Replacing One Existential Threat with Another

by James A. Bacon

I’m a big fan of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, whose thinking on such subjects as “black swan” events, “Intellectuals Yet Idiots (IYIs),” “antifragility,” and “skin in the game” I have incorporated into my commentary on this blog. So, when Taleb invokes the precautionary principle in the context of climate change, I take his argument very seriously.

In a nutshell, Taleb contends the accuracy of climate models predicting catastrophic increases in global temperatures don’t matter. We have only one planet, and if there is even a remote chance that rising CO2 emissions will wreck it, humanity cannot afford to take that chance. The environment is a complex system, he writes. “Push a complex system too far and it will not come back.” The uncertainty surrounding climate change projections, far from being a reason to dismiss predictions of catastrophe, puts the burden of proof upon those who claim absence of harm. Read a succinct statement of his thinking here.

I’ve been pondering this argument for quite a while, and I agree with it… to a point. But I think it is incomplete. In the statement I linked to above, Taleb (and his co-writers) do not explore the implications of their logic. The obvious follow-up question is, OK, if climate change is an existential threat, what do we do about it?

What if the proffered solution to climate change creates its own existential threat?

Most of those who think climate change could create a cataclysmic outcome for humanity and life on the planet tend to share the same conclusion on how to deal with it. If the increase in CO2 is driving climate change, then the answer is to de-carbonize the global economy. In order to de-carbonize the global economy, we must electrify it, which means converting everything — automobiles, trucks, trains, ships, factories, lawnmowers, backyard barbecue grills, etc. — from fossil-fuel use to electricity use. And not just any kind of electricity, but green electricity generated primarily by solar and wind power backed up by battery storage to offset intermittent power generation.

If Taleb has opined on the practical question of how to reduce climate-change risk, I have not come across his thoughts. If he has, I would hope that he recognizes the risks inherent with empowering IYIs lacking skin in the game to re-engineer the global energy economy, a highly complex system, heedless of unintended consequences.

Let us assume that all the technological challenges are overcome and humanity does manage to de-carbonize its energy systems. We would live in a world in which solar/wind-generated electricity (supplemented by a tiny fraction of hydroelectricity) was virtually the only energy source. The survival of human civilization would depend upon the stability and reliability of the electric grid.

If the electric grid failed to function, there would be no electricity to power the refrigeration of food, the purification of drinking water, the heating and cooling of homes, the ability to communicate by cell phone, and the ability to transport resources from one location to another. Food systems would collapse. Utilities would collapse. The financial system would collapse. Civilization would collapse. A handful of survivalists and hunter-gatherers would inherit the earth.

In Taleb’s terminology, if I read him correctly, an economy that depended 100% upon the electric grid to function would be classified as “fragile.”

There are numerous potential perils to the electric grid. Some threats might be classified merely as “highly disruptive” — extreme weather events and cyber-warfare prominent among them. They might knock out large parts of the grid for weeks or months, but enough of society would remain functioning that aid could be rendered to the affected regions. National survival is less certain in the event of an electro-magnetic pulse generated by detonation of a nuclear weapon in the atmosphere. While such a detonation might push the United States back to the stone age, other societies not connected to the U.S. grid might survive.

The true existential threat is a geomagnetic storm triggered by a mega-burst of solar energy that overpowers earth’s magnetic field and discharges excess energy into grids across the globe. A storm of sufficient magnitude conceivably would literally melt every electric grid on the planet into an irreparable tangle of hubs and wires.

What is the probability that such an event would occur? In the so-called Carrington event of 1859, a geomagnetic storm triggered by a solar eruption hit the earth. Fortunately, the world economy at that time did not depend upon electricity. Still, electric charges did surge through telegraph lines at levels powerful enough to shock operators and light telegraph paper on fire. Undoubtedly, the earth experienced similar events previously — but in the pre-telegraph era, no one knew it.

People have all sorts of ideas of what might be done to prepare for and recover from another solar discharge devastating enough to knock down the electric grid. Ironically, currently contemplated measures such as stockpiling transformers and other critical grid components seem grotesquely deficient for the grid as it now exists. If we envision a 100% green grid, not only would transmission and distribution lines fry, so would the vast banks of batteries required to keep the grid stable. Further, if all means of transportation were electric, repair crews likely would be unable to move the stockpiled transformers from their storage yards to where they are needed. No doubt some may say my fears are overblown. Regardless, it’s fair to say that there would be a significant degree of uncertainty regarding humanity’s ability to survive such a horrific scenario.

