What Are We Trying to Teach Our Children?

Me and my mother

I started writing this blog on D-Day, Thursday, June 6th (see the June 11, 2019 blog) — 80 years to the day since the Allied troops invaded the shores of Normandy to liberate Europe from the claws of Nazi Germany. A few members of my family and I were liberated on April 13, 1945, by the American army, which was an important part of this invasion. The opening photograph of this blog shows my mother and me shortly after our liberation. I obviously don’t remember much of the occasion of the photograph, but I like to think that we were posing after a mother-son conversation. I imagine my mother tried to explain to me the nature and prospects of our changing reality and our responsibilities to use our liberation for the good of others and the world around us.

80 years later, when I put myself into the context of this blog’s title, the concept of children also applies to my grandchildren. As should be obvious now, I am an old guy, about to retire from a teaching position at a university (see the November 21, 2023 blog), where I have taught Physics for 45 years. My (younger) wife has taught at the same university for even longer. For the last 10 years, she has also taught a course at our Honors College, focused on changes in academic institutions. My youngest grandson just graduated from Rice and was accepted for his PhD at MIT. Retirement or not, I care deeply for our academic institutions. Much of my time teaching was focused on energy use, climate change, and a basic course in Cosmology. In my interpretation, I was teaching about our present global reality and our chances to escape from this reality, if needed. At my departmental retirement party, I asked the students to raise their hands if they belonged to Generation Z (currently those ages 12-27). Less than half raised their hands, even after I clarified the dates (Generation Z: born 1997-2012; Y or Millennials: 1981-1996; X: 1965-1980. For a more general concept of generations, see Wikipedia). Generation Z is the main group that is attending college right now, and therefore they are the ones who will be most impacted by current or upcoming changes to educational policies.

So, when I read a recent newspaper article announcing Harvard Says It Will No Longer Take Positions on Matters Outside of the Universitylast month, I paid attention:

Harvard said on Tuesday that it would now avoid taking positions on matters that are not “relevant to the core function of the university,” accepting the recommendations of a faculty committee that urged the university to dramatically reduce its messages on issues of the day. If put into practice, Harvard would no longer issue official statements of empathy, which it did for Ukraine, after the Russian invasion, and for the victims of the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks in Israel, for example.

“In issuing official statements of empathy, the university runs the risk of appearing to care more about some places and events than others,” the report said. “And because few, if any, world events can be entirely isolated from conflicting viewpoints, issuing official empathy statements runs the risk of alienating some members of the community by expressing implicit solidarity with others.”

At almost the same time, I read a different article from December of last year: “Experts discuss whether college is still worth it”:

David Deming, Harvard University Professor of Political Economy, explained that after increasing for decades, the college wage premium—the difference in average earnings between college graduates and non-college graduates—has plateaued, but remains around 65%. That is, the average four-year college graduate earns about 65% more than the average high school graduate. The panelists also discussed the cost of going to college, noting that financial aid is available for qualifying low-income students, though it is not always enough to make college affordable. Stephanie Cellini, George Washington University Professor of Public Policy and Economics, pointed out that while the average posted “sticker price” of college has been rising, the “net price”—what students pay after subtracting out financial assistance that doesn’t have to be repaid—is lower than the sticker price that receives so much attention. She notes that the average sticker price has actually been decreasing in recent years. (See a recent discussion of that trend here.) Still, Cellini emphasized that many students have to take out loans to afford college and then struggle to repay these loans. Denisa Gándara, Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy at UT Austin, added that higher wages are not the only benefit of college attendance. For example, there is a growing body of evidence suggesting that college graduates have better physical and mental health. Society also benefits when people go to college; college graduates tend to be more civically engaged, reported Gándara.

In my head, the two articles are strongly related. Of course, I am fully aware that Harvard is taking this position in response to their experiences with student and faculty demonstrations during the present Israel-Hamas war. But the new position is much broader and could have much larger consequences. It can be interpreted as an announcement that the school is not going to take positions on the reality of our current society—and as a result, will not teach students how to understand reality and decide for themselves how to deal with it. Most of the students at Harvard, as at any university, are Generation Z. As I have tried to show in the more than 12 years that I have been writing this blog, humanity is in the middle of at least 5 existential transitions; all of these started around WWII. They include climate change, nuclear energy, declining fertility, global electrification, and digitization. These transitions started around the time that I was born, but they will hopefully last (if some of them do not lead to extinction in the meantime) at least through the lifetime of my grandchildren (I call this time “now” in some of my writing).

My grandchildren belong to Generation Z; if universities will not try to teach them how to analyze these continuing global changes, what is the point of their attending? All of these trends have their roots in science. Now, there are prerequisites for learning how to deal with the real world but there needs to be a next step. If higher education teaches only these prerequisites, without connecting them to the real world, the schools are not doing their jobs and students are right to question being part of such an academic system. Advertising the number of majors that they offer (see October 31, 2023 blog) is not enough if the schools do not offer training for how to deal with changing global environment.

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In Six Months, We Might Lose It All: US States

This series has looked at the progress that the US has been making in the energy transition to sustainable energy sources–specifically, the steps that might be reversed with government changes in the November election. I found a blog that ties into this theme that was recently posted by DSIRE Insight, a project associated with North Carolina Clean Energy Technology Center. Figures 1 – 4, taken from that bog, summarize important information. Figure 1 shows the number of climate actions taken in the first quarter of 2023. Only two states–Alabama and Oklahoma–took no action at all.

US map of state decarbonization actions Q1 2023

Figure 1 – Q1 2023 action on power decarbonization and resource planning

Figure 2 shows each state’s largest contributors to electricity generation.

Map of US largest contributing resources to state electric generation mix

Figure 2 – Largest contributing resource to state electric generation mix (2022) Data Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration – Electric Power Monthly, Net Generation by State by Type of Producer by Energy Source (Jan. – Dec. 2022).

Coal is still the main contributor in 11 states. Most states are now generating their electricity using natural gas but many of them are shifting to various forms of solar. Figure 3 shows where they are in this process (as of 2023).

Percentage of Clean Electricity Generated by State (2022)

Figure 3 – Percentage of clean electricity generated by state (2022)
Data Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration – Electric Power Monthly, Net Generation by State by Type of Producer by Energy Source (Jan. – Dec. 2022). Map represents percent of total MWh generated in each state from clean energy sources (biomass, geothermal, hydroelectric, nuclear, solar, and wind).

The Biden administration has committed to bringing the US to a carbon pollution-free power sector by 2035 and a net-zero economy by 2050. The states shown in Figure 4 have also made commitments to reach net zero emissions by 2050. As we know well from experience, however, future commitments can easily change with changing leadership.

100% Clean Energy or Net-Zero Electricity Sector Emissions Targets (May 2023)

Figure 4100% Clean energy or net-zero electricity sector emissions targets (May 2023)

As the maps above show, California is among the states at the forefront of the energy transition in the US. It is not surprising, then, that the energy industry is using California to emphasize some of the difficulties that the transition is facing.  Some of these difficulties are summarized in the article below:

Soaring Solar Power Is Creating Challenges for the U.S. Energy Grid

By Tsvetana Paraskova – May 27, 2024, 5:00 PM CDT

  • Soaring solar installations are causing distortions in the power distribution and transmission systems in top solar-producing states like California.
  • Battery storage could alleviate these challenges, but it is still lagging behind solar capacity additions.
  • Despite the decline in coal power generation, coal still holds a significant share of the U.S. electricity mix, more than any renewable energy source.

No other energy source has seen more rapid growth in the United States over the past half a decade than solar power. But soaring solar installations have begun to distort the power distribution and transmission systems in the top solar-producing states such as California, creating challenges for utilities and the grid.

Battery storage could help alleviate these challenges, and although it is also surging, it is still lagging behind solar capacity additions.

It is no wonder then that despite a continuous decline in U.S. coal power generation, the share of coal in America’s electricity mix is still above 15%, more than any renewable energy source.

All renewable energy sources combined—wind, solar, hydropower, biomass, and geothermal—surpassed coal-fired generation in the U.S. electric power sector for the first time in 2022. But coal still holds about a 16% share of electricity generation, more than wind’s share of around 11%, hydropower’s 6%, or solar power’s 4% share of the electric generation mix.

Solar power has now grown to account for about 6% of total U.S. electric power generation after surging by 155% between 2018 and 2023, per EIA data cited by Reuters columnist Gavin Maguire.

