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The Fatal Trifecta
The Achilles' Heel to much of the San Diego Climate Action Plan.
Glass-ceiling breaker, chemist, Pro-Nuclear hero, anti-Malthusian/anti-Eugenic/anti-Racist, and energy author Meredith Angwin, is the author of the excellent book, Shorting the Grid: The Hidden Fragility of our Electric Grid, which provides a much needed exposé of the issues present in the areas of the US where electricity markets have been so-called “deregulated” and managed by Regional Transmission Organizations (RTOs) or Independent Service Operators (ISOs).
These reforms sought to replace the vertically-integrated electrical utilities (which had issues of their own) who owned every part of the electricity production process from the power plants to the transmission and distribution lines. The efforts to create ISOs or RTOs broke apart this system. In particular, in areas subject to an RTO or ISO, the local power company purchases the power from someone else via a complicated set of auctions and delivers it to the
customers ratepayers. So, accusations of your local utility price gouging or profiteering off you is a misguided argument at best (although politically appealing) as they’re now essentially a pass-through entity1 whose profits are heavily capped and regulated by your state’s Public Utilities Commission. However, the mystery behind the energy auctions is an under-discussed which further perpetuates many of the myths about electricity. This means most people don’t have a clue how their electricity is provided, billed, or let alone how these organizations work let alone all technical dorky engineering aspects behind it.
Per the author’s words:
I wrote the book because I realized that most people don’t have any idea about how electric grids are organized. Most people know about types of power plants, and they know something about transmission lines. However, knowledge tends to stop there. How the entire grid works is a mystery. How the grid is managed is a bigger mystery!
And from an interview:
The RTOs worried me, partially because nobody writes about them. Their auctions are complex, and no entity is responsible for having a reliable grid. For example, the RTO runs the auctions for electricity, but it is not responsible for actually having enough power plants available to meet the demand. In an RTO system, in terms of reliability, the buck stops nowhere.
Meanwhile, RTOs keep a low profile. I have very smart, very educated friends, all over the country. Many of them don’t know whether or not they live in an RTO area. At this point, everybody has heard of the ERCOT RTO, but many people have never heard of their own RTOs (if they have one). RTOs like to keep a low profile. And the RTOs have the more fragile grids.
Yet, the flaws with ISOs/RTOs have led to many close calls and near catastrophic grid failures over the years from the 2020 blackouts in California to the winter storm outages in the winter of 2021 in Texas or the close calls in New England. The usual narrative is that extreme weather events due to climate
change crisis is the cause for these events, and while there may be truth to this claim, the the grid is also a human-managed entity that has been and can be continued to be used to master these types of events.
Mrs. Angwin’s discussion of the grid issues (see bottom of this post for the book’s table of contents2) mainly focuses on New England where ISO New England dominates the scene but the points made are incredibly relevant to both CA’s grid and TX’s grids both of which have received much attention over the past year or so. Reading some of the stories in her book nearly put me on the edge of my seat at times, especially knowing much of this was under our own control, and I don’t think Mrs. Angwin’s attempt was to write a thriller.
Fellow Substacker, the infamous Green Chicken, Doomberg has written about this too.
Properly managing the grid is a hot-button issues these days and few (even industry insiders) understand the complete picture and the desire to change the American energy mix to largely renewable carbon-free sources only complicates this. Shorting the Grid demystifies this in clear, concise language capable of reaching a complete grid newbie. As someone in this industry myself, I find the repeated misconceptions spread by everyday people, journalists, activist groups, and politicians3 incredibly frustrating.
As in cycling advocacy, Brandolini's Law is everywhere.
Of course, many are probably just running on a set of flawed, outdated assumptions and ignorance about the grid in general and would all greatly benefit by understanding the themes in Shorting the Grid. Others are probably harder to reach due to being engrained in a certain ideology and having their paycheck or political career reliant on such.
Mrs. Angwin is also notable in these domains for her concept of the “Fatal Trifecta” for power grids. While this concept isn’t explicitly mentioned in the book, the foundations for it are indeed contained within its text.
The Fatal Trifecta is so simple, only one measly slide is required to explain it:
This brings us, once again, to the fantasies laid out in the 2022 San Diego Climate Action Plan (CAP) and three of the massive elephants in the room with said plan;
The near retirement of natural gas fixtures, including from existing buildings via massive retrofitting efforts, by 2035.
The desire for the local Community Choice Aggregator San Diego Community Power (who is on record as not including nuclear energy as part of their clean energy portfolio) being responsible for quickly providing 100% carbon/greenhouse gas-free electricity to the region.
Replacing hydrocarbon-powered vehicles with EVs where the equally absurd fantasies of large percentages of trips are to be based on bicycling, walking, and public transit.
After the local press gleamed over the ambitious fantasies of the CAP earlier this month, I sent probably one of several dozen letters to the editor of the local newspaper hoping to throw a wrench in their gears.
Unfortunately, the letter, inspired heavily by the Fatal Trifecta, didn’t make the cut.
But here it is:
This vote to ban natural gas fixtures from new construction and to require the retrofit of existing buildings to be all-electric ignores reality - especially when it comes to the grid.