Thus, by invoking the precautionary principle to eliminate one potential existential threat, climate change alarmists propose a solution that would create a different threat of comparable magnitude. The logic of the precautionary principle dictates that we must avoid an existential threat, no matter how remote. We have only one civilization, so to speak. If we lose it, we are not likely to be able to reconstitute it.

There are currently no comments highlighted.

45 responses to “Replacing One Existential Threat with Another

  1. Nuclear weapons (with an EMP pulse or not) are an existential threat. A major alteration in the Sun’s energy output up or down could be an existential threat. Some future virus evolution could be an existential threat. Gradual changes in temperature (up or down), less ice cover on the Earth, gradual rise in sea level, are all changes that people and other living things can adapt to easily (and have in the past.) Thus, not existential threats. The more I’ve looked at this over the past few years, the more persuaded I am that 100 years from now this will rank with Piltdown Man and the Cardiff Giant.

    So, do those things which have other good arguments for doing them. Coal is nasty stuff, hard to mine and transport, and pollutes in real ways. Stop using coal for fuel. Burning oil for transportation has its downsides, so why not increase reliance on EV’s and mass transit? By all means work hard to stop releases of methane. Solar and wind can be great energy sources in the right locations, so use those – but use them intelligently. There are dozens of things recommended by the alarmists I’m willing to encourage, but few I’m inclined to mandate or force. And if they are all adopted, in 30 years the temperature, ice cover and sea level are likely to be right where they would have been anyway.

  2. following……….

  3. I too am a fan of the Precautionary Principal, especially in our current capitalist system where extremely profitable and too large corporations expand and maintain themselves with bought political power. Witness taking down tobacco once we learned the science behind tobacco’s health outcomes.

    Now we have both coal and oil companies who knew 30-50 years ago that their products would put the climate in danger. We have the documents describing their knowledge, but it didn’t stop them. A study produced by the Climate Accountability Institute claims that a mere 20 corporations are responsible for 1/3 of all carbon emissions since 1965. Eight, topped by Chevron, are investor owned. Twelve are state owned with the leader, Saudi Aramco, being responsible for 4.38% of global climate pollution during the time period.

    Today, the world’s top fossil fuel-producing nations are on track to extract enough oil, gas and coal to send global temperatures soaring past the goals of the Paris climate agreement, according to a United Nations report.

    So, the way I see it, precautions begin with small steps, stop making electricity with coal, build out wind, electrify as much as possible and …. my keys … do everything possible to reduce demand and to generate electricity as close to home as possible. This will all take time, even if we move as fast as possible, and as we implement the changes, more good ideas will emerge. There is no good reason that the federal budget gives $20billion in tax write offs to the fossil companies annually. There is no good reason to sell leases offshore, or on public lands, to drill for new fossil fuel. There is no good reason to license building new fossil fuel pipelines or fossil electricity plants, or selling the technology to do so abroad. Adopting the precautionary principal would not allow such nonsense.

  4. Article: ” When Permafrost Melts, What Happens to All That Stored Carbon?”

    https://phys.org/news/2016-12-permafrost-carbon.html

    The point is that those who think they know how the future will play out – may not………. the scientists themselves are saying that they could be wrong – underestimating the impacts.

    The thing is -we don’t know – and betting that the change will be “gradual” and we will “adapt” is just a wild ass-ed guess with virtually no basis in science – just a seat of the pants guess.

    What is a PRUDENT path forward? One that does not rule out things we did not expect? Wouldn’t you look at a range of possible outcomes – worst to best – rather than gamble on one particular guess?

    So for example, on sea level rise – wouldn’t you look at what would happen if it was 1/2 of predicted but also twice, 3 times as high as predicted and plan accordingly?

    • What’s the PRUDENT path forward?

      Expeditiously adopt green energy policies as new technologies become economical, balancing the desire for CO2 reduction with the need to ensure the reliability and security of the electric grid.

      • Yikes! Prudence is not the same thing as least cost. Balancing prudent actions with business as usual can’t be considered as adopting a precautionary principal. The fact that there is existential risk involved makes those judgments different.

  5. OK … you are jumping right to ‘crash’.
    Business as usual is waiting for technologies of change to reach ‘economical’, or ‘least cost’. As new technologies get adopted their price comes down, but the costs remain high until more people buy. Something is needed to give the technologies of change a jump start.

    ‘Balancing’ is not a prudent verb for the same kind of reason. First, if grid crash was the primary concern, then why aren’t we doing everything we can to reduce demand with efficient buildings? Why are we not working with the software that is in operation elsewhere to ensure renewable integration with the grid? Why are we not working with business to develop grid integrated micro-grids as some are doing?

    So again, take steps of change that are available and be open to structural change as it becomes more apparent. Crash is occurring on the old grid structure. Maybe the new structure will fix some of that. CA is hoping it will.

