Earlier this month, I had a post discussing New York’s so-called Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act of 2019, and the various steps taken so far to implement the Act’s stated goals. The main goals are 40% reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in New York by 2030, and 85% by 2050. These goals apply not just to the electricity sector (which only accounts for about 25% of energy usage in the U.S.), but to the entire energy economy. My post relied substantially on the work of Roger Caiazza, who has written extensively at his website Practical Environmentalist of New York about the implementation plans for the Act currently under formulation by various state bodies.
The current status is that a series of Advisory Panels have been convened, each covering a particular sector of the energy economy, and tasked to provide advice and guidance as to how to “decarbonize” that particular sector. My prior post covered some of Mr. Caiazza’s comments on the work of Advisory Panels for sectors including Transportation, Industry, Agriculture and Residential. However, at the time of that post (June 3) Mr. Caiazza had not yet commented on the work of the most important Advisory Panel, which is the one dealing with the sector of Power Generation.
There are two reasons that the Power Generation sector must be considered the most important in the overall decarbonization plan. First, it is thought to be the easiest to decarbonize. And second, the decarbonization plans for the other sectors basically come down to requiring those sectors to be converted from using fossil fuels to using electricity. Decarbonize transportation? Require electric cars! Decarbonize residential buildings? Require replacement of natural gas heating and cooking with electric! And so forth. And the advisory panels also have recognized the pre-eminent importance of the Power Generation sector by assigning that sector necessarily more ambitious decarbonization goals than for the other sectors: for the Power Generation sector it is 70% by 2030 and 100% by 2040.
The so-called recommendations evidence a truly astounding level of amateurism and cluelessness on the part of this Panel. It is completely obvious that these people have no idea how to go about “decarbonizing” the electrical grid, or whether that can be done at all. Indeed, the apparent attitude of the members is that the only thing lacking is political will, and therefore if the appropriate orders are issued by government bureaucrats, then the goals will be accomplished. It appears that not one moment’s thought has been given to the potential engineering difficulties or costs of completely revamping an electrical grid that has taken over 100 years of incremental engineering improvements to develop to its current state.
Start with the membership of the Panel. You would think that intimate knowledge of how the electrical grid works would be the most important pre-requisite for membership. But in fact the Panel was stacked with environmental activists with no knowledge at all of how the grid works. On a sixteen member Panel, there were representatives of New Yorkers for Clean Power, the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, the Natural Resources Defense Counsel, Vote Solar, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the Public Utility Law Project, and the New York Battery and Energy Storage Coalition, among others. In the face of this crowd of activists, the New York ISO got exactly one representative. Caiazza comments:
In order to make power generation recommendations it is necessary to understand how the power system works and how planning affects reliability and affordability. Many of the members [of this Advisory Panel] did not want to understand and did not try to understand the technological challenges. Unfortunately, they were the loudest voices and their naïve insistence on speculative technologies has resulted in some risky enabling initiatives.
What Caiazza calls “some risky enabling initiatives,” I would call complete fantasy.
The big three problems with decarbonizing an electrical grid would be reliability, cost and storage. Each of those three is barely addressed at all in the Panel’s May 10 presentation, Rather than trying to deconstruct everything, let me focus on the issue of storage.
It is obvious to anyone who thinks about the subject for even a couple of minutes that an electrical grid powered almost entirely by wind and solar generating resources is going to need enormous amounts of storage to meet demand at times when the sun is not shining and the wind not blowing. The storage must be sufficient to cover many days of usage — indeed multiple weeks — and must also remain safely stored for many months between when the power is generated and when it is used. Consider for a moment a system powered mostly by solar resources. Generation from solar panels in New York could easily be triple in June as in December. In June, the day is longer; the sun is higher in the sky and therefore stronger; and there is less cloudiness. Therefore, a solar-powered system with no fossil fuel backup is going to need batteries that can store power in June — enough power to, say, run all of New York City for weeks on end — and save all that power all the way to December for usage.
Currently, no such massive-scale long-term storage technology exists.
The Power Generation Advisory Panel was made well aware of this issue at the outset. At its first meeting in September 2020 it was presented with the following chart by a consultant:
The chart shows how historical patters of wind and solar intermittency in winter months could lead to a period as long as a full week when those resources would provide next to nothing to meet electricity demand. (Indeed, there could be several such week-long periods in the course of a full winter.). The consultant specifically pointed to “the need for dispatchable resources . . . during winter periods of high demand for electrified heating and transportation and lower wind and solar output.”
So how did the Advisory Panel deal with this issue in its May 10 recommendations? It does not specifically address the subject of the winter lull at all. The closest it comes in its presentation is a slide with the heading “Advances Needed for the Future”. The following text appears:
Long Duration Storage Technology
- Focus State programs and funding on research and demonstration projects for the development of large scale and longer duration storage
- Develop and expand a Storage Center of Excellence to mature and deploy new technologies on the grid for large scale testing
- Attract and engage relevant parties in collaborative efforts to address the challenges unique to long-duration storage
In other words, they have no idea how it can be done, or whether it can be done, and nobody has even started working on the problem yet. But don’t worry, the electric grid will be 70% decarbonized by 2030, even with hugely increased demand from the likes of (mandatory) electric cars and (mandatory) electric heat in homes. Caiazza’s comment:
Long-duration storage is necessary so depending upon a technology that does not even exist in a pilot project is an incredible risk.