Angwin's Fatal Trifecta, coined by grid expert Meredith Angwin, describes three items that spell doom for electrical grid reliability:
1. Overbuilding and over-reliance of cost-distorted, weather-dependent, energy-dilute, so-called "renewables" which are far from "clean" both from an environmental standpoint and a labor standpoint.
2. Over-reliance on just-in-time natural gas which is often used to cover the loss of other reliable energy-dense sources, or to cover the gap when item 1 isn't available.
3. Over-reliance on neighboring states for imports to make up for the difference in energy generation caused by 1 and 2.
Our current grid is barely able to handle today's loads thanks to this Trifecta and is unlikely to in the future should we shift to any large-scale utopian transition to EVs or all-electric buildings.
The cheerleaders for the CAP appear to be gung-ho about relying on the continued buildout of renewable energy sources. Damned be the issues with renewable’s overall reliability issues, lower capacity factors, requirement to overbuild, land use issues, or labor and geopolitical issues (see China) That’s not to suggest they don’t have their own place in the overall grid mix, but insisting we can rely on them for our power needs is a pipe dream the CAP cheerleaders repeatedly miss.
Mrs. Angwin says it best in an interview, emphasis added:
I need to say something else about renewables. They simply can’t handle the demands of a modern society. They always have to be backed up by more reliable plants, mostly natural gas. And if we try to “electrify everything” (EVs for transportation, heat pumps for home heating, and so forth) then the demand for electricity will grow even faster. Renewables will fail to meet the demand. I started my career in renewables, and I wanted them to be able to do everything: an entire grid of renewables! But I painfully learned that this is not possible. There’s always that fossil-fired backup plant.
Unfortunately, many people are the way I was before I went through that painful process. They want to believe that renewables can do everything, and there’s always some “expert” willing to tell these people that renewables CAN do everything, we just have to have the political will to install the renewables! Saying that is a good way to be popular, but it doesn’t change the facts.
While the CAP proponents are on record outright opposing natural gas, whether its piped into homes and business for clean burning high density reliable energy (the hazards of air pollution in the home from combustion of natural gas are greatly exaggerated) or for electric power generation, it doesn’t appear that if we want a reliable grid in the foreseeable future, this will need some natural gas in the energy mix. Even the grid operator in CA and the politicians somewhat see that. The state’s water agency quietly (this was poorly covered by the Corporate Press here in CA) is rushing to backup the state’s water pump system with natural gas backup. The issue of just-in-time delivery of natural gas snagged the grid in New England and Texas during cold spells. To be honest, I’m actually unsure of this has caused issues in California (yet) but I think knowledge of it among the CAP supporters would be helpful.
Lastly, CA is still reliant on imports from neighboring states and has been for some time. While the buildout of solar and wind resources within the state has been impressive, despite the state’s notorious regulatory web and NIMBY culture, much of this has to be built out of state unless we seriously embrace extremely energy-dense sources such as nuclear. But neighboring states often face the same issues CA faces in-state and if the predictions are true that climate change will result in more extreme weather events such as region-wide heat waves (and cold spells) , this will only impose more demand and more stress on the electrical grid during those events. CA was relatively lucky in the summers of 2020 and 2021 but should probably reserve betting to the casinos in neighboring Nevada and not on the lives of 40 million people.
I don’t think any reasonable discussion on how to address the issues of California’s (or anybody’s) grid can be conducted without acknowledging the Fatal Trifecta. Unfortunately the cheerleaders of the CAP will most likely be unable to see that, especially if Corporate Press outlets such as the local newspapers don’t even bother to platform a simple 150 word letter to the editor. Same goes for the bureaucrats and politicians, especially the ones who were quoted in my piece on the San Diego CAP, who are so out of touch with reality.
But I do think most people aren’t subscribing to these utopian Disney fantasies pushed by the CAP proponents or their allies and it’s these folks who are ripe for increased energy literacy. That starts with an understanding of the Fatal Trifecta. Perhaps a more informed general population, who just also happens to vote, would be willing to hold these politicians, bureaucrats, and activists more accountable from the get go and place a road block between them and the revolving door of Green-Leap-Forward-Industrial-Complex. Shorting the Grid4 is also a great introduction to this well-needed attempt to create this more energy-literate society.
Long story short: San Diego’s local utility, San Diego Gas and Electric (SDG&E), happens to be owned by San Diego-based Sempra Energy, a company who also generates electricity, however SDG&E typically cannot purchase that electricity directly from Sempra’s generation assets. Instead they must purchase it on the market set by CA’s ISO. Sempra’s generation assets are instead sold to other utilities within the state. Strict regulations both at the State level and Federal level seek to prevent employees within either subsidiary from sharing information that could place either at an advantage. In places where the CCA San Diego Community Power has been implemented, they purchase this power now instead of SDG&E.
Table of Contents for Shorting the Grid, Kindle version.
Perhaps the way to get Governor Newsom to read Shorting the Grid is to try to ban it?
Shorting the Grid is of course available on Amazon in print, Kindle format, or audio; however Indiebound is a great search engine to find this book, or any others, in locally-owned independent book stores. WorldCat also provides a search for books available in local libraries but sadly only one library in the entire state of California appears to carry a copy.
Contrast that to The Population Bomb.