    • “Today, the world’s top fossil fuel-producing nations are on track to extract enough oil, gas and coal to send global temperatures soaring past the goals of the Paris climate agreement, according to a United Nations report.” You’ve pointed to the key data, Jane – the world has ignored the climate alarmists and has chosen to continue with energy technology that raises living standards quickly. You seek to stop a train.

      • Not exactly. I don’t believe the world has chosen to “continue with energy technology that raises their living standards quickly.” I am positing that the powerful corporation have controlled the decisions that would put them out of the fossil fuel business. They hid the information that would require them to change and they have used their power to buy the deciders.

        The next few years will be interesting. Soon there will be no coal plants running. Hopefully the coal companies will have the retirement monies on hand for their workers. Coal is no longer financially viable. Exxon, who bought into and promoted the ‘gas as a bridge’ theory, has lost a pile of money in the gas fields of TX. and the frackers have a wall of debt facing them in the next few years with no positive balance sheets. As we keep building fossil infrastructure we create future stranded assets.

        Might have been better if we had turned the energy corner sooner, but the economy as it is now constructed wouldn’t let us.

  6. There really is precedent here, in the geologic and atmospheric record, of what happens when the CO2 level goes bonkers. We don’t know all the reasons why those past events happened, but life lived on, and CO2 levels eventually changed again, and life lived on. Asteroids strike, for example, and huge lava flows arise from inside the Earth (covering half of India and most of Washington/Oregon in the latest examples), events over which we have absolutely no control yet have occurred repeatedly. I am not losing any sleep over the possibility of these events in my lifetime or even my children’s. Even these did not snuff out all life on the Earth. Whether they would snuff out all human life if one of these occurred in future is perhaps a more open question — but I will still sleep soundly tonight.

    What is clear from the geologic record is that climate change has wrought changes in sea level of hundreds of feet above, and below, where we are today. The risk of sea level rise is high today, and it would be extremely economically disruptive — mainly because of all the people it would displace from along the coastal plains and river deltas, but also because of agricultural disruptions (not all negative). We probably would survive as a species if nothing were done — but who wants to take that risk, or incur that expense? So — I can quibble about whether it’s an existential threat, but it’s surely a huge threat.

    Going to greater dependence upon the electric grid strikes me as inevitable and desirable anyway. And I won’t give up on nuclear power or eventually fusion power as ways to achieve that goal. Renewable resources generation is great as far as it goes, but that cannot be the entire solution.

    • You articulate many good points on this blog … my question though is why do you see a greater dependence on the electric grid as “inevitable and desirable”?

      Maybe I am not comprehending what that “greater dependence” means … yes, much greater dependence on electricity, but the central grid?

    • re: “but life lived on, and CO2 levels eventually changed again, and life lived on. ”

      this is true – but “adaptation” took millions of years – if our CO2 goes “bonkers” it could be the end of the earth as we know it – for generations – perhaps hundreds, thousands of years.

      look at the timeline below:

      &f=1&nofb=1

      • By adaptation I mean moving away from the shoreline and harvesting wheat in northern Canada – things done by our ancestors when sea level was higher and temperatures warmer with no one claiming the power to change that…..Yes, evolution might take a bit longer. 🙂

        • Exactly! But just moving people away from flooding coastlines is something we need to plan for, massively, and in the short run the process will do some evolving, too.

    • Sea levels rising. Where is the proposal to stop future development and redevelopment in areas likely to be under water? As Larry points out, where is the proposal to eliminate any taxpayer subsidies for flood insurance? Where are the policies that would promote mitigation of “expected damages”? Why don’t we transfer money from the bazillion scientists studying climate change to hardening nuclear power systems?

  7. Some of what would be spent – actually will provide a return on investment and will not have a longer term cost but instead savings and at the same time less carbon.

    And that includes upgrades to the grid to make it more robust and less fragile.

    but also to point out – there is no other way to power the internet other than electricity… if the grid goes down – the internet goes with it. This why you see at most major businesses – backup generators – they simply cannot operate without electricity.

  8. You posit that the threat of the grid going down is increased by a heightened reliance on “green” technologies, but the causes of grid failure that you propose would take the grid down whether it was powered by solar and wind, or coal, oil, gas or nuclear. If an EMP or solar flare or some other catastrophic event happened, the grid would be down. Our economy, as we know it, would halt. A computer virus could do the same.

    If our transportation sector had not yet transitioned away from oil, it would still be down. Without electricity there would be no way to pump the fuel or dispatch the trucks to refill the tanks.

