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U.S. Power Grid at Government-Induced Tipping Point

July 1, 2021

Climate Change Weekly #402

Modern society is heavily dependent on electric power. Our power systems were designed by competent engineers and operated by skilled staff, so until fairly recently people have generally been able to count on having electricity in their homes and businesses on demand, even during periods of extreme weather. Historically, the U.S. power grid has proven remarkably resilient.

Sadly, as political considerations have increasingly trumped basic physics and engineering, electric power failures have become more common in the past couple of decades in the United States. The decline in the reliability of the electric power system is directly attributable to politicians requiring and incentivizing the replacement of weather-independent sources of electric power (coal, natural gas, and nuclear) with intermittent, variable wind and solar power.

Contrary to the claims of politicians and profiteering utilities, the increase in wind and solar power was not driven by market forces. Through mandates, subsidies, tax credits, and regulations, politicians brought America’s power system to the brink of failure in a single generation. The U.S. electricity grid is quickly reaching a tipping point as ever-more green energy is forcibly incorporated and increasing numbers of reliable power plants are taken offline.

This crisis is the result of laws and policies designed to prevent climate change, not climate change itself. Absent political interference in the electric power grid, climate change would not threaten power reliability. The supply and use of coal, natural gas, and nuclear fuel are largely unaffected by climate.

A large-scale power grid consists of two segments: baseload power and peaking power. Baseload power is the minimum amount of energy needed for the grid to function properly while delivering power to every user who needs it during a normal day. The grid requires a consistent flow of power. Coal, nuclear, hydropower (in some areas), and to a lesser extent natural gas satisfied the nation’s baseload demand for the past century because they operate fulltime with onsite backup, usually in the form of diesel boilers, to provide power during routine maintenance or breakdowns.

Peaking power is the additional power needed when the system is faced with unusual amounts of demand, such as July and August in the South when air-conditioner use soars along with summer temperatures. Demand also increases during the cold winters in northern states. Natural gas has commonly served to provide peaking power because natural gas plants can be built to scale. Fuel can usually be delivered as needed, and power can be cycled on and off quickly based on demand.

Neither wind nor solar can be relied on for either baseload or peaking power. Wind turbines generate power only when the wind blows between certain speeds, and the power they generate fluctuates constantly along with wind gusts. Solar panels provide no power at night or when covered by snow, ice, or soot, and only reduced power on cloudy days and during storms. Except on completely cloudless days with clear skies, the power generated by solar panels fluctuates second by second with the passage of clouds.

Designing a power system that depends on the weather cooperating is idiotic. Over the past two decades, however, that is the electric power system politicians in the United States and other developed countries have increasingly forced on the public.

In most states, lawmakers require a set minimum amount of power come from wind or solar power, regardless of the costs and the reliability problems it creates. On top of that, federal, state, and local subsidies have encouraged wind and solar to continue growing beyond the minimum amount set by states.

With taxpayers and ratepayers often being forced to pick up more than 50 percent of the cost, wind and solar generators make a profit while selling electricity into the power grid below what it costs them to produce and deliver to users. As a result, dozens of coal-fueled power plants, accounting for tens of thousands of megawatts of reliable baseload electric power capacity, have closed across the country.

Texans experienced the downside of renewable energy in mid-February when more than eight million people lost power during a bitter cold spell. In early June, more than a month before Texas’ peak power demand normally occurs, the state’s energy regulator issued warnings of pending failures, asking people to cut back on power use.

In the aftermath of the February blackouts, which resulted in more than 150 preventable deaths, the Texas legislature fiddled while the power grid fizzled. Instead of confronting the fundamental cause of increasingly common power shortfalls—the government’s continuing tax support for wind and solar power—the legislature tinkered around the edges, changing who could serve on the state’s Electric Reliability Council.

In California, the state most reliant on wind and solar power, rolling blackouts have been the norm every summer over the past decade. If the Biden administration has its way and shuts reliable baseload fossil fuel power sources for electricity and replaces them with wind and solar, California-style blackouts will become a regular feature across the United States.

