Is the World's Biggest Machine Breaking Down?

Jason Godesky at Anthropik offers "The World's Biggest Machine is Breaking Down":

Many of the so-called "alternatives" to fossil fuels rely on the electrical grid. We have seen the problems that nuclear and photovoltaics will face even delivering on their production promises, but even if they were to somehow solve those problems, there is still the problem of the grid itself. Most of the energy sources offered are simply means of generating electricity; this is applied to necessities like transportation through innovations like hydrogen batteries or electric cars. Even so, the electricity itself must be transported from the nuclear power plant, PV cell, or other means by which it is produced, to the car it will power, or the home it will heat, or whatever other task the energy is needed for.

That transportation is provided by the electrical power grid. Sometimes called "the world's biggest machine" by engineers, most of the energy "alternatives" proposed will require it to not only continue supplying us with the energy we use now (and the energy we'd need for economic growth anyway), but additionally to also carry the energy load we will need to replace our fossil fuel usage. This will be an impossible feat, since the current load alone is already breaking down "the world's biggest machine" under the weight of its own complexity.

A few other goodies under the fold as well...

As soon as I get some time and get back from traveling, Don and I are working on a "concept map" of peak oil. Then again, this really great interactive 'periodic table' of visualization methods suggests myriad options of visualizing relationships and data. Or perhaps we should just hire Edward Tufte (a.k.a., "the man") to do if for us, eh?

I wonder how many "imponderables" folks can come up with from ideas related to peak oil to add to this extant list?

I haven't given my "everyone in the world needs to watch Al Bartlett's wonderful lecture on exponential growth and sustainability to understand that 'The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.'" rant in a while. Consider it given.

I think this piece (and the pieces it links to) called The Importance of Zero in Destroying The Scarcity Myth Of Economics is a really interesting set of thinking about abundance and scarcity. The idea that scarcity doesn't exist in the digital world no doubt affects our mindset. However, last I checked, geology doesn't function in the digital world.

The concept map will be interesting, especially if it honesty charts the "aligned interests" looking for collapse.

I did like the Bartlett lecture, but found it kind of basic. All the interesting questions come after that groundwork. At worst, if "the exponential" is taken as the total driver, it gives students a superficial tool for a superficial understanding of the world.

On the digital world bit ... geology doesn't function in a text world either, but a lot of text is spent teaching and understanding it. And from what I remember digital data logging in geology (especially seismic exploration) pushed the limits in data acquisition for a long time.

There are what James Burke would have called "connections" that are probably non-linear, and not as simple as a mere (and consistent) exponential.

Either refute Bartlett or admit he is correct. Enough with the backhanded dismissals with no objective evidence from you. And if he is correct, then your rosy optimism is screwed. Stop smoking the corporate happy weed and open your eyes.

Bartlett says that exponential growth in population and commodity consumption cannot continue forever. That's obvious. It doesn't need refutation, and it can't be refuted.

The problem is, it's a straw man. No serious economist argues that it can, or that it should.

Both population and commodity consumption follow an S-curve of exponential growth followed by a plateau. Any professional demographer will tell you that's true of population, any serious economist will tell you that's true of commodity consumption.

The hard question is, can developing countries achieve that plateau in the same way as the OECD? The answer is probably not: if they are going to be prosperous, they will have to do it differently.

But Bartlett's arguments are just a distraction from the real problems.

The 2006 Long-Term Reliability Assessment was published last fall by the North American Electric Reliability Council. As of July 20, 2006, the Council is responsible for developing and enforcing reliability standards.

I heart Jason Godesky.

If we can't maintain the grid now, trying to maintain it, let alone expand it, in an energy-poor future doesn't seem likely.

yet many people i talk to think it's so important that the grid gets a 'get out of reality free' card and will stay around no matter what. they think the same way about the internet when in reality both systems are precariously set on the edge of a knife and even the slightest breeze can wreck havoc.

i also likes how he points out the obvious logic that no matter how you name it, going back to localized generation is a collapse because the result is less complex and less available as a whole then what it was.

the only problem i have with jason is his love of neo tribalism and neo-shamanism, and his un-dying belief that people will automatically go back to it. (see )
when in reality we will hit every branch on the way down that we touched(and maybe a few we did not) on our way up trying to use each as a way to stop what is beyond our control. only many generations and 100's of years later to end up in a form of tribalism if anyone survives.

A grid is a "maintain or die" system for an industrialized society, it is as important for the running of our culture as clean water is for human survival.

But that only mean that you must maintain it, its not physically impossible, you only have to work! That the worlds largest economy should be unable to do that is a crazy thought.

it is as important for the running of our culture as clean water is for human survival.

but it's not needed and just because it's important does not mean it gets said card.

But that only mean that you must maintain it, its not physically impossible, you only have to work! That the worlds largest economy should be unable to do that is a crazy thought.

you missed the point of the whole article and that is that we have passed the point of diminishing returns in running our grid where massive amounts of work and resources are needed only for a minuscule amount of gain. in such a situation a tree branch knocking out a power-line would as pointed out not just take power out on that street but the failure will cascade through the system.

I think I understand the point of the article and it is stupid.

Its like watching a caravan of cars loaded a kg from having their springs bottom out and conclude "one bump or disturbance and all cars will be destroyed, it is INEVITABLE". Build more cars and distribute the load, duh.

The problem is not foremost in the number of cars, but who will drive them, where and when do they take lunch, who tells them where to drive, who repairs, who decides, etc. etc. The problem is that so much effort is required to control and maintain the system, that it becomes less and less able to fulfill its original purpose. Much like ballooning civil administration, or commercial management remuneration.

Maintaining the grid is indeed possible. They just need to reassess their priorities, though, since it does require more resources than it used to.

This is not wrong, of course - which is why we are suffering such horrible problems from the lack of stables in cities, as supporting the huge number of horses as common in 1880 just got too complex - who (edit) would mow the hay, clean the manure, etc.

Sure, this is not a real example - but changing the way something is done is not evidence that proves only 'inferior' alternatives of reduced complexity are possible.

It just may be that priorities have changed, or a particular technology or custom has changed.

It is certainly true to recognize that increasing complexity has its own limit - but then, so what? Unless you implicitly believe that how we live right now is the only 'correct' way to live.

Again, this is not to dismiss facts behind this discussion, but the framework which often grows from it.

If, as in your reply, you focus on cars, and I say why use cars, would the ensuing discussion be enlightening or frustrating? Why are so many of the people who point out collapse as an unavoidable fate so unwilling to see that adaptability is also a social response, and one which is applied in any number of situations. Whenever diesel engines fade into the past, and for whatever reason, most people in Germany will not mourn for stinking, loud motors no longer being around. They may mourn what the motors provided, unless alternatives are used - including living in a way which does not require diesel motors. This life could be worse, could be better - welcome to the real world.

This is not collapse, I would argue.

It's an interesting example, the horses. Around 1900, the car was hailed as the solution for the gridlock in the cities caused by horses and carriages. Cars only take half as much space, so now that problem is solved once and for all!

Legislation is similar. Most nations start out with a fairly basic, fairly simple set of rules. Every time there is a (real or perceived) problem, rules are added. At a certain point, the amount of rules becomes too much to enforce, or even understand with all their interactions. That point is the point of diminishing returns on complexity. So far Godesky's argument (familiar from Tainter). But he's not only smart, he's also religious, and really wants/believes an apocalypse as redemption/salvation/punishment. That is where I disagree.

As for Germany: I live close enough, and I grew up seeing 80-year olds quietly peddling into the fields, balancing a weeding tool over their shoulder.

I have the impression that rather much of the sentiment on peak oil and the future in the US goes towards either extreme: death or glory. Maybe because there is little US history without oil. Maybe because shows and make-belief seem to hold a special place in the US, judging by the popular culture that filters through to the other side of the pond.

Everything will be alright. There are many ways from now to the future. The American Way, however, is special - but everyone knows that. ;)

Also intriguing is the current experiment in European (more Dutch) traffic planning - removing all the signs, markings, etc as a way to reduce accidents. In a sense, this 'simplicity' seems to cause everyone participating in traffic to pay more attention to what is going on around them, and react appropriately to other people and vehicles - obviously, something not really imaginable in the America I visited last summer.

Complexity is one answer to a problem, but it is rarely the only one. That complexity tends to have a lot of support from those involved in creating/maintaining that complexity is another question. Including the idea, certainly not espoused by all people who believe in complexity leading to collapse, that complexity is equal to 'progress,' and thus automatically good.

Yes, that is the key cultural change that will need to happen: wanting enough instead of wanting more.

Electricity grids simply follow Ohms Law, which could be translated into: you get whatever amount of copper you pay for. There is nothing inherently limited about the grid in the US except for the piss-poor maintenance it gets. Grid owners do not like to invest in upgrades because they are expensive and, if unused, are losing money. There are valid environmental concerns about yet another forest of power lines, therefor projects that are needed do get delayed. The solutions are out there: one can put the grid underground for approx. ten times the cost of high voltage lines on towers. The other part of the solution is simply to pay a few cents more per kWh for a more stable grid. It's not a big deal, really... just buy yourself a few computer games less and you are guaranteed the electricity it takes to play them.

Electricity grids simply follow Ohms Law

Only if you do Ohm's Law in complex arithmetic, where Z = R + jωL - 1/(jωC).

one can put the grid underground for approx. ten times the cost of high voltage lines on towers.

We'd be better off going with superconductors.

The other part of the solution is simply to pay a few cents more per kWh for a more stable grid.

The grid can handle a lot more energy than it does; the problem is that it's sized for a peak which is reached for only part of the day.  Instead of spending more per kWh, we should spread our consumption around the clock and get more out of each dollar of equipment.  We might even be able to spend less, when all the savings are added up!

I am a physicist who does the job of a EE and has to deal with RF circuits all the time. Of course Ohm's law involves complex numbers for me. It can't be any other way. Ohm's law does not require the impedance to be real. It only requires the relationship between voltage and current to be linear. Which, by the way, it is not due to self heating of wires. But by the time you get to the point where that matters, your wires are usually damaged beyond repair. So I did not talk about it. :-)

Superconductors require power for cooling and lots of it. I have a whole book with a government report on the use of high Tc suprconductors for energy transmission and storage purposes. As far as I remember the technology of the early 1990s was nowhere near the engineering requirements for succesful superconducting transmission lines and generators etc.. I could be wrong but I don't think superconductors are quite there yet. In the future, maybe, for now... don't think so. Superconductors, IMHO, are just another one of those "magical" solutions to the public which are suposed to make the pain of having to pay for proper engineering solutions to go away.

As far as losses are concerned, the premier ways to minimize losses are to raise the voltage and generate locally. PV is a great way to cut I2R losses in summer when there is peak demand due to AC. We have close to 10% losses in the current system, most of which must be due to peak loads (that is simply plysics). If we can reduce peak loads, these losses will go down dramatically. That they exist in the first place is also good indicator that utilities have not kept their grids well maintaned. Which would be a political problem (due to deregulation, I suppose). It is not a technical problem, for sure.

Old houses, by the way can add 5% losses due to their wiring alone. Running loads on 120V is another one of those nonsensical US standards. It won't save your butt when the hair dryer falls into the bath tub but it will cost you four times the amount of copper compared to Europe's 240V standard to transmit the same power with the same losses.

"The grid can handle a lot more energy than it does; the problem is that it's sized for a peak which is reached for only part of the day."

True but currently local energy storage is by far less efficient than energy transmission. There is little to gain there with current technologies. Your assumption that the capital cost of the grid is a major cost driver for energy prices is also wrong. Operating the grid costs a couple of cents a kWh if its done right. If you doubled it in size, it would still be a lot less than the cost of environmentally friendly and sustainable energy sources. But I suppose that selling more energy while overloading the net beyond safe engineering limits is more lucrative to operators than helping customers to conserve and upgrade the net to be rock solid. Again, the solution to that requires social engineering, not EE. Copper, transformers, towers you can simply buy. These are catalog items. The will to invest, is not.

currently local energy storage is by far less efficient than energy transmission.

Not true in general.  Consider:

  • Ice storage A/C.  By operating at night when air temperatures are lower, the storage system can move more heat per kWh.
  • PHEV's.  These have no alternative to storage, so no efficiency comparison.

Peaks and slumps are both problematic for the grid; peaks stress equipment and shorten its life (as well as creating the conditions for cascading failures), while slumps leave the investment not paying what it's worth.  Levelling the load is good for both of those things, and a grid with a 30% margin day and night is better than a grid with a 5% margin during peak hours and 60% at 3 AM.

A "get out of reality free" card. I love it!

I thought the article was pretty dumb. It makes the same mistake of equating physical power, in this case electricity instead of oil, with economic and political power. Maybe the author has a good grasp of how the electrical grid works, but he obviously has no grasp of how the rest of the world works. California imports a lot of power from out of state, and yet in terms of economic and political power the state wields a lot more than Nevada or Arizona. This directly demonstrates the utter falsehood of the BS spouted in the article to support collapse.

The author also doesn't take into account that much of installed PV would be distributed and not add any transmission to the grid, rather it would reduce it. Once again the idea that just because electrical power generation is distributed therefore political and economic power must also be distributed is just crap. I generate my own power, but unfortunately I'm still a part of the United States and its economy. At times I really wish I wasn't, but not having to buy electrical power from the local utility does very little to increase my independence.

Thanks - I too wondered why the author saw everything through a highly centralized lens.

And when you start using clever tautologies like 'Of course, this does little to avert collapse, since this small-scale, localized approach is a collapse from the greater complexity of the international North American power grid.', then I think the author has a particular viewpoint from which he will not be moved.

I do think that both Magnus's point - it is just a matter of doing the necessary work - and the fact that 'industrial' society is not the same as a 'technological' society leads to a certain confusion. Classic industrial processes, like metal working, from smelting on, requires immense amounts of energy which is unlikely to be generated through a decentralized solar/wind based system. However, living comfortably does not require this level of energy intensity (do you really need a new car every 5 years? do you really need a car?) - and quite honestly, the amount of energy required to create and run a rail network covering an entire nation requires roughly the energy requirements and technological skills of ca 1900 - before there was a grid, by the way.

Truly, not having air conditioning in the summer in North America will pretty much resemble the entire time I was in school, in Fairfax County - we only had one day off for heat, since the rules were 100° before noon.

This is not to dispute the central role of electricity in modern societies, but the 'grid' is only part of it - the part which allows for convenience to become confused with necessity.

'Photovoltaics and other renewable energy sources may play a role in the future, but they will not save civilization, for the simple fact that these energy sources are only viable on a local scale.' I still don't know what 'civilization' he is referring to - unless he means how Americans live today is the very definition of civilization, and any variance from it is a sign of collapse. I would call changing it an 'improvement,' but as in the past, we will just have to agree to disagree - as I recall, he has no experience of other countries (could be a faulty memory, and is not a personal disparagement in this case).

