Thanks to the Rockland County Times (NY) for publishing my op-ed in which I argue that since the United States has massive energy demands, it makes sense to keep all options on the table. Alongside natural gas, wind, and solar, the U.S. must retain the sturdiest forms of electricity generation—coal and nuclear.
Thanks to Morning Consult for publishing my new piece on the risks of relying too heavily on renewable energy, and why America’s energy markets should follow a smart middle path, one that fully values reliability and resilience.
We still need baseload generation like coal and nuclear when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine. Moving to an energy future with more renewables is fine, but we can’t lose sight of the real goal–reliable and affordable energy.
One of my favorite blogs, Not a Lot of People Know That, never fails to bring some sanity to the Climate Change Debate. Today it carries a cautionary tale entitled ‘Unprecedented’: Energy operator in daily fight to keep lights on in Australia. It describes that the problems caused by an increasing level of wind and solar power have forced the power system to change faster than expected and that it was failing to keep up. Apparently, the grid is holding up but only because the energy market operator is intervening on a daily basis to keep the lights on.
This is one of the problems with relying too heavily on one source of energy, especially when that form of energy (renewables like wind and solar) only generates electricity intermittently. Wind and solar are becoming a more important part of our energy mix, but moving too fast, too soon is a recipe for disaster. It’s much better to have an “all of the above” strategy when is comes to energy policy in the United States.
Thanks to the Duluth News Tribune for carrying my op-ed in which I caution against Minnesota shifting towards a primarily wind and solar powered state and discuss the benefits of a balanced use of resources.
Thanks to the Duluth News Tribune (MN) which carries my new op-ed in which I write that this winter’s deep freeze showed that America must plan for an “all-of-the-above” energy mix in the coming years that includes coal and nuclear.
The stunning cold that swept the northern United States recently — and slammed Minnesota and the Midwest, in particular — was eye-opening for many Americans. It reminded us just how dependent we are on modern infrastructure for our survival. Nature is not always kind, and the depth of these Arctic conditions surprised some who were unprepared for life-threatening conditions.
The legacy of the 2019 deep freeze may be that it revealed unexpected gaps in America’s power grid — and highlighted the work ahead for states hoping to keep electricity flowing under challenging circumstances. Simply put, millions of Americans learned just how important “baseload power” is in their daily lives.
Temperatures in Chicago plummeted to as low as minus-21. In Minnesota, Minneapolis saw minus-28 and Cotton dropped to minus-56, a tie for the fifth-coldest temperature in state history.
Such painful cold can deliver unexpected consequences. Xcel Energy, which supplies gas and electricity throughout many Midwestern states, issued an advisory to residents in central Minnesota to lower their thermostats to 60 degrees or less and to avoid using natural-gas appliances like water heaters. Xcel subsequently requested customers lower their thermostats further, to 55 degrees. The utility explained that extreme weather conditions had resulted in a “significant” strain on their natural gas system.
In Detroit, where temperatures hit a record minus-11 on Jan. 30, DTE Energy Co. asked customers to reduce electricity usage. Across parts of Michigan, Consumers Energy called for customers to reduce natural-gas usage. The company even requested that General Motors suspend work at several manufacturing plants.
In the Chicago area, wind turbines were shut down. Under such frigid conditions, turbine blades can crack, and gearboxes can simply seize up. As overall wind conditions slackened in the cold, heavy air, utilities faced with escalating demand switched to coal and natural gas. Bloomberg News reported that coal power plants in the region were forced to ramp up, “temporarily supplying about half the electricity needs in the two grids that serve most of the affected region — the Southwest Power Pool and Midcontinent Independent System Operator.”
These were life-threatening problems. And implicit in such conditions is the obligation to take action that can safeguard sturdy, reliable power before the next, unexpected lurch of dangerous weather comes along.
America is undoubtedly at a crossroads right now, with wind and solar advocates urging a large-scale transition to renewable energy. And the proliferation of domestic natural-gas production already has initiated a shift in the nation’s electricity-generation profile. But the recent deep freeze reminded us to hedge our bets enough to ensure that lives are protected.
This past Thanksgiving, the Northeastern U.S. saw a record cold snap that drained existing natural gas storage supply and raised gas prices. Pipeline limitations forced New England to import shipments of liquefied natural gas from Russia. And the wind turbines and solar panels that currently provide up to 7.6 percent of America’s electricity will always require back-up support when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine.
What the nation needs to consider is that hasty efforts to keep shutting down coal and nuclear plants could make the U.S. vulnerable during the next perfect storm. Americans consume nearly 4 trillion kilowatt hours of electricity each year, with half of that coming from coal and nuclear. It is these coal and nuclear plants that keep churning out foundational baseload power and can spin up to maximum output when dangerous winter conditions emerge.
Any talk of America’s future energy profile must include provisions to ensure that baseload power needs can always be met. This winter’s deep freeze showed it would be foolhardy not to preserve coal and nuclear as available options.
Because lives will always be at stake, America must plan for an “all-of-the-above” energy mix in the coming years.
