Meredith Angwin is an author, chemist, and former project manager at the Electric Power Research Institute. In this episode, Robert talks with Angwin about her new book, Shorting the Grid: The Hidden Fragility of Our Electric Grid, why the grid is becoming less reliable at the same time that electric vehicles and bans on natural gas are likely to increase electricity demand, how our increasing reliance on renewables and natural gas will exacerbate the reliability challenge, and why we need to pay more attention to how the electric grid is managed.
Robert Bryce 0:05
Hello, and welcome to the power hungry podcast. I’m Robert Bryce. This is a podcast where we talk about energy, power, innovation and politics. And my guest today is Meredith angwin, the author of a new book brand new book called shorting the grid, the hidden fragility of our electric grid. Meredith, welcome to the power hungry podcast.
Meredith Angwin 0:25
Very happy to be here, Robert, thank you for inviting me.
Robert Bryce 0:29
Yes, absolutely. So one of my traditions on this, and I could give you a longer introduction. I know you’ve had a career at the electric power Research Institute. But I prefer to let our guests let the guests on this podcast introduce themselves. So if you don’t mind, tell us who you are.
Meredith Angwin 0:49
My name is Meredith angwin. And I became a chemist and I wanted to do some good things for the world. And so eventually, I found myself working in renewable energy on pollution control, and corrosion control. After that, I switched, I was one of the first women project managers at the electric power Research Institute. Then I did the shocking thing. But I began to see the limitations of renewables. I thought renewable was my dream job. And I began seeing the limitations. Meanwhile, I began working on a corrosion problem with some people over in the nuclear group, I began to understand the positive parts of nuclear. And when a job opened within the nuclear group, I moved over into it. And since then, I’ve been working mostly on nuclear and then on writing in my semi retirement here. So I guess that’s basically Oh, I should add, that when I was being a pro nuclear, I became interested in how the grid was managed, because I could not figure it out. It’s not intuitive how the most of the areas in Brizzy managed. And I became a part of the coordinating committee for our grid operators, consumer liaison group. So there are 12 members of the coordinating committee. And we have meetings for you know, maybe 100 250 people, but I was helping choose the, the speakers and the substance of those meetings, among other things. So then I decided to write shortly the grid, I can make this quick, quick version.
Robert Bryce 2:33
Okay, good. Thank you. So this is book number three, right? You’ve actually written two other books, one about Vermont Yankee, and also how to talk about how to talk about nuclear energy. Is that right? I guess, right at hand,
Meredith Angwin 2:48
both the three books are wrong. Luckily, the first book is really a compendium, it’s called forces for Vermont Yankee. And what happens is, is I would say hearing in front of our local PC about Vermont Yankee, and I was so struck by the fact that the people who were speaking in favor of Vermont Yankee had so many varied reasons to be in favor, some working, some were working there. Some work for companies that needed steady and inexpensive power, like a plastics company. I mean, it was really some, just like, the Clean Air aspects of it, which is my thing. So I wrote, I grabbed up their testimony, I went over to them and I said, Can I have a copy of your testimony if you haven’t written down? And they had, some of them had it. And I put that together in a book called voices for Vermont Yankee. I’m really more the editor of that book than the writer of it. Sure. And then then after, after that, I had people kept calling me about what did you do when Vermont Yankee this and that, how did you do it and so forth. So I wrote this book, which is campaigning for clean air, strategies for pronuclear advocacy, on how to be a nuclear advocate. And really, a lot of the book is really could be about how to be an advocate for anything. The first part of the book is what I call advocacy for the shy, that is things you can do by writing at your computer and so forth. I mean, I have been out on the streets with a placard I’ve done that but not everybody wants to ensure they have the only people who are on your side and the people who are willing to to to really march down the street holding a sign, sir.
Robert Bryce 4:40
Let me let me interrupt because I’m interested in those last two books, but I wouldn’t really want to jump to the to the importance of your new book because Okay, why those are there it is shorting the grid, which is a remarkable book and it’s one that reinforces my belief that the electric Businesses maybe the single most complex, with so many different actors, and you really brought together a lot of ideas that I hadn’t thought about before. So tell me then, what what I mean, what’s your main? Why this book and why now? Why shorting the grid and why does it matter today?