Jason Godesky is a fast-crash doomer (cannibalistic hordes and all), and looking forward to it. His viewpoint on civilization (defined as coercive centralization) is too all-or-nothing. As Leanan said, we will hit all branches we used to climb up while falling down. After all, as contact between regions diminishes and central control weakens, all these regions will have to go their own way and try their own ideas; compare the different coping styles of Cuba and North Korea. The capitalist world will end, but it will not vanish, it will not explode, it will crumble bit by bit.

Godesky is an ideologue, a true believer.  He really can't see anything which calls his ideology into question or, heaven forbid, contradicts it.  As others have said below, he is arguing from wish-fulfillment rather than reasoning from facts and projecting possibilities.

I'd be more than happy to give him and his band of followers what they want, on an island or some disintegrating society somewhere.  Maybe buy them machetes and loincloths and one-way tickets to Zimbabwe?

By his definition, a conversion of transport from internal combustion engine cars to fuel-cell cars would be "collapse" because fuel cells are much simpler.  Converting from 2000 ft² homes cooled with electric A/C to 4000 ft² homes cooled with solar absorption A/C would be "collapse" because the system complexity would go down.  A shift from feeding 6 billion so-so on grain, root and fruit crops and mammalian food animals to feeding 9 billion well on algae-fed fish and shrimp grown on a far smaller area would be "collapse" because the long-distance flows of foodstuffs wouldn't be necessary.  Our consumption and well-being can go up during a "collapse".  If that's collapse, I'm all for it.

He says my blog "usually misses the big picture".  I think he lacks a grasp of irony.

when in reality we will hit every branch on the way down that we touched

How could that be possible? History is never so perfectly mirrored. More importantly, the resources that made those previous eras possible no longer exist. Most of the "branches" in question were fundamentally provided by agriculture, for instance. Our Green Revolution began not as a fluke, but because we had finally consumed all arable land on the planet, and had turned much of it to desert. Without fertilizers, very little of the world can still be farmed, even without climate change. I'm afraid that while this scenario has that scent of common-sense truth, I simply cannot figure out any way in which it could possibly be supported once we get down to the details.

only many generations and 100's of years later to end up in a form of tribalism if anyone survives.

I believe that the map will open up first in those areas where it most recently closed. There are even now areas where tribalism is possible--even in fairly surprising locales. This will only increase as civilization contracts in fits and starts. Sure, in 50 years, you'll undoubtedly be able to find functioning cities. But you'll also be able to find new tribes forming, not out of ideology, but because it's the only way of life that fundamentally works. Even in New Orleans after Katrina, people began forming tribes almost immediately. In any crisis, humans instinctively form tribal structures. I think it's evident that we can expect more, not less, of this as the alternative breaks down.

I did a quick google, and the meme [is] that "The industry estimates that $100 billion is needed in new transmission capacity" or "issues cost the U.S. economy between $119 billion – $188 billion annually" or "The industry estimates that $100 billion is needed in new ..."

That sounds big, but do you really think we "can't maintain the grid now" or do you think we are just too cheap and distracted?

A similar google shows the war in Iraq's costs running towards a trillion.

No, I think where we are [with] the electrical grid is like the guy who owns an old car ... trying to get a few more miles out of it before believing the mechanic and doing the overhaul.

and how many times has it been pointed out that price in any one currency system is a very bad indicator of the actual cost of something?

I just went on another hike, this one just across town, 4mi, for a burger. A very cheap and very enjoyable outing. It also is nice to find that I can put on thermals and a wool shirt (old tech) and be toasty warm in 30-40F, without a jacket.

That may seem like a non sequitur, but I see it as all related, especially when you want to tell me that "price in any one currency system is a very bad indicator of the actual cost."

You're right, sometimes the cost is very small in relation to the value.

I think he is referring to "externalities".
On the other hand, continuing from our earlier conversation, you are talking about situations where a good pair of hiking boots and good thermals are "priceless" when hiking up a cold rocky mountain trail. I fully agree. This weekend as temps sunk into the low 30's (F) here in the Bay area, I pulled out that old sweater & layered it under my thin jacket. Layers took the bite out of that "brisk" arctic front.

The US consumes about 4000 billion kWh/year.  If we spent $100 billion on new transmission capacity over 10 years, that's $10 billion/year or 0.25¢/kWh.  I get the feeling this is manageable.

But electric consumption is very peaky; the average is less than half our total nameplate generating capacity.  If we cap or slightly reduce our peak electric consumption while raising the average, we could move much more energy over the same grid without any expansions.  I don't know what this might cost; it depends far too much on the specific technology involved (from ice-storage A/C to PHEV cars).  Some of these measures may reduce costs, by eliminating the need for peaking plants and spinning reserves.  If we got seriously into vehicles like the Chevy Volt and every year we replaced 8.5 million old cars achieving 22 MPG average (13,000 mi/yr) with 8.5 million new ones using 250 Wh/mile for 2/3 of their driving and 50 MPG for the rest, we'd boost electric consumption by 18.4 billion kWh/yr (about 0.46%) while cutting gasoline use by about 4.3 billion gallons/year/year.  At 10¢/kWh and $3/gallon, the juice would cost $1.84 billion/year and the gasoline savings would be $12.9 billion/year.  (This could be doubled by building more than 50% PHEV's.)

That would pay for the grid improvements right there.  Strange, innit?

I still blame Enron for the state of the grid. Ten years ago they were lobbying and pushing through all these "competition" measures against electric utilities across the continent. One of the distortions they pushed for: separate ownership of generation and transmission. Their idea was that they'd sit around and trade kilowatt-hour futures and get rich. Maintainig the grid would be up to the Reliability Council, which is a government agency with all its inefficiencies and opportunities for corruption ... so much for small government.

Now that Enron is gone, some of their big-cheeses are in jail, but the regulatory distortions are still on the books. My own electric co-op had to separate its 'wires' business from its generation, and my bill has gone up.

Before Enron, I had a pretty good deal on electricity from a hydroelectric dam built by LBJ back in the bad old communist days of the 20th century. </sarcasm>

Electrical deregulation will be a thing of the past. Within a few years I have no doubt we will have moved back to more regulation and put this disaster of deregulation behind us. We'll look back on it as just another failure of uber-rightwing ideology, the false idea that everything will operate more efficiently and cheaply under competition. Some systems simply must be centrally planned in order to operate effectively.

I view the ideological course over the next century being one of determining which systems benefit from competition and free markets, and which benefit from central planning and coordination. The idea that free markets work for everything is just as false as the idea that central planning works for everything. We need to move beyond black and white ideology and go with what actually works on a case by case basis.

Electrical deregulation is just an example of out of control ideology, and once it fails soundly in the Republican bastion of Texas it will be dead everywhere.

Think the Texas Railroad Commission. Possibly one of the great 20th century examples of state regulation in the interest of big business, and the model chosen by the founders of OPEC itself.

Texas has always been as much about 'government-business statism' as it has about 'free markets'.

What Texas' billionaires want is a stable society and regulatory platform which allows them to monopolise their markets.

I would call Texas 'populist' rather than free markets? You get more kick there out of right-to-life or Intelligent Design, I suspect, than one does out of deregulated electricity.

And the US electricity industry is far from being the most deregulated in the world.

It's been a while since I looked at the issue carefully, but I am fairly certain the New Zealand, the UK and others have far more liberalized systems than the US or Texas.

I think it depends on the State, the degree of deregulation.

Yes the UK is pretty deregulated (but we have a strong regulator). In short, generation is less regulated, distribution and transmission (the latter is the Grid) are much more heavily regulated.

We use a 'power pool' to set electricity prices, and you can sign up with whichever supplier you choose. This is such a nightmare (most have bad systems at all levels) that a big fraction of people don't switch.

It's also very hard to get a proper hedging contract ie one that caps your power price.

New Zealand I think is highly deregulated. They also had a summer long blackout in Auckland a few years ago.

Godesky's Tainterite analysis of the grid is definitely interesting.

But we haven't had a massive failure in more than 3 years. I'm not sure we've hit the complexity wall yet.

Godesky quote from his response to comments:

Historically, very few complex societies have collapsed due to a lack of resources. In fact, that answer is a non-starter, since managing scarce resources is one of the primary reasons humans submit to complex societies in the first place. The greater question is why they fail in their very reason for existence.

That's pure Tainter.


Did you follow through to Jason's self description?

Life Goals: Tearing down civilization in order to make his model obsolete.

I'm sure such things will show up in the forthcoming TOD "concept map."

Not in my concept map;-)

That's the same description in which I dub myself "Space Pope," and begin with an appropriated quote from Ghost in the Shell fending off allegations that I'm an AI--it's more than a little tongue-in-cheek. There, I was poking a little fun at the "doomer" stereotype.

The complexity of electric utility operations is in the process of being revolutionized - with the addition of vastly more complexity - through the move to smart grid technology. This recent conference is typical of the buzz (irrational exuberance?) surrounding smart grid architecture, based on the integration of communications technology. It will be interesting to see how far down this road it will be possible to go. Its loudest proponents seem to see additional connectedness as equivalent to additional energy, whereas its critics discuss the diffculties inherent in applying huge flows of information to the control of an exquisitly balanced system in real time. The security of that information is a particular concern.

The most basic information can be had by monitoring the frequenzy.

Powerplant: Low frequenzy, push out more if I can. High freqenzy, cut back or disconnect. To much in either direction give up. Ok frequenzy reconnect.

Load: Low frequenzy shut down, high frequenzy suck more if I can, ok frequenzy reconnect after a random wait.

The more active parts can then control resonance and if the grid fractures the parts will tend to self stabilize.

Grids can be controlled (to the best of my knowledge) by either frequency or voltage as the primary variable.

ERCOT (most of Texas#) is an electrical island that varies frequency first because Texas is fairly tightly interconnected and the entire grid can uniformly vary frequency.

The rest of North America varies voltage as a first resort because of the looser interconnections.


# ERCOT is Texas minus El Paso, Beaumont and northern tip of Texas. Peak demand is close to 70 GW. The 60 Hz "clock" for ERCOT is totally off sequence from that of the Eastern or Western US clocks.

As I recall, ERCOT is designedly isolated from the rest of the North American power grid, so that it does not suffer from Federal Regulation.

Texans like their independence, in many ways ;-).

TXU wants to build 10 new coal plants, using conventional technology. Which will be an environmental disaster, but I have no doubt they will build them (hoping 3 or 4 nukes get build as well or instead, to at least slow down the problem).

Grids can be controlled (to the best of my knowledge) by either frequency or voltage as the primary variable.

On a grid, frequency and voltage are independent variables and both must be regulated. Frequency is a system-wide variable and depends on the active power mismatch across the system. Voltage is a more local variable and depends on the local reactive power mismatch.

Frequency on an A/C grid is controlled with power; the more power you add, the higher the frequency goes.  If you add power in a locality the frequency will increase briefly (the phase will advance compared to the rest of the grid) and vice versa.  Grid frequency tends to sag during peaks and surge during demand slumps.

Voltage on an A/C grid is controlled with reactance.  You can quite literally put 110 VAC into the supply end of a line and take 220 VAC out the other, if there's enough VARs (Volt-Amperes Reactive) being generated at the load.  (VARs are like watts, but 90° out of phase; they transmit both positive and negative instantaneous power at various parts of the cycle, but it averages to zero.)  Capacitive loads (and overexcited synchronous machines) generate VARs, inductive loads consume VARs.  But the phase at the load end of an inductive transmission line (and they all are) will always lag the phase at the generation end.

Yes, it is counter-intuitive.  Yes, people who actually design and run grids study this in far more depth than I have.  But the basic phasor diagram isn't all that complicated, and if you are able to work a little calculus (integrating over one cycle) with quantities like V0ejωt and V1ejωt-γ you can demonstrate it to yourself.

It's relatively easy to follow, now that it's been done; Tesla's genius was to see it for the first time.

But we haven't had a massive failure in more than 3 years.

I truly cannot tell you how reassuring I find this fact.

If you are worried about it, you can always install a generator in your home. You could also install solar cells and actually put some energy back into the system and help to stabilize it. These are both rational responses to your fears. And so far nobody in this country forces you to act irrationally, even though I admint that many of our politicians do.

Indeed, Tainter's had a very big impact on my thinking, along with Richard Manning, Thomas Homer-Dixon, Daniel Quinn and David Abram.

I read the comments, and this is a gem - 'That scenario's quite like the example studied in China—but as I mentioned, that's localization. You're moving from a large, complex grid, to a much more localized, much less complex system, and it's a move motivated by the fact that all that complexity isn't working for you anymore. That's collapse.'

Talk about a defining your cake and eating it too - any alternative, any at all, which is not more 'complex' is 'collapse.' So a system where each house essentially generates a couple of kilowatts on a sunny day, and warms much of its own water (in both cases without generating additional CO2 after manufacture) and is well insulated so that its heating needs are easily met by a local forest is a sign of collapse compared to an exurban McMansion whose owners drive an hour to work at a company which handles patented financial 'products.'

Somehow, this term 'collapse' needs a much better defintion, especially from those who seem to think that their/their society's vision of 'collapse' is another person's/society's view of a better and easily attained future - and one, where the amount of locally produced food, locally scaled communities, and locally created entertainment is not seen as another sign of 'collapse,' but instead merely a good way to live.

Hating the American Dream is one thing - but confusing it with the pinnacle of human achievement strikes me as absurd.

So a system where each house essentially generates a couple of kilowatts on a sunny day, and warms much of its own water (in both cases without generating additional CO2 after manufacture) and is well insulated so that its heating needs are easily met by a local forest is a sign of collapse compared to an exurban McMansion whose owners drive an hour to work at a company which handles patented financial 'products.'

As Tainter defines collapse, sure. Not least because a lot of people who have electricity now could not afford such a setup.

Collapse is not necessarily a bad thing. It doesn't have to mean a fast-crash Mad Max scenario. Indeed, Tainter argues that such voluntary simplification may be the best solution. The problem is generally that once headed down the path of complexity, it becomes very difficult for societies to turn around. But it has been done.

It's Jeff Vail's comment I found most interesting:

Electricity really only makes sense because it can be centralized, and therefore the people at the top of the hierarchy can profit and be empowered through its control.

I still think we need a much better term or definition than 'collapse' - this is not really a dispute about various processes, or causal chains, it is what results from these discussions.

For example, how important is air conditioning? Will it really be the straw which will break the back of North America's electrical grid - and if so, is it because of complexity, or because people can be counted on to act like yeast, until they no longer can? And if air conditioning loads were simply dialed back to what was common in 1978 - a lot of people sweating, another sign of catabolic collapse? - would the grid be less taxed?

Again, this is such a broad ranging debate it is difficult to reduce to short comments, and the perspectives possible are so broad, we will always find information to support our own frameworks.

And this is what makes peak oil interesting to me - a lot of Americans are about to find out that reality is unutterly unconcerned in how essential air conditioning is in the summer time.

Possibly, just thinking, 'collapse' could be replaced by 'unrestrained behavior being restrained by reality, unless you plan for the long term, while recognizing that the future is not knowable, and that in the long term, everything ends?'

Sounds unAmerican, somehow.

For example, how important is air conditioning?

I think it's more important than you realize.