But while solar power has made the U.S. power-generating system greener, it has also made it more volatile, especially in the top solar market, California.

There, peak solar power generation coincides with the lowest residential electricity demand during the midday. When power demand begins to surge after 6 p.m., solar output begins to fade.

Earlier this year, the EIA estimated that solar and battery storage would make up 81% of new U.S. electric-generating capacity in 2024. Developers and power plant owners plan to add 62.8 GW of new utility-scale electric-generating capacity this year, up by 55% compared to the capacity added last year, 40.4 GW. Solar is set to account for the largest share of new capacity in 2024, at 58%, followed by battery storage, at 23%, per EIA forecasts. The growth in solar additions would be almost double last year’s 18.4 GW increase, which was itself a record for annual utility-scale solar installation in the United States.

“As the effects of supply chain challenges and trade restrictions ease, solar continues to outpace capacity additions from other generating resources,” the EIA noted.

Battery storage additions are also expected to shatter records this year, with U.S. battery storage capacity set to nearly double in 2024 as developers plan to add 14.3 GW of battery storage to the existing 15.5 GW this year. In 2023, 6.4 GW of new battery storage capacity was added to the U.S. grid, a 70% annual increase. California and Texas are in the lead when it comes to battery storage additions due to the rapid growth of variable solar and wind capacity in these two states.

“In much of the US, batteries are not yet performing that crucial load-shifting role,” Ed Crooks, Vice-Chair, Americas at Wood Mackenzie, wrote last week.

We are all experimenting and learning how best to run the energy transition. The publication above uses California’s experiences to emphasize some of the difficulties that states encounter. However, the article does not mention the steps that some of the states and the federal government are taking to rectify these difficulties.

I will start with California and Vermont and finish the blog with the federal government.

California

Previous blogs have emphasized the importance of expanding the availability of electric power beyond centralized power utilities to include distributed generation (April 2, 2024 blog). To encourage broad participation in the effort, many states are introducing net metering to store unused power from distributed generation (March 26, 2024 blog). As I mentioned in these blogs, one of the issues with net metering is who pays for the effort. California is now experimenting with ways to address the issue:

Last year, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), with the active support of the state’s largest investor-owned utilities, eviscerated the existing net metering regulations. The new plan, known as NEM 3.0, slashes the amount the utilities have to pay their rooftop solar customers by 75 percent. Ouch! As a result, applications for new rooftop solar systems skyrocketed, as people sought to get in on the gravy before the new rules went into effect. After NEM 3.0, applications fell by about 50 percent. Since then, several large rooftop solar companies have gone bankrupt.

The CPUC justified the change by saying the state needed more batteries to soak up electrons during the day and send them back to the grid in the evening and in fact the number of residential batteries installed in California has jumped. But batteries are expensive and add quite a large amount to the total cost of a rooftop solar system. The amount the utilities now have to pay to access that stored electricity is hardly enough to justify the added expense, but it can lower utility bills if self-consumed by the homeowner.

Vermont

Vermont is trying to mobilize fossil fuel companies to “help”:

Vermont has passed a first-in-the-nation law that will require “Big Oil” to pay for damage caused by climate change, the long-term shift in weather patterns that is heavily influenced by fossil fuel emissions.

Vermont Gov. Phill Scott sent a letter to the state’s General Assembly on Thursday allowing the measure, which proposes to establish the Climate Superfund Cost Recovery Program, to become law without his signature. In that letter, Scott said that “taking on ‘Big Oil’ should not be taken lightly.”

“With just $600,000 appropriated by the Legislature to complete an analysis that will need to withstand intense legal scrutiny from a well-funded defense, we are not positioning ourselves for success,” he said. “I’m deeply concerned about both short- and long-term costs and outcomes.”

“Big Oil” – the world’s biggest oil and gas companies – mostly relies on fossil fuels in their businesses, which are “by far the largest contributor to global climate change,” according to the United Nations. The international group says that fossil fuels account for more than  75% of emissions of greenhouse gases, which trap heat in the atmosphere and increase global temperatures, leading to more extreme weather events.

Meanwhile, the federal government is trying to make the use of coal more difficult: The other end of these developments are the states shown in Figure 2 that are still running their electricity mainly with coal. In many of these states, much of the land is owned by the federal government. Recently, however, the federal government has been considering ending the federal leases for coal mining:

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — The Biden administration on Thursday proposed an end to new coal leasing from federal reserves in the most productive coal mining region in the U.S. as officials seek to limit climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions from burning the fuel. The Bureau of Land Management proposal would affect millions of acres (millions of hectares) of federal lands and underground mineral reserves in the Powder River Basin area of Wyoming and Montana. Thursday’s proposal was made in response to a 2022 court order that said two federal land management plans drafted for the Powder River Basin during former President Donald Trump’s administration had failed to adequately take into account climate change and public health problems caused by burning coal.

The upcoming November elections are not only for president. All arms of government will experience some changes. This is the essence of the democratic system that all of us enjoy. The impact of these elections on the energy transition will be a crucial test of our collective resilience.

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In Six Months, We Might Lose It All: The US Department of Energy

Last week, I mentioned that the Energy Department will play a key role in the implementation of an energy transition. The issue in question was the recent changes that were just issued for FERC (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission). As was mentioned there, this is the commission responsible for regulating the national electricity grid. As such, this committee is one of the most important governmental tools for coordinating the required energy transition. After all, the transition is heavily dependent on a significant increase of electricity use. However, FERC is susceptible to major changes if the presidential election results in the re-election of ex-president Trump.

The Department of Energy is the main federal governmental agency responsible for coordinating the transition (as I will show in next week’s blog, however, it is not the only one). The present administration has now committed to transitioning our energy use away from fossil fuels and into sustainable energy. Most of this policy shift is reversible and thus makes it susceptible to changes in the federal government. For historical reasons, regulating our energy use is not the only job of the Department of Energy. A brief history of the department can be found on Wikipedia.

The best way to illustrate the vulnerabilities is to follow the changes in the departmental budget during President Trump’s tenure, which started in 2017. Figure 1 shows these changes.

Figure 1 – FY2020 request from DOE, FY2020 Congressional Budget Request: Budget in Brief (March 2019). FY2019 enacted and FY2018 enacted from the Joint Explanatory Statement accompanying H.Rept. 115-929 (Conference report) for P.L. 115-244) (Source: EveryCRSReport.com)

The abbreviations in this figure stand for the following:

NNSA: National Nuclear Security Administration

ARPA-E: Advanced Research Projects Agency

Most of the changes that are now being implemented to facilitate the energy transition to more sustainable sources are summarized by a report written by ITIF (Information Technology & Innovation Foundation). The executive summary of this report is given below:

The Biden administration’s FY 2024 budget request (PBR) for the Department of Energy (DOE) calls for an 18 percent increase in investment in clean energy research, development, and demonstration (RD&D) over FY 2023-enacted levels. The 117th Congress passed three landmark bills—the Investment in Infrastructure and Jobs Act (IIJA), the CHIPS and Science Act (CHIPS), and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA)—that are reshaping energy innovation in the United States. But despite boosts from these bills, the requested levels for many energy RD&D programs trend below the levels that the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) and the Center on Global Energy Policy recommended in their 2020 report Energizing America.1 Continuing along Energizing America’s recommended trajectory is vital to develop the climate solutions the world needs while strengthening the competitiveness of U.S. technology developers and manufacturers.

The context for federal clean energy innovation investments is daunting. Unabated fossil fuels still dominate global consumption. New technologies that would drastically reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from many major sources cost substantially more than incumbent solutions, perform too poorly, or are simply unavailable. Although the global energy innovation system still has major gaps, many countries have advanced assertive programs targeting specific sectors that collectively threaten U.S. leadership, including in public funding for energy RD&D, where the United States has long been the top investor.

Yet, had it kept pace with growth in the U.S. economy since DOE’s founding in 1978, the department’s RD&D budget today would be $32 billion, more than three times its level in fiscal year 2023. The bipartisan consensus that led to recent legislation and funding increases must be sustained and further elevated to approach that level again, as numerous expert studies have advocated. At a time when the nation really needs a big boost from innovation to address competitiveness, climate change, and supply chain resilience, DOE’s budget is still a modest 0.04 percent of gross domestic product (GDP)—below several peer countries such as Norway, France, Finland, and even China. Congress should seize the opportunity to sustain the momentum, accelerate domestic clean energy industries, and shape the U.S. response to climate change. This report describes DOE’s RD&D programs, assesses significant updates to them, and discusses notable gaps that still remain. It is supported by an interactive data visualization that will be updated throughout the FY 2024 budget cycle.

