Stable Electricity: A Long Slow Goodbye

B
8 min readApr 17, 2023
Photo by Dan Meyers on Unsplash

Electricity shortages are looming for the UK and Europe, and then later for the rest of the overdeveloped world as well. Blackouts will become common, and you will get power only for a couple of hours a day — just like in countries with a less favorable economic position. Most likely not this summer though, maybe not next year. Perhaps not even the year after. Losing a stable electric grid is a slow grind and will go in tandem with the long decline of fossil fuels.

Although most people, who got used to receiving a stable supply of power from the magic wall socket, don’t realize this as an immediate danger, the stability of the grid depends on the availability of fossil fuel (mainly natural gas) power plants ready to fill in the gaps during peak consumption hours. Contrary to the magical thinking pouring in on all channels, we are lacking the infrastructure to switch to a grid powered by ‘renewable’ electricity alone. As ecologist William E. Rees has pointed out:

The U.S. consumes about 4000 terawatt-hours of electricity every year, or 563 times the existing battery storage capacity…

An entire year of battery production from the multi-billion Gigafactory could only store a mere three minutes’ worth of annual U.S. electric demand…

Storing only 24 hours’ worth of U.S. electricity generation in lithium batteries would thus cost $11.9 trillion, take up 345 square miles and weigh 74 million tonnes

…and would take 10 years for 48 Nevada sized Gigafactories to produce the battery cells… For storing one, single day worth of electricity. One day, not months needed to cover the supply and demand gap in the winter. All this would come at an enormous ecological as well as resource cost (lithium, cobalt, nickel, copper and their resulting toxic waste streams). Not to mention the fact that we simply neither have these resources at hand nor the mining capacity to get them (if would find them).

Now, factor in things like: seasonality (the Sun shines much weaker during the winter, and the sky is covered by clouds much more often than in the summer), battery drain (which is much faster during the colder months), ageing and the need for replacement every 4 to 5 years. Yes, even before we would get halfway to our goal of storing one day’s worth of electricity, we would have to start the whole thing again… All this at today’s consumption level, without adding millions of electric vehicles, and the electrification of everything else (of agriculture or mining itself).

At this point we can safely say, that a nationwide stable electric grid (which is available on demand 24/7, just like today) is practically impossible to build based on renewables and battery power alone, or at least be maintained without the massive aid provided by fossil fuels. Other ‘solutions’ (like gravity storage) suffer from the same disease: resource blindness combined with an incapability to think in terms of scale, while displaying a blatant failure of understanding even basic physics.

What would it take to realize that we have reached material limits to growth, and that a long decline awaits? Would a major disaster do? Well, if you were waiting for a zombie apocalypse following a sudden loss of power throughout the continent, I have to disappoint you. There is still much redundancy in the system, just like the recent war in Eastern Europe has shown us. It is much harder to destroy a self adapting complex system, constantly maintained by an army of technicians and supported by an ample supply of fuel and resources than it is depicted in the movies. Just like a human body, the grid heals itself… but only up to a certain point. Then ageing takes over, and even the best maintained system, like the healthiest person, dies one day.

Thinking in false dichotomies (we will either have a sudden apocalypse any day now, possibly starting tomorrow, or we will have everything according to our needs forever, and a little more) is the prime reason behind failing to adapt to the physical realities of this planet. Staying with our healthy human body example, these extremities of thinking about our future prevent us from trying to live a healthy life: quit smoking (pun intended), eat a healthier diet (regenerative farming), get more physical activity (doing more manual work, walking, using less external energy) and most importantly: accept that neither we, nor our technological civilization will live forever. We will lose our skills, abilities, eyesight, hearing etc. with time, just like our civilization will lose its ability to power every gadget we have and take care of our every need.

Anyone who has worked for the industry should know that nothing we call technology today is sustainable. Neither cars, nor solar panels. Not only because both of them are hopelessly dependent on fossil fuels in every step of their lifecycle, but because both require a constant flow of raw materials and energy. I’m sorry to say, but neither of these are sustainable on a finite planet governed by the laws of thermodynamics and entropy… and that which is unsustainable, will simply not be sustained.

We have spent the last thousands of years converting concentrated ores and energy (stored in fossil fuels) into waste dispersed across the face of this planet. This is entropy, the only thing which gives direction to the flow of time. Needless to say, this is a one way process. The metal ores and concentrated energy will not magically regenerate or appear in large quantities just because we want to build a ‘renewable’ future.

So how will it end? What will our ageing civilization look like? Will its passing be a smooth process? As Hemingway once wrote in his novel The Sun Also Rises:

“How did you go bankrupt?” Bill asked.
“Two ways,” Mike said. “Gradually and then suddenly.”

