The old grid is dying, and the new grid struggles to be born
Will now be the time of monstrous blackouts?
Greetings from sweltering Astoria, Queens, which I plan to soon flee for a few days on Fire Island with my family.
As I write this late Monday afternoon, I’m dripping sweat in front of a fan in my home office, biding my time before scurrying into the bedroom, where we keep our air conditioner. Without electricity, this would be unbearable.
For millions of people in the U.S., electricity could flicker off at any moment. That’s according to grid experts who say the haphazard, uncoordinated energy transition underway in the world’s most powerful nation is leaving vast swaths of the country at high risk of rolling blackouts.
Why this is happening and what it means for climate change are simple questions with complex answers, which I tried to answer at length in my latest story for HuffPost.
The short version goes like this. For decades, electric monopolies generated and delivered power to ratepayers, and worked with elected commissioners to set prices that covered the costs of fueling power plants, complying with regulations, and maintaining infrastructure. In the 1990s, states set up markets to force power plants to compete directly with each other on an hourly basis to see who could provide the least expensive electricity. This market was supposed to make power cheaper.
Instead, this new market allowed for natural gas and renewables, which offered low prices thanks to artificially cheap Wall Street loans and government subsidies, to gobble up the market. Unable to compete, coal and nuclear plants started closing early.
Environmentalists cheered this as a victory, since coal pollution is a main driver of global warming and nuclear waste has no permanent disposal site in the U.S.
But our power grid was built around coal plants, which can produce electricity as long as there’s fuel to burn, a month’s worth of which is typically kept on site. Nuclear reactors, which can go two years without being refueled, function similarly on the grid, but without the climate-changing emissions and air pollution.
Natural gas and renewables work differently. Gas is piped into a plant and burned almost instantly, so steady electrical output from a gas plant depends on an undisrupted network of pipelines and compressor stations – and on the logic of a globally-traded commodity market where a war in one part of the world or a heat wave in another can cause price swings.
Solar and wind need vast arrays of panels and turbines to produce electricity in volumes equal to a coal or nuclear plant, which requires a lot of space. Since cities and towns where electricity is most in demand don’t usually have loads of unused acreage, that means big renewable plants need to be located far away and connected to the grid with power lines.
Power lines are hard to build in the U.S. for all kinds of reasons, including NIMBYism and environmentalists who team up with fossil fuel companies to oppose them. And batteries to store renewable electricity for when it’s needed, and for when the sky is dark or the air is still, remain expensive, especially as electric vehicles sap the global supply. That means gas plants need to be available to back up renewables in case electricity demand eclipses supply.
Demand is growing. The biggest immediate driver right now is extreme weather. On sweltering days, air conditioning is a must. And the number of record-hot days has increased consistently in the past decade.
The other driver is climate policy. Rules to decarbonize transportation, heating systems, and stovetops mean a lot more electric vehicles, heat pumps, and induction stoves. By 2050, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates that could mean 38% higher electricity demand. And that isn’t counting the myriad other sources of intense electricity demand, such as desalination plants to turn saltwater into freshwater or direct air capture facilities to suck CO2 from the atmosphere. To say nothing of more debatably useful phenomena like Bitcoin mining.
So our power grid was designed for coal and nuclear, restructured to focus on short-run generating costs, then flooded with artificially-cheap gas and renewables. Coal and nuclear couldn’t compete, and the new pricing structure failed to provide enough incentives for the massive infrastructure overhauls required to complete the transition. Now, at the moment when we need more from our grid, it’s at risk of buckling. The old grid is dying, so to speak, and the new grid struggles to be born. Now is the time of monsters.
Read the full story here.
In other news:
To imagine what a battery-powered grid might look like, check out the new plant that just came back online in California. Inside Climate News
Solar manufacturing faces major headwinds from trade tariffs and the apparent collapse of climate talks in Congress. But the sector is growing in the U.S. anyway. Canary Media
Redwood Materials, a battery-recycling startup founded by a former Tesla executive, is planning a $3.5 billion facility in Nevada. Bloomberg
The Democratic Republic of Congo, the top source of cobalt for batteries, is now planning to auction off ancient forests to oil companies for drilling. The New York Times
The Swedish parliament’s European Union committee voted to approve a resolution requiring the country to push the bloc to keep nuclear plants open amid the continent’s dual energy and climate crises. Sveriges Radio
Thank you for reading.