generation.” [emphasis added]
What is embedded generation? The operator covers that in a separate document: “Embedded generation is typically smaller generation such as Combined Heat and Power (CHP) or renewable generation: small hydro, wind or solar power…and is connected to the Distribution network rather than to the high voltage National Grid.” Further: “Today’s distribution networks operate passively delivering power from the transmission network, through the distribution network to the end customer. They have been built, and are operated and regulated, to work in this way. Substantial embedded generation would require more active distribution networks which allow electricity to flow in two directions…Ofgem is currently looking at the issues facing embedded generation to ensure that its development is not hindered by the way in which networks are currently operated and regulated.”
What this all adds up to is that more renewables (embedded generation) caused the grid operator to recommend (first Recommended Action) in a droll way that perhaps “it would be appropriate” to provide higher levels of resiliency but only in a way that properly balanced “risks and costs”, and the next recommendation fills in the blanks by saying “hurry the f___ up and introduce a new programme to reduce the risk of inadvertent tripping and disconnection of wind and/or solar” (embedded generation).
Loosely translated, the UK electrical system has lost resiliency, or the ability to deal with sudden drop-outs in power supply such as from a lightning strike or industrial incident, because renewables can’t be counted on to fill the gap.
Australia found the exact same issue a year earlier. A lightning strike knocked out a transmission tower in August 2018, an important interconnector between Queensland and New South Wales. Due to a substantially increased solar component in the power mix, the grid was unable to maintain deliveries as no suitable hydrocarbon-fueled power source was to be had – the government, in a move to go green, had cut any financial incentives for these facilities to operate in stand-by mode (climate activists get apoplectic when they hear that natural gas or coal-fired power plants get money to remain on standby, because they have no inkling as to how a grid works). The power outage cut deliveries to 40,000 customers and much of Sydney’s traffic lights, and Sydney without air conditioning or traffic lights is a far cry from the paradise of postcard fame.
In their analysis, the Australian grid operators compared the 2018 incident with a very similar one that had happened a decade earlier, noting that in 2008 the grid was easily able to handle a lightning strike. As the final report put it, “A key difference is that in 2018 we can observe that the online generation mix and time of day can significantly impact the scenario for better or worse. In 2008 the generation mix was constant and predictable. In 2018 the variation in supply technologies and frequency response is wide, far more distributed and significantly less certain… A key contributing factor to the need for uncontracted load interruption was limited primary frequency control from generators across the NEM, which had no obligation, and no commercial incentive, to provide an immediate response to the changed conditions.”
Don’t stone me to death, please. Don’t report me to the climate change police. Yes, I know you know they know where I live. All I’m saying is that, well, it’s lunacy to keep going down the “renewables are all we need” path, unless we want to generate infuriated mobs on a regular basis. Citizens are outraged when power goes out even for an hour or two (the UK outage was about 90 minutes, the Australian one 68, and in both instances there were near uprisings). And you would be too, sitting on a hot packed train full of sweaty commuters for hours with no water or toilet facilities, or stuck in traffic for hours waiting for traffic lights to reawaken. And don’t forget that power outages strike seniors homes, hospitals, you name it, unless they have backup power supplies. This is not a joke.
Hydrocarbon based power generation is absolutely critical to the functioning of an efficient grid (or nuclear, but we won’t even go there). Hydroelectric is a green wonder, sort of, if one can overlook the environmental devastation of flooding vast tracts of land and disturbing natural waterways.
Yet the media continues to give airtime to renewable advocates that insist we can go all wind/solar if we really want to. Well, maybe they, the proponents, can live on wind/solar alone, but I seriously doubt that. A real environmentalist would give it a go, a climate change activists wants to see dead industries and social justice; the environment is the tool to achieve those goals.
To be clear, because haters are no doubt poised over their keyboards, this analysis is not a dismissal of wind or solar power. Both are great technologies that can play a significant role, and someday maybe quite a large role. But reconfiguring and rebuilding a hundred years’ worth of electrical infrastructure won’t happen in a decade or two. It takes that long to build a few large transmission lines, and more than a few of those would be needed to tie all sorts of far-flung solar and wind installations that would be required to form any sizeable chunk of the grid. Think, then act. Or learn the hard way.
Next time you hear some energy missionary talk about how we can go to an all renewable power system “because it’s so cheap now”, send them links to the UK and Australian reports, and if possible shut their power off for the rest of the day. Sometimes people have to live it to learn it.
Time to stop disinformation in its tracks. Say no to the politicization of critical environmental issues, and yes to balanced discussions. Pick up a copy of “The End of Fossil Fuel Insanity” at Amazon.ca, Amazon.com, or Indigo online. These Amazon reviews may be the wisest material you’ll find on the internet (except that one loser).