Can Grids Survive Global Weirding?

February 19, 2021

New York Times:

In California, wildfires and heat waves in recent years forced utilities to shut off power to millions of homes and businesses. Now, Texas is learning that deadly winter storms and intense cold can do the same.

The country’s two largest states have taken very different approaches to managing their energy needs — Texas deregulated aggressively, letting the free market flourish, while California embraced environmental regulations. Yet the two states are confronting the same ominous reality: They may be woefully unprepared for the increasing frequency and severity of natural disasters caused by climate change.

Blackouts in Texas and California have revealed that power plants can be strained and knocked offline by the kind of extreme cold and hot weather that climate scientists have said will become more common as greenhouse gases build up in the atmosphere.

The problems in Texas and California highlight the challenge the Biden administration will face in modernizing the electricity system to run entirely on wind turbines, solar panels, batteries and other zero-emission technologies by 2035 — a goal that President Biden set during the 2020 campaign.

Houston Chronicle:

WASHINGTON – For most of the last century, power grid operators in Texas could count on fairly reliable weather: hot summers and mild winters punctuated by the occasional, short-lived cold snap.

But with advent of climate change, historical weather charts are being tossed aside. Scientists predict Texas will experience more intense heat waves, more violent thunderstorms, heavier rains and maybe even more snow in what some call “climate weirding” caused by higher concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

While too early to say whether the week’s freakishly cold temperatures were the result of climate change, the state’s power system was not prepared for the extreme weather conditions scientists say we should expect in the decades ahead. The question now is whether Texas’s deregulated power system, in which preparedness depends on profits, is designed to handle the ever-increasing stresses of climate change.

“Whether it’s hot or cold, the weather’s changing. In my mind you need to be prepared for the worst of anything,” said Larry Weiss, the former CEO of the municipal utility Austin Energywho now consults for utilities around the country. “There needs to be some incentive for power plants to stay on and be available. Right now it’s a free market in Texas, and you dispatch when you want to. If you freeze up, you just say, ‘Sorry.’”

In the years ahead, power experts say, Texas will need not only to better weatherize natural gas plants, pipelines and wind turbines, but also expand the amount the power generation kept in reserve for times of crisis when power plants inevitably shut down. Technologies such as grid-scale batteries and demand response systems, which reduce power consumption when supplies are short by turning down air conditioners and lighting, should help that effort.

But doing so is likely to be expensive, requiring major investment from power companies that under the current system have little incentive to ensure their equipment is functional in times of extreme weather.

Reliability has long been a balancing act for the power grid. The old utility model, in which highly regulated monopolies generated, transmitted and sold power, provided clear incentives to build backup generation. It allowed companies to recover costs plus a healthy rate of return from customers when utilities built a new plant, even if it might only run a few days a year — if at all.

The deregulated model that swept the nation in the late 1990s and early 2000s embraced markets to supply the power need to run the economy. In the version enacted by the Texas Legislature in 2002, generators only get paid for the electricity they sell, an approach intended to provide cheaper electricity.

It has for some, but deregulation has also driven power prices so low throughout most of the year that companies say it does not make economic sense to build and maintain additional generating capacity that sits unused except in rare times of emergency.

New York Times again:

“We really need to change our paradigm, particularly utilities, because they are becoming much more vulnerable to disaster,” Najmedin Meshkati, an engineering professor at the University of Southern California, said about blackouts in Texas and California. “They need to always think about literally the worst-case scenario because the worst case scenario is going to happen.”

Mr. Meshkati, who served on National Academies committees that studied BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the Fukushima nuclear disaster, said Mr. Biden should establish a commission to investigate the grid failures in Texas and California and recommend changes.

But it is not clear how much Mr. Biden will be able to accomplish, given the limited federal role in overseeing utilities, which are primarily regulated at the state level. He may not even be able to assemble a majority in Congress to advance an ambitious climate plan given the Democrats’ narrow hold on the Senate and strong opposition from most Republicans to policies designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Houston Chronicle again:

For years, economists and some power companies have advocated for a so-called capacity market in which power companies are paid not just for the electricity they generate, but also for additional generation they can provide in times of shortage, with large penalties if they fail to come through.

Ed Hirs, an economist at the University of Houston, likens the current system to the Houston Astros only paying the players that take the field in the first inning, not those sitting on the bench, ready to come in if a player gets injured or the circumstances of the game change. But so far he has found few takers among Texas politicians.

“They say it makes a lot of sense, but it would raise the price of energy and no incumbent is going to vote for it,” Hirs said. “We go through this all the time with hurricanes. Ike was a wake-up call. Harvey was a wake-up call. But nobody wants to spend the money on where we want to get on reliability.”

In the meantime, the weather challenges facing Texas’s power grid are only growing.

A study last year by scientists at Texas A&M University estimated that by 2036, extreme rainfall would become 30 to 50 percent more frequent in Texas than it was in the second half of the 20th century, and storm surge risk along some parts of the Texas coast would double by 2050.

“Prudent planning recognizes that we cannot know whether reality will end up higher or lower than the best available present-day estimates,” the report cautioned.