Looking abroad, Australia and Germany serve as instructive examples of the perils of overreliance on renewable energy sources. Both countries have abundant coal resources but have suffered repeated blackouts and brownouts in recent years, and even more threats of the same, as they replaced fossil fuel-powered, weather-independent power plants in favor of wind and solar.

Since 2000, when Germany launched Energiewende (German for “energy transition”) replacing coal and nuclear plants with wind and solar facilities, the average cost of electricity for German ratepayers has more than doubled. In 2019, German households paid “34 U.S. cents per kilowatt-hour, compared to 22 cents per kilowatt-hour in France and 13 cents in the United States, according to data from IEEE Spectrum,” reports the Techstartups blog.

In Germany, power blackouts, rolling brownouts, and restrictions on electricity use to prevent blackouts and brownouts have become all too common, in winter and summer alike. As Pierre Gosselin writes at No Tricks Zone,

Before the days of climate alarmism and hysteria, the job of deciding how to best produce electricity was left to power generation engineers and experts—people who actually understood it. The result: Germany had one of the most stable and reliable power grids worldwide,

Then in the 1990s, environmental activists, politicians, climate alarmists and pseudo-experts decided they could do a better job at generating power in Germany. … Fast forward to today: The result of all the government meddling is becoming glaringly clear: the country now finds itself on the verge of blackouts due to grid instability, has the highest electricity prices in the world, relies more on imports and is not even close to meeting its emissions targets.

Germany’s rickety and moody power grid now threatens the entire European power grid stability, as we recently witnessed.

Commenting on the decline of Germany’s modern electric power system, a post at Stop These Things in January stated,

Power rationing is the only thing that’s preventing a total collapse of Germany’s grid; during the first week of January the country narrowly avoided widespread blackouts following the total collapse in wind and solar output.

But, if you relegate engineers to the status of well-meaning idiots, and supplant them with green ideologues with gender studies degrees, get ready for chaos. Which is precisely where ‘green’ energy obsessed Germany now finds itself.

These remarks apply just as aptly to the electric power situation in California and increasingly in Texas. Unless politicians take note of the realities that make a modern power grid work—which means halting the replacement of baseload fossil fuel and nuclear power plants with intermittent wind and solar power—outages, brownouts, and electricity rationing will soon become the rule, not the exception, across the entire United States.

Weather, like wind and solar power, is fickle. No large-scale electric power system should ever rely on wind and solar power for a substantial portion of its supply. As Germany, California, and Texas demonstrate, to do so is to court catastrophic, life-threatening failures.

SOURCES: Catallaxy Files; Techstartups; Boston Herald; Texas Scorecard; No Tricks Zone; Stop These Things; Energy Professionals


IN THIS ISSUE …

RECENT AUSTRALIAN DROUGHT PATTERNS NOT UNUSUAL … OFFSHORE WIND REDUCES POWER POTENTIAL … DROUGHT HYSTERIA UNJUSTIFIED, MULTIPLE STUDIES DEMONSTRATE


RECENT AUSTRALIAN DROUGHT PATTERNS NOT UNUSUAL

Research published in the journal Climate Dynamics indicates recent drought and rainfall patterns in Australia are not historically unusual and cannot be linked to human activities.

To determine whether rainfall declines and drought patterns—hydroclimatic variability—in Australia can be attributed to human-caused climate change, a team of researchers from universities and research institutes in Australia and the United States assembled a “new 668-year (1350–2017 common era) tree-ring reconstruction of autumn–winter rainfall over inland southwest Australia.”

They found the recent declines in rainfall and periods of drought in southwest Australia since 2000 have been neither more severe nor longer lasting than droughts the region has experienced multiple times since the 1300s.

Drought periods of greater magnitude and duration than those in the instrumental record occurred prior to 1900 CE on multiple occasions, including two mega-droughts of greater than 30 years duration apiece in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. By contrast, the wettest decades of the last seven centuries in Australia have occurred since 1900. The twentieth century was Australia’s wettest century in the past 700 years.