Over at PowerLine, John Hinderaker has rendered a great public service by bringing attention to the folly of “100% renewable” energy. In this post from yesterday, John shreds to pieces the idea, popular with the renewable energy crowd, that we can just close down all of the coal, nuclear, and natural gas plants, and get all of our electricity from wind and solar energy. I’ll reprint the post below, but please check it out (and John’s other posts relating to climate and energy issues) at PowerLine.
Here in Minnesota, we are enduring a brutal stretch of weather. The temperature hasn’t gotten above zero in the last three days, with lows approaching -30. And that is in the Twin Cities, in the southern part of the state. Yesterday central Minnesota experienced a natural gas “brownout,” as Xcel Energy advised customers to turn thermostats down to 60 degrees and avoid using hot water. Xcel put up some customers in hotels. Why?
Because the wind wasn’t blowing. Utilities pair natural gas plants with wind farms, in order to burn gas, which can be ramped up and down more quickly than coal, when the wind isn’t blowing.
Which raises the question: since natural gas is reliable, why do we need the wind farms? The answer is, we don’t. When the wind isn’t blowing–as it wasn’t yesterday–natural gas supplies the electricity. It also heats homes, and with bitter cold temperatures and no wind, there wasn’t enough natural gas to go around. The resulting “brownout” has been a political shock in Minnesota.
[W]ind is producing only four percent of electricity in the MISO region, of which Minnesota is a part.
While that’s not good, what’s worse is wind is only utilizing 24 percent of its installed capacity, and who knows how this will fluctuate throughout the course of the day.
Coal, on the other hand, is churning out 45 percent of our power, nuclear is providing 13 percent, and natural gas is providing 26 percent of our electricity.
This is exactly why the renewable energy lobby’s dream of shutting down coal, natural gas, and nuclear plants and “replacing” them with wind and solar is a fairy tale. It simply cannot happen, because we never know if and when the wind will blow or the sun will shine when we need it most.
“But the wind is always blowing somewhere” ~ a renewable energy lobbyist
Renewable energy apologists often argue that although the wind may not be blowing in your neighborhood, it’s blowing, somewhere. All we have to do, they argue, is build wind turbines and transmission lines all over the country so we can have renewable energy everywhere. It turns out this old chestnut is also completely wrong.
For example, the wind isn’t blowing in North Dakota or South Dakota, where more than 1,800 MW (a massive amount) of wind projects are operating or planned, at massive cost, by Minnesota electric companies.
In fact, the wind isn’t blowing anywhere.
Just look at California, the state that is consistently the most self-congratulating about how “green” they are. Wind is operating a 3 percent of installed capacity, solar is operating at 12 percent, natural gas is running wide open, and California is importing a whopping 27 percent of its electricity from Nevada and Arizona.
Days like today perfectly illustrate why intermittent, unreliable sources of energy like wind and solar would have no place in our energy system if they were not mandated by politicians, showered with federal subsidies, and lining the pockets of regulated utilities that are guaranteed to profit off wind and solar farms whether they are generating electricity, or not.
Isaac’s real-world message is starting to break through, at least here in Minnesota. Tomorrow morning the Star Tribune is running Isaac’s op-ed headlined “Bitter cold shows reliable energy sources are critical.”
Lawmakers considering doubling Minnesota’s renewable energy mandate to 50 percent by 2030 should use this week’s weather as a moment to reconsider their plans to lean so heavily on wind and solar.
[C]oal-fired power plants provided 45 percent of MISO’s power and nuclear provided 13 percent — most of this from Minnesota’s Prairie Island and Monticello nuclear plants (which we should keep open, by the way). Natural gas provided 26 percent of our electricity use at that time, and the remainder was imported from Canada and other U.S. states.
Natural gas also heated the homes of approximately 66 percent of Minnesotans this week, by far the most for any home heating fuel, but there wasn’t enough gas to combat the frigid temperatures.
Because of the extreme cold, Xcel Energy urged its natural gas customers in Becker, Big Lake, Chisago City, Lindstrom, Princeton and Isanti to reduce the settings on their thermostats, first down to 60 degrees, then to 63, through Thursday morning to conserve enough natural gas to prevent a widespread shortage as temperatures remained 14 below zero. Some Xcel customers in the Princeton area lost gas service, and Xcel reserved rooms for them in nearby hotels.
This week’s urgent notice from Xcel to conserve natural gas shows there is real danger in putting all of our eggs into the renewables-plus-natural gas basket. At a minimum, pursuing a grid powered entirely by solar, wind and natural gas would require more natural gas pipeline capacity, which is likely to be opposed by the factions that are currently challenging the replacement of the Line 3 pipeline.
If Minnesota lawmakers are sincere in their belief that we must reduce carbon dioxide emissions as soon as possible, they must lift Minnesota’s ban on new nuclear power plants, which has been in place since 1994.
Not only would nuclear power plants be essentially guaranteed to run in minus-24-degree weather, but a forthcoming study by American Experiment has found that new nuclear power plants could not only achieve a lower emissions rate by 2030, but also save Minnesota $30.2 billion through 2050.
