Recent weather-induced blackouts in Texas caused record-breaking economic devastation and needless loss of precious lives. The blackouts also brought unfortunate political divisiveness around a topic that should – and must – be a non-partisan issue – preserving and protecting our electric power grid.
Media outlets like NBC emphasized the criticality of electricity, but incorrectly suggested such Texas blackouts could easily be prevented with an interconnected carbon-free “Supergrid” to “accelerate green energy growth,” while blaming President Trump, former Energy Secretary Rick Perry, and the “oil and gas lobby” as obstacles to “progress.” And conservative pundits criticized “green energy” as the primary culprit of Texas’ woes, while overlooking that the state’s fossil fuel and nuclear power generation plants also froze because of a lack of weatherization and resilience.
Whether one is a fan of President Biden or a member of the “MAGA” crowd – or anywhere in between – all should appreciate the value of electricity. We should all be able to support the Biden Administration’s “Build Back Better” campaign to “[m]obilize American ingenuity to build a modern infrastructure and an equitable, clean energy future.”
But this noble cause won’t happen without electricity. We need to add realism, resilience, and “new” renewable energy to the “equitable” and “clean” for our electric grid to achieve the energy future we all desire.
Biden’s choices of Jennifer Granholm to lead the Department of Energy and Pete Buttigieg to lead the Department of Transportation could signal that electrification of transportation is a major priority. “Electrification” of vehicles is intended to be helpful to the environment.
But after the Texas blackout shut down numerous chemical plants, the Wall Street Journal reported that a global plastics shortage is causing US-based car manufacturers like Toyota and Honda to halt production of even their normal fleet of automobiles—and also causing computer chip manufacturers to do the same. We need the grid to power electric vehicles, but right now we risk not even being able to build them because our current grid infrastructure lacks resilience.
Realism should prompt us to protect the grid. Realism tells us that our adversaries target the grid every day. President Biden erred in suspending a Trump executive order meant to keep our nation’s adversaries from supplying key bulk power grid components, such as Chinese transformers with hardware “back doors” that create an avenue for cyberattacks. Energy Secretary Granholm has until 20 April to recommend a response to that executive order. The bipartisan Secure the Grid Coalition wrote a letter urging Granholm to reinstate and strengthen the order.
We also need to be realistic about our sources of power generation and the energy market. Meredith Angwin, author of “Campaigning for Clean Air” and “Shorting the Grid: The Hidden Fragility of Our Electric Grid” explains that while diversity in the sources of power generation can be a good thing, not all sources are the same. Wind and solar are intermittent and cannot be relied upon for predictable base-load power. Yet the market has built in many incentives promoting them, often at the expense of more reliable sources.
Her warnings are underscored by Nadia Schadlow, a deputy national security advisor during the Trump administration, who recently warned that “our new climate policies could lead to increased reliance on China.” “Energy storage is the glue within a low carbon economy, which enables greater use of intermittent power sources like wind and solar. China of course dominates the four stages of the battery supply chain…mining, processing, assembly, and recycling,” she said.
Add this supply chain uncertainty to Angwin’s warnings of the “fatal trifecta” – over-reliance on renewables, natural gas, and imported electricity – and it becomes clear that we need more market incentives for the country’s power generators and grid operators to build in all-hazards resilience into everything they do.
Resilience was missing in Texas, due to the lack of such incentives. In 2017, Energy Secretary Rick Perry proposed incentives for electricity companies to keep 90 days of back up fuel on site, to both bolster national security and help prevent blackouts during severe weather events, including polar vortexes. The Center for Security Policy (my employer) commended him for this and suggested numerous ways to provide resilience-boosting market incentives. Others ridiculed Perry however, with accusations that the measures were simply meant to “prop up” coal and nuclear industries. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) ultimately dismissed the effort and maintained a “business as usual” approach—allowing the energy industry to call the “resilience” shots.
There is currently an opportunity for the public to voice concerns to FERC about the lack of grid resilience, however. Following a complaint lodged with FERC that the grid’s reliability standards are too weak and insufficiently enforced, the regulatory commission responded with a docket allowing citizens and policymakers until April 5th to provide comments, which can be easily done online.
State legislatures can also help. Many have passed legislation requiring certain percentages of renewable power. They can do the same regarding resilience. Simple examples that would have helped in Texas include mandating weatherization and requiring dual-fueled natural gas plants to have two days’ worth of oil on-site at the beginning of each winter. Two pieces of legislation authored by Texas state Senator Bob Hall – “All Hazards Grid Security” and “Bulk Power Equipment Protection” bills – serve as bi-partisan models for the rest of the nation.
Robert Bryce, another Texas resident and producer of the documentary “Juice: How Electricity Explains The World,” recently wrote in Forbes that the “Blizzard Exposes The Perils Of Attempting To ‘Electrify Everything’” – pointing to the real need for fossil fuel generation. However, he also said “If we are serious about decarbonization we need nuclear…. We need a lot more and yet we are seeing this year plants in Illinois and New York slated for closure.”
This leads us to the final critical component of a “clean energy future.” The Biden administration, and all its critics, should consider a “new” renewable energy source: one that could provide clean, base-load power for many hundreds, if not thousands of years.
This would be through the recycling of used nuclear fuel to power all-hazards resilient fast reactors, similar to those developed at Argonne National Laboratory in the 1960s. Such reactors could be licensed from Argonne. In fact, Elysium Industries of Ohio is currently developing a “liquid fuel” (liquid salt) fast reactor. These reactors can be designed to be resilient to even the most catastrophic threat to the electric grid – nuclear electromagnetic pulse (EMP) – like the small modular reactor (SMR) now already under development by NuScale.
Steven Curtis of the Readiness Resource Group, makes a very compelling case that, by recycling the tons of spent nuclear fuel which resides at our nuclear power sites, we could turn a present hazard into a source of power generation for 1,000 years. He suggests that the nation build a “Carbon-Free National Laboratory” to conduct the research for this next-generation “renewable” energy. Curtis said, “The United States Congress has collected fees from electricity rate payers enough to have built a fund of $40 billion (including interest) for the purpose of securing a used nuclear fuel long-term solution.”
Surely that $40 billion could be combined with some portion of Biden’s $1.9 trillion “American Rescue Plan” which Ambassador Henry “Hank” Cooper argues should allocate a significant percentage “to protect the nation’s electric grid.” Cooper recently wrote, “we have shown in a South Carolina Pilot Study that the cost of providing this protection is quite affordable…the impedance blocking needed remediation has been political and bureaucratic.”
Cooper’s frustration with the political and bureaucratic bickering is shared by Texan and former Navy SEAL, James Jackson, who recently wrote “instead of pointing fingers, it’s long past time for our politicians, our regulators and our power providers to channel their energy and their dollars into taking the steps we truly need to prevent another disaster.”
I couldn’t agree more. Let’s do just that, with Realism, Resilience and “New” Renewable Energy.
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