Anyone who commutes by car, particularly when going with the flow in a busy direction, is well aware of the chaos that results from some singular dumb little event. Someone rear-ends someone else on a freeway, and the result is two crumpled bumpers and two miles of backed-up traffic. Long weekends on the Trans-Canada highway can turn into multi-hour campouts as the RCMP scratches its head, wondering how on earth two cars could end up like that.
Sometimes relatively little events like this (which may be considerable events, depending on your relationship to the upside-down vehicles) remind us of the monumental and ubiquitous fragility of our energy and distribution systems. Think of trying to leave downtown at rush hour when an accident happens on one of the major arteries – things in that direction grind to a halt instantly.
Imagine if that happened simultaneously on two arteries. Or three. It is fortunate that terrorists and Extinction Rebellion are not good thinkers (although I have no doubt the latter is aware of the fine line between a ‘successful’ protest and getting your lights punched out).
The fragility of systems extends to the greater world, which does a phenomenal job of keeping them all working, but the fragility remains the same. Singular events can have incredible consequences.
Just as we often see the resulting chaos of some bad driver losing it on the freeway in winter, we have recently witnessed a ship pilot apparently struggle with oversteer and wedge a giant ship in the Suez Canal. The pictures are kind of slapstick, the sort of thing you’d see in a movie caused by some bumbling dufus; but also kind of ominous – a single ship sitting sideways in a peaceful canal through the desert, causing global mayhem.
What sort of mayhem? Consider that 12% of global trade passes through the canal, and losses are estimated at $10 billion per day (the boat has likely been freed by the time you read this, and the story over, with the red-faced captain racing for open water to shake off the hordes of reporters wanting to smell his breath and ask about his feelings).
The world is presently in denial about the fragility of our energy systems, and unfortunately it is going to take something like losing 12 percent of the world’s energy supplies to wake them up.
In an effort to keep abreast of what’s happening in the energy world, I have a steady, diverse and increasingly wacko stream of industry information coming to my inbox. One site, called Energy Central – Power Industry Network, purports to be a central intelligence site for all things power-industry related, but as is often the case these days it is just a repository for delusional thinking about how wonderful the energy transition is going.
One contributor, some renewable energy consultant whose clients include the US Department of Defense, wrote a post the other week about the Texas power fiasco. This bandwagon-jumping visionary’s post was titled “What’s the latest trend in power generation? Lowering risk.” The article reads like a post-mortem by some twit that bought a 180-mph crotch rocket motorcycle, wrapped it around a tree, was fortunate enough to live, then started lecturing about the fact that such motorcycles are not for rookies. In other words, the risk has been known forever – just because you figured it out now doesn’t mean anything.
Here’s a bizarre quote: “Companies are starting to look at risks that they have not looked at before, which is pointing them to evaluate their risks on a whole new level. They are adjusting their risk threshold to recognize that the likelihood for “high impact-low probability” events is higher than previously thought, and that even one event can have rippling, catastrophic consequences.”
It is painful to read such blather, and even more so to think that someone somewhere assumes it has credence. Power industry people have known that for decades – preparing for extreme weather events has always been part of the system. It is the activist lunacy of the past few years that has pushed grids to become ever less stable, as evidenced by the author’s flagging of the number one issue plaguing Texas’ grid – climate change. (For the record, Texas’ recent anarchy was NOT driven by record-setting weather – cold-weather records in the Texas Almanac – coldest temperature, coldest winter – were set before 1933; all snowfall records were set before 1956.)
It is the near-mindless fight against climate change that is causing a whole new universe of risks to be born that didn’t exist a few years ago. It is the failure to grasp the fragility of existing systems that is causing greater risk; people and institutions think they can rewire the incredibly complicated infrastructure, quickly, without knowing the consequences. It is great to see all sorts of new ideas and technology and emissions reducing ideas – but those things do not make an energy transition. They will change the energy mix to some extent, but, as China is finding out, a world growing ever-more power hungry will need all forms of energy.
The world’s energy systems have developed over a century, or more, and – they work. They are not perfect, they have emissions, but they do an unbelievably good job of meeting the needs of 7.5 billion people with an astonishing degree of reliability. Yet few realize what is at stake. What if the Suez Canal were blocked for a month?
What if any single large pipeline went down for months? What if a key shipping terminal was attacked and out of commission for months? What if any of these things happened in winter? No one can say for sure, because we do a remarkable job of keeping all these things going. Yet any one of these could be disabled with intelligent ease.
However, because that reliability level is so high, we assume not just that the bigger energy system will always work, but that we can build a new one just as easily. That last part is true in one sense – we can build a new one just as ‘easily’, but it will take just as long – about a century.
There are people wise enough to offer robust solutions to fix, for example, Texas’ problems – Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway Energy has stepped up with a plan to ensure Texas does not suffer a similar situation again. His proposal is to spend $8 billion to build 10 large natural gas-fired generators that would only operate when needed.
BHE thinks they could have them all operational by 2023. Let’s see how that pig flies. I’m not saying it’s a bad idea; it is a great, common-sense idea but it runs directly against the stampeding buffalo herd of energy transitionists that is heading for the great big Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump – equivalent that they cannot see. We have to hope that elected officials will wake up and realize that the basics of life come first – adequate heat, shelter, food, etc. – and that fears of what the weather might be in 50 years need to come second.
Signs are not good; the red mist of insanity had blanketed almost every level of bureaucrat and even, as we have seen, a fair number of Canada’s Supreme Court justices. The number of people that can’t differentiate between ‘we want this quickly’ and ‘we can’t do this quickly’ is mind-boggling. Trendy items, normative rather than realistic, rank as higher than anything of substance, because anything of substance doesn’t matter as long as we have enough of it, today.
Here’s an example, a fittingly dimwitted commentary from a newsfeed of last week about commodity (?) market trading highlights: “Elsewhere, WTI crude oil futures (CL1:COM) sold off nearly 5% on Thursday, reversing Suez-inspired gains, but rebounded 2% overnight on word that it could take weeks to dislodge the ship blocking the canal. Meanwhile, Bitcoin (BTC-USD) is holding steady at the $53K level after a recent selloff, though futures contract rollover suggests the crypto could face more downward pressure in the near term.”
In the eyes of such Wall Street commentators, WTI crude futures and Bitcoin prices are comparable news. Let that sink in for a second. These are the people defining the news about the ‘energy transition’. Cluelessness reigns supreme, and it will until a wake up call occurs that is so resoundingly obvious that it can’t be ignored. Then we’ll hear these commentators talk about how oil consumption has been under the radar.
For anyone that understands energy, oil (and hydrocarbons) has not and never will be under the radar. After Texas, one shudders to think what will need to happen for the talking heads to pay attention to real energy issues. But one day they will.