Standing on the train platform the other day, after work, a chilling event happened, and I’m not just referring to the weather, although there was that. It was one of those dull but frigid days when standing still, waiting, on concrete, leaves a person daydreaming not of mansions and fast cars and alluring holidays but of crawling under a pile of blankets.
The cheerful Calgary Transit voice comes over the speaker system to tell us the temperature, and that it’s cloudy. Shut up. We know. We’re waiting outside. For YOUR train.
The next message emanating from the loudspeaker shed the cheerfulness for slightly nervous solemnity. Northbound trains were not operating because of an electrical outage. Not ‘running late’ – not running at all. A few hundred red-cheeked and startled faces crammed on the platform turned to each other in search of guidance, of which there was none, then began moving in tiny circles as they weighed the absence of good alternatives with the prospect of freezing their feet to blackened stumps by standing still out there for too long.
You think I’m exaggerating, you try it.
Luckily my train was heading in the other direction and it did show up. I gratefully scampered aboard and nestled amongst the sleeping street people that tour the city in warmth until asked not to. Safe for another journey (street people notwithstanding).
The episode is a (literally) bone-chilling reminder of the horror that is the ‘electrify everything’ movement.
‘Electrify everything’ is a mantra of the crowd that sees a hydrocarbon-free future on the horizon. You know the ones; we’ll be net-zero by 2050 because we ‘have to’ and the government mandated it. What could go wrong?
A quick DuckDuckGo query (Google can go to hell) delivers a seemingly infinite selection of writing on the topic: “How to Electrify Everything, and Why” from progressive.org. Vox throws in: “The key to tackling climate change: electrify everything.”
A website called marketplace.org has a story with the lead in: “The most recent and pressing instance in which electrifying everything could have saved lives is Hurricane Ida.”
An article from Grist sums up the EE thinking. “With global energy demand expected to increase by as much as 58 percent in the next three decades, the urgency to transition away from fossil fuels to power buildings and vehicles is growing. A director from the Sierra Club explains, ‘In order to make buildings carbon neutral by 2050, we need to phase out the sale of gas appliances by 2030…It’s really exciting to watch.’ “
The article goes on to chart the progress in electrifying transport – public, auto, and truck. The article intones, “The changes can’t come soon enough.”
On August 9, 2019, in Britain, at about 4:52 pm, a number of electricity generators tripped off the grid from what is believed to be a lightning strike hitting a high-voltage line. A report by Britain’s Office of Rail and Road indicated that the lightning strike and subsequent generator trips forced the grid’s frequency to drop from 50 HZ to 48.8 HZ for “approximately 33 seconds.”
I can see you yawning already. How many of you would read a story with the headline “British power grid frequency falls by 1.2 HZ for 33 seconds”? I have a good idea how many – zero.
But the repercussions of those 33 seconds…now that was interesting. “Outside Kings Cross Station is absolute mayhem”, said one report. The reason? Electric trains and traffic signals powered down immediately. A BBC story described people stranded on trains in the middle of nowhere for hours and hours, with nowhere to go, no exit from the train, no water, toilets best left to the imagination. “By hour seven things were starting to get pretty tense. We were being held in the middle of nowhere. Food ran out about five hours ago… We quite simply had to sit.”
Away from the stranded trains, with traffic lights out, widespread traffic pandemonium and gridlock were the inevitable result particularly at rush hour.
That was in central Britain, in the middle of summer, when it got kind of stuffy on those trains I am sure but…what if that happened at sub-zero temperatures? Ok, it wouldn’t have been a lightning strike in those conditions, but if we ‘electrify everything’ we can be sure that power outages will only increase. How can they not? Many bad things can happen to power lines, at any time, with widespread consequences.
Ask anyone that lives in a region that gets ice storms – first thing down is power lines. Major transmission lines are, well, you couldn’t build a better target for lightning across the flat bald prairies.
‘Electrify everything’ is far worse than these train stoppages though, because, by definition, everything would rely on electricity. Including heat.
What would electrify everything mean in harsh weather conditions? Well, the pandemonium on the train platform is but a tiny glimpse of the chaos that could unfold. Imagine if everything were electrified, and there was a power outage.
