The reliability trap

Hi good people,

It’s cold in much of the U.S. right now. It’s not cold where I’m writing from in Rio De Janeiro. Sorry!!

Given the cold snap rippling across the Northern Hemi right now, it felt like a good time to write about how the ~reliably~ topic arises when grids get strained. When I say reliability, I mean both of different energy generation technologies and the grid in general.

The power sector may not necessarily be a main focus area for this newsletter in 2024. But interrogating ‘the stories we're told and sold,’ especially ones that aren’t useful, is. Today’s newsletter is in service of that effort.

The newsletter in <40 words: This newsletter dissects why arguing about the reliability of any given energy generation source, and in particular, picking any side too ardently, doesn't serve energy transition work well.

OPINION

Sitting here, writing this in Brazil, it feels like it’s 100°F out. Luckily, I’m in a building with (some) air conditioning. The AC could be stronger, tbh.

There are many ‘cool’ things about Brazil. One of them is how much of its electricity generation is ‘low-carbon.’ The majority of Brazil’s electricity is generated with hydropower, especially from massive hydroelectric dams.

While much attention in climate work is paid to the power sector where grids aren’t clean, many countries already have relatively clean grids. To be sure, those that do are those endowed with a significant amount of hydropower. Or geothermal energy. Or an embarrassment of wind or sun.

When I outlined my 2024 coverage plans, the power sector wasn’t on the list. Many other climate media outlets spend most of their time and proverbial ‘energy’ on it, as well as on transportation. Still, today’s story is about the power sector. Because it’s also, well, about stories. Specifically, ‘stories’ I find profoundly unhelpful in energy transition work.

Energy transition work is like a quilt

Much of North America may well feel like the ‘polar’ opposite of Brazil this week. Not just because it’s quite cold compared to how hot it is where I’m writing from. But also because of how ‘dirty’ many of America’s grids will be this week, especially compared to, say, Brazil’s.

Even as installations of renewable energy generation resources, especially solar, take off exponentially, many of these resources, especially the variable ones, are, on their own, fuel-saving technologies. Said differently, they allow you to burn less natural gas and coal (or in Hawaii’s case, oil) to make electricity.

These resources alone cannot untrench fossil fuels, absent other generation sources or energy storage and transmission. Especially as the demand for electricity, ‘load,’ continues to grow — whether owing to heat that requires air conditioning, cold that requires heating, or the energy needs of data centers used for AI and the energy needs of electric cars — cleaning up grids isn’t just a matter of reshaping the pie. You gotta grow the pie, too.

To make this more appreciable, let’s talk about what’s happening in the U.S. right now. It’s cold. Electricity markets, including Texas’s, are setting new records in terms of electricity demand. Don’t get me wrong, renewable energy, whether in California, Texas, or New York, is helping. Especially during the day in Texas, when the sun is shining and solar panels are churning out energy.

Still, it’s the fossil-fired plants that are keeping the proverbial lights on in the U.S.

A photo I took on Monday the 15th of the East River Generating Station in New York

In Manhattan, across the river from where I live, the East River Generating Station burns 99% natural gas and 1% fuel oil to produce electricity for New York City. Most of the energy it harnesses comes from the combustion of the methane in the natural gas. On full tilt, the plant can provide 660 MW of energy, which is like a solar plant with 3.3 million solar panels.

The plant is likely absolutely ripping right now, as New York residents heat their homes in the cold. It can run whether or not the sun is shining. Which is important, because it isn’t sunny in New York right now. 

The same is true abroad, where temperatures descending from the Arctic are also ushering in the cold. This week, the U.K. turned on and leaned heavily on its last coal power plant.

Importantly, don’t read this as my advocating for fossil fuels. I’m advocating for an appreciation of why transitioning off of them is so damn hard. Why it will take time. It’s called an energy ‘transition’ for a reason. Replacing them will require a patchwork of many technologies (hence the ‘quilt’ in the subheader of this section), and the suite of technologies that will ‘work’ best varies widely by geo.

