Obsession has a odor
Tunnel vision has a tell
It’s fanatical behavior
Have a lovely life in your chosen hell
Fixate on what you think you know
You’re missing what you don’t, though
Crazy wouldn’t notice
Have a lonely life in your chosen hell
From “Life of Brian” by Puscifer
Does everyone know where hot dogs come from? You’re right. No one does and no one wants to. They are like miracle objects that landed within a meteorite. When summer comes, ignorance is bliss, and just shove another one down the gullet.
Does anyone know where home heat comes from? Nope. Not most people. They just turn up the thermostat and expect it to work. Many get bored or annoyed when you try to explain it.
But power? Everyone’s an expert. Ironically, reliable power is a more complicated and complex subject than hot dogs and heat combined, but no matter – because power is central to ‘the energy transition’ which is now fully politicized, everyone has an opinion about what happened in Texas.
Because my mouth is as big as anyone’s, I of course have one also. But I won’t pretend to be a grid expert. Grid experts can dissect what actually happened, what percentage of what source was down for how many hours or minutes, and feed statistics to the ten million new energy experts to integrate into their armouries. We can park that discussion by saying that if Twitter wars generated heat, we would all look like scorched wieners right now.
Of far more interest is the underlying issue at the heart of the power system, which we don’t need to be a grid expert to untangle. In the process, we can debunk a lot of junk that people are quibbling over (“Fossil fuels caused this!”; “Wind turbines caused this!”, ad nauseam).
Let’s start with the media, for the usual reason. Their barbarically inane drivel is responsible for a lot of the public perception problem and the rise of the instant expert. Unfortunately, due to their obsession/mandate with climate change and corresponding not-so-subtle disdain for hydrocarbons, that is where this pertinent story starts.
The media is now a full-fledged foot soldier for activists and loves to point to the amount of renewable capacity added. Googling “how much renewable capacity added in 2020” yields 190 million results with typical headlines like 90% of the Global Power Capacity Added in 2020 Will Be Renewable or “142 GW of global solar capacity will be added in 2020, says IHS.” While undoubtedly true, these statements make an infernal mess in the minds of simplistic energy commentators.
Here’s the simple part of grid reality. For an electrical grid to function properly under all expected scenarios, it must have the capability of meeting peak demand. If during a cold snap, demand is expected to be 100 Gigawatts (GW), then the system needs to be able to provide that amount of power, when required. Not when it feels like it, when it is required.
As can be easily surmised, wind and solar can help a great deal in reducing hydrocarbon consumption, if when they operate they displace power that would otherwise have been created by hydrocarbons. But wind and solar have very little to do with being able to provide power at times of peak requirement, because there is no guarantee that they will produce anything. So for a grid to work the way its citizens want and expect, it has to have true, reliable capability of providing that 100 GW on demand.
This is where it gets political and stupid. The rise of renewables, particularly when paired with the fantasy realm of batteries, leads people to declare that we no longer need hydrocarbons (like natural gas) for power generation. As mentioned last week, an email from one of the world’s pre-eminent activists/fossil fuel haters informed me of exactly that opinion: because the cost of wind/solar/batteries has fallen so much, “we don’t need natural gas as a bridge fuel.”
Wind and solar alone are useless as reliable, peak-meeting energy sources. That is self-evident. But what about wind/solar/batteries then?
Well, let’s think about this for a second. We need that full range of output (100GW in this example) at times of weather/demand extremes. This can be heat-related (air conditioner usage, for example), or cold-related, generally speaking.
Here’s some relevant commentary on low-temperature battery performance: “In low temperatures, performance drops significantly because the chemical reaction is simply slowed down, but only when it comes to discharging the battery. Li-ion batteries can actually power an EV at – 40 degrees Celsius, albeit with a reduced discharge rate and only if they are fitted with thermal management systems, but there is simply no way you will be able to charge them at those temperatures because they simply slow down too much.” The article also notes problems at high temperatures: “If the ambient temperature of a battery that does its best at 20 degrees Celsius is increased to 30 degrees, its performance efficiency will reduce by about 20%.”
So let’s say that a hydrocarbon-free power system of solar/wind and batteries was built. Imagine a province/state/country with enough batteries to meet peak demand, even in an extreme situation. Let’s say those batteries could provide six hours at peak power (the bank of batteries required to do that would be ludicrously large, but it’s a mental exercise). During a cold/hot spell, the batteries do just that, for six hours.
Unless the weather condition lasted only six hours, the populace would then be completely reliant on wind/solar to provide not only their immediate needs, but also to charge the batteries for the next period when neither wind/solar are contributing.