    The promise of modernizing our grid is that it would become more resilient to major shocks. A grid made up of nested microgrids similar to a network configuration would be much more likely to have many pockets of service compared to our current system where a small local event can black out eight states.

    Distributed solar and storage would add to that resilience compared to central station generation whether it be from conventional facilities or “green” generation.

    The world as we know it is changing. We must alter our mindset to adapt to new conditions. Einstein said we cannot solve problems using the same type or reasoning we used to create them. It is time to see things in a new way. We hold on to old thinking at our peril.

    We will be most successful if we redesign our human systems to mimic natural ones that have existed for eons.

    By the way, solar and wind energy is fusion energy conveniently distributed, just without the intense local radiation. We are on the forefront of many breakthrough discoveries. But they might have to wait until we can show that we won’t use them to destroy ourselves and perhaps the planet.

    • Tom, my problem is less with “green” sources of electricity than with the electrification of the entire economy, including transportation and industrial production. Instead of 50% (or whatever the number is) of all energy coming from the electric grid, global warming militants want us to move to something more like 90%… if not 98% (allowing some role for hydroelectricity). This is axiomatic: a less diverse system is more vulnerable to systemic failure.

  9. Tom directly addressed the idea that because solar/wind are not predictable and always available – that they cause the grid to be “unreliable” if we have a LOT of it and the wind dies or the sun sets.

    So, let’s say that we get to a point where 80-90% of the grid is powered by solar during the day. What do we do at night?

    But the premise that we go “solar” AND close down all the fossil fuel plants and end up with an “unreliable” grid is simply not true.

    No one in their right mind, not even the most ardent supporter of solar and hater of fossil fuels is going to advocate closing the fossil fuel plants that power the night.

    It’s simply not a realistic scenario.

    Likewise, we’re not going to shutter fossil fuel plants when we get to the point where storage is starting to become a viable and cost-effective technology. There will be a period where we bring on storage and power down (but not close) excess capacity fossil fuel plants.

    Even with uber-distributed “micro” grids – there were have to be some alternative way to power that micro-grid – at night.

    So as long as we have a way to power the night, we have a way to power the grid when solar is “down”.

    Some folks think that if we adopt significantly more conservation technology that the nighttime demand will be so reduced that storage can carry the load.

    I’m NOT a “skeptic” on GW but I AM a “skeptic” on this – until I see a lot more capable storage – of the kind that could carry and island that has switched from Diesel to solar during the day and storage carries the night. I just don’t think they’re going to permanently close fossil fuel plants until it is PROVEN that they are not needed at all for weeks or months… THEN we might close them but not until we actually have a grid that can go for weeks/months on solar and storage alone and no fossil fuel.

    How long will it take us to get to a point where most of the fossil fuel plants are no longer “up” for weeks at a time and we will start to dismantle them ?

    Unless some game-changing technology comes to the fore -not for a long time.

    We’re NEVER going to shut down those plants UNTIL we see the solar/storage (or whatever) – actually operates 24/7 for weeks/months.

    And that means we are NOT going to have a “fragile” or “unreliable” grid except in the minds of those who cannot help but conjure up disaster scenarios and use those scenarios as arguments against widespread solar at the start!

    Compare this to the time period where we started to mandate higher fuel mileage for cars and the opponents decried it essentially arguing that cars would become unreliable…

    That same argument was initially used against the adoption of LEDs – i.e. too expensive and not proven to be reliable. The cost argument was that they cost far more – up front – but over the life they cost far less.

    That’s the basic problem we have without other energy-saving technology. Geo-Thermal HVAC uses 1/2 the energy of conventional
    HVACs but it costs twice as much to install up front.

    Imagine what would happen if conventional HVACs went to geothermal in the same time frame that LEDs replaced incandescent. That would have the potential of cutting the night time electricity demand in half…………..and “storage” COULD operate pump-type HVAC as opposed to condenser types.

  10. Larry raises the important point of how do pay for all of this? If we are complaining that housing is too expensive for many people to day, how can we pay for even more expensive housing? Especially since so many want to shoot a lot more money into free community college, K-12, special programs for poor kids and children of illegal immigrants, more transit, safer roads, expanded health care access and on and on!

    If climate change is the highest priority, let’s acknowledge it and move resources from other programs to combat and mitigate the results and causes. Let’s drop expansion of other, less critical programs, eliminate every one that is not producing stellar results, consolidate agencies, eliminate tax breaks for all nonprofits that advocate, layoff lots of government workers and contractors, close unneeded military bases overseas and on and on.

    When everything is a priority, nothing is.

    • Har, har. Called and raised, eh TMT? You know once the people have been scared into voting for the party that will “fight climate change and save your grandkids!”, everything goes back on track. This is politics, a bit of religion, but very little science.

