We will need new national and international supergrids to integrate all these new kinds of power into new electrical supply systems.
The failure of the electricity grid in Texas, USA, and the rolling blackouts in the Midwest, are one more consequence of climate breakdown.
The root problem is that the Arctic is growing warmer. As it does so, paradoxically, there is less of a barrier preventing very cold weather in the far north from moving south. This extremely cold weather then blankets cities and downs where people live.
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The electricity grid in Texas simply cannot supply enough power for all the extra demands on heating. This is a problem what will grow much worse, and not just in Texas.
But Fox News and the Governor of Texas are blaming the failure of the grid on the Green New Deal and renewable energy. That’s silly.
There is no Green New Deal in Texas. There are some wind turbines, that have apparently frozen. But the wind turbines in Canada and Antarctica have not frozen.
This is a problem caused by fossil fuels and privatized energy, not wind trubines.
But environmentalists have to be careful here, and we have to be up to speed on the full complexity of what a Green New Deal will mean for electricity grids.
That’s why The Ecologist is posting here the chapter on supergrids from my new book, Fight the Fire: Green New Deals and Global Climate Jobs.
In what follows, I explain the difficulties in integrating 100 percent renewable energy into the grid, and how it can be done. I also show why that will be impossible if renewable energy and electricity supply are owned by private corporations.
The chapter is about supergrids around the world, but many of the examples come from the United States.
A rewired world does not mean that all energy will come from renewables. But it does mean that most energy will come from electricity, and all that electricity will come from renewables.
That will not be an easy thing to construct. We will need new national and international supergrids to integrate all these new kinds of power into new electrical supply systems. These will be qualitatively new undertakings.
The challenge of mixing together power from renewable energy is different in kind from mixing together energy from fossil fuels – and far more complex.
These technological differences make it almost possible – probably completely impossible – to build the grids while depending on private corporations trying to make a profit. We need some detail here to explain why.
The place to start is with what electric grids do now in countries that don’t have much renewable energy. For the moment we will only be talking about grids in rich countries. Grids in poor countries are usually different, because they don’t have enough investment and so they crash a lot.
Let’s take the simplest, old fashioned model first. No grid is actually run quite like this now, but the model is good for thinking with.
In this model an electric utility supplies electricity to all the homes, businesses and industry in a particular area. That utility can be a private company or one owned by a city or state.
The utility has perhaps a few million users. The electricity supply comes from a small number of power plants. Some of those plants burn coal to make electricity, some burn gas, some use oil, some use nuclear power, and some are hydropower dams that use falling water to generate electricity.
There are a small number of big power lines coming into a central place. From there, medium size power lines run all over the region to substations. At substations the electricity is transferred into smaller power lines that carry electricity to homes, businesses and industry.
The engineers who run this grid have a problem. Electricity is not a liquid or a gas. It’s a field. Electrons flow from areas where there is an excess of free electrons to areas where there are not enough electrons. For example, electrical current moves from a power plant to homes where people need light.
Although no one electron moves immensely fast, the cascading wave of power is very fast indeed. But the power does not flow downhill, like water. It can flow to any place in a vast interconnected system where there is a shortage of electrons, through any pathway.
The power can double back, flow down another channel, around and sideways. All this can happen far faster than any human monitor can follow.
If the supply of electrons does not balance with the need for electrons, the current ceases to move at a steady wavelength. When that happens, the system burns out – physically, the wires burn and melt their coatings.
To stop that happening, the people who build any circuit, from the ones in your house to the National Grid in Britain, build in fuses that break the electrical flow.
But at the level of the grid, here’s the rub. There has to be redundancy in the grid – extra pathways in case one path closes. This is because there are constant faults on the line. In the US, as in many other countries, the main problem is trees falling on the line.
This is most serious when a tree falls on a main power line. That happened on an ordinary day in April 2018 in Puerto Rico, and 900,000 customers (more than two million people) lost electricity.
The second biggest problem in the US is squirrels eating the insulation on lines, particularly at sub-stations, shorting the circuit. Then there are truck accidents, something odd in a nuclear reactor, ice on the lines, late deliveries, old wiring and a hundred other possible glitches.
There are also the effects of heatwaves, storms and floods, and all of these are getting worse with climate change.
If the whole system were to stop every time there was an interruption, the system would not work. That is why designers build redundancy – more pathways – into the system.
But those pathways make the system more complex. For example, a grid failure in the northeastern US and eastern Canada in 2003 deprived 50 million people of power. It started when one tree fell on a line in Ohio.
The power automatically rerouted onto other lines, where three more trees fell. More power surged into fewer pathways, crashing those pathways, and pushing more current into other pathways, and the whole system crashed.
