Freezing in the Dark

There has been much concern about possible hacking of the power grid by Russia, China, and others.  Here we have a segment from Rachel Maddow, inspired by a threat analysis from the US Intelligence Community.  From the analysis:

China has the ability to launch cyber attacks that cause localized, temporary disruptive effects on critical infrastructure–such as disruption of a natural gas pipeline for days to weeks–in the United States. Russia has the ability to execute cyber attacks in the United States that generate localized, temporary disruptive effects on critical infrastructure.

Maddow:  It’s like negative 50 degrees in the Dakotas right now. What would happen if Russia killed the power today?  What would happen if all the natural gas lines that service Sioux Falls just poof on the coldest day in recent memories?

What would happen?  Nothing good.  These are serious threats, and I doubt that Russia and China are or will continue to be the only entities able to conduct such cyberattacks.  And there is also plenty of risk for non-cyber attacks…physical-world sabotage…which could have similarly malign impact on energy infrastructure.

But we don’t need to wait for a foreign adversary or domestic terrorist organization to cripple our energy infrastructure.  We can quite effectively do it to ourselves.

In late January, it was very cold in Minnesota.  And there wasn’t a lot of wind.  Natural gas, also, was in short supply, as a result of pipeline capacity constraints.  Xcel Energy urged its gas customers to turn down thermostats and water heaters, and to use electric heaters as necessary.  The electricity was coming from primarily coal plants (40 GW) and natural gas plants (about 23 GW)–the gas plants, of course, are also dependent on pipeline capacity.

Also in Minnesota, here’s a large solar farm covered with snow.  Wonder if it’s melted or been swept off yet?  And here’s a cautionary story from Germany, where long, still, and dim winters do not mix well with wind and solar power generation.

Solar and wind in most parts of the US are now small enough in proportion to overall grid capacity that shortfalls can be made up by the other sources.  What happens if they come to represent the majority of the grid’s power capacity–not to mention the exclusive source of capacity, as demanded by some?

It may be feasible to store a few hours of electricity without driving costs out of sight…but what about the situation in which wind and solar are underperforming for several days in a row?  Interconnection of sources and demands over a wide area (geographical diversity) can help, but is by no means a comprehensive solution. So far, the gas, coal, and hydro plants have been there to kick in where necessary.

Almost every day, there are assertions that new solar is cheaper than its fossil-fuel equivalents.  This may be true in some areas if you ignore the need to match supply and demand on an instantaneous basis.  But if the fossil-fuel plants are there to handle only those periods when wind, solar, and limited battery storage aren’t sufficient to meet demand, then the total energy production against which their capital cost is charged will be much lower, and hence, the cost per unit will go up. (See the California Duck Must Die for a nice visual portrayal of how widespread solar adoption has changed the load curve for the other sources.)  In some states with net metering, a home or business owner can sell excess power to the grid when loads are low and buy it back at the same unit price when loads are at their maximum. This becomes especially problematic when “renewables” become a major part of the mix.  Unless incentives are intelligently crafted–unlikely, given politics–“renewable” sources will effectively be subsidized by conventional sources and potentially make the construction and maintenance of those conventional sources impossible.  See If Solar and Wind Are So Cheap, Why Do They Make Electricity So Expensive?


Any successful attempt to politically and rapidly drive wind/solar to 50% or more of the total mix…let alone to even higher numbers…is likely to result in vastly increased energy costs which will make American businesses les globally competitive…in addition to the direct imact on homeowners…and will quite likely also result in reduced reliability.  But look what is going on in Los Angeles, where Mayor Eric Garcetti wants to shut down 3 natural-gas-fired peaker plants…which produce 2-7 percent of the city’s electricity and are most critical during the hottest days of the year, when demand for air conditioning spikes and power supplies are stretched to the limit…and forbid their replacement by other nat-gas peakers.  The plans for replacing this capacity seem rather vague.

The quality of media reporting on energy issues is generally pretty low.  Again and again, I see articles–in the business as well as the general media–in which the author clearly does not understand the difference between a kilowatt and a kilowatt-hour.  This distinction is of the essence when talking about storage technologies.  Talking about electricity storage capacity in terms of kilowatts (or megawatts, or gigawatts) is like trying to measure your car’s gas tank capacity in horsepower.

The quality of political discussion of energy-related issues is so low as to be abysmal.  The interchange between Diane Feinstein was devoid of any discussion of evidence or lack of same related to fossil-fuel-drive climate change, or technological and logistical changes involved in swapping out America’s entire energy infrastructure.  It was basically a Children’s Crusade, with the children spurred on by their priests to attack the heathen, and with Feinstein as an arrogant aristocrat, with no arguments other than “I’m the authority and I know best.”