    • This is not about effectively dealing with climate change. It’s about enriching a few by allowing them to rip off taxpayer dollars. It is about these elite building for themselves political power and control over their fellow citizens by those elite building a leviathan state to serve their own special interests at the expense of everyone else.

      Why would we ever permit this scam ripping us off to happen? Have we not already seen how the leviathan state ruins most all it touches. Whether it be Healthcare, Higher Education, K though 12 Education, Marriage, Community or the American Republic, and now our nation’s energy sources and its costs, if our corrupt elite can get full and exclusive control of our energy industry too.

      For proof of all this, look at New York or California. For a sense of California see extracts from this WSJ article:

      “California’s Spending Boom Masks a Spate of Problems, Politicians are rolling in tax revenue, but they can’t seem to solve basic issues like housing and energy yy Steven Malanga in Wall Street Journal, Nov. 22, 2019

      “… Mr. Newsom’s budget devotes nearly $3 billion to homelessness and housing. That’s on top of money that cities are already throwing at the problem. Last year San Francisco voters approved a new $250 million tax on business, earmarked for homelessness. The state’s money includes some $650 million for cities to build or convert structures like hotels into emergency shelters, and $1.7 billion for housing development, including $500 million for a tax credit for new construction.

      All this cash is supposed to solve a chronic housing shortage. Over four decades the state has produced housing at half the rate needed to meet its population demands. Lengthy environmental reviews and labor laws requiring union workers drive up the cost of building. A U.S. Government Accountability Office study found that a single unit of affordable housing in California costs $750,000, more than anywhere else in the country.

      Yet the state keeps piling on. In 2017 Sacramento imposed new fees on real-estate transactions to fund affordable housing, expecting to reduce the cost of housing by increasing the cost of building. In October Mr. Newsom signed statewide rent controls that limit the ability of landlords to increase rents, despite overwhelming evidence that rent control exacerbates housing shortages because developers curtail building.

      Some of the money is meant to house tens of thousands of homeless people who politicians say can’t find affordable shelter. But many live on the street because of addiction and mental-health problems. These problems have grown worse as California cites have welcomed more homeless.

      California’s myriad experiments with bad public policy have compounded the crisis. The state has decriminalized many low-level property crimes and drug offenses … Some shelters welcome pets. California has become a magnet for unstable street people from around the country, and disorder is growing in many cities, including outbreaks of infectious diseases like typhus.

      The state’s budget also includes $1 billion to respond to disasters like the Camp Wildfire, which started from sparks from a power line, killed 85 people in 2018, and forced Pacific Gas & Electric Co. into bankruptcy. State officials blame the fires on climate change, but PG&E and other state utilities have fallen behind on power-grid maintenance while being forced to invest billions in renewable energy mandated by California’s plans to eliminate fossil fuels. A Credit Suisse report estimated that PG&E is locked into renewable energy contracts that are five times the going rate at a cost of $2 billion. Californians already pay 50% more for electricity than the U.S. average.

      Sacramento is also pouring money into pensions … The Public Policy Institute of California estimates that the state could lose up to $100 billion in revenue over four years from a moderate recession and up to $185 billion in a severe slowdown.

      California’s elected officials seem unconcerned. This year they added nearly $100 million to fund health care for young adult migrants and have proposed subsidized Medicaid for all undocumented aliens, including the elderly, at an annual cost of more than $3 billion …” End Quote

      For more this fine WSJ editorial see:
      https://www.wsj.com/articles/californias-spending-boom-masks-a-spate-of-problems

      And, despite this horrible track record of the leviathan state ruining everything it touches, do we really expect it alongside the rest of the world to solve the Worlds Climate, without destroying us all? It’s a fool errand, and obviously so.

      • California should be a cautionary tale for everyone. What state has the most fragile electric grid in the country? California. Why? Because PG&E (and perhaps other utilities) have under-invested in grid maintenance and reliability in favor of pushing the envelope on renewable energy. I expect California will move to address the mal-investment… after the fact. But what we see in the Golden State hardly inspires confidence that the Climate Warriors should be entrusted with grid reliability.

        • Jim … From what I have read you are right to say that the CA utilities have under-invested in grid-maintenance and reliability, but not sure how you can blame that on “pushing the envelope” on renewable energy.

          How about the inadequate regulatory process? From the LA Times … “Lacking the manpower and sophisticated technology necessary to monitor more than 250,000 miles of power lines across the state, regulators rely on something of an honor system, with utilities responsible for ensuring all trees and vegetation are cut back far enough from electrical equipment before the onset of dry, high-fire danger conditions.”