Meredith Angwin 5:18
Well, why it matters today is that as we begin talking about decarbonizing, you’ll notice that with the exception of home heating with wood, all the decarbonizing is using electricity to do that, you know, batteries and cars,
heat pumps to your home. So,
Robert Bryce 5:45
shooting electricity for natural gas, that’s one of the other big ideas that we’re gonna, we’re gonna substitute electricity for motor fuel in automobiles and substitute for natural gas in home heating and industrial use.
Meredith Angwin 5:56
That’s right, the idea is that we’ll all be electricity. Well, you know, this nothing wrong with that idea. The trouble is that right at this moment, the many areas of the country that are under the the, the electricity is run by artios, which is regional transmission operators, who have gone way beyond just looking at transmission. They have been very fragile. They have five minute auctions, that’s not exactly planning. They have, you know, five minutes at a time. The there’s a tendency for everything to go to renewables, which are mostly available when they’re available and not available when they’re not available. You know, when the wind is blowing, and the sun isn’t there, and backed up by natural gas. Now, I don’t have a hatred for natural gas. But I will tell you that it is delivered just in time you don’t store natural gas is the power plant, you may have somewhere for the gas pipeline, you have a cavern, but you don’t store it at the power plant. So the power plant can only get as much natural gas as that pipeline can carry. And in the winter in the northern states, especially the the pipeline’s have to provide for home heating first, home heating has first call. Sure. And then
Robert Bryce 7:24
so sorry to interrupt. But so the point you’re making is this fragility, because I mean, this is really the punchline of your book is that as I understand it, I just want to make sure I drive this point home right away is that you say at one point in the in the book that we’re increasingly dependent on renewables, which are only delivered just in time, and we’re increasingly dependent on natural gas, which is only delivered just in time and that there are, I’m trying to get this, the nut of your book summarized as quickly as possible. But it’s that these regional transmission organizations aren’t looking at this fragility problem in a way that can make the grid more reliable Is that Is that a fair assessment is
Meredith Angwin 8:04
a very good assessment, really, I should, I should write that down and begin using it. It’s not really about
Robert Bryce 8:11
Meredith Angwin 8:13
I need to see this, I can’t wait, this book is took a lot of time to find out the information in it. And I and I got really deep into it. And, you know, it has a glossary, for example, I mean, not all books have glossary,
Robert Bryce 8:29
I saw the glossary.
Meredith Angwin 8:31
And what I’m saying is that, unfortunately, I think it makes it harder for me to do the kind of excellent summary that you just did. The trouble is natural gas plus renewables are both just in time. And we are not getting ourselves into a situation where we’re going to have a reliable grid.
Robert Bryce 8:48
Well, so let me back up here a little bit, because I want to I want to get to the to the nut of that, because to me, it’s really important, what the message that you’re putting out, and this isn’t something, you know, there are parts of your book that are technical, and you talk I want to get to get you to talk about volt amperes reactive. Synchronous condensers. We’re gonna really geek out here. But but but what are the points? I think that as I’ve thought about and written about a little bit about the electric sector, the point that you make throughout is that we’ve gone from this vertically integrated utility model that really started with Edison, and then continued on with Samuel insull, where you have one company that owns a generation, they own the distribution, they own the transmission, and they’re responsible for the entire end to end service to the customer. And that that, provided that yeah, it may have not been a perfect system, but it was reliable, and everybody knew who was responsible. And what I what I might take away from your book is you’re saying that there are vast areas in the country that are under the control of these artios Regional transmission organizations, and they don’t have reliability is their mandate. That’s not their business. Instead, they’re trying to court made a whole bunch of different players and that you’re pointing out that, well, they may be trying to do that. But that’s not necessarily in the ultimate, the best interest of the customer. Is that Is that a fair assessment,
Meredith Angwin 10:11
that is a very fair assessment, the Archie O’s have begun doing all these things. In terms of awkward, I’m sorry,
Robert Bryce 10:20
I just want to interrupt your RTO. So give me so it’s PJM that
Meredith Angwin 10:26
PJM is one, ISO New England is another one or content Texas is another one.
Robert Bryce 10:34
So in the Mid Atlantic, and then you have the New York independent system operator and the California independent system operator, which are called ISOs. But they’re really, as you pointed out, artios, without getting too many acronyms here in one, in one,
Meredith Angwin 10:47
I needed a glossary.