Cheap air-conditioning has encouraged people to live in places they never would have before. Like many areas of the Gulf Coast. It used to be only the poor lived there, and not many of them. Air-conditioning has made it the playground of the rich (and middle-class). Since 1950, the population has doubled in the U.S., but more than tripled in the Gulf Coast area.

Another element boosting air-conditioning: computers. My office used to have no air-conditioning. The old-timers talk about sweating so much in the summer that the plan sheets they were working on would be soaking wet. We first got air-conditioning in the CADD room, because the computers couldn't function in the heat. Now everyone has a computer on their desk, and the whole building is air-conditioned. For the computers, not for the humans.

Watch the death rate soar when there is a heat wave.

The dead are always amongst the old, the poor (especially the old and poor), the homeless.

People who think air conditioning is unessential in America have not recently experienced an American heatwave, say Philadelphia and points south. None of this out west hot-but-dry stuff, a genuine southern swamp thinly disguised as atmospheric conditions!

Well, take it as an example which works in both ways - air conditioning is not essential, but it does allow people to live in places they would rather not live, given the chance.

Cutting back on air conditioning would cause people to live differently or in an entirely different region, which is either a rational response to truly stupid decisions (Phoenix? Las Vegas? - humans have tried urban living in those areas over thousands of years, and the historical record is not encouraging - doom is certainly reasonable considering the past) or a collapse of complexity because the system which allowed millions of humans to live in a desert no longer functions.

A/C doesn't have to be run by the grid.

The sunny areas of the country could start with low-tech stuff, like this MIT student project.  Such troughs work in Africa, but they could just as easily go on roofs and over parking lots in many parts of the USA.  The heat makes steam which drives an expander for about 1 kW of electricity, and the leftover 10 kW of heat can drive an absorption system to make perhaps 5 kW of cooling (about 17,000 BTU/hr).

If the grid was run as a true energy market and anyone could sell power into it at the going rate, the savings from eliminating A/C during sunny periods and even having some power to sell would make such a system very much worth owning.  It would also remove a lot of peak load.  If utilities stopped being electric companies and instead became energy services companies, it might be very profitable to install them on other people's roofs and sell kiloBTU's of A/C instead of kWh.

"As Tainter defines collapse, sure. Not least because a lot of people who have electricity now could not afford such a setup."

You would be surprised how quickly people change their ideas about what they can or can not afford when heating cost goes through the roof because natural gas and oil become more expensive. Suddenly those tripple glazed windows and the wall insulation become much more important than that vacation or new SUV.

I always found that the "But I can't afford it!" doomer argument is total BS in a society which can afford to waste a trillion dollars on an unnecessary war in the Middle East while cutting taxes for its billionaires.

As a grownup you have to know what is important to you. Is food more important than toys? I would say so. Is heating more important than a bigger car? I would say so. Is a better electricity grid more important than war in Iraq? I would say so.

If your answers are different, please don't complain if you are hungry, cold or without electricity.

Talk about a defining your cake and eating it too - any alternative, any at all, which is not more 'complex' is 'collapse.'

Not quite. Choosing to make things less complex because complexity isn't working anymore is collapse. That's hardly redefining the issue; that's the way Tainter defined it, and his study remains the most fundamental in the study of collapse today. But if that jars with your more poetic ideas about what "collapse" means, consider what the implications of such localization is. Without dependence on complex networks like these, what is to compel obedience and investment in an increasingly irrelevant large-scale level of complexity? National, state and higher levels of complexity wither away from simple obsolescence. You are left with a collapse to a lower, more local level of complexity. It is a collapse in every sense of the word.

...and locally created entertainment is not seen as another sign of 'collapse,' but instead merely a good way to live.

So, fundamentally, your issue is that "collapse" is supposed to be a bad thing? Why is this? The literary tradition of collapse comes from elites who found their wealth and power suddenly ripped away from them; hence St. Jerome, "in the one city, the whole world dies." But as Tainter showed, collapses occur precisely because they're "merely a good way to live," and they happen once people understand that.

But this is a US-centric thing, right? Just because you USans are too stingy and (sorry) dumb to maintain your own grid doesn't mean people in Sweden and Tasmania start going without power.

That's the problem I always had with Duncan's Olduvai Gorge thing. This is what I call 'The World Series fallacy' (for obvious reasons, but as this is a US-centred site, I will have to explain that with the exception of Cuba, Venezuala and Japan, nobody gives a sh*t about baseball anywhere else on earth, and only US teams are in the so-called 'World Series'). Disaster in the US does not necessarily mean disaster everywhere else.

(I too think Jason Godesky is one of the sharpest guys on the Web. But I do not share his view that when things are bad enough for civilization to go, some of us will just pick up and live happily ever after in the woods. Modern industrial civ is a very big beast, apparently able to radically alter even the planet's climate orders of magnitude faster than can be managed naturally. Anything that manages to kill it will surely leave a world so barren as to ensure any human survivors will die out in short order.)

But this is a US-centric thing, right?

As, arguably, the primary pillar of modern civilized complexity, the U.S. has probably taken this trend farther than anyone else, but I do not believe it is a uniquely American problem. European companies and states still compete with each other, though it might be a slowly process, but it still pits long-term security against short-term gain. You are still making a "bad investment" if your grid is not running very close to capacity at all times.

But I do not share his view that when things are bad enough for civilization to go, some of us will just pick up and live happily ever after in the woods.

Thanks for the compliment, Franz. On this note, I'd like to point you to "Revolution & Evolution." In order to wipe out nomadic omnivorous hunter-gatherers would essentially require the decimation of all multi-cellular life on earth, and I do not believe we're in much danger of that quite yet. Nothing outside of civilization is going to kill it; it's doing a fine job of killing itself already. That means that the question is not when something will destroy it and how we will survive such a thing, but rather, a simple question of natural selection. Many, many things will be tried, but I believe that in the end, what will survive will be hunting, gathering, and permaculture/horticulture, with tribal social structures and animistic worldviews. This is not because of ideology, but because these are what are fundamentally necessary for a sustainable human society.

Hello TODers,

Of course, any discussion of the grid would not be complete without a reference for newbies to Dr. Duncan's Olduvai Gorge Theory:

I have posted before about how maintaining the grid reliability is paramount as it proceeds to shrink so we minimize waste. The pricing rate needs to be sufficiently high combined with rapid cutoff of non-payers so the inevitable spiderweb shrinkage can be done in an orderly manner. The African example of lots of electrical theft, and poor maintenance only further degrades electrical distribution leading to ever increasing blackout periods.

Families doubling or tripling up in a house with reliable electricity is far better than 3 separate families struggling in a blackout. If relocalization is carefully preplanned, whole neighborhoods can be identified as candidates for grid removal: this process thus fortifys the distribution to the remaining meighborhoods as KWHs available gracefully declines. Proper decline planning thus will have minimum outages or brownouts enabling maximum economic opportunity to attach PVs, windmills, and any other biosolar generation sources.

Bob Shaw in Phx,Az Are Humans Smarter than Yeast?

Bob, proper planning is nice, but not happening, and it's useless to keep on hammering on what is not happening.

Richard Duncan very plainly and clearly states that the grid CANNOT be maintained, that it MUST fail.

SInce very few people for some reason seem to understand what his message is, or choose to ignore it, there is no doubt that the consequences will be severe. There is no preparedness for a situation that nobody can even imagine: the complete loss of all electrical power, save for small islands of locally produced watts.

The reference to dieoff is outdated, Duncan updated the Olduvai papers a year ago at (PDF)

Hello HeIsSoFly,

Thxs for responding. I always make the assumption that TPTB are hopefully scanning TOD. Now, they maybe doing very little prePeak, but any ideas we give to mitigate the postPeak situation is bound to be helpful.

I agree with Duncan that the grid will fail, but each geography can do much to make the electrical decline graceful if the people are sufficiently informed of what must be done. Doubling or tripling up for reliable electricity is an easy decision vs everyone suffering long blackouts, chopping firewood to heat water & cook food, constant food spoilage for lack of refrigeration, neighborhood machete' dances, etc. It only makes sense to retain sufficient electricity to continue making PVs, windmills, essential hospital and dental supplies, batteries for PHEVs, etc.

I think it is a reasonable assumption for the grid to degrade postPeak as the FF plants start shutting down. Those still running with the still operating hydro & nuke plants will have to load match with local geographic demand at the appropriate level if brownouts and blackouts are to be averted; maximal uptime should be the goal to reduce waste: food spoilage, factory process losses, useless hospitals, etc.

As FF genplants start being shutdown, if no biosolar gen-plants exist to take up the slack, then areas pre-identifed for conversion to urban & suburban permaculture can be disconnected from the grid to facilitate ideal load matching for the remainder. For example: if Phx knows it will lose half the present electricity, then every other pie-slice of the Asphalt Wonderland can be systematically shutdown, resources carefully recycled, spiderwebriding installed on the countless miles of un-needed, now relocated above ground empty pipes, then maximal effort to restore farmland close to the urban core. Thus, the possibility of electrical theft is vastly reduced, lots of cheap resources exist to help maintain the decreased grid, and maintenance miles required is also shrunk commensurately which also helps reduce costs.

I am a fast-crash doomer, so it is easy for me to imagine dire scenarios, but I feel it is important to point out more optimistic outcomes. It will be up to TPTB to choose our ultimate path as the future unfolds--I can only hope they will choose wisely.

Bob Shaw in Phx,Az Are Humans Smarter than Yeast?

I love those doomers who argue like this:

1) Doom is inevitable.

2) We will all die, except for me and my family, of course, because I have a wood burning oven.

3) Because of 1), the electricity grid HAS to fail. I don't care why, it is simply absolutely necessary for it to fail or 1) will not come true.

4) When the electricity grid fails, all people will become werewolves and start turning on each other. I don't know why this is supposed to happen, but it is inevitable or else 1) will not come true.

5) Somebody will push the red button and start a global nuclear war. I don't wkow who will do it or for what reason but it is inevitable because without it 1) will not come true.

6) Me and my family will be safe because I have a wood burning oven.

7) Don't mess with me and my family because I have a wood burning oven and a shotgun.

8) Don't ever tell me that 1) will not come true or my wife will kill me for wasting all my money on wood burning ovens and shotguns.

If you have a better argument than that, I am all ear. But the "Richard Duncan said... thus the following will happen" thing is not an argument at all. It is simple bull.

Reality check:

CA uses half the electricty per capita of the US on average.

We don't have blackouts except when trees fall on electricity lines and in summer when people run their ACs full throttle instead of dressing lightly and turning on a small fan to keep cool. As a countermeasure the electricity companies run rolling blackouts which avoid hospitals and other important infrastructure.

We are spending money to get 3GW online from renewables within the next decade. This will incclude plenty of solar electricity which will remove some of the rolling blackout restrictions over the next years.

PG&E will give you compact fluorescent lights for 33cents each to reduce your consumption and they will give you a 20% rebate if you manage to reduce your consumption 10% below the average of the last three years.

These programs work just fine. There is no feeling of doom here whatsoever. Maybe that's because we have less depression because people are exposed to more sunlight?

Lol, funny post. The doomers do seem to have a very "interesting" view on life.

Shrinking a grid is one of the most stupid ideas I have heard.

I think wise things to do are:

Make the grid larger to make it more efficient during the 99.99% of the time it works as expected.

Move low and medium voltage parts out of harms way with cablification.
(Being done in Sweden, takes about a decade. )

Strenghten high tension lines to cope with stronger winds.
(Has been done in France, has so far not been regared as necessery in Sweden. )

Maintain the equipmnet.
(We got burned in Sweden by a equipment malfunction four years ago, the scheduled replacement of stations where then doubled from one major switchyard per year to two. A high tension line redundancy increase woth be on line untill 2011 due to red tape. :-( )

Increase capacity as the demands increase.
(Is being done in the nordic power trading area but it could be done twise as fast if the red tape were made shorter. )

Make the grid control resilant.
Maintain battery banks att switchyards, communications equipment and emergency generators at major switchyards to keep them controllable for grid rebuild after a blackout.
(Noticed to be a problem in Sweden about a decade ago if I remember right, myself I would like to have a week of untended emergency power but I think it is more like 48h and then they need to move mobile generators or refuel manually. )

Have automated systems for load shedding.
(Has been installed in Sweden but how they work is secret. )

Have strict standards for major powerplant house turbine running to make the grid quicker to rebuild. (Has been a goal for 20+? years, tend to work better for each major disturbance but it dont seem to be tested, you dont disconnect a nuclear powerblock at full power only to see how it copes. )

Equip regional powerplants with black start capability and running in icelanding mode with local control of the ammount of connected households and companies. (If you build a medium sized powerplant you can get a subsidy for the control equipment. In my home town it were probably made as a local initative but I am not sure about that. )

Have staff and equipment for emergency repair of switchyards and high tension lines.
(I would guess they might be mobilized right now if the 130 kV lines were harmed in todays storm. It is a part of the civil defence that were kept after the cold war and they got new equipment. They are mobile via hägglunds tracked wehicles and most of the equipment is small and modular to be air liftable with small helicoters and moved by hand. )

Have the ability to manually control remote controlled powerplants and switchyards.
(Such staff is still being trained as unarmed conscripts but it would probably take a while to mobilize them. )

Have emergency power avialable for things that absolutely must work.
(If I remember right the sum of all emergency generators in Sweden is around 1000 MW and cover about 1/3 what should have emergency power. Sould be nice if it were something to brag about. :-( At least all hospitals and waterworks and most voulnerable farmers have such. During the large storm two years ago it were discovered that having mobile generators for the cellphone towers were not good enough when trees fall both over powerlines and roads... This day we got nearly as strong a storm and in a few days I will learn if the lesson has been applied. It probably has not. :(
Evereytime there is a major disturbance its noticed that more generators and testing and maintainance is needed. I use to joke that we should honour Good Friday and Jesus Christs death on the cross by shutting down our grid to force everybody to test run their emergency power generator and practice grid rebuilding. ;-) )

And when peak oil passes and plug-in hybrids and a mix of alternative fuels take over there will be a need for a separate civil defence organizaztion and stockpile for refueling old emergency generators with diesel since there no longer will be a market demand for a distributiuon infrastructure that can handle the sudden running of the old generators.
( There is some of this thinking right now, every municipiality have one or a few commercial petrol stations equiped with receptabels for locally stored emergency generators to get to the fuel to run emergency generators and prioritized transportation. I dont get why not all petrol stations have such since it is cheap. During most of the cold war we had en enourmous fuel stockpiles in rock caverns and an emergency distribution organization if the Soviets were to bomb us. All gone now, we only have the standard 90 day stockpile handled by the local oil distribution companies, good synergy but lord would it be good to still have a year of refined emergency fuel in nuclear bomb proof bunkers. )

Most of these ideas are self evident and not especially expensive if you build on it over decades and maintain it. When you have it be smart as the Finns and keep it and not as dumb as us Swedes and dismatle too much to quickly when the major threath is gone.

