Academics and the grid Part I: I don’t think that study means what you think it means

From Climate Etc.

By Planning Engineer (Russell Schussler)

The media, individuals, and policy makers are prone to serious misunderstanding of studies, reports and pronouncements coming from academic experts. It is important to carefully read and interpret academic publications to understand what has been studied and what is being claimed. Far too many dismiss the many wide-ranging formidable challenges inherent in green energy efforts due to their misreading and misunderstanding of academic publications.

This brings to top of mind a “joke” I once heard at a seminar for new power engineers. A Professor of Electrical Engineering was expounding on the differences between engineers and scientists. He explained:

Both engineers and scientists want to understand the world and both want to solve problems. Engineers worry about how much something costs. Scientists don’t worry about the cost; they just want the truth. So, the difference between an engineer and a scientist is that an engineer at least has some common sense.

There’s been a lot of discussion about the differences between scientists and engineers. The boundaries can get blurry and often are non-existent. In the energy power system arena, perhaps to my past professor’s chagrin, I’m afraid the more important boundary might be between academics and practicing engineers. Academics can approach the grid with some detachment while practicing engineers must keep it running 24/7/365. Practicing engineers have skin in the game and typically face consequences for errors and shortcomings, while academics and unfortunately many policy makers are more insulated. This brings to mind Thomas Sowell’s guidance, “It is hard to imagine a more stupid or more dangerous way of making decisions than by putting those decisions in the hands of people who pay no price for being wrong.”

As I like to say, the electric grid is the largest, most wonderful, most complex machine ever. Meeting the electric needs of our nation depends on many specialists and experts in far ranging efforts including generation, transmission, distribution, maintenance, and operations as well as within the many subfields encompassing these broad areas. The grid must operate seamlessly across a variety of conditions without pause. Recognizing the difference between what theory suggests and practical knowledge demonstrates is critical.

Academics have the luxury of focusing on one or a limited number of problems at a time. The traditional scientific method of hypothesis testing through experimentation is better suited to studies involving limited numbers of variables. Wicked complex systems full of all sorts of inconvenient interactions and feedback tend not to always work as might be suggested by theory from experimentations. As described in this posting, Balance and the Grid,  focusing on just one problem can in the end cause net harm, and in many cases, the feedback can make the outcome of the problem attacked worse. I will leave it to readers to ponder recent events and see if they can come up with an example where experts focused too narrowly on a single problem and developed solutions which were later shown to have serious repercussions.

The grid and power supply arrangements are an extremely complex system. The interplay and interactions among the components are extensive and complicated. Change a puzzle piece and the entire puzzle changes. Actions taken to address one problem will typically create new problems and also aggravate other problems. The negative effects of such system “fixes” may or may not be visible for some time. It’s a rare academic who can successfully grapple with the great complexities of the power system. Specialization is an easier approach. While findings from academics and specialists can have great value, their findings should not be taken to extremes. The typical course for successful “revolutionary” ideas is that after some struggles to implement working applications they eventually make a modest improvement within some niche of the industry.

Many read academic papers and jump past all the hard work of assessment to the conclusion that whatever is proposed can be done in the near term on widespread level with great benefit. Initial promise is a necessary step but nowhere near a sufficient indicator of eventual success. But mis- readings of studies often lead to such conclusions. Consider what happens at the simplest level. An academic will look at a particular energy resource, or set of resources, and calculate how much power could they could theoretically provide. Comparing this capability to actual needs, it might be stated that this resource could provide X% (all) of an area’s power need. Although the actual “study” did not look at many of the major items of importance, such as timing of the energy relative to load needs, let alone issues around transmission or distribution of the energy, the paper may be quoted and cited as evidence that this substitution can be done. Just because a resource can produce enough megawatt hours of energy to replace another “less desirable” resource, does not mean it can be substituted as part of the power system. But the media and others may include that paper as evidence that renewable can replace conventional technology.

It is understandable that not everything can be studied at the same time. Also, there is always the possibility of raising near infinite objections as to what was not considered. That certainly is a ditch on the other side of the road that we could fall in. But the ditch of concern here is failing to consider the most basic fundamentals around energy provision. Before any large generating resource can be connected to the grid, detailed interconnections studies must be performed to make sure that single resource works adequately with the system. Assuming that the widespread adoption and integration of many new generating resources can easily be accomplished is naïve. One needs to remain skeptical and questioning around proposals for major change until a myriad of basic requirements of the power supply system have been given due consideration.

