The Future of Electricity

Things do not bode well for the future of electricity, especially in the ‘developed’ world, while the ‘developing’ countries are already experiencing serious issues. Sri Lanka. Pakistan. China. The world does not seem to be able to move enough electrons to satisfy demand. Surprising? Well, not in a finite world.

Where do we get electricity from?

I tell you no big secret: electricity is not coming from the socket in the wall, or the wires above your street. Electricity is generated mainly in huge power plants which provide a stable baseload for the grid. This makes sure that you always get power at a standard voltage and frequency whenever you plug in your washing machine or hair dryer, no matter where you live in the country.

Should any of these two parameters deteriorate, your device could easily malfunction, catch fire or cause an electric shock. Solar roofs and other intermittent (i.e. unstable) sources of electricity are nice additions to power plants, but can never generate the high quality energy required by the myriads of technological devices from water pumps, to street lighting, intensive care units and refrigeration. With the addition of batteries, inverters and converters ‘renewables’ are indeed able to simulate a stable grid frequency and voltage, but as always: there is a catch. More on that later.

All these technicalities would be of no concern to you in a fairy-tale world of infinite resources, where coal, gas, oil, minerals, forests never deplete, and which could take up an unlimited amount of pollution as a bonus feature. Sorry to disappoint you, but none of this is true to our world: resources are depleting fast, while pollution kills life on this planet at an alarming pace.

As a consequence of climate change for example — induced by the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation (1) — a mega-drought is now upon the western half of the US. Water levels are getting critically low in reservoirs, and as a result, water pressure is falling at the bottom of these artificial lakes where the turbines (responsible for generating electricity) are located. Low pressure leads to lower water flow and throughput, and lower electricity production. No rain, no power.

If anything, this should’ve made clear how our electricity production depends on either the weather (rain, sun and wind) or the use of polluting and depleting fossil fuels (coal and natural gas). If the wind doesn’t blow, the sun doesn’t shine, there isn’t enough rain, or there is not enough cheap coal or natural gas to burn, ‘problems’ start to arise. It’s absolutely no wonder then, that millions of people are now facing rolling blackouts this summer in the West. Quote:

“Tens of millions of Americans could be thrown into a summer of hell as a megadrought, heatwaves, and reduced power generation could trigger widespread rolling electricity blackouts from the Great Lakes to the West Coast, according to Bloomberg, citing a new report from the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), a regulatory body that manages grid stability.”

Adding insult to injury, the number of major system disturbances has become eight times as frequent since 2000, mainly because the grid itself is aging quickly. As a result consumers may choose to forgo utility solutions altogether and invest in self generation and storage.

What the news don’t address though, is that this approach would place an additional burden on those users who are still forced to stay on the grid: leaving them with a disproportional part of the ever increasing maintenance costs, as more and more wealthy consumers decide to put up a solar panel and a battery system. But let’s not just get ahead of ourselves yet.

On the other side of the planet China is not faring any better: they too are forced to curb demand again as the next heatwave approaches. It increasingly looks like that we as a global civilization have reached a limit on what level of electricity production we can maintain globally. But why is that?

King Coal

Among many complex reasons, one finds coal, which is still the backbone of global electricity generation (see chart below).

As you can see, almost 10 out of every 25 terawatt-hours generated worldwide is still coming from coal. Coal of course is a finite resource: you can increase the production of it to a certain extent, then as older mines decline and new mines are becoming a rare animal, extraction of the black rock inevitably falls. And not only that — as we did with all other resources before — we have blazed through the highest quality stuff (one which burns the hottest and cleanest) closest to home first. Our civilization — globally — is increasingly left with lower and lower quality brown coal mined further and further away from industrial centers. Natural gas seemed to be a good candidate to replace coal, but hey, did you know that gas is finite resource too…?

Due to the depletion of high quality coal mines all around the world, and as a result of Western nations’ self-sanctioning folly in hopes of stopping one of the richest countries in the world (in terms of resources), our civilization is bound to burn more low quality brown coal than ever. In terms of metric tons coal ‘production’ will thus increase, surpassing any previous peaks, but in terms of industrial heat produced (and as a consequence electricity generated) we will be barely able to move the needle… Hence our electricity woes.

On a positive note, at last we can make the Jawa folks feel at home finally. Granted we can continue down this road long enough, we would surely pump more CO2 into the atmosphere than ever before, turning Earth into Tatooine sooner than you could say:

“May the Force be with you”

Then nuclear will surely save us

Well, from where I’m coming from nuclear is simply a failed experiment to replace coal. It left us nothing with but some 440 of the most expensive (and most dangerous) water boilers on Earth.