I needed a glossary. Yes, that’s right. And the thing is that they, they try to provide some reliability, but they can’t. What I mean by that is, let’s say, you look at a state, for example, look at the state of Washington State, and it’s not in an RTO, it can say, well, we’re going to go only with our wonderful hydro power. And we’re going to add a little, you know, natural gas to it. And we’re going to have limited amounts of wind,
Robert Bryce 11:22
because the state can say that the state can say, We want hydro, we don’t want hydro, the state can say we want nuclear, we don’t want any nuclear states can make decisions at that level. They are in the state, just to be clear. I mean, this is one of the real complexities here is that not only in within the state, you have a bunch of different generators, you have cooperatives you have you have publicly owned utilities, but then you have the public utility Commissioner, Public Service Commission in that state, then that’s what you’re talking about in terms of setting this kind of policy.
Meredith Angwin 11:54
That’s right, well, sometimes the legislators will set some policy, like, we’re going to phase out coal or you know, whatever, mandate renewables, or mandate renewable, so basically, the buck really stops at the utilities and the PC. And and if the power becomes unreliable, or too expensive, you know, exactly who to look at. And as a manufacturer, you know, it’s the kind of thing like, people, once somebody said to me, Well, I don’t want to see any politics and electricity. And I said, No, no, no, you need the politics. Because you need somebody who’s responsible for somebody who you can say both that guy out of office, you see what’s been happening to our grid since he got in there. Right now, whatever is happening to the grid, nobody’s responsible for the RTO. Well, they we run the auctions, and we do our best to the different generators, well, we’re not responsible for being on all the time, we’re just merchant generators, if we’re on resell, and if we’re not on we don’t sell. And, and then you know, that the most responsible groups actually are the little distribution utilities in your neighborhood, because they really do try to keep the wires to your house going, you know that, that but but in terms of generation and transmission, and all the big things, all the big ways that things can go wrong. All the ways that rolling blackouts can come to your area, nobody’s responsible for Hey.
Robert Bryce 13:24
So and I think that that was one of the main It was one of my main takeaways from your book is you really underscore this crazy quilt of the electric grid in the United States with North America because you also talk about Canada. But as I wrote in my latest book, that there’s something like 3000 different electricity providers in America. I mean, it’s an incredibly complex system with thousands of actors. And you and you point about, you make a point about the the generation on the grid is relatively simple. The politics around the grid are complicated. And it seems like they’re only getting more complicated because electricity demand isn’t growing. And you have new new companies, new oil, new entrants, a lot of them pushing renewables, who are competing for a mark in a market where that isn’t growing. So that makes it even it makes this issue of the urgency of reliability, it seems even even more, more obvious, because you’ve got a more people competing for a pie that isn’t growing. Is that is that fair?
Meredith Angwin 14:27
Well, that is absolutely fair for right now. And as you see, I totally it is just been flat in New England is flat and California demand is flat all over the place. And so basically, if a new a new solar array goes in, that power is going to be substituted for some other kind of power. It’s not going to be added to prove the growth, but that the theory is the theory that everybody’s working on or with you That low growth is coming. It’s just it’s barreling down the pike. So we’re going to have to have so much electricity, because we’re going to be using electricity for home eating that, you know, we won’t be using natural events, we’re going to be using electricity for industrial heat, we won’t be using natural gas or oil or anything like propane, we will will, we’re going to plug our car in at night, we won’t be using internal combustion engines anymore. And if you actually put all those sectors together, and you say, That’s the future of electricity will then generate demand will be growing. Unfortunately, the demand is growing, is going to have to be met by reliable power. And a combination of renewables and natural gas is just anti power. It’s not reliable power.
Robert Bryce 15:51
And I think that that’s really a critical point. Because this push for electric vehicles in particular is one that I’ve been watching and I looked at the California market and Southern California is estimated that electrifying transportation in the state would increase demand 130, or some odd terawatt hours, that’s an increase of 50%. Just in California, I mean, these are major increases. And, and your point is that this with this prospect of more reliance on the grid, is it will it is this your point is that that are we’re looking at the prospect of increasing reliance on the grid that may not be as reliable as it should be.
Meredith Angwin 16:32
I would say that my point is mostly about the lack of reliable reliability on the grid and how that is growing over time. That is, it is becoming less reliable as time goes on. If your project into the future, five years, you get, you know, 23 scenarios done by a grid operator, they will be very careful to say these are only scenarios and not projections, they do 23 of them. And in 19, there are rolling blackouts, okay,
Robert Bryce 17:02
here, I’m gonna I’m gonna cut because you’re you’re in Vermont, this is your particular time, I think you’re talking about ISO New England, they’ve made these kinds of things where they say that we just don’t have enough natural gas, we’re gonna have to, we’re gonna have to curtail supply. And that’s a remarkable admission by a grid by I’m starting to call them a grid operator, but they’re not really grid operators, are they?