Many readers here may have noted the numerous times over the years when I’ve discussed grid concerns, and a reader in the comments had directed me to some article in a prestigious journal from a highly credentialed academic. I check out the articles and often they are quite good, but usually the article does not even address the concerns that I have raised. Readers will offer me as a rebuttal, some publication showing at some basic level how wind and solar resources may contribute to the grid.

Overwhelmingly the academic articles I read are good. Usually, the authors carefully describe the limitations of their findings and recommendations. Sometimes they hint as to what remains to be worked out. I’m afraid this does not stop individuals, the media, and some policy makers from ignoring the qualifications and limitations inherent in their findings. The situation is worse when they leave it to the reader to ferret out the limitations of their findings. In very rare instances some academics will go beyond what has been demonstrated with exaggerated claims. I don’t know if this is done through ignorance, accident, hubris or for purposes of self-advancement. I am afraid, that unfortunately, overstating findings can lead to greater publicity and personal gain. There is not much to be gained personally from being a cynic; optimism is a better path for self-advancement.

Potential enhancements to the grid are usually sold with great fanfare. Those of you who have had an interest in energy and the grid should think back over the years to all the articles you have read which touted some major breakthrough which was going to be a game changer. Such game changers at best are very slow to arise, if ever, in the energy industry. Thinking back a few decades, power electronics were becoming available in many applications that collectively were going to change the industry. Power electronics involve providing high voltage capability to semiconductor devices, combined with sophisticated computer controls. The technology was proven and in use on high voltage DC lines. Theoretically other applications could solve a lot of problem making the grid smarter, correcting voltages and controlling and directing flows on transmission lines.

The research papers looked good. While the touting of these technologies may have gone overboard, I did not read anything particularly dishonest or false. The problem was that many read of the potential and did not see anything to suggest that this technology should not be adopted immediately on a widespread manner to improve the system. Many bright capable people read up on the potential and foresaw near term change and benefit. My Board wanted a report on how we would be using this “new” capability. The devil was in the details, however. The challenges and costs associated with power electronic applications were more burdensome at that time than the problems they would solve in our area.

Years later I found it was worth tens of millions to install a large power electronic device called a Static Var Compensator (SVC) to have on standby to prevent a potential voltage collapse problem that had emerged on the grid. Today power electronics play many important roles in the grid. They are a major part of what makes a grid “smart”. They enable asynchronous wind and solar generation to be converted to alternating current on the grid. Power electronics support voltages and help keep the system stable in many ways in varying situations. But they did not take the industry by storm in a short time frame as envisioned by the early reports. They were first employed in niches where they provided particular benefits. As experience was gained and improvements made, they grew to become more and more important. They key to adoption was that installations were built on successive successes. I suspect top-down mandates to broadly use such devices might have actually hindered development and adoption.

The path for innovation for the grid is most likely to follow the model of power electronics. Academics propose and refine an approach for the enhancement of the grid and/or power supply. Detailed serious evaluations of the approach take place and maybe additional research is warranted. Engineers determine specific areas where the new approaches might be most successful and the approach can be employed or tested. Project successes will be followed by further improvements and refinements and led to greater expansion as warranted.

That model seems preferable to this one: Academics propose and refine an approach for the enhancement of the grid and/or power supply (or a complete transition of the grid). The media and policy makers determine it is worthwhile. Policy makers and the public push for sweeping changes that are mandated. Everyone struggles to implement the new approach broadly in a sweeping near universal manner.

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Academic research that promotes improvements to the power greed needs to be evaluated carefully with the understanding that the grid is a complex system full of interactions. Changes to the grid involve numerous hurdles. Language is often imprecise. For instance, when readers see a statement stating “Solar and wind could attain penetration levels of X”. What the statement really means is “Based on the factors I looked at and ignoring a vast number of critical requirements I have not looked at, solar and wind may be able to replace fossil resources at a level of X. But probably not.”    Unfortunately, the statement is often interpreted as “Solar and wind can attain penetration levels of X with no significant concerns.”

Similarly, when a study quotes a cost, it should be understood that unless specified differently, the cost is for the specific problem at hand, invariably there will be many other costs added to implement this approach often dwarfing the provided number. If a study quotes a figure in the billions to provide connections for infrastructure to connect distant wind and solar to load centers and/or allow for diversity, you can be fairly certain that additional improvements to the underlying systems will rival or exceed the reported cost.

For those without a strong technical background, it’s hard sometimes to tell what is meant by various terms. There are many definitions of capacity factor. The difference between power and energy is critical though not always grasped. It’s understandable that individuals might be confused by academic studies and articles concerning the grid. Media reporters should do better. The results may be tragic when exaggerated and misunderstood findings influence policy makers and impact policy.