The idea to honour Jesus Christ must be great for USA! ;-)

Hello Magnus Redin,

Thxs for responding. I assume you have been reading about the ever-increasing electrical blackouts, deferred maintenance, equipment & electrical thefts, electrical worker strikes, and rioting mobs trashing utility infrastructure in Africa, Bangladesh, etc. If not, googling Zimbabwe will bring you up to speed quickly. Tolerating theft and/or electrical subsidies for the poor is the worst thing a utility can do.

TPTB in these countries are doing exactly the opposite of what I recommend as their FFs decrease, thus compromising the existing electric spiderwebs even faster. They probably don't even have sufficient and reliable reserve capacity to make wheelbarrows & bicycles, much less low-tech solar water heaters*, solar cooking ovens, clotheslines, and housing insulation. Recall that the leading inflationary item in Zimbabwe was bicycles.

* bicycle-like pedal pump to move water from well through a black garden hose, then to an overhead black plastic jug, after the sun heats it further--hot water by gravity for showers, laundry, dishes, etc. I have used small portable solar-showers before on camping trips: the water can actually get too hot! Here is a link:

Hopefully, our PTB will choose 'graceful decline' for Detritus Powerdown. If sufficient headway for Biosolar Powerup with PVs, windmills, tidal, and other methods are successful, then by all means--expand the Grid using your welcome ideas. But if not, I would like to read the govt's detailed plans of how the spiderwebs will shrink, not only on a national basis, but even locally too. If they have no plans, and are defering maintenance to maximize profits--Zimbabwe's powerdown will be much less dramatic compared to ours in the US postPeak.

I have posted about this before: the big problem is that as blackouts/brownouts increase, the wealthy homeowners/businesses will be the first to build their own off grid PVs and/or buy standalone generation. The utility will lose their best customers first; the customers that they could charge the highest/kwh to generate funds for biosolar powerup and grid maintenance. Thus, if fuel shortages are becoming apparent: shrinking the grid to maximize uptime is the far better choice than any further grid expansion, increased blackouts, and subsidies to the non-paying electric 'juice-user'.

Bob Shaw in Phx,Az Are Humans Smarter than Yeast?

Does Sweden have an equivalent to Germany's THW (Bundesanstalt Technisches Hilfswerk), sort of a technical emergency organization?

In America, these roles tend to be filled by the military/National Guard, and not really all that well in terms of dealing with problems related to technology/infrastructure.

Generally, when something like a major flood or ice storm which cripples power occurs, it is the THW which deals with the problems, not the military. And no one here worries much about social chaos because of natural disasters, or is concerned that soldiers need to be well armed and allowed to shoot to maintain order - different social attitudes which neither Americans nor Europeans really understand about the other.

I know far too little about THW to compare, this where the first time I have heard the acronym. The Swedish organizations created from WW2 and onwards during the cold war where numerous and compartmentalized and a lot of them were simply disbanded.

Yes, I had wondered - generally, modern Germany favors non-military processes to deal with various natural/technical challenges, such as flooding - though obviously, soldiers make a fine source of labor for filling sandbags.

I have never really seen any equivalent of the THW, though it is also part of emergency preparedness - Germany still has a draft, but serving as part of the THW is considered equal to military duty, though the service time is longer, because it is not generally full time work - much more of the time is spent learning and practicing. However, it does not seem to have any military style training or organization from people I know who have been involved (just a limited view - I don't know the THW's history, but today it seems non-military in essentially all senses).

Gernerally, the THW coordinates how problems are handled, and with which equipment, without necessarily supplying the labor to do the actual work. They also are sent to various catastrophe areas - for example, to provide clean water after an earthquake.

Russia has a close analogue, the M.Ch.S. (Ministry of Extraordinary Situations) which is unarmed but with an entirely military structure. Under Yeltsin it was renowned as the only functioning ministry but is less important now.

I ran into a group of THW after Katrina in New Orleans (bought them all po-boys several days for lunch from the only functioning po-boy stand as alternatives to MREs, a cross-cultural culinary exchange. They took Abita Amber beer for "after work" and pronounced it "OK, actually nice if you like light beer", MUCH better than Budweiser or Coors (useful only for kicking (?)). Blue trucks & uniforms stood out.

They were pumping under a railroad underpass to keep Canal Blvd. open (a critical path). They were ABSOLUTELY convinced that there was a broken water main that kept refilling the street and they wanted someone to shut it off. They never understood my explanation that they were pumping down the water table and the water was coming from the sponge that is New Orleans. QUITE German that way :-)

Good work and useful though !



Yes, you certainly got to experience one of the weaknesses of German prowess - if it doesn't fit into the accepted framework, it doesn't exist, especially since they are the trained professional, and you aren't. And they can be very, very stubborn about it, too, since being wrong is considered a much larger flaw in Germany than in the U.S. On the other hand, if steadfastness is what is required, this is a proven strategy - in other words, they probably kept the pumps running since if the water level rose, then the bridge would collapse - and keeping the street open was their task. But likely the crew complained to everyone who would listen that if only someone would fix the broken pipe, they could move on to another important task.

In a way, this made explaining Katrina much harder here - we can all agree on the various planning and social flaws which led to the disaster, but a hurricane (like a tornado or an earthquake) reaches a point beyond human mastery, regardless. And if you haven't experienced it, you can't really understand it.

This was not really comprehensible in southern Germany, though it is possible that northern Germans, with their experience of the sea, would grasp it better.

Quite honestly, I have no expression what a normal German would think of a beer that tastes like flavored water, or one that proudly states that only the best rice is used in brewing it.

Magnus, you are not talking to rational people but to fools. The majority of the people in the US either does not care about these issues or has ideas about them which in other countries would be nearly enough to put you in mandatory psychiatric treatment for good. Of course the engineers and officials know what the problems are and how they can be mitigated. But the reality on the ground is that nobody wants to pay for these measures until there has been a failure of the system and people got seriously hurt. Remember Katrina? There were safety concerns about the dams for years, everybody in charge chose to ignore the problem until nature gave a demonstration of what happens when you fail to act rationally.

Before Katrina, it was a deep, dark secret inside the US Army Corps of Engineers that they levees would fail prematurely. The odds of a "Cat 4" hurricane# that would overtop the levees (they never came close BTW) were judged by the US Army to be once every 200 years or more.

The City of New Orleans had just completed the decade+ long $600 million "Napolean Avenue Drainage Project" that increased the 24 hour rainfall with only street flooding from 20" (50 cm) to 24" (60 cm). Had we known the levees had an defective design, pumping rainfall would not have been our priority ! Pumping rainfall is a city responsibility, designing and building levees is the responsibility of the US Army (since 1928) and maintenance (which has been found to be OK and not the cause for failure for the major levee breaches) is a dual responsibility (local pays, US Army inspects).

I was FAR more aware than most and I looked at some levees and wondered but thought "Surely those guys know what they are doing. They have such an excellent reputation".

Best Hopes for Understanding the Issues,


# Actually the design hurricane that the US Army built to withstand is an odd creature, with elements of a typical Cat 2, Cat 3 & Cat 4 hurricane. Katrina was not even close to the design limits in New Orleans. Levees that performed as promised would have resulted in Katrina causing some wind damage, power outages for 3 to 4 weeks, some street flooding and perhaps a hundred or so homes flooded and a half dozen dead Americans in Orleans Parish.

The City of New Orleans and the Sewage & Water Board took it's responsibility for pumping out rainwater seriously. I remember one hurricane that sideswiped us but rained 20" in one day and 7.25" in 45 minutes. Amazingly enough, many cars flooded but less than ten homes flooded in Orleans Parish. Hundreds of homes flooded in Jefferson Parish (post WW II slab homes mainly there). This was "on the knife's edge" of capacity till the Napoleon Avenue Project was finished.

Duncan's premise was based on per capita total energy use falling and he misread that one completely as we found out within three years. All the estimates of rising per capita energy have come true and their long term projections are intact.

Sorry, a failed theory.

As was idea on timing of the OPEC crossover to 51%.


I would like to call you on this one. You are dismissing a serious paper with a one-liner. Does your organization have trendlines showing per capita energy use, and do they conflict with Duncan's theory?



Fraudy is a one-man show with a mailbox and a webpage. There is no organization.

More importantly, he's a proven liar.

Does your organization have trendlines showing per capita energy use, and do they conflict with Duncan's theory?

Dude, they're on the web. It took me all of 30 seconds with Google to find them.

And you know what? Hutter's right. From this table of per-capita energy consumption, we can clearly see that the most recent year (2004) was the first time per-capita energy consumption went above 70 million BTU, and was 3.7% above the previous maximum...which was the previous year.

So Hutter's right and Duncan's wrong, and anyone in the world can check that for themselves at the EIA's website.

More importantly, though, it wouldn't even matter if Duncan was right - his theory would still be based on nonsense, thanks to his fundamental error in data analysis:

Imagine that there are 100 Rich People in the world who use 100 MBTU each, and 100 Poor People in the world who use 10 MBTU each. Per capita energy usage is 55 MBTU.

Fast-forward 30 years.

Now there are 110 Rich People in the world who use 120 MBTU (20% more) energy each, and 220 Poor People in the world who use 14 MBTU (40% more) each. Per capita energy usage is 49 MBTU.

Duncan would tell you that means civilization is running out of energy and is crumbling.

Someone sensible would tell you that means the population of Poor People is growing faster than the population of Rich People, but that all People have more energy available to them than they did before.

That's basically the situation the world is in - the developing nations are growing faster than the developed world, and everyone has more energy available - and so that's basically the sleight of hand Duncan has been pulling.

Duncan's Olduvai Theory is based on a statistical trick. Nothing more.

The realy stupid thing is that we handicapp ourselves by making it hard to strenghten the grid. In Sweden it can take years to get all the red tape done for a new large powerline due to NIMBY and if I have understood it right it is a lot worse in USA.

Right now we have a storm in southern Sweden and about 280 000 homes withouth power, we had a worse one two years ago with if I remember right about 700 000 homes withouth power. I guess it this time isent strong enough to take down 130 kV lines and a lot of cablification has been done in two years. And for the railway fans I can mention that railway traffic is stopped in most of southern Sweden due to trees across rails and overhead lines. The storm two years ago led to a program to widen the tree free area around railway lines but it has been slow going since there are no laws to force the issue with a reasonable fixed pay for the lost production as there is for power lines.

If such storms start to happen every other year instead of every other decade it wont be a problem for electricity, telecommunications and railways within 10 years. But it would be an enourmous change for forestry a multi billion loss with thousands of ruined people.

There were a large disruption in continental europe 2007-11-04 of wich a report can be found on:
I found it via a protocoll on from wich I have lended parts of the info in the summary.

In short were the main problems:

Too high load on major powerlines, the N-1 criterie where not satisfied.
Bad coordination between power system controllers.
followed by Ill advised disconnection of a powerline to let a large ship pass on a canal that led to a cascading disconnection of overloaded powerlines.

This separated two large grid parts, the western lost 9000 MW of import and transients led to a further loss of 10700 MW of wich 60% were wind power and 17 000 MW of consumption were disconnected.
The north eastern part had to much production and the dispatchers had no means to remote controll the numerous wind powerplants who also had automantics set to reconnect even with slightly high grid frequenze.
They reconnected and the large powerplants had too little production to close down to keep the frequenzy down wich meant that production in southern Poland and Tjeckia shut down to compensat and that powerflow nearly overloaded the southern grid lines.

The power dispatchers tried to resync the two grid parts even when they had an impossible 0.25 - 0.3 Hz difference leading to straining loads during syncronization failures. Perhaps they got lucky when resyncing after 40 minutes.

One major lesson is probably that all powerplants who can affect the grid stability must be controllable and have automation that contributes to grid stability. That one wind powerplant dont matter is no reason to let all the wind powerplants depend on other power sources to stabilize a grid. The other two ought to be to have enough power lines and that dispatcher staffs must be well coordinated.

Consider the 500 kv DC idea. A very high voltage DC grid could be constructed along the Interstate Highways to connect all the continent's renewable generators to where the users are. A public-private corporation on the US Postal Service model would construct own and operate the DC grid. Before bad mouthing the USPS consider that the few rare misshaps standout against the billions of daily successful deliveries. Also consider that deregulation has been an utter failure at delivering on the promise of lower costs for consumers as well as upkeep of the grid. Back in the bad old days of the well-regulated monopoly utilities had to justify the rates they charged on upgrades of their generation and distribution systems. The existence of gauranteed customers at gauranteed prices made utility stocks an automatic winner for Wall Street.

The British National Grid Co (part of Transco) does a pretty good job of this, here-- regulated by one regulator, for the whole country, a network of 512KV (AC) lines. They also own Niagara Mohawk power in the US, I believe.

So there is a good model. We had the advantage that we privatised a high spec network.*

Although we went mad for privatisation under Thatcher, this is one that seems to have worked, because no one thought it could function without Regulation.

* the Treasury used to control what the NGC (and the generator, CEGB) spent on capital spending, on a year by year basis. Every time the government had a fiscal crisis, spending stopped. This is why our railroads are so bad!

But the NGC 'gold plated' the network when it was built out in the 50s and 60s, so the fiscal crises of the 70s didn't kill it.

Since privatisation, it has functioned well under an occasionally tough relationship with a regulator.

By contrast, there are a lot of issues in underinvestment in the local distribution companies.

Routing major powerlines along freeways is a bad idea, because it creates a single point of failure for both the transport and power links.  One semi hitting black ice and going through a couple tower supports is all it would take.

Seriously, we should learn lessons from our phone/data networks and experience with backhoes!

The infrastructure issue is one frequently ignored in the ERoEI figures that are bandied about, particularly with respect to solar and wind. If, for example, PV is brought up to its possible maximum practical penetration of around 30%, then 30% of the energy used to maintain the grid would have to be booked in the negative column for this PV system. This is one reason I think a source with such a marginal return as PV won't work for large-scale deployment into the national energy picture. Wind probably would do better from a gross ERoEI point of view but still has major problems with need for large baseload.

There are fixed charges on most (probably all) residential and commercial electric bills and these fixed charges are, in principle, what pays for the expansion and maintenance of the grid. IMO the charges ($12/mo on my residential bill) are too low and will have to go up a lot to meet the real needs of making up for grid neglect. It also seems obvious (to me at least) that de-regulation is a big culprit in the grid-neglect problem (see comments on Enron up the thread).

Maybe I'm dense, but could you describe what you mean by the PV energy getting booked in the "negative column" and what the implications are? We have a PV system and my understanding is that it reduces transmission demands on the grid, especially during high-load summer days, by local distributed production. I have always heard that distributed production near the end user reduces transmission needs. A big part of the CA problem was a grid "bottleneck" in the central valley and that additional generation up north would have reduced this problem. We pay a monthly charge for being grid-connected even if we supply more energy than we consume over the year.

What I said was "...30% of the energy used to maintain the grid would have to be booked in the negative column for this PV system."

Considering the PV 'system' you have necessarily includes either a grid backup or a battery backup, this backup is an energy user therefore giving you that much less net energy out of the system. This is simply due to the intermittent quality of your PV energy source. Most studies I've seen ignore this necessary part of the PV system, unless it is in the form of batteries as in Alsema. Since now almost all home PV systems are grid-tied, the energy required for the portion of the grid devoted to being the backup for the PV systems should be 'booked' as an energy expense against the output of these PV systems.