Occasio-Cortez and certain other democrats like to analogize their proposed “Green New Deal” with the American effort during WWII, but I’m reminded of certain other top-down national efforts:  Stalin’s White Sea Canal and Khrushchev’s Virgin Lands campaign.  I’m also reminded of a Russian writer’s story about his time on a collective farm:  There was a politically-high-profile nationwide effort to increase liquid fertilizer production.  The collective farms were supposed to gratefully pick up the additional product, but they didn’t have the transportation capacity. So they dumped it in the river.

And, of course, there was also Chairman Mao and his approaches both to agriculture and to steel production.

Gennady Andreev-Khomiakov, deputy manager of a Soviet factory, reflected on the chaos into which the production of lumber (the key input to his factory) had been thrown, and contrasted it with the way things had worked (his father had been in the lumber trade) before the Revolution:

The free and “unplanned” and therefore ostensibly chaotic character of lumber production before the revolution in reality possessed a definite order. As the season approached, hundreds of thousands of forest workers gathered in small artels of loggers, rafters, and floaters, hired themselves out to entrepreneurs through their foremen, and got all the work done. The Bolsheviks, concerned with “putting order” into life and organizing it according to their single scheme, destroyed that order and introduced their own–and arrived at complete chaos in lumbering…

Such in the immutable law. The forceful subordination of life’s variety into a single mold will be avenged by that variety’s becoming nothing but chaos and disorder.

The threat of attacks on energy infrastructure by hostile states and/or by terrorists is indeed a serious one, but so is the danger of energy chaos created by arrogant and clueless politicians, journalists, and ‘celebrities’ of various kinds.

Some useful links:

A very nice interactive map, showing real-time sources of energy in areas of the US and several other countries.

A detailed analysis of energy policy and economics in Minnesota

An article about the limits of renewables in Germany.

The PJM grid and the storms of January 2018.

41 thoughts on “Freezing in the Dark”

  1. I read something the other day about a satellite that was in an orbit over the poles but was going in the opposite direction from those that are observational. I tried a search and can’t find it. One issue in the piece I saw was whether this might be a nuke.

  2. I read that snippit too. Likely in Insty. Claimed to be Nork satellite.
    I didn’t know they had that capability, just some more windfall from the
    Clinton Presidency and Loral. Move along, nothing to see here.

  3. As with all environmental stuff, people are ok with switching to “renewables” as long as it costs them NOTHING. Once the price goes above ZERO, support evaporates. So let’s not stress too much about this Green New Deal idiocy, but let’s definitely encourage the Dems to support it, because by doing so they’re cutting their own throats.

  4. I believe that article was from The Epoch Times, instapundit may have linked it. I don’t see what the direction of a polar orbit signafies other than a launch choice.

  5. I don’t see what the direction of a polar orbit signafies other than a launch choice.

    I understand the matter involves the cost of getting a satellite into orbit and the issue of which direction seems to be a question of why go opposite to those already in orbit?

    Polar orbits are more expansive.

  6. I only vaguely recall the significance, something to the effect that the normal direction gives an orbit that follows the rotation allowing
    a constant orbit above the launch facility (North Korea-for observation or comms maybe), the opposite direction has the flight path circling the globe- and over the US, with a payload for EMP or other attack. More likely just to mess with the heads of the intelligence community,
    such as they are, or not.

  7. I think the vulnerability of the grid is being systematically exaggerated groups wit either a bureaucratic or commercial ax to grind. The actual grid is far too chaotic and labor intensive and too dependent on 100+ years of legacy to be attacked easily. Too much of it still depends on sending someone down a right-of-way in a pickup with a hot stick to operate a switch. Not that they wouldn’t allow it if they could.

    Many years ago, my father was involved in determining how the Colorado electric system could be re-started after a complete shut down. The process started at a small hydro plant above Boulder where the penstock gates could be raised manually, the power could be routed to another plant, allowing it to be started, etc. I do wonder if this is still possible.

    Another problem that Minnesota has with renewables is bio-diesel. Where the rest of us have to put up with 5%, I believe they mandate 10 or 20%. Among many other problems, this makes the fuel gel at a higher temperature and much more susceptible to microbial growth that plugs filters. There’s a reason that bio content of jet fuel is limited to 5ppm, 0.0005%.