Look for a follow up piece titled, Academics and the Grid: Part 2 Are they Studying the Right Things?  It will provide additional context and support for the central ideas here.

Thanks to Roger Caiazza for review and helpful comments

Postscript: I decided to write on this topic when somebody sent me this link as evidence that wind and solar could “easily” be made reliable. Perhaps some of the readers may be interested in discussing in the comment some hurdles not brought out in the article. Similarly, it looks like some of the optimism as to near term Fusion might need some tempering as well.

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January 12, 2023 10:08 am

Typical academic study:

“Blah Blah Blah…for some values of spherical cows (in a non-gravitational reference frame)”.

Reply to  Fraizer
January 12, 2023 1:50 pm

Which one of three ‘bigs’ of the quintessence: rip, freeze or crunch; as the old Willy said it’s our ‘to be or not to be’ fate.

Reply to  Fraizer
January 12, 2023 11:16 pm

You forgot my favourite:
2+2=5 (for particularly large values of 2).

David Wojick
January 12, 2023 10:13 am

This is why we call them academics. The issues they study are academic, that is not real. Here are the real issues with renewables:

Reply to  David Wojick
January 12, 2023 1:32 pm

Australias Chief Scientist is an electrical engineer, like her predecessor, and both PhDs with considerable research expertise. However the current chief worked on electronics especially with semiconductor nitrides. The predecessor was an research expert in micro currents in the human body- at least he was correct in saying he didnt remember any of his undergraduate study on ‘everyday’ power systems

Reply to  Duker
January 13, 2023 2:33 am

“Chief” scientist? – A overpaid, government appointed bureaucrat. Finkel? Wasn’t he the prior head honcho, big banana, spruiking the wonder energy source — hydrogen, what at least 5 years ago. How’s that hydrogen miracle going today?

These “chief” bureaucrats better get on with it — Apparently humankind has limited time, hey, but when you’re pulling down, what at least $500-600k + benefits on the taxpayer’s teat, you got all the time in the world — Crisis – What Crisis?

Reply to  Duker
January 13, 2023 6:26 am

Australia has had a recent succession of Chief Scientists, people who have made a mark in their special, often narrow fields, but who have all been dreadfully disappointing when it comes to national science policy advice. They remind me of private school Prefects, blushingly stepping up to the plate to gush rewards for those who appointed them. Look at their involvements in government-sponsored investigations and weep at their docile obedience to the hands that feed them.
True, hard scientists would be balanced enough to recognise that popular themes of the day have opposition from people as bright as they are, yet we see scarce mention of competing science from these Chiefs.
One of the sorry tactics of modern science is to stay silent when hard questions are put. These Chiefs have stayed silent. For example, our Australian Academy of Sciences produced a science report on the dangers of a 3 degree warming world, then another proposing punishment for those who disagree with Academy ideas. These are truly astounding examples of science captured by a cell of activists, but our Chief Scientists have remained silent. Very, very sad, even incompetent. Geoff S

Reply to  sherro01
January 13, 2023 6:33 pm

One only has to look back at the other array of “chief” scientists during COVID. The nightmarish reality of the incomprehensible time of rule by the mad doctors.

Tom Halla
January 12, 2023 10:16 am

How one can integrate weather dependent, non dispatchable sources into a grid? Real world, have enough dispatchable sources one can ignore/replace wind and solar completely.
What the politicians catering to greens do not do is figure how to cost out a subsidized source so it does not distort the price incentives for the system. Austrian school economics would suggest that is impossible.

Reply to  Tom Halla
January 12, 2023 11:23 pm

You misunderstand the purpose of the grid policy. It’s primary goal isn’t to provide power to consumers when they need it, but to destroy the viability of fossil-fueled power sources. If everybody dies in a cold, dark hole, that’s just one of the costs. They probably didn’t vote green, anyway.

January 12, 2023 10:34 am

Your comment on Engineers and Scientists prompted a memory from one of my Mechanical Engineering Professors. He was working on an observatory and the design was difficult and as a result there were abandoned parts strewn about. Einstein was also begged on the project and he said, “Dr. McBride,do you know the difference between Engineers and Physicists?” To which Dr. McBride replied , “no” curtly. Einsein, “when we make a mistake, we wad it up and throw it in the waste basket.”

Reply to  Mason
January 12, 2023 10:35 am

engaged rather than begged!

John Hultquist
January 12, 2023 10:59 am

From the last link (Columbia News):
Potentially, EVs could become the largest, distributed energy storage facility deployed,” 

When the grid drains your battery, you will have to walk for a week.
I could fire-up my ICE F150 and push electrons onto the grid, burn 23 gallons
of gasoline, and call AAA to bring me enough gasoline to get to town. How’s
that for a plan to stabilize the grid?