However, be we put up our PV, we were grid-tied also. Having our PV simply reduces our demand on the grid, there is no addtional demand placed on the existing grid or energy tied up, although obviously we need to contributing to grid maintenance alog with everyone else.

Your system obviously make demands on the grid, otherwise you would not have a grid-tied system. Ergo, there is a portion of the grid that your PV system is dependent on and therefore must be responsible, in energy-accounting terms, for paying for.

I think that's exactly what I said. We have to pay for maintanance with everyone else. What I also said was that every grid-tied system would be tied in anyway if they didn't have PV. Everyone with a grid-tied system would be connected to the grid even if they didn't have PV, so all they do is reduce demands on the grid when they produce (at close to peak demand times). They don't place additional burden.

This is one reason I think a source with such a marginal return as PV won't work for large-scale deployment

- I agree. There are many such missing pieces, and that's one reason Charlie Hall may be right, an EROI of less than 4:1 is useless in the societal sense. Thus ethanol and "tarzans" are wasteful diversions.

Regarding the fixed monthly fee, I find it surprising that the one for electrical power is much smaller around here than the one for telephone service ($9 vs. $30+).

But the real issue regarding whether we can keep the grid going, is that we'll be generally poorer, and running power lines to every house may become extravagant relative to our total resources. Granted this is a service of high importance, so we'll be willing to pay a large portion of our diminished wealth for it, but there will be many other important things demanding resources, such as food and medicine, so the needed compromises will be painful.

This is no formal argument but I think low and positive EROI power sources are ok for maintaining a society, they are only useless for expanding a society. Low EROI fuels is ok for countries such as Sweden but almost useless for China.

A large part of the rural electrification in Sweden were done during the world war one trade blockade as a way of saving kerosene for lamps. You have to fall very far for electrification of individual houses to become impossible.

Granted this is a service of high importance, so we'll be willing to pay a large portion of our diminished wealth for it, but there will be many other important things demanding resources, such as food and medicine, so the needed compromises will be painful.

I wonder if it's as important as we think it is. As the comments under Jason's article mention, infrastructure as massive as the electrical grid can only be maintained if it's somehow profitable for the rich and powerful. When TSHTF, providing power to residential users is going to be pretty far down the list.

It's probably not going to be a sudden collapse. Electricity will just get less and less reliable, until being off the grid is not a big change from being on it.

you also have to take into account that some people will be willing to scavenge the wiring(for the valuable metal it's made of) that connects say a neighbor they don't like to the electrical grid for money or to use it to connect themselves.
or they do it just out of spite.

The article on the India power situation I posted to DrumBeat today said only 60% of "customers" actually pay for their electricity. The rest are illegal hookups.

Apparently, 60% paying customers is a big improvement. It used to be less than half.

And poor residents illegally hooking up are only part of the problem. Middle class customers tamper with their meters, farmers get free power, and industrial users cheat and don't pay.

well from what i have seen that is our future, at least for the area's that will still have power.

A few comments:

1) So far PV is 0.1% or so of our energy generation capacity. It is far smaller than any fluctiation of the grid. Until it ramps up to at least a few percent, its intermittancy problems are of absolutely no concern. Every installed kW is a true kW gained for at least the next 10-15 years. Actually, because it reduces I2R losses in summer peak loads, 1kW installed PV capacity is slightly more than a kW gained. You might argue that we can't get beyond a few GW this way without running into trouble. I would say that I gladly take those GWs and run with them and then see how I could go beyond these (non-trivial) limits.

2) PV peak in Soutwestern states is so close to the AC consumption peak that there are a wide range of possible solutions to store enough energy to compensate for one by the other. Some regulation of AC technology might be required.

3) PV efficiency is increasing rapidly and prices are dropping rapidly. What is true today economically will not stay true forever. At some point we will be easily able to afford wasting some PV efficiency for storage. Hydrogen from water /steam electrolysis comes to mind. Hydroelectric storage can also be built out over the next decades. Not to mention that the sun always shines somewhere on Earth. Intercontinental electricity grids are not just technologically possible, they are very likely. If I were the Europeans, I would start collaborating with the North African states and all countries of the Middle East on how to get solar energy from there to Europe. To get 90% of the energy off power lines that can be collected in these countries is better than to miss 100% of it.

I agree that deregulation was a non-starter. But I don't remember it having been introduced for any other reasons than corporate greed. I do not remember it being impossible to undo. I think we learned enough lessons that corporate greed is not always good for the commonwealth.

re 2)...such as...California Independent System Operator Certifies Beacon Power Flywheel Technology for Use in California's Frequency Regulation Services Market (January 9, 2007).

January 10, 2007 - Sacramento, CA - The California Energy Commission today announced that an innovative flywheel energy technology to enhance California's electricity grid is now one step closer to commercialization. The Smart Energy Matrix system, developed by Beacon Power, is a 100-kilowatt scale-power flywheel energy storage system and a prototype for Beacon's planned 20-megawatt-level commercial system.

"The application of new energy storage technologies is a high priority as California upgrades its electricity grid system. The Energy Commission is pleased at the results of Beacon's testing and the potential for use of this technology in California," said Energy Commissioner John Geesman. "California has made a significant commitment to deploy renewable energy placing greater demands on the state's electric grid. Technologies such as Beacon's flywheel-based energy storage system provide attractive options to address these emerging issues."

In addition to the environmental and transmission benefits of flywheel technology, current research at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories indicates that 10 megawatts of fast-responding flywheel energy could provide the grid with the equivalent energy of 20 megawatts or more of traditional slow-responding power plant energy. Flywheel technology also serves as a method to reduce electrical fluctuations and helps regulate the even flow of power (frequency regulation) on the grid.

Grid usage can be controlled by having a non linear charging policy and automatic shut off of offenders that cap out.

As with gasoline a lot of our use is waste so I think forced conservation can be used to keep our creaking grid working while we slowly fix it.

In general with electricity its peak loads that are the issues draconian measures can eliminate peak load problems.

Even in Iraq the grid works sometimes so its possible to get sporadic basic service under the worst of conditions.

We may see a lot more localization of the grid and a lot less NIMBY crap as people move to keep the generators close.

In any case if we go to a distributed grid based on wind/pv/water we would probably want to do HV/DC lines anyway replacing a lot of the current infrastructure so I think trying to upgrade our current systems without considering integration of significant distributed generation is a bad idea anyway. So I'd rather see them do nothing until we have support for alternative generation then fix the grid the right way.

CA practices the most draconian peak load measures already: rolling blackouts. They are by no means as bad as they sound. Turning off electricity in residential areas for a couple of hours has absolutely no impact on average quality of life, safety or economy. Mum can't watch her favorite soap and some people have to go to the next Starbucks to stay cool... big deal. Not. All of this could be avoided, of course. If everyone who operated an AC had to pay a little extra for measures to increase grid capacity and reliability, we would be fine.

If power was actually sold into a market, consumers would have to pay what the marginal watt really cost.  This also means that each watt they saved or generated would pay them back at that top marginal rate.

A lot of things which are ridiculous with flat-rate billing, like ice-storage A/C and solar absorption A/C with cogeneration, look a lot better when the consumer pays the full freight of usage and reaps the full benefit of peak-shaving and time-shifting.

I thought the worlds biggest machine was the telephone network !

"This is why booster stations are necessary—this also means that the more electricity has to travel, the more energy must be generated simply to overcome resistance."

Back to the Telephones ? (Booster stations ?)

"Electrical transmission grids offer no intrinsic means of energy storage. Electricity must therefore be produced and delivered at the same rate it is been consumed. Reliability of service and availability of power are therefore important considerations, when comparing with other energy infrastructures. Experience gained from many decades of operation of large power systems indicate that the reliability and availability of electrical transmission systems are no cause of concern."

Where to start ?

"However, the use of AC cables is restricted to relatively short distances, due to their reactive power generation and ensuing voltage problems in the network. DC cables do not exhibit the reactive power problem encountered in AC cables and can therefore be used for transmission over long distances."

"In parallel with the development of the IGBT-based VSC technology, a concerted effort was launched a few year ago, to reach a better understanding of the limitations encountered in extruded DC cable technology. This effort was recently crowned with success and it is now possible to manufacture extruded DC cables exhibiting an outstanding voltage withstand capability, low weight per unit length as well as a very high service reliability. DC power cables weighting only 1 kg /m, with ratings of 30 MW at 100 kV can now be manufactured and easily installed using conventional ploughing techniques. From a cost point of view, such DC cable are now even more competitive than AC overhead transmission lines with a corresponding power rating! This development is expected to tip the balance in favour of HVDC technology in transmission and distribution."

You simplify the network with Point to Point HVDC connections, which you can control allowing different networks to operate independantly and use a Point to Point connection for transmission between sub-networks. Technological developmets have reduced cost making HVDC light possible.

"Transmission of electricity over long distances using underground DC cables is both economical and technically advantageous. HVDC Light is thus an alternative to conventional AC transmission or local generation in many situations. Possible application fields include the feeding of distant loads and the connection of distant generation plants. By feeding a remote load from the main grid, it is feasible to shut down small, expensive and possibly polluting generation plants, as well as eliminate the associated fuel transport. This makes the new technology very attractive from both an economical and environmental point of view."

You might also wish to read

Does scarcity exist in the physical world (If we extend beyond our own planet, infinite universe etc), could fusion (yes I read the article on Fusion) make energy too cheap to meter ?

Economics has some strange assumptions. But it also has the concept of rival and non-rival goods and public goods, free riders etc. It also has the Perato Principle and Kaldor-Hicks.

I thought the worlds biggest machine was the telephone network

One can make that argument. On telephones and power:,1000000085,39285448,00.htm

Noting that energy costs represent the third most expensive operating expense (OPEX) for carriers today — and that energy costs continue to fluctuate and could rise — the authors claim that the increase in data traffic resulting from the rise of mobile broadband "will push per-subscriber energy OPEX for cellular solutions past acceptable barriers".

With large parts of the telco backbone now done as IP, what about the 'biggest' as expressed as 'the internet'?

Some 60% of the email is 'spam', and image spam is sucking up even more bandwidth. What happens when 'the internet badnwidth' becomes something to be rationed to conserve electrical power?'Image%20spam'%20could%20bring%20the%20internet%20to%20a%20standstill/
Mikko Hypponen, chief research officer, said: "Image spam is taking up 70 per cent of the bandwidth bulge on account of the large file sizes every single one represents."

Some 60% of the email is 'spam', and image spam is sucking up even more bandwidth. What happens when 'the internet badnwidth' becomes something to be rationed to conserve electrical power?

Solutions are:
* ISPs should charge by the byte, not by the month.
* the death penalty for spammers.

I expect that in the future, services paid for by ads (e.g., Google) will either disappear, or will be less comprehensive and available only by subscription or pay-per-use.

Back to the electrical power issue, we already charge "by the byte" (by the KWH) and people still waste most of the power: incandescent bulbs, lights on in empty rooms, space heaters on in rooms with open windows, excessive air conditioning, etc etc.

Thus there seems to be a need for:
* higher price
* non-linear price: charge more for each KWH beyond some basic level
* peak-time pricing, as is done in some places already
* real-time feedback, as done in a few places and discussed on TOD Canada some time ago

All this would help with the peak-power issues, but not with maintenance of the wires.

Solutions are:
* ISPs should charge by the byte, not by the month.
* the death penalty for spammers.

I see. And framing somone for spamming is beyond the possible?

The people who are using email as a way to communicate and are 'poor' should now be priced out of the market?

I should pay extra if idiots send info via HTML or a .doc file?

How about mailing lists...they should be priced out of the market if, say Monsanto doesn't want GMOed food talked about by subscribing thousands of fake people or pays for some traffic?

If no one BUYS what the spammers sell, what would be the incentive, beyond, say the 'I seek alieans with time travel tech' guy?

There were warnings recently in the MSM, from official sources, that the grid in the Northeast is in serious trouble. They said that unless we build numerous plants soon we won't be able to satisfy demand in a mere 2-3 years. And I don't believe the plans are even in place to do this in that short time frame.
It's likely that we would already have seen some problems if the weather was "normal". We've had warmer winters and cooler summers for a few years now. That's what has saved us so far.

I think most of the North East now has a summer peak.

In Ontario, the 10 hottest summers on record have now been in the last 15 years, I believe. That means that more people install air conditioning, as well as use it more. The heat waves are longer, and the peaks are higher.

That summer peak is certainly the case for Ontario and New York State.

Toronto nearly had the wires melt, a couple of years back-- more of a local distribution problem than a supply problem. They are building a 550MW gas fired station on the waterfront to meet the challenge.

There is still enough spare coal fired power stations around to meet peak demand, but it is possible that capacity will be exhausted if demand growth continues as it has.

The other threat is as nuclear stations (Vermont Yankee, Indian Point in NY State, Pickering in Ontario) are phased out, the baseload capacity just isn't there.

For this reason Ontario has deferred decomissioning Nanticoke (second largest coal fired station in North America: 3GW capacity, and the 3rd largest greenhouse gas emission source in Canada).

In winter the problem is more ice on the lines than capacity per se.

It was funny in the 2003(?) blackout: the US quickly resorted to the South Park solution ('Blame Canada! Blame Canada!). In fact, it was Ohio, that time.

Demand is a function of pricing. Increase the price of electricity by a few percent a year, give out CFLs, support conservation efforts and the 2-3 year cushion can probably be stretched to 10 years.

A lot of the problems to do with the grid's stability are due to the use of AC (Alternating Current). High Voltage Direct Current (HVDC) gets around a lot of it. Obviously, it is most suitable for long-distance transmission. Locally, the present system is most appropriate. Some other pluses of HVDC are:

  • Two lines (not 3) are needed
  • A wire of any particular thickness can transmit more current
  • Losses are a good deal lower for a number of reasons on long lines
  • Allows transmisssion between unsynchronised AC distribution systems

I am sure there are some electrical engineers out there who can fill in the details.

I am unfortunately not an electrical engineer but I will become some sort of engineer if I study more... ;-)

A HVDC link only need one line and a massive grounding system at each end. This is normal for low budget sea cables and as a fallback for two line links if one of the lines are broken.

For grid stability and redundancy I would so far prefer additional AC lines since they are easier to connect within the present grids. HVDC is an exellent choice for enlarging a grid or strenghtening long distance power transition.

HVDC can also handle multiple small generators easily in some sense thats its biggest plus long term.

That works well with AC to. The nice thing with DC and multiple generators is that they no longer need to be synchronized with the AC grid and each other and that makes it easier to build efficient wind and wave powerplants where the RPM varies or the generator has an uneven linear motion.

I don't know whether I buy the idea that sheer complexity makes the power grid vulnerable. Some of the problems we've experienced probably reflect engineering progress rather than something catabolic. As the engineers strive to get more performance at a lower cost, they run technology closer to its performance envelope--it isn't the first suspension bridge that falls over, but the eighth or ninth. Of course if the consequences of failure are sufficiently catastrophic, you can go on overengineering everything; but if it also matters how much things cost, you've eventually got to take some risks.

