Some disasters arise unexpectedly, like an earthquake or massive storm. Others seem inevitable. Who didn’t see the 2008 financial crisis coming?
In hindsight, most of us.
In reality, most crises that seem inevitable after the fact often catch nearly all of us by surprise when they occur. The factors were obvious enough, but few people saw them coming together.
There’s a potential crisis that will seem predictable, after the fact. It’s better to take thoughtful consideration and positive action now and not say “I told you so” later.
Our electrical grid is being stretched to the brink. The U.S. is making itself less resilient against catastrophic failure from a major weather event or terror attack every day. Our infrastructure increasingly depends on much less secure, resilient and reliable sources of energy, like wind, solar or even natural gas. These sources do not provide the dependable availability of nuclear or coal.
During the polar vortex in 2014, coal and nuclear power plants in the Midwest and Northeast had to run at full capacity to ensure tens of millions of Americans didn’t lose power or heat. The output was a testament to a system that included the resilience of those power plants.
What’s worrying is that many of those coal and nuclear plants are no longer operating. Many more will be phased out soon. These closures are the result in part of a regulatory framework that imposes much higher burdens on these pillars of our electrical-power grid than the less secure sources to which we’re now calling “our future.” We anticipate growing by subtracting resilient energy sources, and the math doesn’t work.
Most Americans don’t think much about electricity. It charges our phones and turns the lights on when we flick a switch. When it works, there isn’t much reason to think about it. We have been lucky to avoid a major catastrophe, but we’re mixing in more and more ingredients for an outage that could disrupt life for millions, particularly in the Northeast or Midwest.
Not thinking about it creates a dangerous blind spot. Because most of us take electricity for granted, very few Americans understand our electricity supply is steaming toward this crisis. And, like most crises, we will be wishing we had done something earlier to prevent it.
Thankfully, the Department of Energy under Secretary Rick Perry is examining the problem. The department is expected to release a report later this month that details these concerns with the existing power grid and the value of so-called “baseload power” – coal, nuclear and hydro-electricity.
As a former assistant secretary of energy for fossil energy during Barack Obama’s presidency, I am encouraged by the department’s review, particularly its focus on the reliability and resilience of the electricity grid and the benefits of coal and nuclear power.
Coal and nuclear plants are unmatched in their ability to generate reliable energy under all circumstances, but these plants are being retired at an alarming rate because of a combination of punitive regulations, low natural gas prices, and government subsidies and mandates for renewables.
Perhaps the bigger concern is the “magical thinking” behind some analysis trying to wish our electricity system into resiliency and reliability without these traditional base-load power plants. It can be uncomfortable to face facts honestly.
There is no reliable way to store meaningful amounts of electricity today. It must be produced when it is needed. That is a big problem for renewable energy sources, like wind and solar, that only produce power under the right circumstances – when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing. Even natural gas is less secure than coal and nuclear power because it relies on pipeline supply of fuel on demand.
See the article here.
- On July 14, 2017