These are the problems that face grid engineers when almost all power comes from coal fired plants, gas fired plants, hydropower from big dams and nuclear.
However, all these sources of electricity can be turned on and off quite easily. Now let’s add renewable energy into the mix. You can do this on a small scale, reasonably easily, and it has been done in many places. But the problems multiply when you want to have all electricity from renewables.
In the older systems you had at most a few hundred power plants supplying the grid. Each of these power plants could break down, but usually they did not, and they supplied a reasonably steady amount of energy.
The engineers and operators running the grid could turn hydroelectricity and gas fired electricity plants on and off quickly. Coal plants took longer. Nuclear plants took days, because they might explode if you went too fast. But the system was manageable.
But with all renewable electricity you have tens of thousands of rooftop solar arrays. They are feeding electrical current into the same tens of thousands of wires that bring current into the house.
You have thousands of wind farms and industrial scale solar farms. All those sources are providing amounts of current that can vary from minute to minute.
The wind falls a bit at one wind farm, and seventeen minutes later rises a bit at another wind farm forty miles away. Clouds pass over a solar array on a rooftop, reducing the power by half for a few minutes, but not over the roofs across the street.
These variations are happening all through the system, all the time, in places next door and a thousand miles apart.
That’s why we will need big grids. The more places are connected in one network, the more the variations smooth out. And the more different kinds of renewable energy are included in the grid, the more the differences smooth out.
Big grids need a lot of storage. Storage is an alternative to finding new forms of renewable energy to balance wind and solar. It solves the same problem – how to keep a steady supply of electricity that matches the demand for electricity.
Batteries are machines for storing electricity. The difficulty at the moment is the size and expense. Think of the size of a flashlight battery. Now think of the size of a car battery.
That battery does not run the engine, it just runs the car electrics. Now imagine the size of a battery that would be necessary to store all the electricity used over twelve hours in a forty-story office building.
Now imagine the battery that could store enough electricity to operate a steel blast furnace in a steel mill for twelve hours. Now scale up for an industrialised country of 330 million people.
This is the problem currently confronting engineers. They have not solved it, although they are trying.
There is also the possibility of linking car batteries into a grid and using them at moments of need – we will come back to this when we look at electric cars in the next chapter.
However, there are also problems of supply with batteries. Since the 1990s most batteries have used lithium, the lightest of all the metals, because it is an excellent electrical conductor. There are two problems here. One is that there may not be enough lithium.
There are only a limited number of places where lithium is found in sufficient concentrations to be easily mined – Australia, China, and especially the triangle where Chile, Argentina and Bolivia come together.
The second problem is that the methods currently used to mine lithium are highly toxic. Understandably there is considerable resistance from indigenous people in the triangle to the devastation of their environment.
I write a good deal about batteries and lithium in the last chapter of this book. The dilemmas, and answers, are complex. But there is one point that should be made now.
Until 1992 there were no batteries in the world made with lithium. Now lithium is standard because it is the lightest and cheapest way to make a battery. But it is perfectly possible to fill the world with batteries, none of them made with lithium.
Dams can also offer the possibility of pumped storage. This would mainly mean using dams which are already providing electricity.
When there was too much electricity in the system, some of it would be routed to dams. The electricity would be used there to pump water up from below the dam back into the reservoir behind the dam.
At some point in the future, when there was not enough electricity, this stored pumped water would flow back down over the dam and through the generators to make electricity.
This method has been tried in many countries, and it works. It can also be used to balance grids over very long distances. Norway, for example, runs almost all its current electricity grid with hydropower – it’s a country of mountains and fiords.
Norwegian climate campaigners have suggested that they could store and discharge large amounts of electricity for other countries.
Engineers are also doing work with compressed air storage. At times of surplus electricity, air is compressed into storage holes, and then released as needed.
There is also work on storing energy by using it to extract hydrogen, and then burning the hydrogen when needed. Hydrogen provides energy when it burns but makes no CO2.
The best alternative to batteries, however, is probably headroom. Headroom does the same job as storage. It means building enough solar and wind to provide electricity for even the worst days.
On normal days, the grid turns off the connections to perhaps a quarter of the solar and wind available. This works – obviously. Instead of storing electricity for the days when we need more, we just always have enough. But most accounts of renewable futures say that headroom would simply be too expensive.
Maybe that’s true. But almost all the potential players in our energy markets have vested interests in dismissing the headroom option. At the moment developers of wind and solar can sell almost all the electricity they produce.
In a max-headroom scenario, at least a quarter of the total wind and solar capacity would be idle on most days. That would break their business model for wind and solar.