As was mentioned before, the Department of Energy is responsible for putting most of these changes into effect, meaning that the department is vulnerable to changes in the priorities of the federal government. To outline these vulnerabilities, we will have to examine the present structure of the department through its web page (Department of Energy). The website is divided into the four focus areas of the department: Science and Innovation, Energy Economy, Security and Safety, and Energy Saving. The Science and Innovation section is the most vulnerable to governmental changes and will be described in some detail below, followed by short descriptions of the other three sections:

Science and Innovation:

As a science agency, the Energy Department plays an important role in the innovation economy. The Department catalyzes the transformative growth of basic and applied scientific research, the discovery and development of new clean energy technologies and prioritizes scientific innovation as a cornerstone of US economic prosperity.

Through initiatives like the Loan Programs Office and the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), the Department funds cutting-edge research and the deployment of innovative clean energy technologies. The Department also encourages collaboration and cooperation between industry, academia and government to create a vibrant scientific ecosystem.

In addition, the Energy Department’s 17 National Laboratories are a system of intellectual assets unique among world scientific institutions and serve as regional engines of economic growth for states and communities across the country.

This section of the website includes the following subsections: Energy Sources, Clean Energy, Efficiency, Artificial Intelligence, Climate Change, Vehicles, and STEM.

Digging deeper into Argonne National Laboratory, one of the 17 national research laboratories mentioned above, one finds the National Virtual Climate Laboratory:

The NVCL is a portal for those working on the climate crisis, such as researchers, students, faculty, and other interested organizations. Portal users can find a wide range of national laboratory experts, programs, projects, activities, and user facilities that are engaged in climate research across the BER portfolio.

NVCL Objectives

  1. Centralize access to DOE climate research

Offer a well-curated, easily accessible, plain-language inventory of BER projects related to climate research and user facilities. The portal content is updated regularly.

  1. List related opportunities

Provide students, faculty, and research scientists access to internship, educational, and training opportunities at DOE and participating DOE laboratories. Opportunities provide coaching and mentoring in the skills they need to ensure success in their careers.

  1. Encourage collaborations

Facilitate robust, self-sustaining collaborations between national laboratories and interested organizations, including colleges and universities that serve underrepresented students such as Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs) and Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).

Short descriptions of the other three sections are given below:

Energy Economy. Mainly includes related economic data. Divided into sections that include Resources for Small Businesses; data; Work Force Training’ and Subtopics such as Prices and Trends, Funding and Finances, Federal States and Local Governments, Manufacturing and Inventions and Patents.

Security and Safety:

The Energy Department plays an important and multifaceted role in protecting national security. In addition to our work to increase nuclear nonproliferation and ensure the security of the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile, we manage the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, invest in protections against cyber and physical attacks on U.S. energy infrastructure, conduct programs to ensure worker health and safety, and provide training tools and procedures for emergency response and preparedness.

I was not authorized to open the “Nuclear Security & Nonproliferation” part of the website (I have no idea why such information is posted on the Internet!), however, the part that is accessible is the main page of the NNSA (National Nuclear Security Administration).

The last section of the Department of Energy website is dedicated to self-explanatory Energy Saving.

Next week’s blog will finish the “In Six Months, We Might Lose It All” series by focusing on individual US states.

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In Six Months, We Might Lose It All: The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC)

FERC
(Source: Investopedia, Madelyn Goodnight)

The April 23rd blog ended with the following paragraph:

I will wait until I read the new FERC report on the issue and start next week’s blog addressing the international aspects of these issues. Specifically, how developing countries hope to generate the resources to finance the transition. Without their cooperation, the energy transition is bound to fail and all of us will suffer the consequences.

As promised, the report came out on time, last week. Below is the fact sheet of its findings:

Fact Sheet |Building for the Future Through Electric Regional Transmission Planning and Cost Allocation

FERC’s new transmission and cost allocation rule, Order No. 1920, continues the essential work of the Commission – ensuring a reliable grid – by requiring the nation’s transmission providers to plan for the transmission we know we will need in the future.

This rule adopts specific requirements addressing how transmission providers must conduct long-term planning for regional transmission facilities and determine how to pay for them, so needed transmission is built. The final rule reflects more than 15,000 pages of comments from nearly 200 stakeholders representing all sectors of the electric power industry; environmental, consumer and other advocacy groups; and state and other government entities.

The grid rule contains these major elements:

  • Requirement to conduct and periodically update long-term transmission planning to anticipate future needs.
  • Requirement to consider a broad set of benefits when planning new facilities.
  • Requirement to identify opportunities to modify in-kind replacement of existing transmission facilities to increase their transfer capability, known as “right-sizing.”
  • Customers pay only for projects from which they benefit.
  • Expands states’ pivotal role throughout the process of planning, selecting, and determining how to pay for transmission facilities.

Long-Term Regional Transmission Planning

More specifically, the rule requires each transmission operator to:

  • Produce a regional transmission plan of at least 20 years to identify long-term needs and the facilities to meet them.
  • Conduct this long-term planning at least once every five years using a plausible and diverse set of at least three scenarios that incorporate specific factors and use best available data.
  • Apply seven specific benefits to determine whether any identified regional proposals will efficiently and cost-effectively address long-term transmission needs.
  • Include an evaluation process to identify long-term regional transmission facilities for potential selection in the regional plan.
  • Include a process giving states and interconnection customers the opportunity to fund all, or a portion, of the cost of a long-term regional transmission facilities that otherwise would not meet the transmission provider’s selection criteria.
  • In the event of delays or cost overruns, reevaluate long-term regional transmission facilities that previously were selected in a regional transmission plan.
  • Consider transmission facilities that address interconnection-related needs identified multiple times in existing generator interconnection processes, but that have not been built.
  • Consider the use of Grid Enhancing Technologies such as dynamic line ratings, advanced power flow control devices, advanced conductors and transmission switching.

How to Pay for Transmission

The grid rule contains these cost-allocation provisions:

  • Before applicants submit compliance filings, they must open a six-month engagement period with relevant state entities.
  • Applicants must propose a default method of cost allocation to pay for selected long-term regional transmission facilities.
  • Applicants may propose, a state agreement process that lasts for up to six months after a project is selected for participants to determine, and transmission providers to file, a cost allocation method for the selected facilities.

Enhanced Transparency, “Right-Sizing” and Interregional Transmission Coordination

The grid rule requires transmission providers to:

  • Be transparent regarding local transmission planning information and conduct stakeholder meetings during the regional transmission planning cycle about the local process.
  • Identify opportunities to modify in-kind replacement of existing transmission facilities to increase their transfer capability, known as “right-sizing,” when needed.
  • Give incumbent transmission owners a right of first refusal to develop these “right-sized” replacement facilities.
  • Revise existing interregional transmission coordination processes to reflect the new long-term regional transmission planning reforms.

Order No. 1920 takes effect 60 days after publication in the Federal Register.  Compliance filings with respect to most of the rule’s requirements are due within 10 months of the effective date, while filings to comply with the interregional transmission coordination requirements are due within 12 months of the effective date.

The media response was immediate. I am including two examples: one from the NYT and one from Forbes:

NYT: New Rules to Overhaul Electric Grids Could Boost Wind and Solar Power

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approved the biggest changes in more than a decade to the way U.S. power lines are planned and funded.

Federal regulators on Monday approved sweeping changes to how America’s electric grids are planned and funded, in a move that supporters hope could spur thousands of miles of new high-voltage power lines and make it easier to add more wind and solar energy.

The new rule by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which oversees interstate electricity transmission, is the most significant attempt in years to upgrade and expand the country’s creaking electricity network. Experts have warned that there aren’t nearly enough high-voltage power lines being built today, putting the country at greater risk of blackouts from extreme weather while making it harder to shift to renewable sources of energy and cope with rising electricity demand.

A big reason for the slow pace of grid expansion is that operators rarely plan for the long term, the commission said.

The nation’s New Rules to Overhaul Electric Grids Could Boost Wind and Solar Power are overseen by a patchwork of utilities and regional grid operators that mainly focus on ensuring the reliability of electricity to homes and businesses. When it comes to building new transmission lines, grid operators tend to be reactive, responding after a wind-farm developer asks to connect to the existing network or once a reliability problem is spotted.