First, it takes a lot of mining (uranium and iron ore) driven by diesel, then a lot of electricity to enrich uranium, as well as the burning of the best of coals to make steel and cement (a lot), then diesel again to build a site and to power all those service trucks. Nuclear requires tons of raw materials, fossil fuels, labor, engineering and special knowledge — none of which is getting cheaper, or more abundant these days… Actually, quite the contrary.

It is no wonder then that, here, in Europe the continually postponed maintenance of the ageing nuclear fleet of France, together with the untimely closure of German ones, started to pose a serious threat to the stability of the grid, quote:

Until now, France has been relatively sheltered from the energy crisis squeezing its neighbors. But now the nuclear-reliant nation suddenly finds itself in the same boat as other energy-strapped European nations thanks to a “series of maintenance issues including corrosion at some of France’s ageing reactors, troubles at state-controlled energy group EDF and a years-long absence of significant new nuclear investment,” according to reporting from the Financial Times. The issues of corrosion, which are currently to blame for 12 of France’s 56 offline reactors, could take years to fix. Meanwhile, inflation is soaring and French electric bills have hit record highs.

“Instead of pumping vast amounts of electricity to Britain, Italy and other European countries pivoting from Russian oil,” writes The New York Times, “France faces the unsettling prospect of initiating rolling blackouts this winter and having to import power.” The incredibly bad timing of the EDF’s crisis is compounded with Putin’s recent slashing of natural gas exports to the EU, which have pushed countries such as Germany, Italy, Austria, and the Netherlands to a “bitter and reluctant return to coal.”

See? This is how a marvelously complex global system unravels. We are fast approaching a point, where there isn’t much cheap energy left to keep the ship afloat. Of course, at a given price you can repair anything. But not the whole thing...

And I haven’t even talked about the most obvious question: where to put all that radioactive waste? Well, maybe we should ask TEPCO: they have some great ideas… Our should we dump it in Chernobyl instead? The Zone is already contaminated for many millennia to come… What could possibly go wrong?

Solar roof for everyone!

Due to these rather unfortunate circumstances (lack of maintenance and investment, increasing number of malfunctions, declining fossil fuel availability to prop up the system, and as a result: a loss of stability), grids in the western hemisphere are becoming increasingly unable to accept this amount of weather dependent ‘renewable’ electricity and maintain a stable grid frequency and voltage. Energy captured and transformed by solar and wind cannot be compared to coal or natural gas used in power plants:

  1. As mentioned above these sources can de-stabilize the grid’s voltage and frequency, and thus need to be balanced with either gas fired power plants or batteries
  2. Weather dependent energy is available half of the time at best, so you need double, triple the nameplate capacity to make sure you have enough

For these reasons wind and solar haven’t even started to replace fossil fuel infrastructure yet — see the chart above: solar and wind are mere additions to an ever growing fossil fuel platform. When the growth in energy provided by fossil fuels stop completely and turn into reverse, we will face increasingly harsh difficulties in keeping the grid in balance.

Then why don’t we build more batteries and the super-grid of the future? Ecologist William E. Rees offers a few interesting factoids to aid our thinking:

  • 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. All this would come at an enormous ecological as well as resource cost (lithium, cobalt, nickel, copper and their resulting toxic waste streams). The energy drained by mining, which already stands at 10% of our global energy use, would also skyrocket putting an additional burden on systems already under pressure.

Then we haven’t even factored 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. Soon, with the long slow demise of coal though, not even by turning the planet into blistering desert. 2052 seems to arrive much sooner than I have initially anticipated…

Other ‘solutions’ (like gravity) 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. We must be truly desperate, if this level of ignorance and magical thinking is required to maintain a belief in modern civilization…

As usual however you cannot negotiate with nature and her laws of physics. The grid would first have to be broken up into more manageable pieces, preventing continent wide failures, then electricity would have to be rationed together with natural gas and other fuels. Planned rolling blackouts can be expected to become the norm until small self-sustaining micro-grids appear to provide for our ever more localized economies. Then, as the last remaining resources run out, people would have to learn to live without electricity once again.

Until next time,

B

Notes:

(1) Fossil fuel use and deforestation as means of upholding our vast numbers are both prime examples of overshoot. We are consuming too much natural and mineral resources: well beyond the planet’s capacity to regenerate them, and surpassing her ability to accommodate the resulting waste. In other words: we are living well beyond our means, and the consequences have started to show up.

Further reading / Sources:

IEA: The Role of Critical World Energy Outlook Special Report

Renewable Energy Materials Supply Implications

Are Electric Cars the Solution?

Mines, Minerals, and “Green” Energy: A Reality Check (Manhattan Institute)

Through the Eye of a Needle: An Eco-Heterodox Perspective on the Renewable Energy Transition

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