by Planning Engineer (Russ Schussler)
“Green” ideas and their proponents can create problems. Like the antagonist in Terminator 2, green arguments and proponents don’t go down easily. With serious challenges, they retreat, hibernate sometimes, morph, transform and come back. It’s hard to argue with many “green” energy ideas. They are often huge in scope but severely limited in details. Focusing on a couple key factors and ignoring or leaving so much to be worked out later. Painfully naïve or unaware of so many factors associated with the provision of energy, feedback and often even human behavior. They see the flaws in current efforts, but are blind to the drawbacks which will necessarily emerge from their proposals. The offer conjectures with a lot of dots to still be connected. They speak of things that may be possible, without any handle on the probabilities.
Usually, “green” ideas are packaged with threats of doom, promises of superior technology or both. The media are drawn to both those themes and many policy makers are attracted as well. Attention is a great thing for new ideas. The themes of urgency and the scope of change, gives these ideas more weight and seeming gravitas. Unfortunately, the needed incentives to dig down and look critically as these ideas are generally lacking. Woefully, those promulgating “green” ideas don’t have much incentive for engaging with their critics or broadening their understandings. They generate the feeling that we need to move forward with the big, new important thing – no time for distractions.
Death of the Grid
Consider the following example. Predictions for the death of the grid have held some prominence during the last decade. It started around 2012 with forecasts of ‘death spirals” for utilities. The theory was that as customers found self-generation options preferable, more and more would leave the grid, thus raising costs for those who remained. This grid defection or load defection would lead to rising costs which would lead to further load/grid defection. Searching “grid defection” and/or “load defection “brings up a host of warnings proclaiming a coming green energy transition which would be accompanied by the demise of the grid.
Financial analysts joined in and issued warnings as well:
- Morgan Stanley, Clean Tech, Utilities & Autos [March 2014] “Our analysis suggests utility customers may be positioned to eliminate their use of the power grid.”
- Barclays, Utilities Credit Strategy Analyst Report [May 2014] “We see near-term risks to credit from regulators and utilities falling behind the solar + storage adoption curve and long-term risks from a comprehensive re-imagining of the role utilities play in providing electric power.”
- Goldman Sachs, Analyst note on Tesla stock [March 2014] “…decreased reliability from an aging distribution infrastructure, a broadening desire to reduce the carbon footprint, and perhaps most importantly, the reduction of solar panel and battery costs could also work together to make grid independence a reality for many customers one day”
Creating Challenges for Transmission Project Approval
This “idea” or “forecast” of potential grid obsolescence caused challenges in the real world of electric utilities planning. At the time, I was seeking the approval of annual grid construction budgets running into the hundreds of million dollars per year. My Board asked: why are we putting so much into a grid that Morgan Stanley and others say might go away? I shared my perspectives with the board, arguing the need for continued grid expansion. Some of those perspectives can be read in these two articles I co-authored some years later, titled Reports of the Electric Grid’s Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated and The Grid End Game.
At the time, our Board (and many others) were in a tough position. Who are you going to believe? Academics, government experts, renewable specialists and recognized financial experts, or your own local guy? From my perspective, I had a strong understanding of electric supply, consumer needs, issues around availability and deliverability, and I worked hard to understand what the arguments of the other “experts”. The renewables people seemed to have so much faith in themselves that they didn’t need to be bothered by the details of providing electrical service or understanding why their predictions might be wrong. Financial experts were relying on renewable experts without paying attention to many of the broader issues involved in power delivery. While to me it seems clear, that considerable respect should go to those in the field versus the potential disruptors, that has been a hard argument to make historically. Despite their poor record of forecasting in the past, those who’ve made bad predictions continue to gain considerable attention and respect.
What did we do to help our board? At strategic planning meetings we took the other side. We assumed the need for the grid would wither away. We looked at what might happen to our billions in investment. We argued that our resources would still have value. For example, some of our transmission ties would be valuable for energy exchanges between distributed networks. Many of our transmission substations could house batteries and serve to support smaller networks. Other right of ways we owned might have value for communication pathways, pipelines, roadways or the like. That provided enough comfort for going forward with continued transmission investment in the interim.
Overwhelmingly it’s a good thing that many entities continued to build transmission, despite the dire warnings of grid obsolescence. Less optimal results likely ensued when project support was stymied by the cautions of “experts”. The “green” consensus now seems to be that enhanced robust grids are essential to increasing the penetration of renewables. The existing grid elements , including projects completed back then despite the warnings, are foundational to any serious efforts at expanding renewable resources.