The new federal rule, which was two years in the making, requires grid operators around the country to identify needs 20 years into the future, taking into account factors like changes in the energy mix, the growing number of states that require wind and solar power and the risks of extreme weather.

Grid planners would have to evaluate the benefits of new transmission lines, such as whether they would lower electricity costs or reduce the risk of blackouts, and develop methods for splitting the costs of those lines among customers and businesses.

“We must plan our nation’s grid for the long term,” said Willie Phillips, a Democrat who chairs the energy commission. “Our country’s aging grid is being tested in ways that we’ve never seen before. Without significant action now, we won’t be able to keep the lights on in the face of increasing demand, extreme weather, and new technologies.”

Forbes: Renewables Will Skyrocket Under New Transmission Policies

The transmission system must modernize and expand to meet the demands of the 21st Century. Indeed, the growth of artificial intelligence, data centers, and electric vehicles — powered by green energy — means the country must at least double regional transmission capacity.

That’s why the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) voted 2-to-1 Monday to modernize the nation’s long-distance high-powered transmission policies — geared to meeting the Biden Administration’s decarbonization goals and to harden the grid to withstand extreme weather that could wreak havoc on local economies.

The changes have multiple ramifications: It will help with backstop authority—or the ability to build transmission when progress slows. Over the next decade, it will lead to considerably more renewable energy and noticeably less coal-fired power. For both reasons, litigation will abound, although the regulatory commissioners considered that before approving the new policies.

FERC also revised its backstop authority. That means the feds can intervene if the states fail to push through vital — log-jammed — projects. “FERC’s backstop siting rule will help ensure that no one state can veto transmission lines that are in the general interest of the nation,” says Cullen Howe, senior advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The Energy Department will play a key role in the implementation:

The Biden administration on Thursday finalized a rule meant to speed up federal permits for major transmission lines, part of a broader push to expand America’s electric grids.

Administration officials are increasingly worried that their plans to fight climate change could falter unless the nation can quickly add vast amounts of grid capacity to handle more wind and solar power and to better tolerate extreme weather. The pace of construction for high-voltage power lines has sharply slowed since 2013, and building new lines can take a decade or more because of permitting delays and local opposition.

The Energy Department is trying to use the limited tools at its disposal to pour roughly $20 billion into grid upgrades and to streamline approvals for new lines. But experts say a rapid, large-scale grid expansion may ultimately depend on Congress.

Under the rule announced on Thursday, the Energy Department would take over as the lead agency in charge of federal environmental reviews for certain interstate power lines and would aim to issue necessary permits within two years. Currently, the federal approval process can take four years or more and often involves multiple agencies each conducting their own separate reviews.

At approximately the same time, news came from Florida, focusing our thinking on the immediate future. In six months, depending on the results of the national election, all of this progress may evaporate into thin air and we may again find ourselves powerless to fight climate change:

Florida’s state government will no longer be required to consider climate change when crafting energy policy under legislation signed Wednesday by Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican.

The new law, which passed the Florida Legislature in March and takes effect on July 1, will also prohibit the construction of offshore wind turbines in state waters and will repeal state grant programs that encourage energy conservation and renewable energy.

The legislation also deletes requirements that state agencies use climate-friendly products and purchase fuel-efficient vehicles. And it prevents any municipality from restricting the type of fuel that can be used in an appliance, such as a gas stove.

The legislation, along with two other bills Mr. DeSantis signed on Wednesday, “will keep windmills off our beaches, gas in our tanks, and China out of our state,” the governor wrote on the social media platform X. “We’re restoring sanity in our approach to energy and rejecting the agenda of the radical green zealots.”

It all depends on us, whether we lose the ability to fight our contribution to global climate change (remember our “self-inflicted genocide”), or we are able to amplify our efforts to mitigate and adapt to the changes. I will try in future blogs to record our efforts on all levels, including describing where we are now and what are we at risk of losing. This blog started with FERC; the next one will proceed to the US Department of Energy.

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Minimizing the Cost of the Transition

The last two blogs tried to make the case that—without the full participation of developing countries—the energy transition away from fossil fuels is bound to fail. In the first of these two blogs (April 30th) I quoted two paragraphs from the long IEA (International Energy Agency) executive summary of the issue (Executive summary – Financing Clean Energy Transitions in Emerging and Developing Economies – Analysis – IEA).  Last week’s report referred to an oil industry source that concluded that the world is short of necessary funding for the transition by 2 trillion US$, and will likely never be able to close the gap. The dependence of developing countries on rich countries to provide the financing for this transition should be viewed as an important trigger for a catastrophic failure to complete a global transition. One way to counter such failure and promote global resilience would be to minimize the cost needed for the transition. This blog is focused on such attempts.

I will start by quoting more from the same executive summary of the IEA report that was quoted in the April 30th blog, finishing with a summary of the case studies it has presented:

The transformation begins with reliable clean power, grids and efficiency…

Transforming the power sector and boosting investment in the efficient use of clean electricity are key pillars of sustainable development. Electricity consumption in emerging and developing economies is set to grow around three times the rate of advanced economies, and the low costs of wind and solar power, in particular, should make them the technologies of choice to meet rising demand if the infrastructure and regulatory frameworks are in place. Societies can reap multiple benefits from investment in clean power and modern digitalised electricity networks, as well as spending on energy efficiency and electrification via greener buildings, appliances and electric vehicles. These investments drive the largest share of the emissions reductions required over the next decade to meet international climate goals. Innovative mechanisms with international backing to refit, repurpose or retire existing coal plants are an essential component of power sector transformations.

Action on emissions in emerging and developing economies is very cost-effective

The average cost of reducing emissions in these economies is estimated to be around half the level in advanced economies. All countries need to bring down emissions, but clean energy investment in emerging and developing economies is a particularly cost-effective way to tackle climate change. The opportunity is underscored by the amount of new equipment and infrastructure that is being purchased or built. Where clean technologies are available and affordable – and financing options available – integrating sustainable, smart choices into new buildings, factories and vehicles from the outset is much easier than adapting or retrofitting at a later stage.

Transitions in the developing world must be built on access and affordability

Affordability is a key concern for consumers, while governments have to pursue multiple energy-related development goals, starting with universal energy access. There are almost 800 million people who do not have access to electricity today and 2.6 billion people who do not have access to clean cooking options. The vast majority of these people are in emerging and developing economies, and the pandemic has set back financing of projects to expand access. Efficiency is key to least-cost and sustainable outcomes. For example, meeting rising demand for cooling with highly efficient air conditioners will keep energy bills down for households – and minimise costs for the system as a whole. Action to provide clean cooking solutions and tackle other emissions will have major benefits for air quality: 15 of the 25 most polluted cities in the world are in emerging and developing economies, and air pollution is a major cause of premature death.

One obvious step to cost-effectively increase resilience is to be more strategic with resources. A good example could be undergrounding power lines (see September 5, 2023 blog). It is an expensive proposition and not every part of the grid needs the same protections. Parts that need better protections (hospitals, military facilities, campuses, etc.) can be served by smaller mobile grids (mini- or microgrids) that can get better protection and can work either on their own or connect to and disconnect from the main grid. The only difference between mini-grids and microgrids is their size, with no sharp line to distinguish between them.

Microgrids have been discussed throughout this blog. Just put the word into the search box for a refresher on my related posts. Here are a couple good places to start: the guest blog by Elisa Wood, titled “Microgrids” (May 6, 2014), and the blog titled “Microgrids – History is Catching Up” (April 29, 2014), about our film, “Quest for Energy,” which documents the microgrid that brought electricity to a small town in the Sundarbans region in India. The description of the film in that blog omits a personal note about something that took place during our travel, so I will add it here. During our two trips to India to make the film, my trip was divided into two parts; in the first part, my wife joined me as a “typical” American tourist and we visited many popular tourist destinations. In the second part of the trip, my wife returned home, and I proceeded to Kolkata to join the team that produced the film.