The advent of computer controls and the introduction of power electronics made it possible for the utilities to avoid making big investments in new power lines and substations. This strategy surely has its limits, but the fact that it results in some problems doesn't mean it is irrational. We may be getting to the point where we'll have to bite the bullet and build new electric intrastructure, in part because distributed generation actually increases the demands on the system; but I don't know why putting up power lines is an impossible task.

I guess too much work for finding ways of making invested capital liquid can give very bad consequences as margins are removed.

The "complexity" of the power grid is about three orders of magnitude below the complecity of your mp3 player and probably 12-15 orders of magnitude below the complexity of the human body. According to the complexity argument your mp3 player should not work and you should be dead. Like any argument from ignorance, it is totally wrong. Power grids are failing when they are not well maintaned, overloaded or are subject to physical destruction (like in a storm). Storms we can't control, but maintainance and load conditions are simple parameters of engineering and economics. If your power company fails to do its job, get your local and state politicians to intervene. They have the means to fix these problems and restore your utilities to working order.

These figures are from memory and could be wrong; the average US household draws 30 kwh per day from the grid, a little more than 1 kw continuous average. PHEVs are planned to take from 20 to 80 kwh per overnight charge, let's say 30 kwh again. That's doubling the daily flow of the grid.

Imagine life for the outer suburban commuter; a brownout leaves your PHEV with a low battery and you have used up your weekly ethanol ration. You phone the boss to say you will be late then the phone cuts out...

The power system will have to grow at a fair rate to keep up with population growth. Adding the extra demand from plug-in hybrids is unlikely to represent too great a challenge at reasonable rates of market penetration. Indeed, the utilities like the idea of increased plug-in hybrid demand. The holy grail of the power business is load levelling, after all; and plug-in charging, which takes place mostly at night, is just the ticket for that.


Remember there's also the other side of peak-oil with plug in hybrids.

Electric utilities will make more money. Lots of it.

The amount of money will be very roughly equivalent to a good fraction of the domestic petroleum and refining industry. After all it is trading one joule for another.

So yes, there will be great demand for upgrading the grid. Along with that, comes money. Things will be OK unless we all turn into jibbering idiots.

Things will be OK unless we all turn into jibbering idiots

We do not have to become jibbering idiots, we just need to elect them.


Too late.

We are jib jabbing idiots.

After all, here we are late at night beating on the drum.

(Grow a sense of humor.)

It's not a one-for-one trade; electricity is both cheaper and more efficient, and a lot less money will change hands.  If a 10.7 kWh charge in the Volt gets you 40 miles, you can trade 53¢ to $1.07 of electricity (at 5¢/kWh off-peak, or 10¢ flat-rate) for 0.8 gallons of gasoline ($1.80 at $2.25/gallon, $2.40 at $3.00/gallon).

....yeah, and then a meteor hits your house, and then, and then, there's an earthquake, and then, armies invade across the border, and then and then, terrorists, that's the ticket....and then....

oh good grief

A gallon of gas has an energy content of 130MJ. That's 36kWh. A well designed car can convert this at 30% efficiency, i.e. into 11kWh of energy. Batteries are approx. 80% efficient as energy storage devices, i.e. a realistic conversion factor between electric vehicles and ICE is somewhere around 14kWh/gallon. A Prius today achieves 40mpg or 2.8mpkWh. A plug in hybrid or first generation EV will probably be a little bit better, say 3mpkWh. A 30kWh commute would therefor account to no less than 90 miles roundtrip (if that is how long your daily commute is, you are wasting a lot of your life on it, don't you think?). If you acknowledge that 2-4 people can share a ride IF THEY WANT TO (at rising gas prices this is not unlikely) and that there is at least a factor of two in energy consumption between a current generation hybrid and an EV 20 years from now, the average amount of energy needed to get someone to work is far short of 30kWh. It is more likely to be on the order of 10kWh or less.

At 10kWh/person EVs can be recharged from PV alone if necessary. The average commuter would have to invest in PV costing something between 25-50% of the vehicle price at current market rates (keep in mind PV lives 25-30 years, the vehicle only 10-15!). Since PV prices will be fallong by at least a factor of 2-3 over the coming decade, the true cost will be closer to 10-20% of the vehicle price. This is less than what you are paying for gas right now because at 25mpg, 15000miles per year and 2.50/gallon, gas costs $1500/year. Over ten years of vehicle lifetime this is $15000 (and closer to $20000 if you account for interest). So your car has to be either very efficient or a luxury model to beat the cost for PV charged EV commuter in the future. What you won't get with EVs, of course, is "the luxury" of driving around in 3.7 metric tons of cheap steel.

PHEVs are planned to take from 20 to 80 kwh per overnight charge....

The Chevy Volt only has a 16 kWh battery, and would only be able to take 10.7 kWh during its rated 6.5 hour charging period.

Such a car might add 30-50% to residential electric demand, but residential demand is only a bit over 1/3 of total retail sales.

Re-imagine that scenario:  a sunny summer high leaves the wind turbines idle and all the PHEV's with minimal charge, while you've been taking extra side trips.  After having to buy extra fuel at $7.50/gallon, you take some of your Energy Savings Plan credits and put in an order for a couple PV panels for your roof.  The electricity will be allocated to you and eliminate your need for the auto fuel.

From reading the article and the previous discussions it seems that the problems with the electric grid in the US were created by greed and stupidity. Compared to producing electricity in sufficient quantity when it is needed upgrading the grid is far less challenging.

No one uses everywhere to everywhere connectivity in a single hop (single edge) for any network anywhere because it isn't controllable. In order for these systems to work they need to be PLANNED with controllable levels of complexity..

The fact is that oversimplified, neo-conservative assumptions have ignored the exponential increase in costs that occur as reliability decreases. These assumptions have let policies that let this critical infrastructure deteriorate.

People who put their pants on one leg at a time have let this situation develop due to their greed and venality. People who put their pants on one leg at a time can fix it WITH THE RIGHT INCENTIVES.

They should.

Finally a comment from the land of reality. Thank you.
The incentive is simple. Re-enact the Public Utilities Holding Companies Act. Make power companies responsible to ratepayers for providing reliable service. At present their only obligation is to make a profit and we are seeing just how badly that model works.
Engineering is not the issue. At all. The issue is ideology. Current ideology is screw the public, take all the money.

It is important to realize that the $100 required to upgrade the grid, while a large amount of money, is less than 1% of the US GDP. It is also unlikely that the money would have to be spent in one year.

I think problems with upgrading the electric grid will not be a show stopper.

mjacobspaj said,
"It is also unlikely that the money would have to be spent in one year.
I think problems with upgrading the electric grid will not be a show stopper."

Exactly. We actually used to have such a thing as long term financial planning, but.....(????)

The other interesting thing is the continual unrelenting dreambeat to PROVE that Distributed Generation not only will not work, but is actually a liability, often given with zero evidence. It actually makes a person wonder: WHY is the attack on DG so vibrant among those who claim to be looking for alternatives? Why is the real need and the real possibility of change so detested and feared? Why are outdated models and technologies thrown at us as if nothing has changed since (?), when, WWII?

Without DG, there is NO chance to incorporate any renewable alternative on a real scale. All the vested capital and the infrastructure are designed for a tightly centralized production system. The utilities know this. All they have to do is convince the public that DG is not only not good but is very very bad, and they end the problem of distributed competition along with distributed generation. Then, they tell the Americans that "don't worrry, be happy" because after all, EVEN THE GOVERNMENT, the Department of Energy for pete's sake says your electricity will be CHEAP, so cheap that this solar, wind, and alternative crap is a WASTE, and distributed generation a risk not worth taking....(even though various types of industrial enterprises have been using the technology for most of this century by the way)....but, WHY CHANGE a good thing, look,

Electricity cheaper in 2030 than in 1980! According to your own Department of Energy! What utility is going to spend your HARD EARNED money on these radical wierd alternatives? TOD'ers, before you go on the attack against alternatives, be careful, in the words of Slick Bill Clinton, and "Don't for what your against, and against what your for." hee, hee.......ole' slick saw it coming...:-)

Roger Conner known to you as ThatsItImout

Distributed generation work much better when connected to a grid. I see no fundamental reason for power distribution companies to fear it and power production companies still have the benefit of scale and that depends on physical efficiency advantages with large scale generation. In the pre micro computer and internet times they might have feard distributed generation on the grid for the organizational overhead but that is no longer a problem.

Distributed Generation Networks are an interesting example of network complexity. The key question is how much of the power generated in each location is used in that location. Obviously, if all power generated in location is used there the system is very simple to manage because the central controller doesn't have to do anything.

If the power usage in each location is constant this solution works pretty well. As soon as the load varies for a location, some of the disadvantages of Distributed Generation show. These disadvantages are particularly acute if the system is implemented poorly. One disadvantage is that each location has to generate enough power to meet local peak demands, import power from some other distributed source, or do without.

Installing enough power in each location to meet the highest demand requires huge investments in capacity that will be used only rarely. This option tends to be very expensive. The peak power requirements for a very large number of users taken in aggregate are less than the total of the peak usages for each power user. The savings in required peak power for a central system over distributed systems are a large part of the justification for having centralized systems.

Sharing power between Distributed Generation nodes can be very complex. In the worst case it is an example of connecting everything to everything. The problem of determining the best way to share this power is probably not solvable. (I haven't checked in a number of years, but it certainly hadn't been solved in the early 90's).

Finally, doing without is probably not acceptable because the costs of unreliability go up exponentially as reliability goes down. Remember your sewage and water treatment plants depend on reliable power. Police effectiveness drops significantly with no power. etc.

I am not saying that there is no role for distributed power generation. If it is implemented in an intelligent way, distributed power generation can provide a lot of benefits. If critical power needs are met by local power generation, distributed power generation can make power failures by the central generator less critical. Distributed power generation can also act to limit the required capacity of the power grid (a big cost saver there). This effect is similar to conservation.

The key variables are how often will all of the local generation capacity be used and how much power will it be necessary to export to the central power producer. A happy medium between installing way too much power production capacity in all the wrong places and a control nightmare in which millions of little system can decide to dump huge (inaggregate) amounts of power onto a power grid that doesn't need it would be nice.

Perhaps with the right incentives it would be possible for the power companies to implement a system to use distributed generation.

"I see no fundamental reason for power distribution companies to fear it"

Distributed generation is what happens already, up to a point. There isn't one ginormous power plant in Indiana.

If you connect to a grid then you have to be reasonably careful and compatible with all the technical requirements. This takes capital and knowledge and serious responsibility, as doing the wrong thing can be life threatening. Energize something which is supposed to be dead---and you can kill utility linemen.

It's a bit of a prejudice but this is why they don't want Ackbar and Jeff's biofuel commune roaster connected haphazardly, unless there is some control technology which grid operators can reliably manipulate to ensure global safety and reliability.

I assume, without checking, that for Indiana:

- coal fired power stations are typically 550MW a unit. Whether there is more than one unit on site, the stations will be multiples of 550-600GW. the optimal coal unit size grew steadily since about 1900, and peaked out in the 1960s at about 550MW, I don't think it has moved much since then.

When IGCCs (gasified coal) come in, the unit size will be about 600MW. AES has applied for planning permission for a couple in the midwest. Wabash River (highly successful DOE pilot) is about 350MW I think.

- gas fired can be smaller or bigger, but again 550MW is an optimal size for combined cycle gas turbines (but it doesn't matter so much and there are 800mw examples)

- nuclear units are typically 750-800MW

These sizes are determined by the optimal size for efficient generation. You put more units on the same site because of transportation issues (eg building a coal loading dock or rail siding) and also because of the excess time and cost of getting new site permission.

So to say Indiana doesn't have big powerplants, is really to say there are on, each site, relatively fewer single units.

The current size for optimal efficiency in nuclear generation is 1600 MW. This is physically due to scaling efficiencies in the reactor core, handling of the flows, turbine efficieny and generator efficiency. All of the power is transmitted thru a single shaft.

For a 3rd Gen yes (I would have to check on the Finnish reactor size-- I thought it was 1250MW). But other than the Finnish one and some Japanese projects, there are no 3rd Gens out there.

But for existing *reactors*, the optimum size ranged between 650MW and about 1200MW: this is true both of Pressurised Water, CANDU and Boiling Water.

see above. 1100ish mw per unit.

From memory some of the later Babcock reactors were 1000MW. I'd have to check.

says the largest US ones are at Paolo Verde.

ie 1243 MW.

Chooz B1 in France looks to the largest in the world: 1455MW.

The latest Westinghouse (sold to China) is the AP1000 ie 1000MW capacity.

Typically there are 2-4 working units at any site. So Bruce A (Ontario) was 3200MW when fully built.

The point is that there is not one enormous plant in Indiana for all of North America.

Power production and distribution is already reasonably decentralized---up to the point that you can still have professionals with long-time experience getting paid to maintain power production and distribution as their full time job, and with access to adequate capital to deploy sufficiently good technological solutions.

Not as another duty of a local building superintendent.

It's a scale problem again if we go to 0.1MW household cogeneration units (!

(I understand, now, what you meant about Indiana).

In Russia, during the collapse, the grid kept going. But this is not true of other countries (Africa, Iraq).

A lot depends on the nature of the unraveling, and the degree to which civil order is maintained-- are there active forces trying to unravel the grid? People in the power industry in Russia went to work every day and did their jobs, even when they weren't getting paid.

FYI, Wabash River is 252 megawatts net.

Starting from the usual assumptions of neo-classical economics, it's easy to think that the public will sit still for a certain level of unreliability in order to save money. The deregulators assumed that householders have the same mind set as business owners, who often find it perfectly reasonable to trade reliability for costs. If you're running a widget works and can make your widgets at any time, the financial cost of a blackout may be less than what you save from your deal with the power company. In the real world, as the industry discovered in California, ordinary people just won't put up with blackouts, though it's easy to come up with economics textbook reasons why they should. If I were running the zoo, I might well offer lower levels of reliability to commercial and industrial users at a lower rate; but I wouldn't try to sell this sort of rate structure to residential users. More generally, I wouldn't assume that what's good for a firm that sells consumer goods is automatically good for a natural monopoly like the electric power business.

Starting from the usual assumptions of neo-classical economics, it's easy to think that the public will sit still for a certain level of unreliability in order to save money.

I think they will. If the amount of money they save is enough, and if the connection is made clear.

I've lived overseas where unreliable electricity is common. It's maddening at first, but then you get used to it. I remember my mom listening to the radio in the morning, hearing there was a scheduled blackout, and telling me to go fill up my bathtub with water. (The water pumps were electricity driven, so no power also meant no water.) The wealthy, and small business owners, often had generator backups.

A lot of marketing here but the ABB site can give you lots to chew on about HVDC

I'm a guinea pig in an experiment to test the wonders of HVDC. My island state (Tasmania) with half a million people was almost entirely on hydro just a year ago, running zinc and aluminium smelters as well as community needs. A 400km long 400kv underwater cable to the Australian mainland was supposed to 'blow' clean energy instead of which in terms of dirty energy it 'sucks'.
Indications after just a few months are that 30% of the state's grid could be imported with a largely fossil pooled input including lignite at 1.3kg CO2/kwh. So much for the island's clean and green image.