This article is full of statements that boggle my mind. These folks need to
flush the pills or weed, or whatever they use.

Leo Smith
Reply to  John Hultquist
January 12, 2023 1:28 pm

They are ArtStudents™, The Don’t Do Numbers. Talk to them about the insoluble problems of intermittency and power desnity and they say ‘just build more and add batteries’ .

“We are not paying you to tell us why it cant be done, we are paying you to do it”!

Wnt to keep hose wife, salary car and the kids. Just do it even when you know it wont work.

PS the difference between a physicist and an engineer is that engineers mistakes cost lives and money. It behoves us to be extremely careful. You can bullshit your way out of a wet paper bag, but it gets harder when your creation is a smoking ruin.

Steve Case
Reply to  Leo Smith
January 12, 2023 4:11 pm

“We are not paying you to tell us why it cant be done, we are paying you to do it”!

And when they can’t, do they get paid?

Reply to  Leo Smith
January 12, 2023 11:27 pm

Henry Ford once said that “you can’t make a reputation on what you’re going to do”. Unfortunately, that’s all some of these green policymakers do.

Rud Istvan
January 12, 2023 12:35 pm

Russ and I wrote several joint guest posts for Judith over the years concerning grid related topics. Before he retired he was the senior grid capacity planning engineer (headed the team) at a very major southern utility. Knows his stuff.

The opposite of academic Prof. Jacobson at Stanford, who obviously doesn’t.

January 12, 2023 12:39 pm

As a practicing Applied Scientist (Electrical Engineering), you assessment of physicists, and academic engineers is very accurate. I read the piece from Columbia News, and the level of low resolution thinking within that was astounding. Unfortunately this has become more of the norm than exception. Only when the house of cards come tumbling down will people realize that this was vaporware.

Reply to  rpercifield
January 13, 2023 5:58 am

The last paragraph of the Columbia News article says it all:

““The key requirement would be a financing scheme in which the federal government could fund the initial outlay,” he continued. “Then, local ratepayers pay for the operation and maintenance once the technology is in place. My prediction: New York State and California will be first to invest.”

Rud Istvan
January 12, 2023 12:50 pm

Renewables are an unviable solution to an imaginary problem.
The issue is that lots of people make money off both the unviable solution and the imaginary problem.
The answer is remove the money—no renewable subsidies, no more climate research grants since those academics also say the science is settled. Use the climate model supercomputers for stuff like improved weather forecasting or better product design.

Leo Smith
Reply to  Rud Istvan
January 12, 2023 1:30 pm

Renewable energy: Expensive solutions that don’t work to a problem that doesn’t exist instituted by self legalising protection rackets that don’t protect, masquerading as public servants who don’t serve the public.

January 12, 2023 1:21 pm

In Australia, the rot began from the time that intermittent generators were permitted access to the grid with ZERO requirement for the reliability of supply.

No generator should be permitted access to the grid unless it can guarantee a certain output during peak periods of demand.

There may be some economic potential for solar/wind/battery to provide peak demand capacity for a few hours per day so the coal, gas or nuclear plants can run at peak efficiency.

Certainly wind and solar can be used economically in predominantly hydro systems to conserve perched water.

Leo Smith
Reply to  RickWill
January 12, 2023 1:34 pm

Certainly wind and solar can be used economically in predominantly hydro systems to conserve perched water.

Yes, that is in fact the only scenario I have investigated where wind and solar actually work. You simply use them to conserve stored hydro water when they are active, and run off hydro the rest of the time. New Zealand, land of ageing eco-hippies, brown rice and hiking boots, could actually do this.

Reply to  RickWill
January 12, 2023 1:41 pm

Every thermal generator is unreliable in the sense that its part of a complex system and can be tripped at any time without warning
Wind and solar are unreliable in the sense you ‘know’ in advance they arent going to deliver a certain MW.
Hydro power might be the most reliable as its a simpler system.
The grid itself is unreliable in unexpected ways too, which causes some problems when delivery long distance power. A sudden failure at some point causes massive instability in the area receiving the power , so they need enough reserves on tap to handle it , if thats not available they dont want that power , thank you.

Reply to  Duker
January 12, 2023 1:56 pm

Every thermal generator is unreliable 

The reliability of thermal generators is in the high nineties. If all generators were heavily fined every time they could not meet their day ahead schedule then there would be no wind and little solar capacity but it is a risk that thermal generators would willingly accept.