At the start of the first part of our first trip, we stayed in a hotel in Delhi. There were many other Americans in the hotel. During breakfast, an American lady asked me why we came to India. I described the film that we were about to produce to her; I still remember her reaction. My memory is not good enough for a direct quote but she looked at me with an approving look and spoke about a conspiracy theory with me. I still remember the Northeast blackout of 2003. One of the stories that spread around was that in certain neighborhoods (she specified which ones), people noticed a significant increase in pregnancies after the blackout. She gave me a half-smile and concluded that I was there to prevent people from “swamping the planet” with too many Indian babies. The fear of being “swamped” by the high fertility of developing countries was more common in the second half of the 20th century than it is now and was shared by many. It can be viewed as a predecessor of “replacement theory” (see my March 5, 2024 blog), which now dominates certain circles’ discussions of immigration policies.

Racism aside, the movie, “Quest for Energy,” showed the process of the globalization of electricity use (that I have described in previous blogs), which almost always proceeds through micro- and mini-grids. The newer aspect is the use of these facilities to enhance equity and resilience in both developed and developing countries on their ways to convert to “smart grids.” This is subject to extensive research that I will describe in future blogs.

This is obviously not the only cost-effective way to participate in the energy transition.

Throughout most of my scientific career, the dream of most scientists who have done research on solar cells was to be cost-competitive with fossil fuels. We have now reached that point. Solar and wind have become the dominant global primary energy sources; both are forms of solar energy (see November 5, 2019, blog). Figure 1 shows the changes in photovoltaic prices. Most of the declining prices are triggered by China’s efforts in this field. The recent drop into negative prices, shown in Figure 1, was discussed before (see June 9, 2020 blog); it indicates that supply is starting to exceed demand.

Graph of solar panel pricesFigure 1 – Solar panel prices in US$/Watt (Source: Our World in Data)

The Chinese continue to dominate production of solar panels; this is already triggering tariffs in various quarters, which are not helpful for the global energy transition.

However, the global energy transition is still highly dependent on local politics. The political situation in the US resembles 2016 (see the December 18, 2018 blog). Perhaps the most consequential international agreement on how to proceed with the global energy transition was the Paris Agreement, which was signed in December 2015. The following year, Ex-President Trump was elected to the presidency. One of his first actions was to take the US out of this agreement, an action that slowed down the transition considerably. This year, former president Trump is again the leading Republican candidate, with a considerable chance of succeeding. If he becomes president again, there is no reason to believe that he will act differently. Next week I will focus on the US government’s role in the transition—specifically, the activities most sensitive to changes in political power.

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A Federated System with a Global Perspective: Power Grids, Security, and Climate Resilience

Previous blogs in this series (starting on March 26th) emphasized how the current global shift in electricity generation and energy supply, combined with global electrification, serves as one of the main tools for decarbonization. One key feature discussed in this series is the need to adapt the electrical grids to decarbonize the primary energy by stopping the use of fossil fuels. This means it will be necessary to enable the grids to accommodate a major increase in distributed generation of sustainable energy sources by modifying them to support bidirectional electricity flow. The shift from reliance on fossil fuels to solar energy as the primary energy source requires a shift of output of the grid from customer demand base to customer independent base (exposure to the sun). This requires a major increase in storage capabilities (see last week’s blog for examples of what happens when there is not enough storage available). Such future grids are often labeled “smart grids.” Storage aside, the present grids are already reliable; however, the modified grids will also have to be resilient to extreme climate triggers.

The issue that I started to address in the last two blogs (starting on April 23rd) is who is going to pay for all these changes. Last week’s blog tried to make the case that since electricity is becoming universal, the question of who pays is universal as well. This includes both developing countries and “rich” developed countries (where most people are not rich). Equity becomes a primary question. Last week’s blog ended with a paragraph that starts with the following line: “An unprecedented increase in clean energy spending is required to put countries on a pathway towards net-zero emissions.” The emphasis was on developing countries. The issues of the need for increased resilience and the related costs were not addressed but will be in this blog.

The difference between resilience and reliability needs clarification; Figures 1 and 2 should help.

As shown in Figure 1, reliability relates to expectations that power will be available on demand—whenever a customer wants it—while resilience relates to the speed of power restoration after unexpected disruptions.

Figure 1 – Definitions of resilience and reliability (Source: Energy in Depth)

As shown in Figure 2, reliability is generally related to changes in demand. Most often, these  originate from common changes in consumer usage, making them highly probable and relatively predictable. In contrast, resilience has to do with cuts in power delivery; these have a much lower probability, meaning that the disruption is usually much more unpredictable.

Figure 2 – Conceptual relationships between reliability, risk, and resilience with respect to the probability and magnitude of events addressed (Source: ResearchGate)

Unpredictable disruption can be triggered by extreme climate events such as hurricanes, floods, or heatwaves, or by human disruption (whether intentional or not). Below are some examples of the two classes of triggers:

Natural

The two Axios publications given below both refer to Figure 3 from the Department of Energy, which lists the number of extreme climate events that caused major grid disruptions in the US over the last 24 years:

Zoom in: Extreme weather accounted for about 80% of all major U.S. power outages from 2000 to 2023, the nonprofit research and communications group Climate Central reports.

  • Such outages are defined as affecting at least 50,000 homes or businesses, or cutting service of at least 300 megawatts.
  • The majority of weather-related outages are due to severe weather like major thunderstorms, followed by winter weather and tropical storms and hurricanes.
  • The report notes hurricanes can cause long-lasting outages, accounting for most of these types of outages through 2022.

The intrigue: Wildfires and heat waves, two of the hazards most clearly linked to human-caused climate change, are becoming more problematic, Climate Central found.

  • Extreme heat accounts for a smaller share of outages but creates acute public health hazards when it does occur.

  • And wildfires have accounted for about 2% of weather-related outages during this period, with more than half of these instances occurring during the past five years.

  • Climate science studies have shown that human-caused global warming is leading to larger, more intense wildfires. In addition, wildfire seasons are getting longer across the U.S. and Canada.

  • Some of these outages were preemptive safety shut-offs by utilities to try to avoid sparking a blaze on days with extreme fire weather conditions.

Figure 3 – Share of major power outages attributed to extreme weather
(Data: Climate Central via U.S. Department of Energy; Note: Major power outages affect at least 50k customers or interrupt service of 300 megawatts or more; Outage events can cross state lines; Map: Kavya Beheraj/Axios)

We can see that in comparison with the US overall average of 80.2%, the largest areas with the most prevalent outages (>90%) attributed to extreme weather are on the Southeast Coast and in the South. However, the state that is the exception to these trends is Michigan.

Michigan is a national outlier for its number of major power outages since 2000, a new report from nonprofit research and communications group Climate Central found.

Why it matters: Electricity outages will become more common as extreme weather events — many driven by climate change — wreak havoc on the country’s aging power infrastructure.

  • Outages and lengthy restoration times can cost the economy billions of dollars.

The big picture: While the South and Southeast have experienced the most extreme weather-related power outages during the past two decades, Michigan (174) has experienced more major power outages than any state other than Texas (264).

  • 2% of the local outages were attributed to extreme weather, while southern states like Alabama and Georgia blame outages on extreme weather nearly 99% of the time.

The intrigue: The states with the most reported weather-related significant power outages during the 23-year time frame were Texas, Michigan, California, North Carolina and Ohio, according to the report.

  • Researchers found that long-duration outages, which most frequently affected socially and medically vulnerable populations, tended to occur in Arkansas, Louisiana and Michigan.

Through Hostile Force

KYIV, April 27 (Reuters) – Russian missiles pounded power facilities in central and western Ukraine on Saturday, increasing pressure on the ailing energy system as the country faces a shortage of air defenses despite a breakthrough in U.S. military aid.

The air strike, carried out with long-range missiles, including cruise missiles fired by Russian strategic bombers based in the Arctic Circle, was the fourth large-scale aerial assault targeting the power system since March 22.

There is little we can do to mitigate the second type of trigger. However, the threats of major natural triggers are increasing to a degree that they are becoming almost predictable (in other words, on Figure 2’s graph, they are moving to the left and their probability is increasing).

Can we all afford the changes to the power grids that are necessary to facilitate the energy transition? A related question is whether the global inequity in such a transition’s affordability will kill it.

One major mechanism to help equity in payment is the Loss and Damage mechanism advanced in the last two COP meetings (See November 27, 2022, blog), under which the rich countries pay developing countries for damage caused by anthropogenic climate change. However, the issue of attribution to climate change that would trigger payments is yet to be settled, as the next publication will show.

Payment

Since January, swathes of southern Africa have been suffering from a severe drought, which has destroyed crops, spread disease and caused mass hunger. But its causes have raised tough questions for the new UN fund for climate change losses.