          And … “The CPUC oversight of investor-owned utilities to prevent electrical or utility-caused wildfires is devastatingly absent,” said John Fiske, a lawyer who represents wildfire victims. “When you’re looking at areas that look like they’ve been bombed in a war zone, and to know that can be prevented with enforcement and oversight, it’s widely upsetting.”

          In addition to doing the maintenance, people are suggesting the way to make California’s electricity system cleaner, more reliable, and more resilient is to “accelerate the evolution from a centralized, top-down, long-distance, one-way energy system to a more decentralized, bottom-up, local, networked system. In the energy world, this is summed up as a more distributed energy system. It puts more power, both electrical and political, in local hands.”

          So … looks like a forward looking clean energy system will help grid reliability.

          • In theory, the deployment of microgrids should increase grid stability. In theory. By all means, let’s move forward on microgrids. Let’s see how well they work. Let’s make sure there are no unintended consequences for the grid as a whole.

            Will microgrids prevent system-wide collapse in the event of a massive solar flare of electromagnetic radiation? Upon what facts and logic do we conjecture that microgrids would be immune to massive electromagnetic overload?

          • Reed Fawell 3rd

            Check out the cost.

          • Thought you all might find this microgrid project in Montgomery County, MD interesting.

            Duke Energy Renewables is the owner/operator and Schneider Electric is the solutions provider. The project is funded in partnership with Schneider through a PPA, eliminating the need for upfront funding from the county.
            It will: produce nearly all energy needed onsite, reduce GHG emissions by 3700+ tons per year, avoid $4million in CAPEX for distribution line upgrades, and lock in a known price for 25 yrs.

          • Reed Fawell 3rd

            Who claims that? How? Why?

            Why do you never fail to believe with certainty everything someone claims that fits what you want so desperately to believe anyway?

            Thus you make the same kinds of mistakes over and over again for the same reasons that make perfect sense only when caught up in your cramped, narrow, and contracted world, as I’ve pointed out to you at length numerous times before.

  11. It is really to late to adopt the pure precautionary principle. We are heading to 10 Billion people on the planet. We would have limited this is at most 1 Billion people. We got here with fossil fuels. We have already significantly increased the CO2 content of the atmosphere from about 280 ppm to now about 410 ppm CO2.

    The suggested modified precautionary principle is to assume we have now reached the tipping point. But it is an articificial rule, and may not be practical, achievable or necessary. However we certainly face an issue of large rapid energy growth world population and associated pollution and we still need to conserve resources for future generations.

  12. Jim, I think Tom’s comment answered your massive event issue …

    My question to your argument now is … Electrification doesn’t necessarily increase the amount of central generated electricity traveling on the grid. Studies see central generation cut by 50% as the non-wires alternatives including retrofitted buildings are accomplished. So far that 50% reduction will be increased by EVs, but will still remain 25-30% below the maximum demand levels we have experienced so far. Microgrids and community solar, as well as rooftop generation including efficient for buildings are the ways that we can restructure the central-one way grid that will, and already is, increasing reliability in CA and New England.

  13. If the California electric grid is so “fragile”, then how come they are the 5th largest economy – IN THE WORLD!

    California has some challenges – but the idea that they are “failing”…is just wishful thinking of those who think California is too “left”.

    The truth is that whatever California ends up doing with renewables – the other states will follow just as they have done with automobiles.

    I’m amused that Conservative types predict gloom and doom on fiscal issues for “liberal” governance, but they totally discount the REAL gloom and doom threat of Global Warming.

    TMT – I AGREE with you about priorities but that’s not the same as saying that we cannot walk and chew gum at tue same time!

    I don’t think securing our grid and moving to renwables “costs” us long term. It saves us long term.

    For instance, if folks used geothermal heat pumps instead of compressor heat pumps – the could cut their energy use by 1/2.

    That SAVES money. It’s the same argument with LEDs. They do cost more than incandescent but over 7 years they are less than 1/2 the cost.

  14. Larry, should you take the time and make the effort to read and understand Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s thinking on such subjects as “black swan” events, “Intellectuals Yet Idiots,” “antifragility,” and “skin in the game,” I think you will be forced to conclude that your arguments given above prove the case that the state of California right now is surely failing, and that the state is now a prime candidate for a total collapse.

    • Since I spoke about the good economy in CA, let me ask where you get the ideas that the “state is now a prime candidate for a total collapse.”?

      Certainly the devastating fires are awful and have destroyed so much. As the lawyer for victims said, “When you’re looking at areas that look like they’ve been bombed in a war zone, and to know that can be prevented with enforcement and oversight, it’s widely upsetting.”