The fossil fuel companies and the nuclear industry are currently arguing that we have to keep some gas and nuclear in the mix to supply a steady balance.
They too do not want to hear about using headroom instead. The startups and engineers in love with concentrated solar or marine power do not want to talk about headroom either. Indeed, for anyone technologically inclined, there is something troubling about just doing more of something basic.
This means that there is little or no constituency for the headroom option. However, every time I do the back of the envelope calculations for the different options at current costs, headroom comes out looking pretty good. Care3ful recent work by Mar Perez at Clean Power Research and others has confirmed this.
But headroom will only work if the public company that runs the grid is the same as the public company that runs the wind farms and solar farms. Then the incentive for the company will be not to make a profit, but to supply reliable, steady power. It is one of the very best reasons for liking a National Climate Service.
The bottom line, though, is that we could rewire the world with only solar and wind power, using only the kinds of turbines and solar cells already developed. All the other backup technologies may well be ways of building the grid we need more quickly and smoothly. But if batteries, storage, concentrated solar, geothermal, wave and tidal power never work out properly, we can still rewire the world.
The big new grids will have to be “smart”. That means they run on complex computer monitoring programs which constantly turn many small parts of the system on and off. There is no way any human being could keep track.
Electricity moves too fast, and there are too many inputs and outputs. Of course humans will still monitor the system, panic when necessary, then scream and hit switches.
The grids will also be smart in another sense. “Smart meters” in each home and building will monitor electricity use. The residents will be able to set timers to use some electricity at a time of night when it is cheaper, because wind energy is going to waste in the small hours.
But the computers and people operating the grid will also be able to reach into the house and turn the air conditioning up a couple of degrees, or the heating down a couple of degrees.
Recharging electric cars, and a boost to the water heater, can be set for times of spare electricity. And at moments of unexpected surges of demand, the level of use can be nudged downward. All this will make it much easier to balance the grid, and distribute the flow of electricity around the clock.
There’s a problem here. Who in their right mind wants to allow a private corporation, or an arm of the government, to know all that information about you.
It would include who was using which bedroom when, and who was home when they said they were out. Of course the phone companies and Alexa are already busy collecting that information, and turning it over to advertisers and the police.
Moreover, there is an enormous temptation for the electricity companies to raise the effective charges while they make the system too complicated to understand.
American consumers have rebelled in many cities in response to smart meters. The successful rebellion in Boulder, Colorado speaks volumes. Boulder has basically two sources of employment. One is the outdoor recreation towns in the mountains around.
The other is the famously liberal and environmentalist students and faculty at the University of Colorado. Boulder organised and rejected smart meters in the home because they were being screwed. If they can’t get it through in Boulder, they can’t get it through anywhere.
The only solution I can see, as radical as it sounds, is an electricity company that doesn’t screw the customers.
All this technology will mean an enormous amount of wiring, pylons and connections, millions of holes dugs and tens of thousands of miles of cable laid. But it will also mean an enormous amount of intellectual work developing the programs and systems.
Many of you know how often quite simple computer systems fail at work, and how maddening it is when that happens. These new grids will be far more complex, and need redundancy built in because they cannot fail in that way.
The new grids will have to be able to carry far more current than the ones we use now. They have to connect sources of supply in different places from where the plants are now.
It will be building a new system on entirely new principles, and yet there will be no point when we can shut down the old grid and fire up the new one. We have to keep the whole system running all the time.
Again, this is a project on a scale that will require planning, central organisation and maintenance. It will require a National Climate Service. The pressure of profits will lead to cutting costs and cutting corners. This will be disastrous.
If you want to see what happens when private corporations cut corners on major contracts for computer systems for the public sector, talk to any public sector worker in Europe or North America.
And we don’t have to imagine what would happen with an underfunded grid, where not enough time and money had been spent on building electricity generation and a grid. All you have to so is go to Nigeria, Pakistan, Iraq or any of many other countries where underfunding has produced chronic blackouts and crashing grids.
In these countries, as elsewhere, electricity supply systems were originally built to supply factories, mines and the homes of the rich. The poor were not connected. You can see this in the coal field in Mpumulanga, in the east of South Africa.
A massive power plant dominates the skyline, its great chimneys belching smoke high into the air. Giant pylons carry heavy cables away from the plant. In the shadow of the plant, 800 meters away, sits a village of single-story shacks. That village has no electricity.
This is the legacy of apartheid. But there are many other countries with even more ramshackle electricity supplies, like India and Nigeria. Blackouts are common.