SOURCE: Climate Dynamics


OFFSHORE WIND REDUCES POWER POTENTIAL

Europe is currently ahead of the United States in offshore wind power, although President Joe Biden has outlined ambitious plans to expand offshore wind industrial facilities as part of his administration’s efforts to fight climate change.

Before proceeding very far down this path, the administration should review a recent study published in Scientific Reports, a Nature publication. The study shows increasing the size and density of wind farms raises their effect on wind currents and patterns and reduces the amount of power the turbines generate.

Europe has plans to increase the number, size, and clustering of wind farms. This research shows doing so affects wakes around the individual turbines and clusters or groupings of turbines, which in turn alters wind conditions. Wind speeds decrease and wind consistency is compromised, both within a particular wind development and at nearby downwind turbine clusters. The larger the wind cluster, the greater the reduction in power generation.

Using high-resolution regional climate models to simulate the effect of Europe’s proposed wind facility developments in the North Sea, a team of researchers estimated high-density clusters of wind turbines can substantially diminish prevailing annual wind speeds. An upwind cluster of wind turbines can reduce wind currents available to wind turbine clusters as far as 35 to 40 km downwind, with the wind speed deficit decreasing at greater distances. During peak wind periods, the disruption of wind currents from one large wind facility can reduce the amount of power generated by a downwind facility by more than 20 percent, resulting in higher energy production costs and economic losses.

Wind energy is a limited resource in the North Sea, the research team from the Institute of Coastal Systems-Analysis and Modeling in the Helmholtz-Zentrum Hereon Research Institute in Geesthacht, Germany concluded.

There is no reason for thinking these results would not also hold true for wind developments off the U.S. coasts. That would cause Biden’s wind energy development plans to fall short of projections.

SOURCE: Scientific Reports


DROUGHT HYSTERIA UNJUSTIFIED, MULTIPLE STUDIES DEMONSTRATE

Roger Pielke Jr., Ph.D., of the University of Colorado, examined multiple lines of government data to respond to claims climate change has been causing more severe droughts in recent years. Data from the U.S. Drought Monitor and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency show drought has declined across the United States since the 1890s and has continued to do so since 2000.

With a large swath of western United States currently experiencing a severe drought, Pielke also examined drought in the Colorado River Basin (CRB) since 2000. Drought there has increased modestly, but in the context of 1900 to 2020, the number and severity of droughts in the CRB have not increased. Pielke notes a paper from Earth Interactions in June 2020 shows CRB droughts have become neither more severe nor drier since 300 AD. The same paper reported, “The driest drought occurred during 1901-04, … [and] the longest drought period occurred during 1943-56.”

A paper published in March in the Journal of Climate finds, as the title states, “U.S. Pacific Coastal Droughts Are Predominantly Driven by Internal Atmospheric Variability.”

Looking beyond a parochial focus on drought conditions in the United States, the folks at No Tricks Zone have collected and summarized the research of no less than six papers published in the last year (five since March 2021 and one published in July 2020) in a variety of peer-reviewed journals from different teams of international researchers indicating droughts in Africa, China, Greece, India, and for grasslands globally are no more frequent or severe at present than they have been historically.

For example, research shows drought conditions were far worse in the 1700s and first half of the 20th century than they are at present in northern China. In the eastern Mediterranean, droughts were more severe and longer in length, extending multiple decades in the 900s and 1300s, than they have been in recent centuries. The same data show from 1986 to 2015 the eastern Mediterranean experienced above-average precipitation in June and July. Another paper shows India experienced droughts of four years in length or greater four times in the 1700s and 1800s, but only once in the twentieth century, between 1958 and 1962.

These papers demonstrate that wherever you look across the globe, recent periods of drought have not been unusually frequent, extended, or severe when compared with historical examples. Another commonality found in these papers, at least those that sought to explain the cause of droughts as opposed to simply recording drought occurrences, is they attribute droughts to natural factors, primarily shifts in large-scale, multidecadal ocean circulation patterns.

SOURCES: Watts Up With That; No Tricks Zone; Journal of Climate

Author
H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D., is a Heartland senior fellow on environmental policy and the managing editor of Environment & Climate News.
hsburnett@heartland.org
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