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If We Keep Electrifying, We Will Run Out of Power

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Llewellyn King's picture
Executive Producer and Host, White House Media, LLC

Llewellyn King is the creator, executive producer and host of “White House Chronicle,” a weekly news and public affairs program, airing nationwide on PBS and public, educational and government...

  • Member since 2018
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  • Mar 3, 2023

If you punch in “outage map” in a search engine, you will get a series of maps, ranging from the entire country to state by state and even smaller jurisdictions. These maps show electrical outages across the United States and territories, and they are within 10 minutes of actual time. The data come from the electrical utilities.

The maps are enlightening. At this writing, there are some areas in the dark in Michigan and California. More outages appear on the maps as severe weather sweeps across the country.

Today’s outages are all weather-caused. But in just a few years, they will reflect something else, something more ominous: shortages in the available amount of electricity. They will occur when demand begins to outstrip supply, as it frequently does in some developing countries.

The nation is in the grips of two great transitions: a transition from fossil-based generation (coal, natural gas and some oil) to renewables (primarily wind and solar) and a transition to electricity, especially in transportation with electric vehicles.

We are in a rush to electrify to reduce carbon emissions.

There are an astounding 3,000 utilities, ranging from very small public and rural electric cooperatives to very large, investor-owned firms like the Southern Company and Exelon.

These make up the electric supply system, which has been described as the world’s largest engine. They all work together with surprising unity and are variously connected to the three electric grids, the Eastern Grid, the Western Grid and ERCOT, the free-standing Texas grid.

Their challenge isn’t only where will the power come from but also whether there will be enough transmission to move it to where it is needed? 

Duane Highley, CEO of Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association Inc., an electric cooperative in Westminster, Colo., told me that adding two electric cars to a family home can raise electric consumption by as much as 40 percent.

Many utilities, including those in rapid-growth states like Texas, are counting on distributed generation, which is when the utility enters into contracts with its customers to share the burden. This can involve agreements with incentives to allow the utility remotely to turn off certain functions during peak hours and buy power from its customers if they have rooftop solar installations or backup generators.

After Texas was felled by Winter Storm Uri in February 2021, many electric customers are turning to generators and rooftop solar to protect themselves, said David Naylor, president of Rayburn Country Electric Cooperative Inc. in Rockwall, Texas. 

Faced with a growth rate that has been as high as 8 percent and 9 percent in recent years, Naylor is vigorously pursuing distributed generation.

In the electric utility industry, distributed generation is spoken of as “the first step in the virtual power plant.” In Connecticut, two pilot projects — promoted by SmartPower, a nonprofit green energy concern, where a utility, Eversource, and Connecticut Green Bank — are helping customers install solar power and a substantial battery. In return, the utility acquires the right to draw down from that battery on certain days at times of high demand.

All of this will help, but it doesn’t overcome the fact that between now and 2050, a target year for carbon reduction, electricity demand will double in the nation, according to many experts, and there is no way that demand can be met on the present generation and transmission trajectory.

The biggest frustration in the industry isn’t siting new wind farms and solar plants but building new transmission to move electricity from the resource-rich areas where, as Tri-State’s Highley says, “the wind blows and the sun shines,” such as the Western states, to where it is needed.

With money pouring out of the Department of Energy for projects, the problem isn’t money but selfishness — selfishness as in “not in my backyard.” No one wants power lines, just the power. And everyone wants more of it.

The fact is that if the nation continues to electrify at the present rate, shortages could begin at the end of the decade and worsen as the century rolls on.

Those outage maps might become must-watching — until the power for our computers fails, and your region gets color-coded on the outage map you can’t see.

Benoit Marcoux's picture
Benoit Marcoux on Mar 7, 2023

A fact-based analysis won’t support the conclusion of this article. See 

Peter Farley's picture
Peter Farley on Mar 7, 2023

The US has enough unshaded roof-space to provide at least 30% of its electrical needs from rooftop PV according to NREL studies and enough offshore wind potential to generate twice as much electricity as it now uses. 

 That would mean that with no new large-scale onshore wind and solar plants it could generate 800 TWh from nuclear, 300 TWh from existing hydro, biomass and geothermal, 1,200 TWh from rooftop solar 700 TWh from existing large scale wind and solar and 8,000 TWh from offshore wind for a total of 12,000 TWh form zero carbon sources with no new overhead HV transmission.

Most long distance transmission lines operate way below 60% capacity, placing storage at each end of the line and/or replacing steel-cored conductors with carbon fibre reinforced versions can triple annual throughput. Then while some transmission projects don't get environmental approval some do. Similarly some existing transmission will be repurposed from coal and gas to renewables and particularly from hydro plants which tend to have low utilisation the lines can easily be shared with wind/solar 

Electrifying 95% of land transport would require about 1,000 TWh per year and all heating up to 150C with heatpumps a similar amount. Generating enough electricity to replace coke with hydrogen less than 100 TWh. i.e. to electrify 85-90% of the US economy will need 6-7,000 TWh.

That assumes the US won't become more energy efficient. The US uses roughly twice as much energy per person and 40% more energy per $ of GDP as the EU. If the US wishes to remain globally competitive it will have to consume less energy. In fact, reducing electricity consumption to only 150% more per person than the EU would free up enough electricity to electrify all land transport.

 In summary this article makes no sense


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