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Resist the reliability duality

In the coming days, especially because of how cold it is in the U.S., you’ll likely read articles or see people pontificating online about energy and electricity a lot.

  • Some will argue that fossil fuels are utterly essential

  • Others will argue that they aren’t as ‘reliable’ as we’ve been told

Before I left for Brazil, I already encountered one such argument, namely, “The idea that fossil fuels are reliable is a total myth” online. Some folks will point to headlines about natural gas pipelines and wells freezing to argue that fossil fuels aren’t reliable. Others will underscore, as I will and have (in my case, not without nuance) how essential fossil fuels still are.

Here’s the deal: All power plants face outages. All energy infrastructure runs into problems. Wind and solar are inherently variable. Nuclear power plants need to get serviced, or the rivers near them that cool their reactors dry up. Transformers used in electricity distribution occasionally explode.

Suggesting fossil fuels aren’t reliable is not a winning argument. Suggesting any energy generation or piece of energy infrastructure resource isn’t ‘reliable’ is probably unhelpful. It’s definitely lazy.

One reason there’s such a divide on the reliability front is that, for many of the most ardent supporters of fossil fuels, arguing about the reliability of solar and wind power is a favorite topic. Solar and wind aren’t as reliable as other plants by design; at best, solar and wind plant ‘capacity factors’ (i.e., how much of the time they’re operating at full generation potential) is ~40%).

And yes, when coupled with energy storage, variable renewable energy generation can start to get more effective and can displace more of fossil fuel’s share of generation on grids. Energy storage deployment is taking off in the U.S., which is good, as we’ll explore more in the coming weeks. Folks who spend all their time arguing about how unreliable renewables are aren’t ‘right’ either. Again, I’m writing from Brazil, a country that gets more than half its electricity from renewable sources.

All of this is to say I understand the impulse to want to fight back against the fossil fuel ‘stories,’ i.e., the ones that say fossil fuels are super reliable and can’t ever be replaced. To say ‘gotcha’ when the fossil plants or infrastructure goes down. Give me one more minute to tell you why I don’t think that helps.

The net-net (tl;dr)

We – which is to say, climate practitioners – do ourselves no favors if we try to say fossil fuels aren’t reliable. They’re very reliable. Whether you’re an energy nut or an ardent climate activist, saying otherwise makes you look naive.

In closing, it is worth noting that in general, reliability is absolutely crucial. Grid reliability is the number one most important priority, even if this can seem like a competing priority to making climate progress. Reliability is often stressed by people who benefit from slow walking the energy transition. Still, here’s a case in point as it relates to fossil fuels, reliability, and this week in North America.

Texas is a bastion of renewable energy deployment. And, when I checked its electricity mix live on Tuesday morning, more than 50% of its electricity was being produced with natural gas. Add coal, and the fossil share was 68%+.

The electricity generation mix in Texas circa 11 am on Tuesday. Lot of purple (methane)!

If we want to talk about equity and justice, it would not be an equitable outcome to fuck up the energy transition, to cut fossil fuels without sufficient alternatives onboard. Because people in Texas, many of them lower-income, would freeze.

If I could employ a Jedi mindtrick and convince you not to fall into a trap, I’d say:

“The ‘reliability’ argument against fossil fuels is not the one you’re looking for.”

Instead, we can hold many things as true simultaneously.

  • All energy generation sources have various unique characteristics

  • Reliability is priority number one for grids

  • Fossil fuels are very reliable

And, we can still agitate, every day, for the energy transition, for a transition off fossil fuels. By acknowledging the complexity of the task, people will take us more seriously. Hopefully, the combination of renewables plus energy storage will help supplant more fossil-fuel fired generation. Again, more on that soon.

Have a great rest of your week. Here’s a pic from Rio. God bless.

— Nick