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The perils of the grid

February 22, 2021

A grid distribution system, where a small number of providers supply some important service to millions of consumers over a network, has some significant advantages. It supports variation in demand. It supplies both large and small consumers. It continues to function even when some number of providers fail. It allows existing providers to be taken offline for maintenance or upgrade or decommission, and for new providers to come online, without interrupting service. And it can be made quite efficient. Which explains why it is the model for the variety of services that compose a large part of what we consider developed world infrastructure: electric power, natural gas, cellular bandwidth, and quite a few internet services, including DNS. Many water systems are purely local, but those for larger metropolitan areas also fit this model.

A grid has some risks. Failures by one or two providers can cascade to others. Spikes in demand can interrupt service. Each provider is an exposed point of attack potentially affecting thousands or millions of people. Weather events or terrorist attack can degrade several suppliers simultaneously. And missteps in centralized policy decisions can cause widespread outage. As everyone in Texas should realize today, after the winter storms that recently struck.

The greatest drawback to grids is that failures can be widespread. If your home loses heat because your furnace breaks, your family can stay someplace else warm while solving that problem. The informal network of friends, neighbors, and local businesses provides significant resiliency outside the technology. Things are tougher if all or most of those also are without power. The week past, the outages were not just large parts of cities, but many cities in the entire state.

That highlights the importance of non-grid backup. Living where hurricanes strike, quite a few of my neighbors have generators at the ready. We use our Prius and an inverter for backup power. Some people have solar systems with batteries, for use off the grid.

Which raises the question many have asked: wouldn’t it be better just to be off the power grid, rather than suffer its sometimes large failures? What that overlooks is one of the large advantages of a grid: it is efficient. Of the backup systems I noted, a solar system with battery is the most cost-effective. But if you price it out today, I doubt you will find it worth taking your house off the grid purely on the basis of long-term cost. That may change at some point in the future as the battery technology improves. It might not: the grid also can make use of better battery technology to provide power more efficiently and be made more resilient against cascading failure. 

The interesting thing is that equation is quite a bit different for new housing developments. Someone building a new neighborhood could design the houses from scratch to be off the grid, standardize decisions about the equipment and appliances, purchase the panels and batteries in bulk, make the installations routine. And, thereby avoid the cost of extending the grid. Eliminating power poles and cables not only saves their cost, it also adds some flexibility to neighborhood layout, and improves neighborhood appearance. The efficiency of the grid comes at the expense of planning, installing, maintaining, and operating the interconnecting network. Neighborhoods that are off the grid never will be as efficient at producing energy. But if designed that way from the start, they might be quite cost effective and carry other advantages.

Developers are a conservative lot. Elon Musk wants to sell his Powerwall battery. The retail route for that is a hard row to hoe: the vast majority will look at the conversion cost and not see a benefit for decades. The way to accelerate that technology is to get builder buy-in. Musk now lives in one of the fastest growing regions in the nation. Austin has many upscale consumers who are interested in green technology. And at least this week, in more resilient power. So, I wonder if Musk might hook up with a local builder to create some model neighborhoods that are off the grid? Surprisingly, the hard part of that might be providing for electric vehicles, which want to be charged at night and ready to go in the morning.

The failure of the Texas power grid was caused by bad management and pathological state politics. It had nothing to do with the mix of energy sources. Generating stations of all sorts failed for the simple reason that they were not prepared for a cold snap. It wasn’t even that much of a cold snap: just a short stretch when night-time lows dropped a few degrees below what we see most years. Enough to freeze valves and pipelines that weren’t protected, shutting many gas generators, and taking even a nuclear unit offline due to feedwater issues. 

Despite there being no reason behind it, many people jumped up to attack or praise particular energy sources. I’ve also seen quite a few excuses and deflections for why the outage happened. It is a puzzle that so many will run to exonerate the politics responsible, or to make an unrelated political point, even while they suffer catastrophic failures in our infrastructure. Those doing so should ask themselves what benefit they gain from that? Or what propaganda they are digesting, to cause that peculiar jerk in their knee? The bogus excuse I recently heard is that Texas can’t plan for temperature swings because ours are so much more extreme than other states. Which is silly: everyone who has studied a little geography knows that it is the great middle that has the largest temperature variation, as the map shown demonstrates.

Ob disclaimer: My monthly income still includes a smattering of O&G royalties and dividends. 

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