Unless there is an international carbon cap HVDC will take dirty coal power to places it's never been.

Wow. Thanks for posting that. Interesting stuff. Depressing, but interesting.

What is your additional load on the local Tasmanian grid?

just got back from canoeing on one of the hydro outfall rivers. From memory installed capacity was nearly 1.2Gw mostly hydro. Think of this as 9,000 Gwh per year. There is minor wind and gas which have or will be sold by the Hydro with windpower going 50% to China. The TV news said and I can't find a link that 800Gwh had been imported in the first 4 months without saying whether that was net of exports. The infamous Green Senator Bob Brown (who heckled GWB on a visit downunder) predicted this would happen.

Personally I expect most of the bad things predicted on TOD to happen sooner or later.

A Theory in Search of Supporting Facts

It is clear to me that Jason Godesky does not know anything about the grid when he gets a simple, very basic fact wrong.

electrical wires are typically made of copper

The grid is about 80% aluminum, 20% steel and much less than 1% copper. (Steel wire is woven in with aluminum wire for additional strength. Iceland uses a 50% steel, 50% aluminum mix for their HV lines due to extraordinary conditions there).

He writes such nonsense as:

The electrical power grid is reaching the practical limits of complexity; brute force efforts to increase its capacity simply will not work

The solution to the grid issues are simple.

1) Build more transmission lines and/or
1B) Reduce demand, especially at peak#
2) Maintain what is already built

The *MORE* complex the spiderweb of transmission lines are, the better. Multiple alternative paths are better (sidebar, best if the spiderweb is at a common voltage). This "Space Pope" (see bio) has his analysis completely wrong !!

Some relevant facts and factoids to the North American grid:

The US was expending demand faster than we are building new transmission lines, so Congress passed a law making it easier to build new interstate transmission lines. It is too soon for any new lines promoted by this law to be in operation, but they are coming.

The US is also scheduling generation in more complex ways (fuel shifting, etc.). As a result, the average distance that electricity travels from generation to load is increasing.

I have heard scattered reports than transmission lines built in the 1950s have some tower corrision issues and management is reluctant to install all new towers.

Phoenix recently announced plans for two (not one, for redundancy) lines from Phoenix to Wyoming.

A new wind turbine project in Southern California depends on a new 4.5 GW (# from memory) transmission line from the windy area to south cal loads.

California desperately needs a second "Path 15" transmission line. Build it a half mile or so away from the current line. This lack of transmission capacity, the closure of both Diablo Canyon nukes and the lack of consumer price signals caused the CA electricity crisis, NOT Enron.

His paper is not, IMO, worthy of a TOD article. Sensationalistic claims backed by very little technical knowledge.

Best Hopes for TOD articles written by those with some basic industry knowledge and not Space Popes


# Clinton left Bush with a future requirement that new residential central air conditioners have a minimum SEER of 13 (up from SEER 10 minimum). Bush cut the future efficiency minimum required to SEER 12.

New construction almost always gets the minimum efficiency model. Landlords usually install them as well as price (initial) sensitive consumers.

Over time, the delta between SEER 13 & SEER 12 may raise peak grid loads by 3% or 4%. The delta between "no problems" and widespread blackouts in a heat wave.

His paper is not, IMO, worthy of a TOD article. Sensationalistic claims backed by very little technical knowledge.

I suppose, with oil prices falling, people interested in oil are a little harder to come by, and the people with general theories of collapse are, as a percentage, a higher proportion of the audience. I'd hate to see TOD follow its audience in that kind of value network, but that kind of thing happens.

And of course the stronger this Doom and Peak Oil binding becomes, the less, and less, I can see myself as a Peak Oiler. It is already embarrassing. I mean, let's take a picture of an East Indian power pole, and then just declare that "our future."

The article was provocative and I thought it would be interesting to discuss and/or debunk. I didn't say it was the positivist truth...note that the title is a question.

Odo, you should see some of the poles around here, and I'm in Silicon Valley. Not so much power theft, yet..... if you wanna steal power from your neighbor in the US you can do it down at the ground level anyway. Possibly a lot of "let me run a cord from your house until I can pay my bill, in a month or two..." type sharing in the US too.

And of course the stronger this Doom and Peak Oil binding becomes, the less, and less, I can see myself as a Peak Oiler. It is already embarrassing. I mean, let's take a picture of an East Indian power pole, and then just declare that "our future."

I agree with Alan that it is important to get your facts right.

However, I wouldn't be so quick to dismiss contemporary examples of how other power distribution systems actually work. Many people imagine powerdown as a successive regression to our previous stages of development. Rather, they should look to current examples that are a mix of high and low tech. For example, in China, high pressure natural gas lines are tapped to fill large sausage-like bladders with natural gas:

These are then then transported to redistribution sites by kids on tricycles, with additional helpers running along to hold up the trailing gas bag 'sausage links':

(that van driving or passing in the last picture always made me a little nervous...). I don't think this is necessarily the future of the US (and it only accounts for a small amount of Chinese gas distribution), but it's worth looking at the structure of actually existing systems, in the spirit of evolutionary biology.

I guess the word hasn't got to the contractors on the Bush SEER reduction. I had to replace one of my Heat Pumps last year and had 3 different companies quote on it. Everyone specified that I had to have a 13 SEER in order to meet the Fed Regs. I went with an 18 SEER to do the right thing and due to expectations of increasing future prices but my KW cost this time of year is less than $.06 so it wasn't the best shorterm financial decisiton

The grid is about 80% aluminum, 20% steel and much less than 1% copper.

I'll take your word for it, but since my main point was that resistance is involved, this only makes my point stronger, since these metals have greater resistance than copper.

The *MORE* complex the spiderweb of transmission lines are, the better.

Note the graph analysis I provided at the beginning of the article. You're talking about a very specific kind of increasing complexity: making the network more dense. Random networks are usually quite sparse. So yes, adding more transmission lines would make it stronger, but this would require significant top-down power and regulation (notice that much of the current crisis is due to deregulation).

Ultimately, however, any grid that is not running very close to capacity is a "poor investment," since it could have done the same job with less investment, for greater ROI. Because of this, you'll always be outcompeted by whatever level is able to cut down on the number of transmission lines needed, while maintaining service. It eliminates long-term resiliency, but its short-term dominance is able to eliminate any other possibility (this is essentially a microcosm of how civilization destroyed so many sustainable, tribal cultures around the world).

This "Space Pope" (see bio) has his analysis completely wrong ... Best Hopes for TOD articles written by those with some basic industry knowledge and not Space Popes

Usually I'm criticized for being humorless, but put up a "jokey" bio and damned if I don't get it going the other way. Oy vey.

I've got some powerline samples on my desk. The old copper ones are 3/16" (3-strand) and 1/4" (3-strand) in diameter. The new ones (which are replacing the old copper style) are 3/8" (7 aluminum strands and 1 steel strand) and 7/16" (6 aluminum strands and 1 steel strand) in diameter. These are typical "neighborhood" lines.

The linesman that got these for me told me that the new wires carry more current. He also said that when a tree falls that the old copper lines would break, but (get this!) the new wires will often break the tree in half!

I agree with Alan. The author seems to have a doomer philosophy and will sort of bend anything to that end. Microgrids and local generation take pressure off the wider grid as more power is generated without it being send over already pressured transmission lines. To my mind PVs have more utility as local, on the roof generation, than large power stations. Other solar technology like solar hot water heaters reduce electricity demand without impacting the grid at all.

Greater localization is collapse. See also, Jeff Vail's "Energy, Society & Hierarchy"


In order to insure energy and economic independence as well as better economic growth without being blackmailed by foreign countries, our country, the United States of America’s Utilization of Energy sources must change.
"Energy drives our entire economy." We must protect it. "Let's face it, without energy the whole economy and economic society we have set up would come to a halt. So you want to have control over such an important resource that you need for your society and your economy." The American way of life is not negotiable.
Our continued dependence on fossil fuels could and will lead to catastrophic consequences.

The federal, state and local government should implement a mandatory renewable energy installation program for residential and commercial property on new construction and remodeling projects with the use of energy efficient material, mechanical systems, appliances, lighting, etc. The source of energy must by renewable energy such as Solar-Photovoltaic, Geothermal, Wind, Biofuels, etc. including utilizing water from lakes, rivers and oceans to circulate in cooling towers to produce air conditioning and the utilization of proper landscaping to reduce energy consumption.

The implementation of mandatory renewable energy could be done on a gradual scale over the next 10 years. At the end of the 10 year period all construction and energy use in the structures throughout the United States must be 100% powered by renewable energy. (This can be done by amending building code)

In addition, the governments must impose laws, rules and regulations whereby the utility companies must comply with a fair “NET METERING” (the buying of excess generation from the consumer), including the promotion of research and production of “renewable energy technology” with various long term incentives and grants. The various foundations in existence should be used to contribute to this cause.

A mandatory time table should also be established for the automobile industry to gradually produce an automobile powered by renewable energy. The American automobile industry is surely capable of accomplishing this task.

This is a way to expedite our energy independence and economic growth. (This will also create a substantial amount of new jobs). It will take maximum effort and a relentless pursuit of the private, commercial and industrial government sectors commitment to renewable energy – energy generation (wind, solar, hydro, biofuels, geothermal, energy storage (fuel cells, advance batteries), energy infrastructure (management, transmission) and energy efficiency (lighting, sensors, automation, conservation) in order to achieve our energy independence.
"To succeed, you have to believe in something with such a passion that it becomes a reality."

Jay Draiman, Energy Consultant
Northridge, CA. 91325

P.S. I have a very deep belief in America's capabilities. Within the next 10 years we can accomplish our energy independence, if we as a nation truly set our goals to accomplish this.
I happen to believe that we can do it. In another crisis--the one in 1942--President Franklin D. Roosevelt said this country would build 60,000 [50,000] military aircraft. By 1943, production in that program had reached 125,000 aircraft annually. They did it then. We can do it now.
The American people resilience and determination to retain the way of life is unconquerable and we as a nation will succeed in this endeavor of Energy Independence.

Solar energy is the source of all energy on the earth (excepting volcanic geothermal). Wind, wave and fossil fuels all get their energy from the sun. Fossil fuels are only a battery which will eventually run out. The sooner we can exploit all forms of Solar energy (cost effectively or not against dubiously cheap FFs) the better off we will all be. If the battery runs out first, the survivors will all be living like in the 18th century again.

Every new home built should come with a solar package. A 1.5 kW per bedroom is a good rule of thumb. The formula 1.5 X's 5 hrs per day X's 30 days will produce about 225 kWh per bedroom monthly. This peak production period will offset 17 to 24 cents per kWh with a potential of $160 per month or about $60,000 over the 30-year mortgage period for a three-bedroom home. It is economically feasible at the current energy price and the interest portion of the loan is deductible. Why not?

Title 24 has been mandated forcing developers to build energy efficient homes. Their bull-headedness put them in that position and now they see that Title 24 works with little added cost. Solar should also be mandated and if the developer designs a home that solar is impossible to do then they should pay an equivalent mitigation fee allowing others to put solar on in place of their negligence.

Installing renewable energy system on your home or business increases the value of the property and provides a marketing advantage.

"In addition, the governments must impose laws, rules and regulations whereby the utility companies must comply with a fair “NET METERING”..."

I'm in Nebraska, one of 16 states that do NOT have net metering laws.
According to one site there was a bill to address net metering in 2001, that obviously died. It makes my personal energy choices in transitioning harder. Plus I'm a renter and due to economic realities may be stuck in that mode.

I have a very deep belief in America's capabilities. Within the next 10 years we can accomplish our energy independence, if we as a nation truly set our goals to accomplish this.

I happen to believe that we can do it. In another crisis--the one in 1942-... They did it then. We can do it now.

The American people resilience and determination to retain the way of life is unconquerable and we as a nation will succeed in this endeavor of Energy Independence

That generation is either dead or in advanced old age. I can attest from New Orleans, destroyed by the malfeasance of the US Army, that the United States government of today CANNOT make even minimal efforts.

We did it once (I read accounts of relief efforts to San Francisco in 1906 and they did more, faster, with railroads and telegraphs than the US does today. Likewise the Great Floods of 1927) BUT we cannot do it again.

The US Army admitted their culpability in page 30x of a 800 page report almost a year after the fact (talk about stepping up to the plate), where they knew in 1985 that the levees would fail long before their design point (the levees of New Orleans have been a US Army responsibility since 1928).

I agree with expat that the US will fail in response to Peak Oil and Global Warming.

I have done my part, a realistic plan to reduce US oil use by 10% in ten to twelve years with mature existing technology. A silver BB that c be used with other silver BBs.

Best Hopes,


I think with the right people in charge the US government can still do its stuff.

But I date the problem to the Gingrich Congress. If you are philosophically opposed to government, the first thing you want to do is gut government's ability to help people, so politically it has no support. Especially front line agencies like FEMA etc.

This is the underlying philosophy behind any number of initiatives: school vouchers, cutting the size of the Army, reducing Pell Grants (that allow working class kids to go to college) etc.

Sometimes called "the world's biggest machine" by engineers, most of the energy "alternatives" proposed will require it to not only continue supplying us with the energy we use now (and the energy we'd need for economic growth anyway), but additionally to also carry the energy load we will need to replace our fossil fuel usage. This will be an impossible feat, since the current load alone is already breaking down "the world's biggest machine" under the weight of its own complexity.

An 'impossible feat'? says who?

Already breaking down? In developed world the electricity grid is up something like 99.99% of the time. It's better than my DSL or the internet. That's successful.

And over a generation or two has probably at least doubled in capacity, and in more rapidly growing nations, by much larger fractions.

Its maintenance is not currently taking an unbearable fraction of the economic productivity either. It's quite small overall in fact. Doubling or tripling the grid's capacity seems quite feasible given a need and will.

An 'impossible feat'? says who?

Several people, as the article discusses.

Already breaking down? In developed world the electricity grid is up something like 99.99% of the time. It's better than my DSL or the internet. That's successful.

That just means it hasn't entirely broken down yet; it says nothing to the question of whether or not it's breaking down. Please see the article.

Doubling or tripling the grid's capacity seems quite feasible given a need and will.

Indeed, and that's part of the problem, since that would also at least double or triple the problems involved, as explained in the article.

Read Amory Lovins' "Small is Profitable" for 207 reasons to go for distributed generation!

... it finds that properly considering the economic benefits of "distributed" (decentralized) electrical resources typically raises their value by a large factor, often approximately tenfold, by improving system planning, utility construction and operation (especially of the grid), and service quality, and by avoiding societal costs.

Ten Fold !?!

Bovine excrement !

Isolated DG has significantly lower value due to variances in demand.

"load following" is the central mission of today's grid mamagement, matching generation to load. Uncontroled but grid connected DG makes this mission much harder since the grid much ramp up and down the controlable generation that remains.