Reply to  RickWill
January 12, 2023 4:26 pm

For the typical power plant, coal, gas, nuclear or Hydro to provide power to the grid they are part of the contract to deliver a specific amount at a specific price over a specific period of time. Typically, in that contract will be a clause informing them that if that power is not delivered they will be charged twice the cost of the highest price electricity being delivered to the grid. Natural disasters, unexpected plant trips, train wrecks, airplane crashes, birds hitting the power lines are not an excuse. For example, when the incident happened at TMI-II, Metropolitan Edison, owner/operator, was required to pay over $0.10 for the lost power that they had contracted to sell to the PJM Grid at $0.05 per kWh until that power could be restored and delivered. [Forget the exact prices but was in management at GPU, owner of MetEd at the time and well aware of the fact that instead of making $500,000 a day we were paying PJM $1,000,000 a day. Much worse of a Penalty or Fine that the US Government could impose. Round numbers, but very close.] With the curtailment of many plants those numbers are peanuts, several orders of magnitude, compared to the price being paid during the recent blackouts.

Reply to  RickWill
January 12, 2023 6:20 pm

The vast majority of the time, when fossil fuel plants are shut down, it’s for scheduled maintenance.

January 12, 2023 1:29 pm

Academic – a safe space dweller divorced from reality

Gunga Din
January 12, 2023 1:39 pm

The phrase “unintended consequences” comes to mind.
Perhaps “unintended expensive consequences” would be a more accurate description of the results from the implementation of the solutions to “CAGW”?

January 12, 2023 1:54 pm

Car companies and utilities all of lots of engineers, yet they seem to be going all-in on renewables. Where are their engineers?

Reply to  Tom.1
January 12, 2023 6:22 pm

For the most part, it’s not the engineers who are running these companies.

John Oliver
January 12, 2023 2:21 pm

Columbia University! Thats all you need to know; a once great institution that went down the liberal progressive rabbit hole. When I come up with an idea for a thing-ma-jig at work or for my boat or what ever- I have learned it is best to try to get a mock up or crudely working prototype built sooner rather than later. You find out the flaws in concept and details a lot quicker that way.

January 12, 2023 2:44 pm

My favorite aphorism capturing the aforementioned problem with academics:
In theory theory and practice are the same thing. In practice they aren’t.
Runner up:
The only person who believes a model is the person who made it. The only person who doubts a measurement is the person who took it.

For the runner up (if you didn’t catch it) what happens is when people take measurements they tend to be perfectionists and so will doubt whether their measurement really reflects the best you can do. I.e. was the box housing the thermometer the right shade of white. However, the people who then use that to model global temperature projected back to 1850 (seriously, who measured the temperature of the south Pacific in 1850?) believe that their numbers represent reality.

Reply to  chadb
January 12, 2023 11:31 pm

I like this one, because it’s more succinct:
“The difference between theory and practice is larger in practice than in theory.”

January 12, 2023 7:29 pm

In a world long ago I did collaborative research with the Georgia Tech School of Electrical Engineering, specifically in the area of telecommunications using lasers, LEDs, plastic fiber optics, glass fiber optics, and photo optics. I came from industry, bringing them the issues we had and they showed me glimpses of the future. The professor who was my primary contact recruited me to give lectures to his fiber optics courses on how the technology was used.

I would tell the class that in industry they would need to factor in one more variable whenever they proposed solutions, without exception. Then I drew a huge dollar sign on the board. I went on to give them actual examples of engineering technically sub-optimal solutions that met customers needs but saved everyone boatloads of money over the perfect technical solutions. I stressed that they cannot get by knowing what the best technical answer was, but why the answer was best, and what would be compromised constructing a network that was less technically optimal. In other words, they had to know the properties of the materials, not memorize solutions.

Hopefully, that sunk in with some of the students. At least the professor was sufficiently satisfied and asked for repeat performances until I moved on.

Last edited 23 days ago by jtom
Iain Reid
January 13, 2023 12:49 am

The main, and to me the impossible to overcome, is the periodic and sometimes extensive shortage of energy powering renewable generators. No clever electronics or ‘smart’ grids can overcome the lack of wind or sun.

The lack of inertia of renewable generators is another hurdle that is very difficult to overcome. I read of suggestions for ‘flywheels’ as an answer. Just how many and how big would they need to be to match the inertia of conventional grid connected generators. Even assuming that such an amount of inertia could be built, how long could it sustain the frequency within limits? What the flywheel entusiasts seem to forget is that when a conventional generator is overloaded, the inertia delays the slow down but the governor then increases steam supply (or water if hydro) to bring the generator back into load balance.

Surely, soon it must be realised by those in power that renewables are not ‘the’ answer?

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