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Texas trip

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Once again, the moral and intellectual degeneracy of the failing US Empire has resulted in science being subordinated to politics.  This time it is the freak freezing weather and its aftermath in Texas which has provided the pretext for division.  First came the knuckle-dragging wing of climate change denial; asking the infantile question, “If global warming is real, how come it’s so cold?”  (the answer, by the way, is because the polar vortex which used to contain extreme cold within the Arctic Circle, has broken down in recent years; causing extreme cold weather to drift much further south).  Then there was the viral photograph of the – Canadian as it turned out – helicopter de-icing a wind turbine.  Those on the right responded with videos – which, this time really were from Texas – showing – older – frozen wind turbines standing idle.  Those on the green new deal left quickly countered with the claim that power outages were the fault of fossil fuel and nuclear power plants, whose water intakes had frozen in the cold.  In any case, according to the primarily neoliberal mainstream media, anyone who found fault with wind turbines was clearly a climate change denier and probably a racist, sexist or transphobe to boot. 

Catching Republican Senator, Ted Cruz fleeing the disaster area for sunny Mexico added to the theatre.  Although in practice it is the state Governor, Greg Abbott who is responsible for cleaning up the mess (and, at least in part, for causing it too).  In the real world though, one of the most important lessons learned from disasters is that we need to keep politicians as far away from them as possible.  If there is any useful role for Senator Cruz – one of the Texan electorate’s representatives in the US Senate – it is to be in Washington to try to unlock any federal funds and support required to respond to the unfolding disaster.

Beneath the political froth is a more banal lesson which Britain, in particular, would do well to learn before it is too late.  Texas received the kind of cold weather event that I had wished upon my own home last November.  What followed was exactly what I had predicted would have happened if similar weather had hit the UK:

“The sudden loss of a high-inertia fossil fuel plant at a time when there is too much wind can cause a dangerous drop in frequency.  This leaves the grid operators with the choice between frying electrical appliances and components across the country or cutting the power…

“Perhaps, after we have collectively shivered in the dark (maintaining strict social distancing, of course) for a couple of weeks, with intermittent access to everything from television and the internet through to food and… dare I say it… toilet paper, we can at least have a debate about the feasibility of green growth, and whether we might need to do far more to shrink our energy dependence and de-grow a large part of our economy.”

The physics behind what happened in Texas this week are almost identical to those which caused Britain’s power outage in August 2019 – only the type of bad weather was different.  Stable grid frequency is what allows us to plug electrical appliances into the system without frying them.  It is also what prevents the components of the grid from irreparable damage.  In the UK, the grid operates at a frequency of 50 Hz – in the USA it is 60 Hz – with a margin of no more than 0.5 Hz either side.  In traditional – fossil fuel and nuclear – systems, grid frequency is backed up by inertia – the massive steel turbines acting like flywheels to iron out any second-by-second fluctuations.  Non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies (NRREHTs) like wind turbines and solar panels do not have this in-built protection, and so depend upon energy storage, nuclear baseload and fossil fuel back-up to avoid a dangerous loss of frequency.  And the higher the proportion of NRREHTs added to the grid, the greater the chance of a frequency failure.  In both the UK and Texas, it was the failure of backup following a weather-related interruption of wind generation which triggered the cascading power outage across the grid.

In this sense, both the political left and right are partially correct in their view of what went wrong.  In the UK a lightning strike on a large North Sea wind farm tripped an automatic safety shutdown which should have resulted in a back-up gas generator powering up.  But problems with the gas generator resulted in a dangerous drop in power; triggering automated systems which began disconnecting users across the eastern half of the UK.  In similar fashion, as snow, ice and freezing temperatures caused wind generation to fall; automated systems in Texas should have fired up the gas back-up plants… the ones whose water intake pipes had frozen.  Faced with a dangerous loss of power, the Texas system did the same thing the UK system had done – only on a much wider scale and in weather which proved far more deadly.

It is precisely for this reason that I have spent several years pointing to the folly of adding even more NRREHTs capacity to the system before appropriate storage, back-up and management systems have been put into place.  It is also why the economics of electricity generation needs an urgent rethink while there is still time.

As with most critical infrastructure, electricity generation emerged as a monopoly industry; in Britain’s case, it also became a state monopoly – the Central Electricity Generating Board.  This was anathema to the neoliberal governments of the 1980s and 1990s, which sought both to break up the monopolies and to privatise the assets.  At a time when fuel was cheap and plentiful, and climate change was given far less prominence, the main purpose of the new quasi-markets was to drive down prices.  Crucially, security of supply was not seen as a threat and so was not built into the system.

Rather than review the operation of the quasi-market prior to using NRREHTs to phase out coal, politicians and economists – along with most green campaigners – assumed that new types of generation could simply be swapped for the old.  And while a few did raise the intermittency problem, this was dismissed because it was assumed some yet-to-be-invented form of battery storage would come to the rescue.  Indeed, not only did governments simply allow NRREHTs to be added to the mix; they positively encouraged them – both subsidising their deployment and obliging suppliers to buy renewable electricity first.

Unfortunately, the incentives within the quasi-market meant that the catastrophe unfolding in Texas – and similar ones in Britain’s future – was baked in from the start.  Put simply, there is no requirement within the system for generating companies to provide so-called “firm” electricity.  Moreover, since the regulator is legally focused on lowering prices, there is no regulatory incentive for generators to ensure that they keep the lights on.  That function lies with grid operators that lack the resources to deliver.  Unsubsidised – and increasingly unwanted – fossil fuel plants which remain essential to providing back-up generation are increasingly unprofitable; with few operators wanting to invest heavily in plants which face being shut down in the near future – one reason, perhaps, why Texan gas and nuclear generators hadn’t bothered to insulate their water pipes.

For political reasons, separating NRREHT generation from fossil fuel and nuclear plants helps maintain the illusion that “green” energy is cheaper.  But the true costs are felt every time the wind drops and the sun stops shining; as the UK discovered just last month, when the wholesale price of electricity rose above £4,000 per MWh (it is usually £40 to £50 per MWh).  Were it not for Britain’s last couple of coal power stations – which are due to close by 2025 – we would have faced more than just a hike in our bills; like Texans, many of us would have been left shivering in the dark.

In an increasingly energy-constrained and climate-conscious world, the quasi-market arrangements of the 1980s have long since passed their use-by date.  Only by making the provision of firm, 24/7 electricity the primary requirement of generators can we hope to develop the kind of storage and back-up systems which are essential once NRREHTs exceed around 50 percent of generating capacity.  The simplest way of achieving this is to dispense with markets altogether, and recreate a modern version of the Central Electricity Generating Board.  The alternative – for ideologically benighted countries like the USA – is to at least force NRREHT generators to pay for their own storage and back-up systems; and to heavily penalise them if they fail to deliver.

In the meantime, governments wishing to add a veneer of greenwash to their image would do well to cease deploying further NRREHT capacity to an already saturated – and increasingly unstable – system.   Instead, money would be better spent on energy-saving measures such as insulating people’s homes, and on research into grid-scale storage technologies…

I won’t be holding my breath.

As you made it to the end…

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