Stay tuned. We will release that report in two weeks. I think it will be a bombshell, not only in Minnesota but in other states that are fecklessly mandating ever-higher utilization of intermittent, unreliable, inefficient “green” energy.
Over at Bloomberg, Chris Martin has written a piece highlighting a shortcoming with wind power–namely, wind power can go missing during periods of extreme cold–exactly at a time when power is most needed to meet surging demand. Martin goes on to note that “For now, coal is temporarily supplying about half the electricity needs in the two grids that serve most of the affected region — the Southwest Power Pool and Midcontinent Independent System Operator. Normally, coal and wind supply roughly the same amount, about a third of the total power mix.”
Martin also states that “Wind generation on Wednesday afternoon was less than half its annual average in the Southwest Power Pool, the grid operator from North Dakota to Oklahoma.”
This shows why we need the baseload generation that coal, nuclear and natural gas provides.
When I’m asked about the pros and cons of different sources of electricity generation, I often emphasize the importance of reliability. America’s daily baseload power needs are enormous, and when it comes to vital infrastructure such as water treatment, hospitals, and public transit, there’s little room for error when making sure that electricity keeps reaching where it’s needed, day in and day out.
A good way to look at this is the real-time data that’s publicly available for some of the nation’s largest utilities. For example, The Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO)—which oversees 200,000 megawatts of power-generation across 15 U.S. states—publishes a continuously updated chart of the ‘Fuel Mix’ for its overall power generation.
We can glean some interesting items from MISO’s fuel chart.
For starters, coal continues to be the dominant electricity producer for their mix—averaging about 55 percent of total power generation. Natural gas comes in second at around 17 percent, with nuclear third at about 16 percent.
The remainder of MISO’s energy portfolio comes from wind generation, plus a small sliver of miscellaneous sources.
What’s interesting are the fluctuations in the overall mix. For example, on Thursday, November 29—a cold day for much of the central United States—MISO’s fuel mix showed that wind generation remained at around 2 percent of total generation. This was unfortunate, since the weather was particularly cold—and families were turning up their thermostats to stay warm. But there simply wasn’t much wind blowing throughout most of the day.
By contrast, a few days later, on Monday, December 3, the weather was milder, and wind generation across MISO’s grid was averaging roughly 8 percent of total generation. That’s quite a difference from four days prior.
The point is, while wind generation has some positives in terms of being a “free” source of power, it also has drawbacks. When MISO’s wind capacity declined to 2 percent of total output on November 29, coal and natural gas plants needed to ramp up in order to cover the difference. This generally isn’t a problem, since MISO maintains a sturdy fleet of both coal and gas plants that can run continuously.
But it illustrates a wider point. Renewables are inherently unpredictable—since wind turbines depend on a steady flow of wind, and solar panels require ample, direct sunlight. When the wind isn’t blowing, or the sun isn’t shining, another source of electricity generation is required to make up the difference. and that’s where coal, natural gas, and nuclear plants fill in the gaps.
For these reasons, an “all of the above” energy strategy makes sense, simply to ensure that there are always available means to produce the on-demand electricity that Americans need in order to maintain healthy, safe daily living.
Russian cyber operatives have been busy probing U.S. power grid vulnerabilities, according to an extensive report by the WSJ.
The WSJ reports that hackers used several methods to infiltrate the grid, including planting malware on sites of online publications frequently read by utility engineers to gain access to their computers. Russian cyber operatives pretending to be job seekers sent out fake résumés with tainted attachments. Once they had computer-network credentials, they slipped through hidden portals used by utility technicians, in some cases getting into computer systems that monitor and control electricity flows.
Some experts believe two dozen or more utilities were breached.
The full WSJ article (behind paywall) can be accessed here.
Cyber Security risks to our electric grid are very real, and thanks to the WSJ for shining the light on the problem.
The Southern Illinoisan carries my new piece in which I write that policymakers must consider how much more coal-fired power can realistically be retired before the loss of so much around-the-clock, baseload power threatens the reliability of America’s overall electric grid.
While most of the policy debate regarding the electric grid revolves around climate change and increased use of renewable energy, there is another important aspect of grid reliability–namely, the risks of catastrophic power outages due to natural disasters, cyber or physical attacks, or or an electromagnetic event. Any such event could cause a long-term outage. Security Boulevard, by way of Real Clear Energy, carries a thoughtful piece on whether the United States could survive such a catastrophic event. Following is the conclusion:
Through interviews with leaders in the utility industry and other related experts, the report found that existing plans to restore power were inadequate to deal with a catastrophic power outage.
The NIAC concluded that considerable public and private action is required to mitigate the risks associated with any such outage. Such a power outage could cause cascading failures in other essential services including water and wastewater management, communications, transportation, healthcare, and financial services — all of which are critical to public health and safety and our national and economic security.
The report concluded that the U.S. should approach the challenge in two predominate themes. The first is to “design a national approach to prepare for, respond to, and recover from catastrophic power outages that provides the federal guidance, resources, and incentives needed to take action across all levels of government and industry and down to communities and individuals.”
The second was to improve the nation’s understanding of how cascading failures across critical infrastructure will affect restoration and survival.
Scary stuff, but it is something we must face and address.