Experts at Conferences
Back then, there were various conferences, symposiums and working groups centered around the demise of the grid. I went to several to make sure I was aware of their best arguments and well informed on recent and potential developments. At one sponsored by the Department of Energy, Ernest Moniz in 2013, the US Secretary of the Department of Energy welcomed us. Unfortunately, such gatherings usually failed to provide significant platforms for dissenting views and were a little heavy handed in touting grid fears. My experience with one large “working group” illustrates generally how these meeting would go. Here to the best of my memory is what happened at a working group held at Duke University, which had around 100 participants, government sponsorship and was run by high priced consultants. I asked questions suggesting the grid had a lot of value and that distributed “green” resources would struggle mightily in its absence. Those on the agenda were super confident, they had it all figured out. Those questioning the “wisdom” were seen as oddballs, but some people would come up and whisper to me during breaks that they were wondering the same things.
One task introduced for the large working group in attendance was figuring out what we might do to make the grid more relevant as demand for the grid decreased. I sensed a disconnect, if the group felt the grid did not have value, why work to preserve it? I passionately explained, “I work for a transmission only entity. I believe the grid had great value and will continue to provide great value. But if you are right, perhaps the grid should be allowed to fade away.” I explained that, “my goal is to meet the needs of our distribution customers and end-use consumers. If they have better options than retaining the grid – I would encourage them to use those options. ” I asked then, “Why if you think the grid is not needed, do you care about its continuance? What’s the purpose of this working group? Why isn’t our goal to help the transition?” The room got silent and eventually the facilitator noted that was an interesting perspective worthy of consideration.
What the group decided to do (likely pre-ordained by the facilitators) was model a bunch of different future generation scenarios showing where new generation would come from to see what they showed about timing and the need for the grid. There were a number of different scenarios proposed, some dominated by large distant wind, other more supported by dispersed solar and so on. All potential scenarios were heavily or exclusively renewables based. I asked shouldn’t we have one scenario where new natural gas plants played some role. (Much like what has actually played out in the last decade.) The leaders quickly came back and said, “NO, fracking might be banned! So, gas scenarios may be worthless.” I replied that I certainly understood that as a possibility, but that every other scenario suggested faced similar challenges and roadblocks. Wouldn’t a scenario showing some addition of natural gas plants be worthwhile for comparison purposes? When we broke into smaller working groups with differing tasks, I wasn’t assigned to the one refining and selecting the the scenarios. Not surprisingly additional natural gas resources were not included in in any of the scenarios. ( I suppose I don’t need to tell the readers that any additional nuclear wasn’t represented as a possibility in any of the scenarios either.)
Real work responsibilities prevented me from attending the follow up sessions. While I looked forward to reading the reports that came out of the group, no reports or formal outputs ever materialized. By the time they were finishing up, I suspect the handwriting was on the wall and it had becoming clear enough that the findings they originally anticipated would not be defensible. Unfortunately, it’s often the case that when these type groups don’t find the results they want, they don’t admit mistakes or publish a lesson learned from their endeavors. They just move on to something else.
Deja Vu: The Ideas Changed but the Same Experts Remained
I recognized many of the individuals and groups who were pushing the end of the grid, from various conferences, symposiums and working groups I had attended years earlier on the topic of Integrated Resource Planning (IRP). It was like seeing the same actors in a slightly different play. Reading new scripts but still ushering in “green” change and creating problems for those actually trying to support the grid.
One of the entities involved in both was the Rocky Mountain Institute. They, like many of the other “experts” pushing the demise of the grid, earlier were busy pushing Integrated Resource Planning. The Rocky Mountain Institute touted the great value of negawatts (a unit of electricity save by conservation). They characterized the traditional utility approach to planning as blindly looking at load growth and building resources as needed. They proposed that considerable benefits would accrue from treating load, generation, efficiency and distributed resources on equal footing in all stages of planning. The argued that utilities could see significant savings by paying customers to improve efficiency and thus lowering their need for costly infrastructure improvements. They thought negawatts should be a prime option for addressing system needs and avoiding infrastructure. Buying negawatts could save on infrastructure.
They encouraged the expectation that forecasts of expensive upgrades for transmission lines should preferably be addressed by targeted localized efficiency programs. It’s hard to estimate potential efficiency gains on a system wide basis, let alone in targeted load areas. Deploying programs with such precision is huge problem because of all the uncertainty in load growth, efficiency program impacts and other interrelated factors. Due to the complexity and unknowns, it was likely impossible for any utility to do defer individual projects by using the recommended IRP approaches.
Back in the mid-90s, regulators would ask if you looked at delaying a transmission uprate by implementing a program to incentivize replacements of older refrigerators with more efficient ones. They were not impressed when you told them, this did not seem like a workable solution. All these experts were telling everyone utilities should do this, but looking across the nation (and globally) no one had achieved any kind of success suggesting this was remotely possible. I was very pleased when I heard the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) was undertaking a huge program to demonstrate the state of the art as to how such things could be done.
