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.