This is an impossibility. There cannot be a system big enough to make that happen in extreme weather. After the batteries were drained, there is no guarantee that wind or solar would contribute anything. The system would have to be wildly overbuilt, and even then, there would be no assurance that wind/solar could provide peak power and recharge batteries. But there is a veritable army of people out there who tell us that not only is this scenario possible, it is necessary. And, because the push to get to that state is universal, we wouldn’t necessarily be able to count on neighbouring jurisdictions for power in time of need either.
Now, where it gets pertinent is that activists/pseudo-experts that believe this nonsense is now in control of political policy, and are working hard to eliminate not just fossil fuels but ‘fossil fuel subsidies. Among one such subsidy is the concept of paying fossil fuel power generators to remain on standby. There is immense pressure to avoid paying them anything. Witness this breathless headline from west coast hydrocarbon hater The Narwhal: “EXCLUSIVE: BC Hydro Paying Millions to Independent Power Producers to Not Produce Power Due to Oversupply.”
“We are paying money for nothing,” an NDP twit fumes in the article. In response, a BC Hydro spokesman explains the payments, in words that should echo through the ages (and definitely through Texas): “BC Hydro has a responsibility to ensure power is available when customers need it.” That about sums up the entire situation.
In 2018, Australia suffered a 68-minute power outage due to lightning strikes. As with Texas, neither hydrocarbon power nor renewables were able to fill the power void in parts of the country. The key difference is that renewables are on the rise and incentivized, whereas hydrocarbon solutions are being hounded out of existence. In an exhaustive report, the Australian grid operator commented: “A key contributing factor to the need for uncontracted load interruption was limited primary frequency control from generators across the NEM [National Electricity Market], which had no obligation, and no commercial incentive, to provide an immediate response to the changed conditions.”
“Uncontracted load interruption” means “Lights out Sydney.” Generators had no financial incentive to operate on standby, so they didn’t. And that is the huge heart of the problem. As a reminder, wind/solar cannot operate on stand-by; batteries can, but here we go again – they don’t work very well, in heat or cold, and they need to be recharged immediately in extreme weather conditions for the first lull in the sunshine and/or wind.
California, the other US jurisdiction that has a lot of renewable power and blackouts and that people don’t like to connect those dots to either, is waking up to the requirement for baseload power even if it is dirty old hydrocarbons. Even this typically natural gas-bashing piece (a prerequisite for admission to any mainstream news flow) from the New York Times via the G&M admitted as much: “In California, regulators had allowed some natural gas plants to shut down even though it was clear that the gap between supply and demand was narrow on the hottest summer days and in the late afternoon as the sun goes down and solar panels stop producing electricity. After the August blackouts, the California Public Utilities Commission delayed the closing of several natural gas power plants.” WHy had those natural gas plants chosen to close? Because California power prices often go negative in times of excess solar power, and solar power gets positive prices because it is desirable, and natural gas gets told to go suck a lemon, and the capital flees.
The demand for standby power is most extreme when temperatures are most extreme. The blather about whether Texas’ cold snap was due to climate change simply obfuscates the issue (it is a dumb thesis anyway; a huge list of extreme weather records from the Texas Almanac, including record highs/lows, record snowfall, etc. – shows that of the 30 listed, all but two were set last century, including all the snow/cold ones, so Texas’ weather is not getting more unstable).
Even if a vast array of batteries was filled and utilized, the system would be operating at peak capacity just to service the population (which would then fall short when wind or sunshine faded), and there would be no hope of recharging the batteries until the hot/cold spell was over.
Such logic is irrelevant to the mob that has sided so vocally and publicly on the all-renewables bandwagon. They are like the knight of Monty Python fame, that has had his arms and his legs chopped off and is still beaking off and making threats (“Tis but a scratch.”). When faced with the Texas infrastructure massacre, they just doubled down, like AOC declaring that Texas needed more renewables.
Renewables have a place and a purpose, to the extent their environmental footprint can be lived with – they will partially replace hydrocarbons, a trait that will become absolutely valuable once hydrocarbon prices rise. But as far as forming an entire electrical grid? Please.
I know why people want an all-renewable grid, it’s because they think we ‘have to’ in order to prevent the IPCC’s hellish forecasts. But reality doesn’t work that way. No one cares what you want to do or ‘have to’ do – the world ‘has to’ eliminate obesity/smoking/drinking in order to extend life expectancies.
How’s that going? The only thing you have to do is die.
We’re several decades into the ‘fossil fuels must die’ epoch, and nothing has changed, except that ‘fossil fuel’ consumption has gone up. Saving the world is going to come via some other means.
Thanks to everyone who asks what they can do to counter energy disinformation… For a start, pick up “The End of Fossil Fuel Insanity” at Amazon.ca, Indigo.ca, or Amazon.com and distribute it widely! That’s why I wrote it. Thanks for the support.