Meredith Angwin 17:23
Well, they are, they aren’t good operators in the sense that they are. There’s different facets to being a grid operator and the, the ISOs are definitely what we call the balancing authority. And that means that they’re the ones who say, predict tomorrow’s load will be like this, this is how much it will be. And we’re going to ask x, y, z plants to go on over time. And J K L plans to be on during the high peak of the day when we have the most demand. So they
Robert Bryce 17:53
are the general plants.
Meredith Angwin 17:55
I’m just saying ABC J.
I’m just I’m awfully sorry, I should be kept more careful. But in other words, we’re going to have these three plants on all the time, and these other three plants will be going on at about 10 in the morning. Okay. And there are the balancing authority that does that. And in that role, they are the grid operator.
Robert Bryce 18:18
And the key there is that they’re matching demand with generation. That’s right. Okay. And this is where one of your favorite lines of in your book you talk about the production and consumption are always in balance in real time. That is the angelic miracle of the grid. That is a that’s a great line back up for just a minute, because I just want to get a little bit more of you in in one why you know why you care so much. But also, there’s one part in the in the first part of your book that I thought, okay, now, if this were me, I would be I would be trumpeting this. But you say you’re talking about when you were at the electric power Research Institute, you said I worked on protecting underground electrical equipment from thermal runaway. I’m the CO inventor on a patent on the subject. For what that is worth. It seems to have garnered garnered other gathered some citations. So maybe it was worth something. I have other patents on pollution control for fossil plants. So I have zero patents. What are your What are your patents?
Meredith Angwin 19:20
Oh, well, that the thermal runaway one was when I was doing various work for the transmission and distribution group at Emory as a consultant. And then I became a project manager in Well, the other patents so actually we’re after that when I was inaccurate, and we had we had contracts with California Air Resources Board and with EPA, I’m trying to prevent NOx pollution and nitrogen oxide pollution. And my patents were on a kind of catalyst that isn’t at the end. Under the tailpipe, we do have that now we have tailpipe type catalysts. Selective catalytic, we just shouldn’t say this was in the combustion chamber to encourage the burning of the carbon fuels. More More than the burning of
nitrogen with the air, you see the way
Robert Bryce 20:25
through if I can interrupt so. So how many patents overall then just
Meredith Angwin 20:29
just summary? Just three?
Robert Bryce 20:31
Yeah. And one of those is you have a code, you have a code patent or code?
Meredith Angwin 20:36
Well, in most cases, when you’re a junior person, you definitely have competitors. I mean, I might have thought of it. But it doesn’t mean that I was the only it would be very odd actually, in an A modern company, for there to be one name on a path.
Robert Bryce 20:51
Okay. So and you’re, you’re trained as a chemist, where are you from? What’s your background? Where’d you grow up?
Meredith Angwin 20:58
Well, I grew up in Chicago, and I went to the University of Chicago and I, I had, I got an undergraduate degree with special honors in chemistry there. And then I went on to graduate school there, I got a master’s and I work toward my PhD in mineral chemistry. I did not complete my PhD in mineral chemistry. But it turned out that a lot of the things I learned, which were minerals, or like ceramics, minerals are also important in terms of managing geothermal, water, water mineral interactions, turned out to serve a very well in the power industry. And so that was, that was very, it was a good career, wasn’t it? It wasn’t a career I had mapped out if I was going to have mapped out a career, it probably would have been all renewables all the time. But I began to see the problems with that. And the the problems that they really weren’t going to take over the grid on their own. I mean, I just had to recognize that for myself. Sure.
Robert Bryce 22:05
So Well, let me let me talk about that. Because
Meredith Angwin 22:09
I want to say I’m going to say one more sure. personal thing, I I met my husband when we were undergraduates, and we married we were undergraduates, and I often tell the kids, I said, How did you, you and dad meet? And I said, We met in physics class, because that’s where a chemist like me would meet up mathematician like him.
Yeah, to take the same physics sequences. Okay.
Robert Bryce 22:36
So who hit on whom?
Meredith Angwin 22:39
Well, in all honesty, people were mostly hitting on me, because there were, I think, three of us girls in the 70% physics class at that point, we were we were immediately popular. Uh huh.