    I suspect the map is largely BS. It shows California as light green and I’m pretty sure that it doesn’t take the out of state coal production into account. Also, Yukon Territory where I’m pretty sure the great majority of power generation is diesel. It’s too cold for hydro and too far north for solar.

  8. California energy consumption includes 25% of Los Angeles electricity coming from the Navajo coal plants in Arizona,.

    Back a few years ago, when Arizona tried to enforce immigration law, the LA City Council voted to boycott Arizona,.

    The staff had to quietly tell them where the power came from.

  9. MCS…I found the source data from the Callifornia Interconnect, for 2017. Coal at that point was 4% of the source, almost all of it coming in from the Southwest.

    The electricity map has 2 modes, production and consumption. The consumption map is supposed to show sources of all power *consumed* in the state, regardless of where it came from. For today, the last-24-hour chart shows no coal use…it’s possible that they phased out the 4% totally since 2017, or alternatively that it is only needed for higher loads on weekday afternoons and/or summer air conditioning loads.

  10. The Navajo Generating Station is a major source of power for irrigation and other uses of water in Arizona; it is now slated for closure.

    The Navajo Tribe owns the coal mines which feed the plant, and it provides a lot of badly-needed jobs for them. At least some factions within the tribe have been attempting to save the plant, but it now looks as if those efforts are not going to be successful

  11. There are/were 2 coal mines that were up in NE Arizona feeding 2 coal powered
    generating plants that California sourced. If you travel north from Flagstaff
    on SR89 to SR163 heading towards Moab, Utah, you pass way under an elevated conveyor
    belt transporting coal towards the Navajo Generating Station near Page. At night, you can see the
    lighted conveyor belt from far in the distance, it is an eerie sight. The second coal
    plant is sourced to power a generating station in Laughlin, Nevada, which also sold power to CA.
    Coal for that plant was transported as a coal slurry, and was pumped about 300 miles or so.
    That generating station was shut down some years back.

    Shutting down these coal mines is a real hardship for the reservations. Except for the commercial
    strips you see passing through places like Tuba City and Kayenta, mostly what you see looks
    very grim. Not enough traffic to profit greatly from casinos and tax free cigarettes.
    Some of the terrain looks like a moonscape, as barren as you will ever see.

  12. I don’t see what the direction of a polar orbit signafies other than a launch choice.

    The United States’ nuclear defense network-radars, missiles, etc–was designed and positioned to deal with missiles launched over the North Pole from the Soviet Union. The purported Nork orbital bomb, in a polar orbit, could arrive from the South.

  13. I don’t know the recent story of the coal mines in Arizona,. I wonder of it has anything to do with the recent leftward drift of the voters?

    I know Grijalva, a far leftist , is stirring up trouble for a copper mine in southern Arizona.

  14. But is it really a nuke? The Norks do not have much experience building ICBM’s and satellites but do have a long track record of disinformation campaigns. And it’s a lot cheaper to put a load of junk in orbit and suggest it might be a bomb.

  15. I think the vulnerability of the grid is being systematically exaggerated groups wit either a bureaucratic or commercial ax to grind. The actual grid is far too chaotic and labor intensive and too dependent on 100+ years of legacy to be attacked easily.

    As I understand it, the damage and disruption seen in the 1859 Carrington Event show that even very old electrical equipment would be highly vulnerable. Can you direct Chicago Boyz readers to contrary evidence?

  16. Brian…”As with all environmental stuff, people are ok with switching to “renewables” as long as it costs them NOTHING. Once the price goes above ZERO, support evaporates.”

    Thing is, the cost may show up in ways that aren’t intuitively connected to the switch in electric sourcing. For example, higher bulk electricity costs will show up in water bills, because of the power consumption of the pumps. If the retail electricity rates are more or less protected, how many people will make the connection between the greening of their electricity and the increases in their water bills??…many will just curse the water company and its greed.

  17. Mike,

    As far as the coal mines/power plants are concerned, decisions made in recent years
    have as much to do with frac gas pricing than with objections to carbon dioxide. The
    Laughlin station shut down before frac gas came online, so maybe an environmental issue.
    I knew about the coal slurry pipeline to Laughlin because in the early 80s I worked
    for Phelps Dodge at the Morenci Copper mine as Process/Project Engineer at the smelter.
    Coal slurry transport was a big interest at that time, but I don’t think it spread
    beyond the one to Laughlin.

