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LIPSTICK ON A PIG (Part 3)

The pig’s lipstick is hiding an important truth: the United States electrical grid is becoming dangerously unreliable.

 

Coal and nuclear electricity generation are incredibly reliable.  Why?  Because the fuel is on site.  Think of coal piles right outside the generator door and nuclear fuel rods that last for years.  Nuclear and coal generators keep running no matter how bad the weather or road conditions.  No other significant source of electricity can make that claim.  And so, in 1990, when coal and nuclear were the source of nearly 75% of this country’s electricity, the grid was incredibly reliable.

 

Source: Statistica.com

 

Fast forward to today.  Coal and nuclear are reduced nearly in half, to 38%.  Natural gas is now king at 40% and wind and solar follow at about 22%.  Wind and solar are, by definition, unreliable.  Wind, Solar and Fossil Fuels Part II (energy4life.today)  The grid can only accept wind and solar’s “on-again/off-again” electricity by having huge natural gas generating capacity that can be turned up and down, as wind and solar come and go.

 

Therefore, the reliability of our electrical grid is now utterly dependent on the ability to get natural gas to the generating plant.  That’s right—natural gas can’t be stored outside the generator door; instead, it arrives via pipelines.  You may remember from physics class that pipelines have a quantity limit—and no matter what the emergency, the laws of physics still apply.  You may also remember that the environmental zealots (and a whole lot of misguided politicians) have been busy banning natural gas pipelines.


That’s bad. But the problem is more than just pipeline capacity (or the lack thereof).  Winter storms play havoc with our electrical grid AND our gas delivery system.  A new study by FERC (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) warns that in the last 5 of 11 years “…unplanned cold weather-related generation outages jeopardized grid reliability.”  Winter Storm Elliott Report: Inquiry into Bulk-Power System Operations During December 2022 | Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (ferc.gov)  During 2022’s Winter Storm Elliott, 18% of the anticipated generation was knocked offline by bad weather.  During 2021’s Winter Storm Uzi, several hundred people died, and billions of property damage resulted from the LIMITED blackouts that occurred.  What’s terribly frightening is the report’s revelation that, in 2021, the grid “…came within four minutes of a potential total blackout.” 

 

The weather problems are not merely snow-covered solar panels or other problems with the electrical grid.  Winter storms cause frozen natural gas wellheads, bad roads that prevent gas facility maintenance, and other frozen gas equipment, all of which result in a reduced natural gas supply…right at the time that gas supply is most needed.  Regarding Storm Elliott the report observes: “ …in the wake of massive natural gas production declines, and to a lesser extent, declines in natural gas processing, the natural gas fuel supply struggled to meet both residential heating load and generating unit demand for natural gas, exacerbated by the increasing reliance by generating units on natural gas. Natural gas pipeline capacity is for the most part designed, certificated and constructed to accommodate firm transportation commitments, while many natural gas-fired generating units rely on non-firm commodity and/or pipeline transportation contracts.”  Translated: during storms the gas pipelines can’t handle the loads generated by home heating needs and the extraordinary demand from gas fired electricity plants running in high gear.

 

But that’s not the worst.  When natural gas supply systems are overtaxed and run empty (as happened in small parts of the storm-stricken areas) the natural gas systems take weeks to be turned back on (yup, that’s weeks).  According to the report, Con Edison’s massive system suffered a “close call” of such a collapse.  And the report warns that if such a collapse had occurred: “…for the natural gas local distribution system to return system outages to normal operation, workers must go house-to-house and individually light every pilot light. Con Edison estimated it would have taken months to restore service, even with mutual assistance from other utilities, had it experienced a complete loss of its system.”

 

So, if you’re only staring at the lipstick, that pig sure is pretty.  But don’t be surprised at what you see when the lipstick comes off.

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