Robert Bryce 22:53
Well, and that was one of the things that I wanted to just talk about, because as a female chemist, and you’ve had a, your your, well, I’ll say this. How do you say this a woman of a certain age now that you’ve you’ve had a long
Meredith Angwin 23:07
grandchildren? Yes, I do.
Robert Bryce 23:10
So being a female chemist, back when you were in college was a rarity.
Meredith Angwin 23:15
Yeah, it was, it was pretty much of a rarity. It wasn’t totally unknown. I had, I still have friends who were chemists were at that point. But when you got right down to it, there were, I don’t know, four of us in the classes of 50, you know, three of us in the classes. 70? I mean, it wasn’t it, it was pretty much of a rarity. Sure. So let me
Robert Bryce 23:40
let me jump back to the present here. So why do you care so much about this, I mean, you obviously your book is, has a ton of work into it. And I know how hard it is to write books. And you’re at a time in your life, frankly, where you could, you know, kick back in Vermont, and you know, watch the fire, fire grow? Or do you know, other things go hiking? So why do you care so much about this? Now?
Meredith Angwin 24:02
It’s a really good question. And I don’t really know the answer to it, except that I have time to think about it. Now, when you’re working chemist, you know, it’s different. Or when you have a job, it’s different. I mean, I don’t know how people do it, if they have full time jobs and write books. I mean, I just don’t know. And so also, I felt that I’d been around so much of the utility industry from from vegan fossil fuels to renewables to nuclear, and, and being in the grid operator, consumer liaison group committee. I felt like, you know, I have a perspective on the grid that a lot of people don’t have. I mean, I’m not trying to be boastful and to say, I’ve been around a lot in the utility industry, and I thought, you know, it’s not being managed while it is not being managed well at all, and I it’s becoming worse. And you know, I have grandchildren. And I don’t want them to grow up with the kind of grid that you have in like, Oh, I don’t know. I hate to knock on places, but but
Robert Bryce 25:22
Lebanon, Nigeria, South, South, Southern Sub Saharan Africa, yeah, intermittency, that would that would be a bad thing to have.
Meredith Angwin 25:31
Well, even even India, my husband’s company had a, had a contract with a software company in India. And when he went out to visit, he was sort of astonished at the, you know, they had battery backup, just, and then they had the diesels to start up. I mean, they were all set. You know, while in America. I think software companies don’t expend the power to go out. I mean, they may have a backup, I’m not trying to say, but it was sort of like, it was while he was there. I mean, he was there in one visit for two weeks. And it actually I think it happened twice, right? Today, they had to Okay, here we go, the battery should come to diesels, etc. That’s not a good way to live.
Robert Bryce 26:19
So you’re clearly an advocate for nuclear and and fought the closure of Vermont Yankee. Tell me about. So there’s an intermittency problem with renewables. That’s one of the things that’s obvious, but you also talk about the other the other issues with renewables, which I think are important to discuss, because they’re clearly playing out in some places, including in California, but you talk about varous volt volt amperes reactive. So what what does that mean, in terms of this is a little bit wonky, but I think it’s an a key point in terms of how does the this mat, the angelic miracle of the grid doesn’t happen by accident? If so, why do why do varas volt amperes reactive matter when it comes to delivering electricity over long wires?