    It has been 4-5 years since I read anything about it, but there was a proposed mine
    project somewhere around Sonoita I think. I know there was substantial opposition
    because of concerns about ground water depletion. There were a number of open pit mines
    south of Tucson plus some more north of Mt. Lemmon (San Manuel) and around Miami-Globe and Hayden, but I can’t say much
    about their current status. Heading past Green Valley 10+ years ago, I noticed an open pit
    copper mine (whose name escapes me) fairly close by. Noise, dust and and ground water
    contamination are common complaints. Mining and milling sulfide ore commonly leaves
    tailings subject to acidification and leached metal contamination.

  18. I don’t know what to make of that climate impact map. In Illinois we get 50% of our power from six nuclear power plants around the state. I assume they don’t consider nuclear renewable? It’s clean as far as carbon emissions. It does generate other significant waste, but so does the solar and wind during the lifecyle of their production.

    Although, it may not matter anyway. Despite leading the nation in safe nuclear power generation (and coal for that matter) the Democrat Machine-controlled political regime has mandated that we must switch to 25% wind & solar by 2025. This will somehow occur at the same time we’re staring into the pension crisis abyss on one side and getting shoved into it by higher taxes on the other side.

  19. Grurray…if you click on one of the regional colors, you’ll get a detail panel on the left. Two numbers are shown: “low carbon” includes nuclear generation and “renewable” does not.

  20. Illinois and California both have pension issues and are ruled by crazies, in the form of corrupt Democrat administrations.

    New York And Illinois are both controlled by corrupt cities. California by a coastal strip that has no interest in the interior, so it is similar.

    I saw a Victor Davis Hanson lecture on video given to a group in Bakersfield as a representative of the interior “red state” section of California that is being damaged severely by the coastal cabal.

  21. Ah, thanks I see it now. That’s a rather strict definition of renewable considering we have at least another century and a half supply of uranium and probably much more, especially if we take into account other sources like thorium. How did we ever let radical fundamentalists take control of our energy and industrial policies?

  22. Also, solar panels (and especially wind turbines) and their associated equipment don’t last forever. It would be interesting to calculate the tonnage of scrap that will ultimately come from a 2GW solar or wind facility versus that which will come from a 2GW nuclear plant. To do it right, you’d have to consider the differing useful lifetimes of various types of equipment within the plants.

  23. “Illinois and California both have pension issues and are ruled by crazies, in the form of corrupt Democrat administrations.”
    A few years ago the LA water department agreed to a new contract where apparently by the end (meaning only a few years) the percentage of total costs due to pensions will grow from 15 to 65 percent or something similarly absurd. That state is so hosed.
    I used to say the Dem plan was to California-ize the nation, since they have taken over the state completely, and that this was never going to work, but now I’m not quite so sure. It may be a close run thing…

  24. What happened to the mini-nuclear plants designed to provide energy for 25,000 homes, etc.? Like most ways of local control, it would likely have strengths and weaknesses, but a strength would be less vulnerability. (Maybe that just didn’t work like they’d hoped – I remember hearing of it in early stages.)

  25. Pst314: I was mostly addressing the hacking hysteria rather than geo-magnetic storms. More specifically that there isn’t one OFF switch but thousands on every imaginable sort of equipment. I’m sure that there are individual vulnerabilities that would lead to local problems but probably not a single one, wide spread enough to shut down the whole grid and that there is continuous planning for recovering from different contingencies. I have a little faith that among the thousands of engineers at the utilities, at least some are competent. Pollyanna may turn out to be right, time will tell.

    I have long contended that the energy/carbon foot print of anything is most accurately measured by its installed cost. Production of solar and wind power equipment is very energy intensive. Both also depend to a large extent on very toxic materials in the manufacturing process. The corollary is; that to the extent these need to be subsidized, they probably cost more, including carbon emitted to the atmosphere, than they save.

  26. The little nukes? I always understood that the plants that could fit in anyone’s backyard fell prey to NIMBY-ism. Well, that and worries about having fissile and/or radioactive material in more locations. At any rate, they were killed by political, not technical, reasons.

    Mind, it’s possible, even probable, that there would have been some technical missteps that were discovered in the building of the plants… but it never got that far.

    Most recent new reactor went online in 2016; it was permitted in 1970 and began construction in 1973. Not a new plant, of course. It was the second reactor at Watts Bar. Before that you have to go back two decades to Watts Bar Unit 1.

  27. GE recently sold a huge steam turbine order, 4.8GW worth, to Egypt, for a nuclear plant which is being built there. But the reactors came from Rosatom–sounds like a Russian name, and it is–currently the world’s largest provider of reactors.

    Thomas Edison, in his campaign against AC power, used some very sleazy fear-mongering tactics. If our current sociopolitical climate had then existed, he probably would have gotten away with it.

