Electric Energy and Self-Reliance
A historic characteristic of life in the United States has been easy access to a plentiful supply of energy. In the lives of those who read this blog this has included electricity, natural gas, gasoline, and diesel fuel. The focus for this article is electricity.
Most people do not understand that electricity is an energy form, not a source. By this I mean that electricity is a delivery method to easily distribute energy; but it always comes from some other original source. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration the mix of energy sources for electricity in the United States is shown in the chart below.
Until about 2006 coal was the primary energy source for electricity in the US. At that time, there was an abrupt change from coal toward natural gas. Moving from coal to natural gas was a response to political pressure. Using natural gas as the energy source for electricity is not bad. But now we see politicians actively trying to reduce acquisition of natural gas by limited drilling activity. The reason for this change is the same reason given for reducing coal; reduce the environmental impacts of energy sources. The percentage of renewable source energy has been growing slowly. Investigation into the makeup of renewable sources is important, especially in light of current political trends promoting renewables.
The chart above shows the makeup of renewable energy sources over the same time period. Historically, the primary source for renewables-sourced electric energy has been and continues to be hydro. However, hydro-based electrical sources are also under significant environmental pressure.
Wind energy is the new environmental darling energy source. On the surface, wind energy seems like a no-brainer. The wind blows and turns large turbine blades which drive generators that make electricity. What they don’t tell you about wind is its relative reliability. Hydro power and all the non-renewable sources are dispatchable. This means that electrical output can be controlled in response to need at any time. Wind-sourced energy is only available if and when the wind blows. Additionally, the wind must blow at an acceptable speed; too slow and it can’t turn the generator; too fast and the generator has to be taken out of service to prevent damage. As a result, a certain percentage of wind-sourced generation must have a duplicate source from some other energy source because if the wind is not right and people need electricity there must be a backup supply.
Although wind-sourced electricity looks good at first, it is not all roses and has significant secondary costs that are not factored into politically motivated sourcing decisions. Because if its inherent low reliability and the need for backup supplies, it is a very expensive energy source. Those costs don't show up in the press releases but they do show up in energy costs for the consumer.
Furthermore, with all the concern about climate, there is no discussion about the potential climatic effects of wind energy. Taking energy out of the wind reduces pressure gradients that drive weather across the county. To my knowledge there has been no study of the impacts of removing energy from the weather pressure gradients.
Now let's consider the delivery system. As a practical matter, electricity cannot be stored. Yes, I know about batteries. I have a big battery in my home. I have a pellet stove that I use like a fireplace. With my battery, I can power my pellet stove or my refrigerator for 20-25 hours. Expecting a load factor of about 50%, if I don’t use anything else, I can power the stove or the refrigerator for a couple of days using only the battery. That means, no lights, no computer, no entertainment, nothing except the stove or the refrigerator. Now that is a lot better than most homes, but I hope you recognize that battery storage is a very limited option.
The consequence of this inability to store electricity is that it must be produced and delivered in real time in response to the uses by millions of people. The system that makes this possible is very complex. I am an electrical engineer who spend 20+ years in the electric utility industry; I have an intimate knowledge of these systems. With complexity comes numerous failure points. The systems are designed with significant protection and redundancy. But they are nevertheless very complex. Early in 2021, Texas learned just how complex these systems are and how missing a seemingly minor point can result in very consequential results.
What does this have to do with self-reliance? Electric reliability is only as good at the primary energy sources that create it and the system that delivers it. If the energy source is not reliable, then your electric energy supply is not reliable. If the delivery system fails you have nothing. You may think that someone in the business is protecting this supply and will look out for you and there are a lot of dedicated people who work very hard on these problems. However, the supply decisions made by electric utilities are made in a very political environment; the leaders of that industry are keenly aware of the political pressures within which they operate. You can tell this by the large injection of wind-source energy in the past 15 years. Political pressure on electric utilities is ratcheting up, not down. The result is that you need to recognize that the electric power system you are connected to today is not as reliable as the one you connected to in the year 2000 and the reliability decreases every year.
We have been connected to a reliable source of electricity for so long that we never even consider the possibility that we could be lose access to that energy source. Furthermore, we never really think about just how many things in our daily life are impacted by the immediate availability of electric energy. As an exercise, spend 5-10 minutes making a list of everything you did today that was dependent upon the availability of electricity. I will prime this assignment with just a partial list of things I routinely do that require electricity.
Turn on the furnace or air conditioner
Use my refrigerator
Heat my house
Pump gasoline into my car
Use my computer
Turn on a light
Now you are on your own. I challenge you to spend some time right now thinking only on this question and make the most complete list you can of things in your life that require electricity. Then share some of your best results by commenting on this article. I think you will be surprised.
Now with your list of uses, consider the consequence to you and your family personally if the electric supply system stops working for you for two weeks. Make two lists of consequences; one if the system fails in summer and one if the system fails in winter. How do you like the results?
Now that you have identified just how terrible your life will be without electricity for two weeks, consider what will happen if electricity does not come back for months or years. Now, I know some of you are saying that I am crazy and that the scenario I have just provided is impossible. Well, if you like that answer, go with it. But I am an electrical engineer with 20+ years of experience in electric utilities and I can tell you that the electrical system has plenty of failure points in addition to the political pressures that are making it less reliable and more expensive.
I will add future blogs on other energy sources but I hope this entry will start you to think seriously about your energy self-reliance. Share your list of things that you need electricity for as well as your thoughts and comments.