An energy democracy or energy chaos?

13 July 2022

Going off-grid used to be a lifestyle choice, but mismanagement of some power systems has put ordinary people in the hard position of needing that ‘soft energy path’ – just not as its original proponents imagined it.

One of the most impactful ideas in the energy business has been the ‘soft energy path’ advocated by many since it was first put forward by Amory Lovins and the Rocky Mountain Institute in the 1970s. It envisages homes and businesses being so efficient with their energy that they hardly use any at all. The power they still need would come from domestically-owned renewables like small hydro and rooftop solar supported by batteries. This is an attractive vision which many people say is not only possible, but actually preferable to the current large grid infrastructure and the associated fossil and nuclear power plants that the electricity system has historically relied on.

In the 2020s, though, this trend has meant increasingly that those large electricity grids have become unreliable. For example, the Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO) which serves 15 states in the central US, as well as part of the Canadian province of Manitoba. Looking at their dashboard recently, MISO operators realised that they only had 119GWe of firm generation capacity available, whereas summer peak demand was forecast to hit 124GWe. A potential deficit of 5GWe compared to the needs of 42 million people.

Depending on how renewables perform and what is possible to import from other grids, MISO might need to implement “temporary controlled outages to preserve the integrity of the bulk of the system,” said JT Smith, Executive Director of Market Operations at MISO. That means rolling blackouts for neighbourhoods during periods of the highest demand – summer days when power hungry air conditioning has to work hard. When margins are reduced in grids like MISO, the system becomes dangerously threadbare. Lives could even potentially be lost in these rolling blackout scenarios.

A lot of Americans already need to use backup generators during interruptions caused by extreme weather and natural disasters like wildfires, but it seems slightly insane for an advanced society to close reliable power plants without suitable replacements. Nonetheless, in October 2020 the MISO transmission system area lost 615MWe of firm capacity from the closure of Duane Arnold 1. The reactor could have run for another five years but its long-term power purchase agreement was not renewed amid a glut of wind power. Offers of federal support by the Biden administration didn’t change utility minds and there are still many happy to see that a nuclear power plant is shutting down.

There is not a one-to-one connection to nuclear closures, but the pattern of reduced grid stability and dependable capacity clearly corresponds to shut-downs of centralised power stations and their large rotating machines. “Lack of firm generation may necessitate increased reliance on imports and use of emergency procedures to maintain reliability,” MISO said in April.

Through a mixture of incentives that value wind energy highly, but do not value the associated benefits in terms of reliability and grid stability that large thermal plants like nuclear bring, it is clear that MISO and many other transmission system operators are seeing their energy system edging towards increased instability. This is a trend that is certain to get even worse as the proportion of variable renewables creeps ever higher and steadily greater volumes of despatchable thermal capacity is shut down and removed from the grid.

This trend has been well known and understood for a long time. And yet clearly not enough has been done to prevent it although there are signs that political opinion is shifting. Diablo Canyon in California is now being seen in a new light after years of effort by tireless campaigners, as well as the possibility of some federal money. “In August 2020, extreme heat led to rolling blackouts and electricity shortages in California. If Diablo had not been running, the shortage could have been three times worse,” wrote California Senator Dianne Feinstein recently, adding “Pacific Gas and Electric Co. should reconsider its decision to close Diablo Canyon by 2025.”

It is evident that the electricity system is not working well enough for citizens. Today’s leaders have inherited precious assets from previous generations but have lost so many of them due to a lack of joined-up thinking. The overall system of governance should ensure that power is generated to meet the fundamental needs of citizens, but this has not been a consistent priority for all the actors in the system. It’s a failing market overseen by failing system of governance.

Watching this, it is perhaps no surprise that many US citizens conclude that the government can’t be relied on.

In fact, many people see it as un-American to put oneself in the position of relying on the government the first place – the principle of ‘rugged individualism’ says that you can only rely on yourself in times of need.

Some solutions to the threat of blackout are predictable. The market for portable generators is growing at over 6% per year as more and more people see them as a necessity. Some solutions are less predictable. The carmaker Ford is entering the market with the first all-electric version of its F-150 pickup, which has for years been the most popular vehicle in America. Like most electric vehicles the F-150 Lightning is more powerful and a lot faster than its petrol or diesel equivalent. It also has more load space thanks to a large trunk in the front where the engine used to be. But the truck’s most rugged feature of all is the ability to power your home from its battery.

Ford’s offer is based on a collaboration with Sunrun, a provider of home solar power systems. An owner would be able to use rooftop solar as well as grid power to charge up their truck, and in the event of a power cut, Sunrun says, the truck could then “fully power your home for three days” or provide 30kWh per day for as long as 10 days for people with the biggest battery option.

This is quite different from current solar-battery storage offerings, such as Tesla’s Powerwall which is a freestanding backup battery. And Tesla’s cars cannot provide power from the vehicle to a home due to the type of connection they use. This is also very different to the popular idea from few years ago that perceived that electric vehicles could and would function as an additional distributed energy storage system. The argument was that as EVs spend almost all the time being not driven they could effectively deploy their onboard battery for other productive purposes. Under this scenario EVs would support the electricity transmission and distribution grid as a whole, thereby serving a resilient society, enabling variable renewables, and giving every energy user an active role in the system. But no, this new system by Ford and Sunrun supports just one individual home.

A lack of effective policymaking means some people are following something that resembles the soft energy path envisaged by Amory Lovins, except that in practice it will be delivered by a brand new SUV and very much by necessity instead of a green and environmentally-friendly choice. Instead of being so attractive to consumers that it causes large fossil and nuclear plants to not be needed, this particular path only exists because too many of those plants have already gone.

The result will not be energy democracy that reshapes society for everyone’s benefit, but rather it risks emerging as a kind of energy anarchy: Rugged individualism for those who have the means to acquire the necessary resources and continued rolling blackouts for the poor.

Jeremy Gordon is an independent communication consultant with 18 years of experience in the international energy industry. His company Fluent in Energy supports partners of all kinds to communicate matters of clean energy and sustainable development.

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