What would work? Virtually nothing. Everything would grind to a halt, and buildings would begin to cool rapidly. Any vehicles that had battery life – because no more internal combustion engines, remember, not in an electrified world – would be a refuge, until those batteries ran out, which would not take very long at all.
Electrify everything means that even rural people are being encouraged to install heat pumps. Some solution, that – those devices are only effective down to a certain not-very-cold temperature anyway, about -5 degrees C. What happens to all the heat pumps if the power goes out?
Now, one would think the Deciding Class would be considering all this, and buttressing the electrical grid/system accordingly. But no, they are going the other way.
The same ‘electrify everything’ crowd wants us to, or rather demands that we, abandon hydrocarbons in favour of intermittent power sources. Their goals are to introduce less reliability into the system.
That same crowd thinks it understands the issue and therefore is pressing for the pairing of batteries with wind and solar. Oh lord save us all. Think about that for a second, in the context of how the world actually works.
First off, the danger from weather is when it is most extreme – either too hot or too cold. Those extremes are when the electrical grid is taxed the most and when power demand is highest. The risk is also most extreme – at -35 degrees C, people will die rapidly without heat. At plus 35 degrees C, people will expire rapidly without air conditioning.
Guess what. At weather extremes, all three – wind, solar, and batteries – perform the absolute worst.
During heat waves, wind speeds tend to be low, and solar panels lose their efficiency. So counting on those two in a heat wave is a non-starter. ‘Electrify everything’ would like to see batteries paired with wind/solar, but the same issue affects lithium-ion (and all batteries) – they don’t like high heat.
According to this research paper, the optimal range for lithium-ion batteries is 15-35 degrees Celsius. Remember too that that is optimal battery temperature and not ambient temperature; batteries can get far warmer than ambient if sitting in the sun, or from operation. Per the paper, operating outside this comfort zone, batteries “will degrade fast with increased risk of facing safety problems that include fire and explosion.”
During extreme cold, solar is obviously not much help, and wind speeds tend to be low as well. And then there’s poor old fair-weather batteries – they hate cold more than heat.
In extreme heat, air-conditioning is essential, particularly in hospitals, seniors centres, office buildings, schools you name it. It is life or death in hospitals and for seniors.
In extreme cold, well, don’t really have to spell that out for you do I.
An all-electric heating and transportation system is a recipe for disaster, and the worse the weather the worse the problems will be.
This isn’t to say natural gas and the rest of our existing system is perfect; however, humanity has developed along with it, and can’t live without it. There is no Edmonton or Winnipeg or Detroit as we know and love them without natural gas.
Furthermore, a truly great thing about the natural gas system, one that reaches a staggering number of places with incredible safety and reliability, is that it operates largely independently of the electrical system. A power outage does not impact gas supplies in the short term, and thus any of us subjected to below-zero temperatures can remain unfrozen thanks to that gas supply. We might not have power, but with natural gas, we can have fire. And heat.
‘Electrify everything’ is a barbaric and stupid concept that, if even partially adopted, will outright kill large swathes of humanity when harsh weather strikes. Imagine being stranded in the dead of winter, unable to travel anywhere except on foot, and even if you could, where would you go?
Buildings would have no heat. Water pipes would freeze. If the harsh weather lasts more than a few days, even mega-banks of batteries could not be recharged in any meaningful way, should they ever rise in prominence as advocates hope.
The move to ‘Electrify everything’ perfectly encapsulates the lazy thinking that is doing so much damage to energy systems. They’re the goofballs that think Net Zero 2050 is happening just because governments said it would. The loudest quackery tends to come from advocates in moderate climates, the zones where climate policy is developed, who think ideas like ‘electrify everything’ are noble targets. They have no clue how quickly -20 closes in on you, with no power, and no heat.
The rest of us, who face challenging weather as a matter of routine, are expected to do our part by just dropping dead in extreme weather, I guess. Hell of a way to run a country.
Energy dialogue should be exciting and positive! Get started by deconstructing the current mess. Pick up “The End of Fossil Fuel Insanity” at Amazon.ca, Indigo.ca, or Amazon.com. Thanks!
Read more insightful analysis from Terry Etam here, or email Terry here.