Meredith Angwin 27:04
Well, what we have to do now is you have to get my friend, Howard Schaffer here, who’s a who’s an electrical engineer, and he can really give the answer to that, but it’s true. The answer that I would give for this is the following. When you have electricity, AC power, it’s it’s going between positive and negative positive negative sine wave. But that’s actually what’s called an imaginary part of it, you say, well, who needs this imaginary part? Well, the thing is, if you don’t have that imaginary part, it doesn’t operate well. And, and so one of the things that happens is, let’s look at, let’s look at a traditional power plant. And that could be a gas turbine, it could be a steam turbine, it could be a hydro plant, you’ve got a generator spinning there. And everybody knows exactly how the generators make Lars and how, and how to balance fires on the grid, because you not only have to balance demand and supply, you also have to keep the virus in line, or it’ll go it’ll go back on on some of the generators and hurt them, it’d be just bad thing. So you have to keep the virus in mind, Well, fine, you’ve got the bars coming off the spinning machinery, well, let’s say you have a winter bin or a photovoltaic, both the Winterburn is spinning, but it’s spinning at who knows what, what speed, you don’t take the speed at spinning and try and put that on the grid. You You take the winter pins, alternating current output, you turn it into direct current, and then you change, then you take an inverter to the direct current and put that on the grid. So you’ve got so you’ve got a directory,
Robert Bryce 28:56
just to be clear. So the solar and wind are producing an indirect current and that needs to be converted into into alternating current. That’s correct. That’s just switched them. So anyway, you’re going from direct current, which doesn’t have a sine wave to alternating current, which does have a sine wave,
Meredith Angwin 29:13
right? But you’re doing it with an inverter, not with spinning electrical equipment, and that has a different effect on the bars. And so the thing is that you can’t assume that this power is equivalent to that power, because the bars might be different. So if you, you turned off a gas turbine and you turn on a wind turbine, it might be a mismatch, even if it’s exactly the same amount of power. Now, what they do,
Robert Bryce 29:44
and the issue there is that you need something to synchronize those different systems, right? So there’s right that’s where this issue of synchronous generators comes up where you have to be able to bring this direct current system supply into harmony, I guess With the alternating current is that is that a fair way
Meredith Angwin 30:02
to summarize it? That’s correct. And and the example I give in my book is the kingdom community wind project, which said, we’re very eager to get it up. And they got it up and they got it connected, but they didn’t get the synchronous condensers connected. So some of the time, the grid operator said, No, we can’t deal with that right now. And they curtail the wind prime program, wind output, because it couldn’t be matched. So eventually, Kenyan community wind invested another $10 billion dollars in synchronous condensers. And put that at the the the, the wind turbines are up on the hill, the synchronous condensers are down by the substation, but at any rate, they are devoted to keeping the wind turbine output in in congruent with the grid. And, and I just, I just feel that since some wing turbans and and and and and, and and solar installations don’t necessarily set up well, as I say, low Kingdom community land was connected before it bought the synchronous condensers. So what I’m saying is that the idea is that was just going to put them on really fast, well, you got to you got to make sure that they’ve got their synchronous condensers. Or if they’re, they don’t that they’re not too many places that don’t have the synchronous condenser. I just, I just wanted to make it clear that just when we can hook up 100% renewables to the grid, it’s not, it’s not just a matter of just hit a plug them in. When there’s no problem, go ahead and do it, you also have to do a lot of matching.
Robert Bryce 31:50
Well, so that’s one of the things that I wanted it one of the questions I had so well, I’ll get to the second part of this first. But so why are renewables you, you’ve spent your career in this business looking at these issues, you started very much pro renewable, because that was the fashion right? And then you became pro nuclear. Why are renewables still today, so popular in the in the in the court of public opinion? I mean, we’ve heard Joe Biden a Democratic candidates, you know, I’m not saying this as a partisan issue, this is just an observation that they come out almost 100% Oh, we need to be 100% renewables, this is the only way forward, this is what we must do. Why are renewables so attractive in the minds of so many people?
Meredith Angwin 32:34
Well, they’ve gotten themselves into a situation that we call motherhood. And I would call motherhood and apple pie, how could you be against it? How could you be against it? I mean, they, but they have many appealing qualities, for example. You don’t have to mine the wind, I mean, you have to build a Winterburn, but there are not hundred car unit trains of coal coming out to that winter and and people notices, you know, so this is one of the reasons I like renewables is that in for many renewables, the entire power cycle takes place at one place, you know, the the fuel is there, the generators there, and the only thing that leaves us electricity, I mean, I don’t think other people like them for that particular reason, necessarily. But I think that they have this aura of being pure not not having all this dirty oil and dirty coal and fracked natural gas and goodnesses uranium is even more dangerous sort of thing. The idea is that everything else has this impurity attached to it. I mean, I and when people begin talking about renewables being a religion, I think that’s part of it, you know, that the other things are impure and renewables are pure.
