Electricity won’t save us from our oil problems

Almost everyone seems to believe that our energy problems are primarily oil-related. Electricity will save us.

I recently gave a talk to a group of IEEE electricity researchers (primarily engineers) about the current energy situation and how welcoming it is for new technologies. Needless to say, this group did not come with the standard mindset. They wanted to understand what the electricity situation really is. They are very aware that intermittent renewables, including wind and solar, present many challenges. They didn’t come with the preconceived notion that oil is the problem and electricity will save us.

It wasn’t until I sat down and looked at the electricity situation that I realized how worrying it really is. Intermittent wind and solar cannot stand on their own. They also cannot scale up to the necessary level in the required time period. Instead, the way they are added to the grid artificially depresses wholesale electricity prices, driving other forms of generation out of business. While intermittent wind and solar may sound sustainable, the way that they are added to the electric grid tends to push the overall electrical system toward collapse. They act like parasites on the system.

We end up with an electricity situation parallel to the chronic low-price problem we have for oil. Prices for producers, all along the electricity supply chain, fall too low. Of course, consumers don’t complain about this problem. The electricity system also becomes more fragile, as we depend to an ever greater extent on electricity supplies that may or may not be available at a reasonable price at a given point in time. The full extent of the problem doesn’t become apparent immediately, either. We end up with both the electrical and oil systems speeding in the direction of collapse, while most observers are saying, “But prices aren’t high. How can there possibly be a problem?”

Simply removing the subsidies that come from Production Tax Credits doesn’t fix the situation either. In one sense, the problem reflects a combination of many types of direct and indirect subsidies, including state mandates and the requirement that intermittent renewables be allowed to go first. In another sense, the problem is that, in a self-organizing economy, energy prices (including electricity prices) can only rise temporarily. The increase in energy prices is made possible by a growing debt bubble. At some point, this debt bubble collapses. Raising interest rates, as the US is doing now, is a good way of collapsing the debt bubble.

Furthermore, the subsidies for intermittent wind and solar discourage other innovation because they lead to terribly low wholesale prices for innovators to compete against, particularly in areas where hour by hour competitive rating is done. The ultimate problem is that if one type of electricity production is subsidized (even if in subtle ways), all electricity producers must be subsidized. Governments cannot possibly afford such widespread subsidies.

A PDF of my presentation can be found at this link: An Electricity Perspective on the Fragile State of the Economy. In this article, I offer some comments on these slides.

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Our Electricity Problem: Getting the Diagnosis Correct

What is really wrong with our energy system, particularly as it relates to electricity and natural gas? Are there any mitigations available? I have been asked to give a talk at an Electricity/Natural Gas conference that includes both producers and industrial users of electricity and natural gas.

In this presentation, I suggest that the standard diagnosis of the problems facing the energy system is incomplete. While climate change may be a problem, there is another urgent problem that attendees at the conference should be aware of as well–affordability, and the severe near-term impact affordability can be expected to have on the system.

My written summary of this talk is fairly brief. I have not tried to repeat the information shown on the slides. This is a link to a copy of my presentation: Our Electricity Problem: Getting the Diagnosis Right

Slide 2

Slide 2

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The Long-Term Tie Between Energy Supply, Population, and the Economy

The tie between energy supply, population, and the economy goes back to the hunter-gatherer period. Hunter-gatherers managed to multiply their population at least 4-fold, and perhaps by as much as 25-fold, by using energy techniques which allowed them to expand their territory from central Africa to virtually the whole world, including the Americas and Australia.

The agricultural revolution starting about 7,000 or 8,000 BCE was next big change, multiplying population more than 50-fold. The big breakthrough here was the domestication of grains, which allowed food to be stored for winter, and transported more easily.

The next major breakthrough was the industrial revolution using coal. Even before this, there were major energy advances, particularly using peat in Netherlands and early use of coal in England. These advances allowed the world’s population to grow more than four-fold between the year 1 CE and 1820 CE. Between 1820 and the present, population has grown approximately seven-fold.

Table 1. Population growth rate prior to the year 1 C. E. based on McEvedy & Jones, “Atlas of World Population History”, 1978; later population as well as GDP based on Angus Madison estimates; energy growth estimates are based on estimates by Vaclav Smil in Energy Transitions: HIstory Requirements, and Prospects, adjusted by recent information from BP’s 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy.

When we look at the situation on a year-by-year basis (Table 1), we see that on a yearly average basis, growth has been by far the greatest since 1820, which is the time since the widespread use of fossil fuels. We also see that economic growth seems to proceed only slightly faster than population growth up until 1820. After 1820, there is a much wider “gap” between energy growth and GDP growth, suggesting that the widespread use of fossil fuels has allowed a rising standard of living.

The rise in population growth and GDP growth is significantly higher in the period since World War II than it was in the period prior to that time. This is the period during which growth in which oil consumption had a significant impact on the economy. Oil greatly improved transportation and also enabled much greater agricultural output. An indirect result was more world trade, which enabled production of goods needing inputs around the world, such as computers.

When a person looks back over history, the impression one gets is that the economy is a system that transforms resources, especially energy, into food and other goods that people need. As these goods become available, population grows. The more energy is consumed, the more the economy grows, and the faster world population grows. When little energy is added, economic growth proceeds slowly, and population growth is low.

Economists seem to be of the view that GDP growth gives rise to growth in energy products, and not the other way around. This is a rather strange view, in light of the long tie between energy and the economy, and in light of the apparent causal relationship. With a sufficiently narrow, short-term view, perhaps the view of economists can be supported, but over the longer run it is hard to see how this view can be maintained. Continue reading

Texas Electricity Blackouts Enabled by Feedback Loops; Reliance on Competition

Today, three days after the winter storm hit Texas, electrical outages are still continuing in parts of Texas. We don’t have all the answers yet, but let me tell you what I have pieced together about what has happened. One of the issues is direct and indirect feedbacks, as outlined in the graphic below, and described further in this post.

Figure 1. Cold weather affected both natural gas supply and electricity. In addition, a shortage of natural gas interrupted electricity supply, and electricity outages reduced natural gas availability.

Another issue is electricity deregulation in Texas. The competitive marketplace produces a situation not all that different from the situation in which BP operated that led to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Under Texas’ structure, there are many entities, each concerned primarily with its own bottom line. In this environment, cost cutting in the name of profitability is rewarded, but can lead to power outages. Integration with the many other units involved in electricity generation, while possible in theory, is extremely difficult in practice in times of market stress. The competitive marketplace provides price integration, but leads to a greater chance of cascading failure, since each company can be expected to look out for itself, leaving regulators with an expanded role in making certain that the system as a whole functions properly.

We are now considering adding more wind to the electric grid, as well as adding natural gas and electric vehicles. These will all have the effect of making the organization more complex. Each entity will be working to optimize its own profitability, with little focus on the overall success of the system. The failure of the Texas grid system in cold weather should act as a caution to those who expect that the integration of even more types of providers into the natural gas/electricity system can be done with few problems.
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