An example, in the future Los Angeles is self suffient (perhaps a small exporter) on sunny days due to distributed solar PV. A cloud moves at 40 mph over LA close to noon, shutting down electrical generation. How does one maintain the grid ?

I could accept that DG is a net positive (worth perhaps an extra +5%, NOT +1,000%) at low levels, perhaps up to 10% of total energy into the grid.


Use the PV power for air conditioning systems and water heaters where the thermal mass makes 15 min interruptions now and then a neglible problem.

Yes - I too have wondered why such 'intermittent' systems as solar or wind can't be effectively hooked into larger scale water heating systems which have minimal considerations in terms of voltage problems, and where water is heated by other means (grid, biomass, etc.) when the intermittent source isn't available.

When combined with district heating, and very well insulated houses, such a simple and rugged system would seem to meet a number of normal human needs/wants without much disruption or overhead, and well within the technical (if not social - the U.S. is a mess, in my opinion) means of any society currently functioning in areas with temperatures below freezing in the winter - that is, places which require heating. And such a system is likely to have a fairly high efficiency, since it doesn't attempt to do anything beyond capture heat energy (directly or indirectly) which is later redistributed. No real need for complex control systems, for example - energy heats water, water heats homes, cooled water returns for reheating - for generations with minimal maintenance.

I'd like to ask some simple questions, which may not have simple answers, but which some people here may have informed ideas about. Is there a point at which DC is more efficient than the grid? Obviously, moving electricity through wires involves loss; storing it in batteries or in reactants for fuel cells does as well, and adds the cost of transporting the electricity store (reactant or batteries) from where it is charged to where it is used. The two biggest parameters, then, would seem to be the efficiency of the storage itself, and the cost of mass transportation of it, for example, by rail and then truck to central repositories like stores or "gas" stations. This latter cost is, of course, substantially reduced if power is more locally generated, though that is probably also a factor for grid transmission.

There is also the inefficiency of AC/DC conversion for use, but this is a mixed bag, as most of our high-tech devices - computers, printers, cell phones - are DC, and our wall warts and black boxes are converters. So we are paying the cost of conversion there, although a switch to DC would cost us with legacy systems like lighting, electric heat, etc.

There are additional benefits to DC that make it desirable that such a thing could work. While individuals may run out of power, entire cities and regions would not be thrown into darkness at once, (sometimes) leading to riots, looting, and such. It seems unlikely that most of the world not currently on a grid is going to get on one: those resources will be used on the affluent. And much of the existing grid may be destroyed through global warming disasters, or war or unrest precipitated by peak oil and/or global warming. So the portion of the world that has no access to the grid may expand, conceivably to include some of the industrialized world.

I obviously don't have technical expertise in this area, so these questions and ideas may be naive. If so, I would like to know that and why.

One thing which you are kind of hinting at is that it would be great if the modern house had a second, 12V DC system.

So much of our kit nowadays doesn't need 120V AC (220V AC) here in Europe, we just waste that transforming.

This would be particularly the case with alternative energy. A small solar panel could run the household consumer electronic needs during the day, with battery packs at night. US RVs run on such a basis, I believe.

You would only need the current mains for (some) lighting purposes and for major appliances.

That's exactly how we built our new home.
We don't have the solar yet, but nearly every outlet in the house is served by twelve volt add-on below the wall plate.
Although it is a wee bit wasteful we have also turned to simple resistive taps for those devices that need lower voltages, like the many 3.6, 4.5, 6, 7.2 and nine volt goodies.
I just got so tired of dealing with the zillions of different "wall pack" transformers for every little thing.
I use the twist-type binding post connectors you often see on speaker outputs, one red and one black, and an old fashioned stove knob rotary switch.
Banana plugs go into the combination binding posts.

The thing to understand with DC (without consulting my undergrad textbooks) is that for long distance power transmission, resistance is not proportional to distance, whereas with AC, it is. (I think).

Therefore long distance DC makes huge sense, and people like the Soviets were very skilled at using it. It is something of an American peculiarity that it is not used in the US.

I thought the Soviets were pioneers with 800 kV AC and not HVDC.

DC resistance is proportional to distance for conductors of constant cross section. AC impedance is proportional to distance for distances short compared to the wavelength of the 50/60Hz current. For longer stretches than, say, 1/10th of lambda/4, i.e. somthing like 80-100 miles, power lines become resonant antenna problems and one has to adjust impedances with inductors/capacitors to avoid the additional losses due to resonant overvoltages or strong dependence of the line voltage of load conditions. With many coupled and switched networks this can become a serious problem which can probably not be solved perfectly for all load scenarios and all required network topologies. I am not a specialist in the field and I can't tell you what the designers of these grids can do to mitigate the basic electromagnetics problem, but I would venture to guess that at some point it simply becomes cheaper to switch from AC to DC than to tune net impedances.

What's changing is the price of the electronics required to perform the conversions from AC to DC and back.  The savings on wires and the ability to deal with phase match issues however you please are huge advantages.

The Pacific Intertie is 500 kV DC (upgraded from 400 kV DC per memory). From outside Portland OR to near Los Angeles.

There is also a short HV DC (600 MW capacity) between ERCOT Houston and non-ERCOT Beaumont.

The new lines from Wyoming to Phoenix are also going to be HV DC per reports.

The US does use HV DC, just not a lot.

Best Hopes for more HV DC,


The guy who wrote the "nuclear" subarticle there is a total idiot. Notice that there are no numbers, at all, of any significance.

Quotes like "because we use so much fossil fuel in mining uranium ore, this can ultimately defeat many of nuclear power's advantages over fossil fuels." and he then speculates that maybe we use more fossil fuels to make the uranium than the energy we get from the Uranium anyway, which is of course pure, distilled, 99.99999% pure BS. Anyone who actually ran the numbers would simply find that this isn't the case. With even grotesquely inefficient mining of truly aweful ore, there is still no comparison, a reactor proudces at least 10x (probably at least 100x or more) as much energy as it takes to build, decomission, and fuel the thing. If breeders are used, this number goes to the tens or hundreds of thousands.

Also, the "Uranium is running out" line is complete, total BS. Uranium at the current price point (where it makes up a tiny fraction of 1% of the cost of nuclear power) might (maybe, though not likely) run out within the next century. If Uranium is allowed to be even (for instance) 50% of the cost of nuclear power, especially if reprocessing is allowed, then it last far beyond any time horizon for which we might care to extrapolate from present technology.

He also dismisses claims that seem very well founded. He quotes this claim "No member of the American public has been harmed by nuclear power plant operation." and then dismisses it citing three mile island. So tell us, oh great oracle, which member of the public was physically harmed by that event? Lets get a name, or at least some significant evidence that such a person exists. None is given, but the claim is dismissed regardless. I'm not saying it can't happen, but if you want to talk safety, don't just claim that somebody, somewhere has been hurt (which the evidence apparently does not support anyway), but start comparing it to other power sources, and see which is better. Coal kills 300,000 people a year (for free) in the US alone, does that qualify as safe? How about gas, nobody ever died drilling for natural gas? Solar, nobody was ever killed by the machinery or chemicals in a chip fab, or by the poisons they exhaust into the environment (this one might actually be true, who knows)? Hydro, dams have failed from time to time, often with death tolls in the tens of thousands.

Seriously, just once, I'd like to see an antinuke come up with a number or two, and maybe a shred of evidence here or there for their claims. I think I might have a heartattack if said number was within a factor of 1000 of the real value, but baby steps. Lets start with the realization that numbers are important, numbers drive our world, and when talking about safety, or cost, or fuel depletion, numbers count, not the handwaving of a quack. At least make up a number, or something. Even better, look up the correct number, though likely that's far too much to hope for.

It's strange how the greens are so similar to the far right. The far right doesn't believe in global warming, so they dig up an occasional psychologist or quack to say it isn't happening. They misinterpret evidence and theories, and do everything they possibly can to say "It's a theory, not a fact.", demonstrating that they have at best a shaky grasp on theory and fact. When it is pointed out that every reputable climatologist believes it is happening, they dismiss it, or attack the scientists, or just basically belive anything and everything except what the scientists say.

The greens do the same thing with nuclear power. The make up numbers in the most scandalous manner, they dig up quacks and misinterpret evidence. They claim that technologies that were boring in 1970 (i.e. fast breeders, like superphenix) don't exist. At the same time they're bashing the christian right and their allies for ignoring climate scientists, they simultaniously ignore the physicists with a propaganda campaign every bit as vile, perhaps more so.

Truth be told, the two march hand in hand much of the time. The green party in Pennsylvania at least is a wholly owned subsidiary of the republican party (you can google this easily), and elsewhere the same pattern repeats. Why do greens never run in safe liberal congressional districts? Seems to me that they would have the best chance to win there and if they lost, at least they wouldn't be setting back environmental standards. They don't do it, why? Why do they always run in hotly contested senate and presidential races, always lavishly funded by the republicans they claim to despise, and so often guarantee victory for monetary benefactors? Why are the deliberately shooting down the one technology that has a prayer of helping climate change before it's too late? Perhaps they actually believe in something, but if someone only believed in the bottom line, and could get some greens to knock out the only viable competition in favor of technologies that cannot possibly work, then perhaps such a person might be tempted to do so.

That's an interesting conspiracy theory, but I think you're overstating things a fair amount. The fact is that nuclear has real, quantifiable problems, about which *most* of it's opponents have strong and sincere convictions.

Let's start with proliferation, and the trillion dollars we're going to spend in Iraq. That was justified based on WMD, the most important of which was nuclear. WMD was a pretext, but it was considered a sufficiently strong argument to justify a major war of pre-emptive aggression.

Other things are harder to quantify. Nuclear advocates like to dismiss Price-Anderson, but it's clearly an unfunded liability. Prof Cutler Cleveland, hardly a quantitative slouch, feels that Price-Anderson alone makes nuclear the most expensive energy source available.

Finally, I think wind and power are likely to be much more useful than nuclear. Wind is here now, and even solar is likely to be cost-effective sooner than the first new nuclear plant in the US can go online.

I should add that I agree with you on the article. I think nuclear has problems, but this goofy article doesn't prove it.

The sub-article on solar power is also goofy. It makes a long number of completely wrong assumptions and leaps of logic. When I saw the "PV on 2% of land surface" sentence I knew I was going to read something completely innumerate (the right number is around .1%).

Prof Goose, this kind of article discredits TOD.

Cantarell, Reuters, collapsing, down 500k bpd, one observer feels only 25% of production left shortly...
> Production at Mexico's Cantrell field is once again back in focus. At
> the start of last year, Pemex issued an internal study about its oil
> reserves. The study of its largest field gave 5 different scenarios.
> Whilst the government used the most optimistic scenario as the base
> case, the Mexican energy specialist David Shields disagreed. He said
> that the much more likely scenario was that oil production at
> Cantarell "collapses" to just 25% of its present levels within the
> next 3 years. This frightening conclusion got a lot of press coverage
> at the time, but the government and most main stream analysts on the
> Mexican economy dismissed it as scaremongering and an unheard of pace
> of decline amongst any oil field.
> Instead they opted for a much more optimistic assessment, saying the
> field would see a smooth decay from 2mbpd last year to 1.9m this year

> and 1.4m by 2008. Analysts claimed the Pemex report was intended as
> nothing more than a wakeup call to management of the need for
> increased spending to maintain production.
> News at the weekend therefore, that the decline is as bad as the worst

> case scenario, will presumably send some shock waves through both the
> oil industry (other aging fields around the world that have relied on
> gas or water injection programs to maintain production) and through
> the Mexican government finances.
> Production fell from 1.99mbpd in January last year to just 1.5m in
> December. Worse still, the shortfall was not offset by production
> increases elsewhere, with Mexico's overall output falling from 3.4m
> bpd to just below 3.0m, the first time it has been below 3.0m barrels

> for 3 years. December production fell by 5.8% m/m but exports fell by
> 14.7% m/m. The field's decline is expected to continue, if not worsen
> over 2007. David Shields now warns "The field is declining faster than

> even the government's pessimistic scenarios". In 2003 the government
> pursued a major gas injection programme which helped to sustain
> production levels at the time, but that obviously meant the pace of
> decline was going to accelerate as the remaining oil was pumped out
> that much more quickly, a policy that has been followed elsewhere
> around the globe with the aging giant fields.
> Last year's Pemex report said that the gap between the gas cap that
> sits atop of the oil, and the water that is creeping into the rocks
> below, is 250 metres but is decreasing at between 75 & 110 metres a
> year (ie 2.2 - 3.3 years to depletion), meaning that the "window of
> exploiting the reserve is closing fast". Mexico presently finds just 1

> barrel for every 14 it extracts, suggesting a "collapse scenario is
> the most likely". Domestic demand grew by 5% in 2005 and was expected

> to grow faster again last year, with low interest rates creating a
> boom in car sales.
> The Cantarell field was the world's 3rd largest. At the start of last
> year it provided 60% of Mexico's 3.4m bpd of Mexican production. By
> year end it was providing 50% of the 2.99m barrels. The field was
> created by the Chicxulub meteor 65m years ago at the end of the
> Mesozoic Era, and is therefore unusual. The deepest well in the field
> is just 60 metres vs thousands of metres at other wells around the
> world, making the field extremely cheap to produce. Even if Mexico
> does have other reserves that eventually could make up for the
> shortfall, the cost of producing them would be significantly higher
> than Cantrell.
> Pemex needs major restructuring. When it issued the report last year
> it had USD25bn of debt, and needed large cash investments in order to
> halt production declines. But with the government taking 65% of its
> revenues, it did not have sufficient funds to finance the investment
> that was needed. The government gets 40% of its revenues from Pemex.
> "Pemex's debt over the last 5 years has steadily gone up and tangible
> net worth has steadily gone down, which is due to the high tax
> structure imposed on the company. As a result, Pemex has to borrow to
> fund its investments of the upstream side of the business because
> virtually all of its cash flow goes to the government" according to
> Fitch.
> Ahead of last year's elections, the conservative candidate said that
> to restore Pemex's reserve to replacement ratio back to 100% from its
> present 59%, it would require USD30bn of spending a year vs its
> present budget of USD10 - USD13bn. It cannot afford more as the
> government takes 65% of its revenues in taxes, forcing the company to
> borrow heavily just to meet existing investment levels. This was
> dismissed however as political posturing.
> When we pushed the story earlier this year that declining oil prices
> would affect government revenues and the trade position, people said
> that Mexico imports refined product so this would mitigate some of the

> effect of falling oil prices. Presumably however it won't mitigate
> falling Mexican production.
> In October last year, the IMF expressed concern about the outlook for
> Mexican oil, and the consequences of any decline on public sector
> revenues, which Reuters said accounted for 40% of total public sector
> revenues. At the moment the central bank itself is warning that it
> will have to raise interest rates if the present spike in food prices,

> which itself is due to the ethanol substitution effect, continues,
> leading analysts to predict a 25bpt hike on February 23rd according to

> Reuters. If the pace of decline in production continues as per last
> year's Pemex worst case scenario, I would think this will not be the
> only rate hike as the central bank has to look at supporting the
> currency.