Christopher Dabu, a priest in Lusitu parish in southern Zambia, one of the affected regions, said that because of the drought, his parishioners “have nothing”- including their staple food.

“Almost every day, there’s somebody who comes here to knock on this gate asking for mielie meal, [saying] ‘Father, I am dying of hunger’,” Dabu told Climate Home outside his church last month.

The government and some humanitarian agencies were quick to blame the lack of rain on climate change.

Zambia’s green economy minister Collins Nzovu told reporters in March, “there’s a lot of infrastructure damage as a result of climate change”. He added that the new UN-backed loss and damage fund, now being set up to help climate change victims, “must speak to this”.

But last week, scientists from the World Weather Attribution (WWA) group published a study which found that “climate change did not emerge as the significant driver” of the current drought affecting Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Angola, Mozambique and Botswana.

Instead, they concluded that the El Niño phenomenon – which occurs every few years with warming of sea surface temperatures in the eastern Pacific Ocean – was the drought’s “key driver”. They said the damage was worsened by the vulnerabilities of the countries affected, including reliance on rain-fed farming rather than irrigation.

The follow up from the oil industry indicates that we have long way to go:

Investments in the energy transition are falling way short of what is needed for its success. The fresh warning comes from BlackRock, which said annual investments in the shift away from hydrocarbons need to almost double from their current record levels. But it’s getting less likely this would ever happen.

In a new edition of its Investment Institute Transition Scenario, the bank said that moving the transition forward would require more money from both public and private sources and that, for its part, would require “alignment between government action, companies and partnerships with communities,” according to Michael Dennis, head of APAC Alternatives Strategy & Capital Markets at BlackRock, as quoted by CNBC.

BlackRock mentioned the $4-trillion figure as the necessary sum to be invested in the transition annually back in December when it released the original IITS. The amount was as impressive then as it is now, not least because it was double the amount of earlier investment estimates. What makes it even more impressive is the fact that last year’s record transition investments came in at less than half that, at $1.8 trillion.

The next blog will focus on attempts to minimize the cost of major power disruptions by differentiating grids in terms of vulnerability.

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A Federated System with a Global Perspective: Equity and Resilience of Power Grids in Developing Countries

As was shown in a previous blog, the global spread of electricity is a recent phenomenon that took place in the second half of the last century and the beginning of this century. In approximately the same time span, the world has started to realize that we need to replace fossil fuels as the primary energy source that drives our energy needs. This is a costly transition. Figure 1 shows that in terms of new investments, developing countries are doing a better job than developed countries. Considering the fact that the nominal GDP/capita of developed countries can be more than 30 times higher than that of developing countries, the question is how they do it. This blog will focus on the equity part, while next week’s blog will focus on the resilience part of the same issue.

Graph: Developing countries invest more in renewable energyFigure 1 – Developing countries invest more in renewable energy (Source: Statista)

I was fortunate to observe a small part of both electrification and energy transitions. As I mentioned in some previous blogs (see February 24, 2015), more than fifteen years ago, I worked with a group of friends on a film about a society in a remote part of a developing country (India) as it transitioned from a mainly hunter-gatherer existence to an electricity-driven, modern civilization. The result was a series of short documentaries, including: “Quest for Light,” “Quest for Energy,” and “Beyond the Grid” (see April 29, 2014). When we produced the films, people told us how much they paid for the new electricity. It turned out that they paid considerably higher prices than people on the “mainland.” One of the reasons for this discrepancy was that most of the electricity that was generated on the mainland was produced using coal as the primary energy source, while electricity that was generated in Gosaba (this small town in the Sundarbans region, see the original blog or the movie) came from burning trees from the mangrove forest nearby and planting new trees to compensate. When we asked the people if they didn’t mind paying more, the unanimous answer was that they saw Bangladesh across the Bay of Bengal and they knew the impact of relying on coal, including catastrophic consequences on their weather. They understood that they could not rely on coal burning for generating new electricity. The filming was done 15 years ago.

Today Colombia, another developing country (2022 GDP/Capita $6,624) is introducing the following new plan to finance its electricity generation:

BOGOTÁ, Colombia (AP) — Colombia’s government on Tuesday rolled out new incentives to reduce electricity consumption in the South American nation, which has been hit by a severe drought that has diminished the capacity of local hydroelectric plants and brought officials close to imposing power cuts.

The ministry of mines and energy said that in the following weeks homes and businesses that exceed their average monthly electrical consumption will be charged additional fees for every extra kilowatt-hour used, while those who use less electricity than usual will be rewarded with discounts.

To put a broader perspective on the issue, it became a focal point of a global efforts in the yearly COP (Conference of Parties) effort to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Facilitating global agreement to transfer resources to help developing countries in the energy transition became a key condition for these countries’ full participation. Global energy transition away from fossil fuel is impossible without participation of developing countries. Specifically, this issue was the focal point of COP27, which was discussed in a previous blog (November 29, 2022):

UN Climate Change News, 20 November 2022 – The United Nations Climate Change Conference COP27 closed today with a breakthrough agreement to provide “loss and damage” funding for vulnerable countries hit hard by climate disasters.

As is described here, the all-important implementation of this agreement has been deferred until COP28, with the meeting of an established “transitional committee” to happen no later than March 2023. We obviously will return to this issue.

Last year, Muhammad Siddiqui, a Pakistani student of mine, wrote a guest blog (January 3, 2023), “Guest Blog: Loss & Damage Funds and the Developing Indian Subcontinent.”

In 1985, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) issued a short report on this issue and in 2021 the International Energy Agency (IEA) issued its latest report. The IEA report is long; the table of contents is shown below:

1.0 Executive summary

 2.0 Setting the scene

3.0 The landscape for clean energy finance in EMDEs

4.0 Financing clean power, efficiency and electrification

5.0 Financing transitions in fuels and emissions-intensive sectors

The executive summary alone includes more than 20 paragraphs, from which I will only cite the following:

Emerging and developing economies are set to account for the bulk of emissions growth in the coming decades unless much stronger action is taken to transform their energy systems. With the exception of parts of the Middle East and Eastern Europe, their per capita emissions are among the lowest in the world – one-quarter of the level in advanced economies. In a scenario reflecting today’s announced and existing policies, emissions from emerging and developing economies are projected to grow by 5 gigatonnes (Gt) over the next two decades. In contrast, they are projected to fall by 2 Gt in advanced economies and to plateau in China.

But a massive surge in clean energy investment in the developing world can put emissions on a different course

An unprecedented increase in clean energy spending is required to put countries on a pathway towards net-zero emissions. Clean energy investment in emerging and developing economies declined by 8% to less than USD 150 billion in 2020, with only a slight rebound expected in 2021. By the end of the 2020s, annual capital spending on clean energy in these economies needs to expand by more than seven times, to above USD 1 trillion, in order to put the world on track to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. Such a surge can bring major economic and societal benefits, but it will require far-reaching efforts to improve the domestic environment for clean energy investment within these countries – in combination with international efforts to accelerate inflows of capital.

I strongly recommend that all of us read and try to act on the full report. 

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A Federated System with a Global Perspective: Equity and Resilience of Power Grids

High voltage power lines against a cloudy sky

Power lines in the Netherlands with a dark cloud cover (From September 5, 2023, “Utility Pricing”)

Happy Earth Day and happy birthday to both my wife and this blog. Climate Change Fork is now 12 years old!

The top figure and Figure 2 of this blog are carry-overs from previous blogs that dealt with different aspects of modern power grids. A simpler example based on bi-directional interactions of a single home with central utility was shown and discussed a month ago (March 26, 2024) when I started the discussion on net metering. The price and resilience of smart grids are becoming central issues both in rich countries and developing countries.

An example of the need for security resiliency was mentioned in a recent article in the NYT from which I am citing two key paragraphs:

When power stops, life grinds to a halt. Lights go out. Sewage treatment stops. Clean water stops. Electric cars, buses and trolleys stop. Elevators stop, trapping older and disabled people. For many, home heating, refrigeration, cooking and clothes washing stops, along with medical devices such as oxygen generators.

Even though the world’s dependence on electricity for all of this and more is growing, power grids are still legitimate military targets, according to both international law and our own military rule book. But there are small, promising signs that could be changing. Early last month, before Russia’s most damaging assaults, the International Criminal Court in The Hague concluded that the country’s pummeling of Ukraine’s power system had already crossed the line and issued arrest warrants for a pair of senior Russian commanders, Adm. Viktor Nikolayevich Sokolov and Lt. Gen. Sergei Ivanovich Kobylash, whose units are accused of launching the missiles. (Russia has denied committing war crimes.)