EPRI selected a community in Oregon and they were going to follow the best advice of “experts” to demonstrate the proposed concepts. I naively felt that either they would give us guidance as to how this might realistically be accomplished, or more likely force them to publicize the limitations of such approaches. I expected they would encounter numerous unwieldly real-world challenges. The program was launched with a big fanfare at with a considerably large budget. I followed the early efforts as the program implementation began. The early documentation was frequent and very impressive, explaining the great things being undertaken. As results should have been emerging, suddenly there was silence. I heard the program was having some trouble, but nothing was being published. I searched and searched over time. Finally, years later, I found a comprehensive listing of cancelled EPRI projects. For the targeted efficiency program there were only about two lines in that listing. It stated the project name and said only that the project was cancelled because the target city had become the wind surfing capital of the east coast and the resultant load growth in the area had made the project infeasible.
That’s the way the world works most of the time. Something big comes along that you didn’t anticipate, or many small things, or a combination of factors. Having overly complicated plans dependent on getting multiple variables right, is not a good recipe for success. I wish EPRI had provided some follow up. With all the investment and efforts put into place, before they realized their hoped-for plans were dashed, they could have provided some documentation of the challenges and successes (if any) they encountered before the project “blew up”. But unfortunately, it is not common for to write of the demise of their cherished ideas. The promoters just withdraw and let their dreams hibernate to maybe come back another day. The obvious lessons aren’t learned. The experts that pushed for these ideas found a new wagon to hitch to their horses, and for many of the IRP/negawatt experts it was the idea of grid defection.
It’s a Game
What was gained by forecasting the death of the grid? What was gained by making utilities prioritize using negawatts? Claiming disaster or a new superior approach grabs attention. Extreme criticisms of existing approaches can get attention as well. This attention can help entities promote other related objectives. Predicting the end of the grid is pretty bold and it attracted a lot of press. It helped focus attention on “green” projects and industries and no doubt helped their funding. If the claims are bold and the consequences large, it seems that the strength of supporting evidence is irrelevant.
Historically we’ve had an excellent power system, but there will always be emerging needs and challenges. Arguing for continued incremental improvements makes sense. Saying the grid is worthwhile and will be needed for a long while, though is not as exciting as forecasting the grids end. Looking at the world more realistically is suitable for boring articles in the trade publications. Talk of enhancements to existing technology while carefully nurturing new technology is not near as exciting as most “green” proposals. It perhaps should not be surprising that such plans do not garner as much attention or support. But that is unfortunate, because projects conceived with such understandings have proven, and will likely continue to be proven, to be the best options in the future.
When green ideas seem credible to unquestioning minds, they have shown that they can attract crowds, attention and money. With political support their proponents can avoid engagement with critics. When the real world intrudes and some ideas seem less credible, the appropriate lessons aren’t learned; rather the same flawed ideas merely hibernate. Those pushing the discarded ideas then find new ideas to push. Sometimes “green” advocates switch gears to advocate renewable energy ideas that are directly contradictory to what they were advancing before. That type thing goes on untouched without observation or notice.
Where are We Now?
Most “green” entities now see the grid as central to achieving CO2 goals. The Rocky Mountain Institute is currently much less bullish on grid defection then they were before and they now observe that, “the grid has been growing in importance for decades as a driver of economic growth, and recently as a key enabler for meeting economy-wide decarbonization targets through electrification with renewable energy.” However, they note that “historical approaches to ensuring grid security in the United States are proving to be poorly suited to the emerging, catastrophic threats facing the grid.” Now they warn that, “A grid outage can mean not being able to access critical health services, water supply, communications, and more, negatively affecting people’s well-being and our country’s economic growth.”
By now almost all “green” advocates have figured out that the grid is central to allowing the increased penetration of renewable resources. Rather than proclaiming the death of the grid, they see the grid now as needing their help. They don’t praise the grid for what it has done, but rather are critical of the supposed shortcomings of the grid. They speak of modern grids as being “third world grids”. They insist that new ideas are needed and they encourage the expansion of the grid with the development of enhanced capabilities. Suddenly they are the defenders of the grid and the experts who know what must be done with the grid to protect us from the looming crises.
The truth is that integrating increasing amounts of solar and wind is complicated, expensive and poses reliability risks. Renewable advocates want to blame the grid for the problems inherent in asynchronous intermittent wind and solar generation. Their ideas for the future grid are more about transferring and hiding costs rather than about providing technical solutions to the problems posed by integrating wind and solar.
The grid has seen substantial changes over the years. It has become stronger, more robust and continues to use new technology to enhance its functioning. The grid is “smart” now, it was “smart” in the past and it will continue to be “smart” in the future. Nevertheless, integrating large amounts of wind and solar will create significant problems for the power system. Changes to the grid can help integrate more wind and solar, but only with increasingly greater costs and increasing reliability concerns. It’s not an exciting message, but it’s one that should be heard. We shouldn’t let talk of emerging technological breakthroughs or apocalyptic threats distract us from serious considerations. The grid should grow and evolve as it always has by balancing economics, reliability and public responsibility. That will likely happen slowly and bit by bit, not by a top-down politically mandated grand redesign.