      But CA has a strong and very diverse economy ….

    • Reed – I just don’t buy some of the “anti” stuff that he and others peddle these days. I look at facts not impressions, claims and beliefs.

    • you know, according to Taleb are ultra-rare and not predictable yet folks cite him with predicting failures! So in the case of California the premise is that even though some folks have predicted for years that it would “fail” and it has not – it well could succumb in a Black Swan event!

      To which I say – it sounds like a LOT of boomergeddon type predictions that we often see and hear about but often with a political/philosophy twist and somewhat ironically – California will fail because of its liberal policies BUT global warming is a liberal hoax – no black swan for GW!

  15. Reed …
    I am happy to discuss the value of microgrids or any other parts of the clean energy transition but I will not respond in kind to your despicable name calling.
    Maybe you don’t have a real argument about energy and climate?

    • Conservative types have, for years, decried California as a “failed” Liberal state…. the only problem is – for a pure fact point of view – it’s one of the largest economies in the world – that’s 5th largest out of 50 states and 200+ countries.

      And yes, for years, yea decades Conservative types have predicted it’s “total collapse” with lip-smacking anticipation!

      Just take something we all now take for granted – California took a firm stand on Auto Emissions – and it ended up spreading to the rest of the US despite the fact that Conservative types were predicting chaos and economic harm from doing it. The opposite happened.

      Meanwhile, in Kansas where Moore and Laffer promoted the idea that supply side tax cuts would super-power that economy , the opposite happened.

      California has some serious problems with the fires, no question, but it’s due to decades long changes in climate. Many of those fires are NOT conventional forests as the idiot POTUS claims but they are “scrub”. Anyone who has been there and seen those hillsides knows that they are not large, dense forests (like we saw burning in Yellowstone a few years back) , but more “scrub” than anything else that when it dries out is essentially tinder.

      If Virginia weather/climate dried out that much – we’d burn too.

      In areas of pollution, electricity, car safety, food safety, carcinogenics, California has often led the way and the other states followed.

      So.. in Conservative minds, California has been “failing” for years and surely “collapse” is near – they hope – because it’s an article of faith and all that…….. 😉 but facts say otherwise………..

    • Jane – don’t let it keep you from your commenting… I appreciate
      your views – even if I don’t agree 100%.

  16. Thanks Larry. I appreciate your views too with which I don’t always agree too, but if we totally agreed on everything then we wouldn’t have anything to discuss here on the blog.

    I keep my eye out for island energy transitions for you …. 🙂

    • Jane asked earlier, “why do you see a greater dependence on the electric grid as ‘inevitable and desirable’?” Yes, I do think the distribution of raw energy in the form of fuels and kinesis will be displaced to a greater and greater extent by the distribution of electricity as the product of those. That’s the inevitable part. Even if we were still just talking about fossil fuels that would be the case; but also, electricity is so easy to use directly for power, light, heat and electronics, and so emissionless at the dispersed points of consumption, that it’s inevitable we should displace gasoline and natural gas and so on as a general rule, concentrating the industrial-scale processes and emissions problems at the generating plant. That’s the desirable part.

      But there’s more to your question. Why “dependent on the electric grid“? Because, in spite of the many benefits from distributed generation and “micro-grids” there are huge efficiencies from the very scale of the Grid and the diversity of generating resources and types of consumers and weather impacts on that Grid; also from reduced electricity transmission losses at that scale. And I don’t see us anywhere near being able to diminish that connectedness even with maxed-out renewables generation and maxed-out economically beneficial bulk power storage. On the contrary, renewables and bulk storage increase the economic advantages of having everything connected to one big Grid rather than many little ones.

      That said, we’re crazy not to use favorably-oriented rooftops for solar power generation by customers, and not to use the Grid for two-way power flow everywhere, and not to use the resilience of thousands of “micro-grids” connected to that Grid to increase its overall efficiency and to help restore power to portions of the Grid that inevitably fail for one reason or another every few years. Solar in particular is efficient (in terms of output over collector size) regardless of scale; with “utility-scale solar” there’s mainly just more of it.