  28. “How did we ever let radical fundamentalists take control of our energy and industrial policies?”

    Funded by progressives (for power and crony profiteering) and OPEC (to keep us from competing with them).


  29. and the Russians – money to environmentalists led to attempts to totally green, which didn’t succeed and left them dependent. the country that is big gas station with a lot of acreage attached tried to steady its economy. This seemed the thesis of Watermelons (I didn’t read, just heard him on c-span, but also heard that from some skeptical central Europeans). I love the image of the luscious greenness and the pink within.

    I’m sorry if it was nimbyism that killed them – I loved the ideas of communities having that kind of independence – a gun has limited value if we are freezing to death and have retreated to the pre-energy world.

  30. MCS: Thanks for the clarification. I tend to agree that “the energy/carbon foot print of anything is most accurately measured by its installed cost”: There maysometimes be more accurate measures, but we will rarely see them because those touting “green” policies lie constantly and systematically.

  31. Wartsila has developed a simulation to give people some sense for what is involved in managing an interconnection of several different types of power sources while avoiding system failure. Description here:

    The simulation itself is here:

    Windows and IOS…I haven’t tried it yet.

  32. There’s a good article by a long term environmentalist supporting nuclear power.

    There’s an interesting California Duck article explaining why solar & wind need backup baseload.
    It says:
    ” California’s famous sunshine helps produce lots of solar electricity during the day—when demand is typically low. ”

    However, there’s complaints about LA and air conditioning problems in the summer, so I don’t quite believe the CA Duck problem, for the summer high AC months.

    I’ve long supported, and still support, solar powered AC.
    Also nukes, especially thorium reactors (2 in India, plus a new one coming up).

    I expect Trump and Reps to pivot towards massive support for nukes in the (near?) future — maybe even before 2020.

  33. Not that its important, but with the precision displayed by today’s missiles, all those nuclear plants are free nuclear enhancements, for a cheaper conventional weapon.

    No they would never do that. ;)

    I can take 4 or 5 days without power in my stride, its certainly inconvenient, but in no way threatening.

  34. Not that its important, but with the precision displayed by today’s missiles, all those nuclear plants are free nuclear enhancements, for a cheaper conventional weapon.

    Given the hardness of nuke plant container vessels, the remoteness of many of those plants from populated areas, and the vagaries of weather, wouldn’t it make more sense for an attacker to use cheaper, less accurate bombs and missiles on population centers and save the expensive PGM for high-value military targets? Crazy talk, I know.

  35. Well there are not going to be bombs, unless you do believe your B2s are invisible. The Russians have made it quite plain what they can and will do if attacked.

    The future of war is missiles, missiles, missiles and the guys with the best ones win. That’s not you at the moment but its all in flux.

  36. Tom G…”However, there’s complaints about LA and air conditioning problems in the summer, so I don’t quite believe the CA Duck problem, for the summer high AC months.”

    When the sun goes down, or is even low in the sky, it can still be plenty warm and need AC. Also, you’re going to get other loads coming on around that time: lighting, cooking, higher traffic for subways & electric trains, etc.

  37. I grew up in So-Cal, and most of the houses I lived in when I was there – and when I lived for a year in base housing at Mather AFB in 1981 – did not have central air conditioning. Generally didn’t need it, because the houses I lived in were built in the 40ies (even before, in the case of my grandparents cottage in Pasadena) or so to take advantage of air flow, and got by with a single small window unit in one room, for use on the very hottest days. It was my experience then – that opening every window and having fans on after sunset, to blow in cool air at night, and then closing windows, curtains and shutters to preserve that coolness by early morning – was sufficient to remain comfortable on all but the most scorching-hot days, when the Santa Ana winds blew in the fall.
    But conditions have changed, mostly in house-building, and the density of neighborhoods – very likely it is essential now to have central air. Because of the noise in the neighborhood, if nothing else.
    My current house in Texas has no through natural air-flow. In the summer, it’s horrible to be without AC.

  38. Living 90 miles from Houston, I’ve often thought how hardy the original settlers were to have lived and worked hard in these summers. The combination of heat in the 90’s and humidity is very uncomfortable. But it does show that life is more than possible without AC. Drink lots of water and prize the shade and breeze. No wonder they were up at dawn to get as much done as possible.


  39. A modest proposal for future solar panels installations: 1)A thorium reactor of appropriate size shall be installed adjacent to such a facility; 2) Electric arc lamps shall be placed in such proximity to the solar panels that the solar panels are operated at 80% of their manufacturer output during times when the sun does shine; 3) “global climate change activists” are shot on site.

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