Yes, we will lose the grid and the 24/7 electricity it provides in a gradual, almost barely noticeable fashion, until suddenly a considerable chunk of it breaks down and brings entire regions with it like an avalanche. Then comes the zombie apocalypse… Sic! No, power will be restored focusing on supplying critical infrastructure first, then residential areas in a piecemeal fashion… Only to be lost again at the next round of overload and collapse some time after. Rationing and rotating blackouts will thus be implemented to better adopt to this new reality of fossil fuel scarcity, and extending the shelf life of civilization (in this reduced operation mode) quite considerably.

Decades of low-tech, low-power life awaits. Just like an ageing person, our civilization will retire and will increasingly live a quiet life.

The days of cheap electricity is gone, forever. We have entered an era of scarcity, driven by our inability to wean ourselves off of fossil fuels, even when their availability ceased to grow and the first signs of scarcity arose. We rather broke the system (perhaps not unintentionally) than to figure out a path towards adaption together.

As a result, there is now an increasing conflict between electricity consumers, rather tellingly, first in the green energy sector: providing us with evidence how unscalable it is. Sure, you can legislate as many renewables into existence as you can, but without ways to stabilize them (i.e. being able to build the necessary infrastructure), you are creating more trouble than you solve. Proposed solutions are not without caveats.

Now, back to the FT article, linked above:

Experts say fights over which companies and which type of industry get priority access to electricity grids are likely to increase across Europe. Data centres have flourished in the Nordic countries because of once-plentiful and cheap electricity, as well as a colder climate that keeps cooling costs down.

But the clean energy transition is also prompting companies in the battery sector and steel industry to flock to the Nordics, causing competition over access to electricity. “It will be a big fight,” said one industrialist in northern Sweden where such a conflict is brewing. “Do we want green steel or data centres for Facebook?”

The so called green steel (produced in arc furnaces powered by low carbon electricity) is a mere accounting trick, and only available in locations where hydro and nuclear power is available in large amounts, like in the Nordic countries with an outsized generation capacity.

The problem is, that you can build so many dams and so many nuclear reactors before running into all sorts of other problems. This is the difference between technical feasibility and economic scalability. Wind and solar are inherently intermittent and cannot produce the stable flow of electricity needed to run an arc-furnace, which consumes power by the megawatts and only feasible in locations where electricity is cheap — or in our case: used to be cheap.

Hydro power is also limited by the number of locations available for damming, and most recently: the amount of rainfall. Climate change has already affected rain patterns and has caused an unprecedented drought leading to chronic low water levels in reservoirs. China has already run into this problem, repeatedly leading to power cuts.

Europe is facing the same issue, as it is on the same grid, which helps balancing load across the continent. It explains why Germany and the UK can go with a high ratio of ‘renewables’: whenever the wind is not blowing hard enough, or the sun doesn’t shine, they can import cheap and stable power from their neighbors: Norway, Sweden and France — now all having problems serving their own domestic demand, let alone providing load balancing for the rest of the continent at will.

Besides issues with generating enough electricity — now a worldwide issue — the grid itself will not be here for much too long. It is falling apart for a number of reasons due to the same root cause: exponential growth is impossible on a finite planet. The system simply has grown too large to maintain, and while its first iteration brought unprecedented change to towns it reached (providing a boost to their economies), its constant maintenance and the necessary replacement of its ageing components now places an increasing burden on both consumers (paying ever higher prices) and on operators facing severe material shortages and cost increases.

Last but not least, let me offer a more holistic view on the sustainability of civilization based on electricity. Ecology inform us, that true renewable power (from plants) is here for countless millennia for a good reason: plants themselves contain the energy for their safe decommissioning. Once a tree dies, it contains all the energy fungi, bacteria, insects and other life forms need to safely decompose it into humus. The same could not be told about solar panels and wind turbines, transformers, inverters and the rest: additional (external) energy needs to be invested in their decomposition, then another round of energy expenditure for building a new generation of energy devices — none of which they can self-generate and store.

Fossil fuels, on the other hand contain the energy needed to transport them and convert them into various other forms. Hence the exponential explosion in their use: drilling more wells resulted in ever more cheaper and more abundant oil. The problem is that we are using million times more of them than what could be safely burned and balanced with photosynthesis and now face their depletion.

The same cannot be told about our metal based future: as these resources contain no energy in and of themselves, and need external heat sources to be molded and shaped into new products, these resources are energy sinks, not sources. Adding in the fact that it takes more and more energy to get the next ton of copper, lithium, cobalt, etc. due to depletion, you can easily see how we are fighting an uphill battle on an ever steeper slope.

Technology and the civilization it brought about is unsustainable. Both will fade away during the coming century and will give birth to a radically different way of life. Whether we will be part of it is a question for another day though.

Until next time,

B

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B

A critic of modern times - offering ideas for honest contemplation. Also on Substack: https://thehonestsorcerer.substack.com/