      I agree with Larry and others, the main reason we haven’t seen more customer-owned development is because of the footdragging (let alone downright opposition in some cases) of the incumbent utilities to making it easy for consumers. Parenthetically, I do sympathize with the utilities to this extent: first, the regional grid operators like PJM opened them up to competition by independent generators and from grid energy markets; second, they got additional oversight over their wires business from those grid operators — needful but resented; third, they’ve been pushed hard to reduce their own sales volume by regulators and legislators promoting energy conservation and distributed generation by customers; fourth, they’ve lost their exclusive service territories wherever there’s “retail access,” and fifth, they’ve been hit hard in some areas of the country with “net metering,” (which denies the utility any profit on its “off hours” supply of power, and any compensation at all for its wires and billing services except to the extent of net deliveries to the customer), and with compensation for solar sales to the Grid that is unrealistically high. This kind of quintuple whammy is what puts even well-run businesses under — or at least disincentivises them to cooperate with policy initiatives that don’t help them financially — even if every one of these measures can be justified as good public policy supported by all sorts of economic externalities and ought ultimately to be adopted. I agree with TomH on this: the utilities may seem to be lumbering beasts at the corporate level but they do a necessary, massively complex job (I daresay better than a government agency would) and they do respond to economic incentives to do that job better!

      One final note: Larry, California is a good example of how not to incentivize any utility to invest in new facilities and cooperate with altruistic public policy. First, there is the quintuple whammy described above. Then, too, CA regulators made the incumbents spin off much of their generation into independent companies. And CA put all sorts of roadblocks in the way of new generation construction, and made the incumbents eat the cost increases and overruns on some nuclear projects that, however badly mismanaged, were desperately needed. And CA became the poster-child for so badly overcompensating solar power that they ended up with way more than they can use efficiently, without the off-peak/cloudy-day generation capability they need. And CA slashed profit levels for the incumbent utilities who were effectively left with only their wires businesses (transmission, distribution and billing). Guess what? PG&E didn’t invest a lot in fixing up their wires, and even cut basic maintenance to the bone! Now, after 40+ years of this (it all started in the ’70s and persisted through Republican as well as Democrat administrations), look at the state of the grid in California — it’s abysmal. Indeed there are many utility executives around the Country today who left CA to find a decent company with a decent regulatory environment elsewhere, so they could at least hold their heads up with some sort of pride in a job well done. I don’t excuse PG&E, but I sure do understand how they got where they are, and digging out of that hole is not going to come easy. And it’s going to be expensive. The conservative philosophy of stinginess and opposition to innovation is not going to help at all.

      • Acbar –

        All your commentary under Jim’s post here is exceptional by any standards. It is deeply informed, very timely, highly useful in current circumstances, and brilliantly presented, a high watermark on subject for sure.

      • Acbar, my question was … “why do you see a greater dependence on the electric grid as ‘inevitable and desirable’?” Your answer speaks of the efficiencies of scale and you say … “On the contrary, renewables and bulk storage increase the economic advantages of having everything connected to one big Grid rather than many little ones. “

        I was not suggesting that we completely island as much as possible from the grid, but I do suggest that microgrids and on-site generation coupled with a 20-30% reduction in demand, accomplished through efficient buildings, will dramatically lessen the complete reliance on the grid that we currently have, and that will be a good thing.

        Distributed energy will first of all be exceedingly efficient as the electricity generated will not be lost as it travels to the end user much more cheaply. Any disruption on the grid will be experienced by a smaller group of customers, not spread along the whole grid, which increases reliability, and finally, distributed energy, with many owners, saves money while the software that is, and is being, developed can handle the interface. Microgrids have been installed in place of substation upgrades, saving millions for all customers.

        So, I am only suggesting that reducing, not increasing, grid dependence is part of the clean energy transition and a good thing too.

        You detail the problem issues that the transition is causing utilities. I agree, but they need to be ready to rethink their businesses and the long-time regulatory structure that defined that business. Change will happen and will be more than just swapping out coal, and the utilities will really loose out if they choose to hang onto the old model.

        Happy TDay.

  17. @Acbar – I think California was in the forefront of these issues and yes, mistakes made – but they did lead and others watch them to see what they would do (or not) – on a wide range of issues to include how electricity and utilities should work (or not).

    If California and PG&E are wrong – which ones are “right” and better? I’d certainly not point to Virginia as the right way and Virginia DOES have the benefit of not doing the way that California did – but instead, even with that insight – they’re not exactly going forward.

    In other words – we are not “leading” – we are following … and far back so throwing stones at California (as opposed to pointing out who IS doing it “right” and saying they should be Virginia’s model – we sit.

    Second, the idea that it “bad” or somehow not good to RELY on electricity as if there should be some other alternative is interesting.

    Electricity is fundamental to civilization. There is no alternative. We vary in the way we produce it – but whether you’re a hospital in Indonesia or a water treatment plant in Kansas or a cell tower in Sweden – you need electricity. There is no substitute.

    It’s sorta like arguing that we are “too dependent” on public water and sewer. Well, we’re certainly dependent but again what would we do different?

    We do know this – there is no internet without electricity. It’s seems almost antithetical to say we are “too dependent” on it.

Leave a Reply