Electric grids are now playing an increasingly important role in all aspects of our lives, and as a result, we are more vulnerable to security threats from actors who want to do us harm. In addition, there is now the relatively recent and increasing danger of catastrophic weather impact that plays a central role globally. An important solution can involve burying the high-voltage lines in the ground. National Grid provides a review article, with some concrete examples.

Electricity pricing mechanisms in the US are summarized below:

In the “old days” prior to some of the organizational changes brought about by the FERC actions, electricity prices were often set by utility companies and approved by state utility commissions. The rates were often determined based on the concept of cost recovery. The more that the utilities spent on infrastructure and generators for production, the more returns could be “justified.” Those returns were, for the most part, set as a percentage of the total approved investment cost (rate base). While these types of returns provided limited risk for utility investors, from a consumer’s perspective, there was too little incentive for efficiency and conservation activities that would serve to lower consumer prices.

The FERC has tried to provide that incentive by requiring segmentation of the business operations of electrical distribution, transmission, and generation, even if those operations are performed by the same corporation. The purpose for this segmentation is to take the financial risk of constructing expensive generators off the electric consumer and place that risk on the shoulders of investor-owned corporations. For instance, Exelon, a very large utility company in the United States, owns generators, grid transmission equipment, and distribution companies that distribute electricity to individual consumers (e.g., PECO, ComEd). However, the FERC requires Exelon and other similar organizations to create organizational-structural-financial barriers within their companies. In practice, these companies are barred from sharing operational information between their generation portfolio and their transmission portfolio. This division is intended to ensure that everyone who uses the grid is treated fairly and doesn’t have an advantage, one over another. And that’s really where competition comes into play, because as the generator businesses compete for a share of the electricity market, competition drives down the cost of electricity for all consumers.

https://www.ferc.gov/  Federal Energy Regulatory Commission

FERC will update their guidelines shortly (May 13th):

April 19 (Reuters) – The U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) will announce on May 13 its plan to speed up the development of long-distance transmission lines to meet rising power demand and bring a backlog of planned clean energy projects to the grid.

The long-awaited plan is part of reforms to upgrade the country’s aging electric transmission system to keep up with power demand and a shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

A schematic diagram of a smart grid, compatible with the requirements of the energy transition anchored on sustainable energy sources, was described in a previous blog and is shown again in Figure 2 below:

smart grid diagram

Figure 2 – Schematic diagram of energy distributed through a smart grid and microgrids (From July 14, 2020, “School Energy Use: Smart Grids”)

It is obvious that this transformation is going to be expensive, and the question that is always raised is who will pay the price. It should also be obvious that now with the almost global transition to electricity, power should be available to both rich and poor countries. It is also clear that these issues are political and that they should be solved with global broad agreement.

One particular approach to address the equity issues in power distribution is being tried in California, as I described in the April 9th blog:

The controversial plan to require California’s three biggest utilities to start charging their customers based on how much money they make has been shelved by state regulators — at least for now.

Instead, the California Public Utilities Commission is proposing a less radical — if not necessarily less controversial — approach to complying with a state law demanding that it examine new rate structures to reduce the burden of rising electricity rates, a problem that will only deepen as the state further embraces electrification.

That proposal? Reduce per-kilowatt-hour rates but institute a fixed charge of $24.15 per month for most customers of utilities Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric.

The more general situation in the US was summarized by AI (through Google) and is shown below:

The US federal government has provided $145 billion in subsidies to support energy research and development (R&D) for nuclear power and fossil fuels since 1950. In 2016–2022, 46% of federal energy subsidies were for renewable energy, while 35% were for energy end uses. In 2022, households could receive a tax credit of up to 10% to cover the cost of insulation materials and other energy efficient improvements, such as energy-saving windows and doors. They could also receive a $300 tax credit for purchasing efficient heating and cooling equipment.

The essence of the AI description comes from an EIA (Energy Information Administration) report titled “Federal Financial Interventions and Subsidies in Energy in Fiscal Years 2016–2022.”

I will wait until I read the new FERC report on the issue and start next week’s blog addressing the international aspects of these issues. Specifically, how developing countries hope to generate the resources to finance the transition. Without their cooperation, the energy transition is bound to fail and all of us will suffer the consequences.

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A Federated System with a Global Perspective: Part 2

Before moving on to global perspectives of electricity generation, I want to talk about a recent perspective that appeared in last week’s NYT Climate section.

The article makes the point that the recent growth in the use of electricity in the US, which I described in last week’s blog, requires a significant increase in the grid capacity in the US. It also gives an example of how to achieve this:

One of the biggest obstacles to expanding clean energy in the United States is a lack of power lines. Building new transmission lines can take a decade or more because of permitting delays and local opposition. But there may be a faster, cheaper solution, according to two reports released Tuesday.

Replacing existing power lines with cables made from state-of-the-art materials could roughly double the capacity of the electric grid in many parts of the country, making room for much more wind and solar power.

That’s an interesting idea and might be worth a try.

I will shift now to the part of the energy system that was missing from the CCNY conference described in last week’s blog: the global perspective. The anthropogenic triggering of climate change, caused by changes in the chemistry of the atmosphere, is a global phenomenon. All components of governance worldwide need to be involved in minimizing the impacts. Figure 1 shows two graphs, published by the EIA (Energy Information Administration), that summarize global electricity use.

Graphs of world net electricity generation by source.

Figure 1 – World net electricity generation (Source: Institute for Energy Research)

The changes in global electricity production in 2022 are summarized by the Enerdata yearbook:

The share of electricity in final energy consumption remained stable at 20.4% in 2022 (+3 point compared to 2010).

In 2022, the share of electricity in global final consumption remained stable at over 20%, despite a 0.3 point increase in the BRICS. It has increased by 3 pts. since 2010 (17%), as an increasing share of electricity is used in industry, residential and services sectors, and more recently, in the road transport sector with the development of the electric vehicles fleet. Since 2010, electrification has increased at a steady pace in Asia (+6.8 pts.), spurred by China (+10 pts. to over 27% in 2022), India (+3.9 pts. to 18%), and Indonesia (+5.4 pts. to 14%, despite a 2.6 pts. drop in 2022). It has also increased in the Middle East (+2.8 pts. since 2010 to nearly 17%), with significant growth in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and in Latin America (+2 pt. to over 18%, especially in Chile and Mexico, which have been promoting renewables). Electrification has remained broadly stable in North America at around 22%, in Europe (+1 pt. to over 21%, despite a 3 pts. growth in Türkiye), in Australia (24%) and in Africa (10%). In Russia, it has dipped by 1 pt. since 2010 to 13%. The share of electricity in final consumption is particularly high in Norway and Sweden, which benefit from large hydro resources (47% and 33%, respectively).

Table 1 summarizes the situation in the 10 most populous countries, which account for more than 57% of the global population. The US is the only developed country on the list. All the rest are either developing or middle-income. Over one generation or so (starting around 1990), access to electric power has almost universal, apart from some Sub-Saharan African countries, as represented in the table by Nigeria. However, even with such high numbers, 133 million citizens of these 10 countries—mainly people who live in rural areas—have yet to gain access to electrical power. The global number without access to electricity is 665 million; most of them are in equatorial Africa.

Table 1 – Changes in the share of population with access to electricity as % of total population

Table with change in access to electricity by percentage of population from 1990-2020

Reference for access to electricity: Wikipedia

Reference for Population (2024): Worldometer

I addressed some of the issues with providing electricity access in India in previous blogs, starting with a blog on April 29, 2014, that discussed microgrids. I will return to that issue in next week’s blog, which will be focused on the accessibility of electric power in both poor and rich countries.

We are approaching the end of the global transition to sustainable energy, as well as a universal transition to accessibility to electric power. As shown in Figure 1, the current available electric power is still strongly dependent on fossil fuel, which fills up the atmosphere (and the oceans) with greenhouse gases that contribute to catastrophic global climate change. We need to amplify our efforts at decarbonizing our electric power. We are in the process of learning how to proceed. In some cases, it’s not obvious.