7 Responses to “Can Grids Survive Global Weirding?”

  1. Anthony William O'brien Says:

    Resilience and spare capacity costs. If you want the cheapest possible price, then you get blackouts and a sorry in extreme circumstances. Unfortunately it is when circumstances are extreme that you most need power.

    Yes my power costs are more expensive than in Texas, but right now I am not complaining In thirty odd years all the blackouts together add up to a few hours.

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      Spare capacity in the form of contractual second-tranche industrial users is very affordable. We can shut down Amalgamated Tea Cozy during times of grid stress.

  2. J4Zonian Says:

    Germany’s grid is one of the most reliable in the world, and it’s only gotten more reliable as they increased the percent of renewables (47% now). It’s price structure is different, which confuses people enough to allow the right wing’s lies to work, but the prices are comparable to other countries with all degrees of renewablizement. Prices of electricity will no doubt continue to drop, as the US states with the most wind have dropped. There’s a strong correlation between amount of wind power, lowthness of price, and grid reliability… when there’s not criminal neglect or worse.

    • Mark Mev Says:

      “It’s price structure is different” Could you point me to anything that would explain in detail what that means and how I would respond to the right wing comment: “Germany’s renewable experiment has failed. They have the highest electrical prices.” Thanks.

      • J4Zonian Says:

        “The power prices paid by industry are one of the most contentious aspects of Germany’s energy transition and its economic impacts. Business lobby groups routinely call the price of electricity a central threat to industry competitiveness. But sweeping claims in this debate hide the fact that there is no single power price for industrial consumers, but instead an exceptionally broad range of prices. Due to a complex system of taxes and levies, they depend on how much power companies need, when they need it, how they source it, whether they compete with rivals abroad, and many other factors. Because wholesale prices have fallen in the course of the Energiewende while taxes and levies have increased substantially, the price of power for industrial consumers in Germany can be both extremely high and extremely low. As German industry plans to use massive amounts of renewable electricity to reach climate targets, the power price is set to become even more important in the years to come.”

        Sorry it took so long to respond; I was looking for some source that’s explained the thing better than I’ve seen, and then had trouble deciding what to include and what not to from what I found, which was a lot of avoidance. It seems no one can explain it unboringly, or wants to try.

        It’s the classic Gish Gallop dilemma. The unprincipled can churn out a dozen lies while people trying to educate degunk just one. And the intricacies of German electricity prices explain why no one I know of has explained it. If Peter doesn’t want to tackle it, David Roberts would be the one to not only splain it but make it (almost) interesting. He’s got a new newsletter called Volts. If you subscribe you have input into what he writes about, and because Germany has been so successful, this is a fairly important perennial issue used to mislead.

        The purpose of this attack is to implicitly deny that clean safe renewable energy is now the cheapest energy source of all (except for efficiency) by way of denigrating Germany’s accomplishment as the the best-known example of a powerful economy increasingly run by renewables.

        The low and dropping cost of those was kicked off mostly by China and Germany (with help from the US, Scandinavia and others). Those 2 countries were willing to buy relatively expensive S&W, making today’s cheap RE possible. Even so, Germany’s electrical prices include paying off some old RE, taxes, and different wholesale, residential and other categories, of which the only one ever quoted, or worse and more common, vaguely gestured toward, is the most expensive. Cherry picking is the ARFs’ default. Out of 70 countries with equal or greater %RE, they cherry pick Germany, then cherry pick a high price, to try to make cheap energy look expensive. But where wind and solar are, the price of electricity drops (while reliability increases).

        Denmark (66% RE grid) and Germany…lead the world in the proportion of renewable technology owned by citizens rather than corporations

        Citizens own one third of German renewables capacity (2016)
        making them the most important investors in the sector ahead of energy companies (15.7%), developers (14.4%), farmers (10.5%), and funds/banks (13.4%)

        And of course, the costs of illness, death and healthcare decrease as clean safe renewable energy replaces fossil fuels. Even solar efficiency increases as fossil fuels are ditched and air pollution declines. Those externalities and others (like the resource curse and FF’s boosting of inequality, autocracy, etc.) should be accounted for in the costs of energy when we compare RE against other sources. Since they come out so much in favor of RE, those attacking Germany for things that aren’t true never mention them.

  3. toddinnorway Says:

    The most robust and cost-effective improvement is all-out rooftop solar with local battery storage of 3-4 hours. After that, all-out municipal PV parks, grid-connected. These need no water, are frost-proof, and have no risk from falling high-voltage electric lines over long distances.
    And they would be mostly owned by their users instead of some far-away investor who is oblivious to local conditions.

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      Distributed power generation is more robust, especially if it is still interconnected and sharable.

      As for rooftop solar, that works for housing density where the electricity consumers per square meter is lower, and not downtown apartments. PV solar farms have the volume to be much more cost-effective, too.

      There’s also a big difference in motivation between homeowners and renters: It comes down to who pays the price for the utilities. Builders and landlords are not naturally motivated to make homes more efficient, because the cost is borne by others, so it comes down to local building codes.

      As a homeowner, I had the money to upgrade the insulation in the older part of my house, and later upgraded the windows to modern double-glazed, but that’s not how many millions of people live.

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