So is “load shedding”, in effect a rolling blackout controlled by the people managing the grid. In many places, residential neighbourhoods commonly make do with four or six hours of electricity a day.
This is part of the reason why a low carbon world will need so much more electricity, so that everyone can have steady access to electricity.
Moreover, blackouts and crashes will be far worse than now in a world where almost all the energy comes from electricity. The grid will then be supplying far more than it does now.
A crash will not just turn out the lights, the TVs and the appliances. It will turn off the heating, the air conditioning, all the transport and all the industry.
If that happens, it will happen in a situation where the forces of carbon capital are locked in struggle with environmentalists. The enemies of the Earth will seize on any such massive failure of the new grid, and argue for fossil fuels forever. We cannot cut corners on this one.
That means massive government spending. If the work is contracted out to private companies, they will cut those corners in most countries as they build the system. And then it will crash after everyone is dependent on it.
In most small and medium sized countries, we will need grids that cross national boundaries. North America, for example, now has four grids. One is in the vast northern plains and forests of Quebec, full of hydropower and wind.
One, in the east, links parts of the US and Canada. Another, in the west, links Canada, the US and northern Mexico. The fourth and final covers only the state of Texas, and is by general agreement too small. That’s now – those grids will probably have to amalgamate.
In Europe, perhaps only Russia, Turkey and Kazakhstan have the renewable resources to run a separate grid. It is also more than likely that Europe will seek to import electricity from North Africa.
The Philippines, an archipelago of thousands of islands, has only three grids at present, on the three largest islands. It is certainly possible to link the islands with underwater cables, but they will need proportionately more workers, and more backup electricity.
In every country, though, building a grid is a staggering task. My estimate is that in the US, for example, it will require perhaps one million workers a year for twenty years, just to build the grid. That’s one million jobs on top of the jobs needed to build the wind and solar power.
However, that figure of one million jobs a year for 20 years is one of the least precise estimates in this book. Frankly, it’s a guess. I have found no source with a clear idea of how many workers will be required, because no one has done such a thing before.
A government can build enough solar and wind power and get the money back over the years in electricity bills. There is no way electricity bills will ever be able to cover the one-off cost of building a new grid. That will have to be government money.
Then there are the financial pressures once large amounts of renewables are fed into the grid. That creates what is called in the United States the “utility death spiral” in the United States. In the US, utility companies each work a part of the grid.
The fossil fuel power stations and the renewable producers supply electricity to the grid, and the grid pays them.
Some of this electricity is supplied on long term contracts. But when demand peaks, or there is a sudden break in supply, the utilities who share the grid have to buy more power. They look for the cheapest supplier.
That cheapest supplier is usually a wind or solar supplier. One reason is economic. The great majority of the expense of running a wind farm, or a solar farm, is the capital investment in the first place. The wind is effectively free.
That means the wind farm can sell electricity at a very low price and still make money. Eventually they have to make back the capital cost of building the turbines.
But they can keep charging a low price for years at a time. By contrast, a gas fired power has to pay for the gas every day. Their price for electricity cannot fall below the amount they need to buy the gas, or they go broke fast. So the renewable supplier tends to get the contracts.
There’s another snag for the utility company in the US. There the companies usually had to lend money to the renewables companies to get them started.
Then the fossil fuel plants started to lose money. The utility loaned money to them too. Soon the utility companies were up their ears in debts that the fossil fuel suppliers cannot repay.
Once a country embarks on a plan for all renewable electricity, the financial problems of the fossil fuel power plants will rapidly become even worse. The companies that own the coal and gas power stations will go broke very quickly.
This is because the executives and share owners know that their assets are going to become “stranded”. Share owners will try to get their money out. The companies will begin to go broke.
But the grid will collapse if those power plants simply close down. It will take at least 15 years to close down all the fossil fuel plants. This means the grid – in effect, the government – will have to take over the fossil fuel plants and close them down slowly, one by one.
Doing that in an orderly fashion will also mean a climate jobs project can give every worker in those plants another job, with the same pay, near where they already live.
In sum, there is no way to build the renewable energy and the smart grids we need except with public ownership and government money. Otherwise, the scale of the problems and the technical and financial complexities will make the project impossible.
However, there is a more positive way of thinking about that complexity. The energy expert Gretchen Bakke says that the engineers who work on them believe that grids are the most complex machines humans have ever built.
They would say that, of course, because they’re fans. But they’re probably right. And the supergrids will certainly be the most complex and beautiful machines in history.
Jonathan Neale is a writer and climate jobs activist. He has published Fight the Fire: Green New Deals and Global Climate Jobs with The Ecologist. You can download a free copy now. Jonathan tweets at @JonathanNealeA1.