We are starting to get examples in which the shift to sustainable primary energy sources exceeds the capacity of our grids, as mentioned in the NYT piece I referenced above. Another recent example is Poland:

Grid operator PSE is struggling to manage Poland’s growing share of PV and has ordered the third curtailment of renewable energy capacity within a month.

“Due to the oversupply of generation in the National Power System and the need to restore the regulatory capabilities of the National Power System, PSE is introducing a non-market reduction in the generation of photovoltaic sources on March 26, 2024,” PSE said in a brief statement this week.

It has announced three one-hour curtailments of 1,201 MW, 1,877 MW and 1,711 MW from 11:00 am to 2 pm.

This is the grid operator’s third renewable energy curtailment this year. All of them have taken place in March, with the latest one specifically referring to PV installations alone.

On Tuesday morning of this week, around 10 am, photovoltaics produced and fed 9.7 GWh of electricity into the grid, according to the energy.insrat.pl portal. This represented around 45% of the total electricity production in the country, making solar the nation’s biggest energy source, followed by coal at around 27%.

In other words, for the third time this year, they had so much sustainable energy that they couldn’t use it all because the system could not support the surplus. The call to expand the grid does not apply only internally in a country but, as in Poland’s case, internationally. I will return to this issue in a later blog.

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A Federated System with a Global Perspective: Part 1

This series of blogs was initiated by two conferences that were organized by my school, with a focus on the ongoing energy transition (decarbonization of the energy sources) from fossil fuels, which emit greenhouse gases that have a toxic impact on the climate, to sustainable energy resources that have fewer detrimental effects. One conference, titled “2024 NYC Solar + Storage Installer Workshop” was specifically targeted at local NYC solar and storage installers. I am referring to it as the “installers conference.” The second conference, titled “NYC Future Energy,” was targeted to a broader audience and I am referring to it as the “CCNY conference” to emphasize that this meeting was mainly organized by CCNY (City University of New York), one of the senior colleges of CUNY.

The last two blogs were focused on the installers conference, with an emphasis on the bidirectional movement of electricity between a centralized generation (electric utility) and distributed generation of electrical power. The bidirectional movement of electric power is often called “net metering.” This and the following few blogs will focus on the CCNY conference. The CCNY conference (NYC Future Energy Conference) was based on the US federated governance system, so there were representative leaders of organizations running throughout the federated energy management. These include the US Department of Energy, the Department of Energy Protection of the City of New York (DEP), the Sustainability Office of CUNY, CCNY’s Schools of Architecture and Engineering, Con Ed (the main public utility of NYC), and NYC community representatives and independent companies such as TRC. NYSERDA, the energy arm of NYS, was not included there but was present at the installers conference. The only representation that was missing in this discussion was the global component. Next week’s blog will be dedicated to this component of the federated energy management structure. The CCNY meeting also showed very active participation of students through a dynamic poster session. To my great surprise, contributions of electrochemistry and photoelectrochemistry, in which I have a lifelong interest, played a major role in these presentations.

All of this came about due to the changes that the energy transition is going through as we shift to electric power. Here is how this was recently summarized by the New York Times:

Many power companies were already struggling to keep the lights on, especially during extreme weather, and say the strain on grids will only increase. Peak demand in the summer is projected to grow by 38,000 megawatts nationwide in the next five years, according to an analysis by the consulting firm Grid Strategies, which is like adding another California to the grid.

“The numbers we’re seeing are pretty crazy,” said Daniel Brooks, vice president of integrated grid and energy systems at the Electric Power Research Institute, a nonprofit organization.

In an ironic twist, the swelling appetite for more electricity, driven not only by electric cars but also by battery and solar factories and other aspects of the clean-energy transition, could also jeopardize the country’s plans to fight climate change.

To meet spiking demand, utilities in states like Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia are proposing to build dozens of power plants over the next 15 years that would burn natural gas. In Kansas, one utility has postponed the retirement of a coal plant to help power a giant electric-car battery factory.

Burning more gas and coal runs counter to President Biden’s pledge to halve the nation’s planet-warming greenhouse gases and to generate all of America’s electricity from pollution-free sources such as wind, solar and nuclear by 2035.

Figure 1 – The new estimated surge in electric power use in the US (source: The New York Times)

As the NYT piece emphasizes, this comes from the mandated shifts in federal policies to sustainable energy sources. As most of us experienced recently, federal policies can change in an instant depending on who holds power and we have a presidential election in November this year.

Another big reason for the shift to electric power was mentioned in a recent article in the Washington Post: “Amid record high energy demand, America is running out of electricity,” which put part of the blame on the recent growth of artificial intelligence (AI), which requires a great deal of electrical energy to train:

Vast swaths of the United States are at risk of running short of power as electricity-hungry data centers and clean-technology factories proliferate around the country, leaving utilities and regulators grasping for credible plans to expand the nation’s creaking power grid.

The soaring demand is touching off a scramble to try to squeeze more juice out of an aging power grid while pushing commercial customers to go to extraordinary lengths to lock down energy sources, such as building their own power plants.

“When you look at the numbers, it is staggering,” said Jason Shaw, chairman of the Georgia Public Service Commission, which regulates electricity. “It makes you scratch your head and wonder how we ended up in this situation. How were the projections that far off? This has created a challenge like we have never seen before.”

To focus on the required changes that are now needed in the electrical grid to satisfy these needs, I will quote the changes to the mission statement of the organization that sits at the top of US federal energy governance: the Department of Energy (DOE):

On October 18, 2023, the Department of Energy (DOE) announced up to $3.5 billion for 58 projects across 44 states to strengthen electric grid resilience and reliability across the United States, all while improving climate resilience and creating good paying union jobs. These projects will leverage more than $8 billion in federal and private investments as part of the Grid Resilience and Innovation Partnerships (GRIP) Program, funded through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and administered by DOE’s Grid Deployment Office (GDO).

The GRIP projects will tackle a range of grid needs to increase resilience and reliability across the country, with a few major trends popping up across the various selections. They include:

  • Wildfire prevention and resilience: State-of-the-art technologies will protect the grid from wildfires and prevent wildfires caused by aging infrastructure. Smart grid investment will help predict, identify, and address problems earlier and improve real-time responses to threats.

  • Neighborhood resilience: Microgrids that expand renewables and distributed energy resources will allow consumers to keep the power locally on even when the grid experiences outages.

  • Lower energy bills and increased clean energy: DOE is making critical investments in our grid without passing costs down to consumers, all while enabling cleaner energy sources, less pollution, and an easier time installing solar panels or plugging in an electric vehicle at home.

  • Investments in disadvantaged communities: Through Community Benefits Plans, all GRIP projects have outlined strategies to leave lasting impacts on local communities beyond infrastructure upgrades alone, including locally focused economic development and thousands of good-paying, union jobs.

In addition, the DOE recently issued a blueprint of how to decarbonize the American building sector, the main energy user in most cities:

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Biden-Harris Administration yesterday released Decarbonizing the U.S. Economy by 2050: A National Blueprint for the Buildings Sector, a comprehensive plan to reduce greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions from buildings by 65% by 2035 and 90% by 2050. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) led the Blueprint’s development in collaboration with the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and other federal agencies. The Blueprint is the first sector-wide strategy for building decarbonization developed by the federal government, underscoring President Biden’s whole-of-government approach to cutting harmful carbon emissions and achieving the nation’s ambitious clean energy and climate goals.

One of the key issues that was discussed at the CCNY conference was how to price the new grid. California is experimenting with pricing that could make the transformed energy affordable to everyone:

The controversial plan to require California’s three biggest utilities to start charging their customers based on how much money they make has been shelved by state regulators — at least for now.

Instead, the California Public Utilities Commission is proposing a less radical — if not necessarily less controversial — approach to complying with a state law demanding that it examine new rate structures to reduce the burden of rising electricity rates, a problem that will only deepen as the state further embraces electrification.

That proposal? Reduce per-kilowatt-hour rates but institute a fixed charge of $24.15 per month for most customers of utilities Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric.

The proposal would add smaller fixed monthly charges of $6 per month or $12 per month to customers who are signed up for two different special rate programs for low-income earners. This carveout for low-income ratepayers is distinct from the income-graduated proposals that were under consideration.

Fixed charges are common features of utility bills across the country, the CPUC noted in a fact sheet accompanying the release of its proposed decision on Wednesday. That’s because utilities pay for a lot of fixed costs that aren’t tied to how much electricity customers use, and fixed charges are one way to recoup those costs.

Future blogs will further explore this issue.

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