Robert Bryce 34:06
Well, so then, one of the things that I’ve been tracking is this effect that renewables have on pricing. Now, you’ve we just talked a little bit about synchronous generators and the need for them to to load match with with with the grid, but you also need high voltage transmission lines. So let me ask a simple question. Do renewables reduce the cost of electricity? Or do they increase it? They increase it,
Meredith Angwin 34:30
so they just increase it? Because let’s get right back to that intermittency thing. You can’t just say, we have renewables and they’ll take care of everything. But you have to have the old generators in place. So you end up I mean, there’s studies I have in my book, you know, I have 300 endnotes in my book now. Now nobody buy it. No. I mean, I really try to To documents this as much as I can, but all the studies show are basically showing that if the higher percentage of renewables you have on the grid, the more
buffer you need with
a gas turbines and so forth. So for example, if I have a regular old grid, you know, just the kind of grid anybody used to have maybe 20 years ago, 30 years ago,
Robert Bryce 35:29
whatever, using conventional generators,
Unknown Speaker 35:32
or natural gas,
Meredith Angwin 35:33
yeah, then the PVC would say, We want you to have available about 20% more generating capacity than you need on the hottest day or the coldest day or whatever the top for the grid, you need that we’d like to have 20% reserve or 15% reserve or something like that. Well, when you begin to get looking at studies about renewables, people are saying you need a 300% reserve. I mean, you know, it’s not it,
Robert Bryce 36:10
because it’s a requirement of over building the bridge
Meredith Angwin 36:13
totally over building it. And so then you need all of those
Robert Bryce 36:17
capital costs have to be accounted for.
Meredith Angwin 36:20
That’s right. That’s right. Another thing about that is that the way the artios are set up, the main auction is for the cost of the next kilowatt hour of electricity, which does not include any allowance for what the capital costs of building the plant that makes that next kilowatt hour. And so someone will say, all renewables are the cheapest thing on the grid. But they don’t make. They’re they’re not I could go into that. But even if you gave it, they were, they don’t make the grid cheaper. You see, because they don’t, the costs that they charge to the grid, just not include the overbuilding that’s needed.
Robert Bryce 37:09
It has this isn’t this is a key point, if I can interrupt because I’ve thought about this, and I’ve thought about a fair amount is that the entire history of the utility business, and it’s just like, I think would be any other business, whether you’re, you know, building a auto factory or anything else, that the size of the generation plant was always designed to meet the demand and not add Scotia more, you want to just the minimum amount of stuff in order to meet your customers demand. And that seems to be now that whole logic has been turned on its head, and that the idea is Oh, well, we need to build a whole bunch more than we would need at any one time. Because at any one time, some of it might not be available, or we’re gonna need a lot more because we’re gonna have to charge batteries or something on that order is that is that that is absolutely
Meredith Angwin 37:54
the case. I mean, the the grid operator wouldn’t say just meet demand, he will save meet demand with a 10 to 20% buffer, just in case, just in case, just in cases, a major plant that’s out while you are having a heatwave, you know, maybe a major plant had to go offline for a problem and you have a heat wave. So you got your 15% buffer. But what’s happening now is that, you know, there are thousands of megawatts of winds that, for example, in the queue to be connected. And I say New England, and I’m like, why we don’t have any more demand. And, you know, it’s over building them. And then in Germany and other places, sometimes they build the winter bins, and then they they get around to later at some point
building transmission lines, winter bins, and they don’t even after missing ones yet. It’s really a if I, when you separate out to the grid is actually in many ways a unified machine, it is not just a random collection of parts. And and and in the old days, vertically integrated utilities in their PCs. Were all about Integrated Resource Planning.
Unknown Speaker 39:25
Meredith Angwin 39:29
now, which method the utilities were presented the PCs, we got this much load growth and we’re planning to add this
Robert Bryce 39:40
plant, okay. Because demand is growing are the old plants old and we need to replace it or something else. There was a there was an integrated idea about what the overall system required.
Meredith Angwin 39:52
That’s right and integrated idea where you were going to put the plant where the transmission lines were going to go and so forth. Now Somebody says, Well, you know, I have to I’m planning to build these wind turbines. And it’s pretty hard to
there’s no utility
or organization that can say, No, you don’t need them now go away.
Robert Bryce 40:20
So let’s, let’s, let’s talk about those two things because I mentioned batteries. So if I could expand on this, what’s your view on batteries? This we’re hear over and over. If only we had more batteries, and everything would be fine. Alon Musk is deploying batteries, California’s as mandated electricity storage, are you pro battery, anti battery, what’s what’s your what’s your view on batteries.
Meredith Angwin 40:45
batteries can be useful, but not for the things they’re promising to do with them. So for example, if you have a situation where a whole bunch of of solar went offline, at the same time, because the sunset, and whole bunch of gas turbines have to ramp up? Well, one of the things that is bad about that is the vast turbans, it’s like, it’s like speeding away from the, the, it’s like speeding, speeding away from the stoplight, like you’re like you’re in a drag race, it’s wasteful of fuel. So if the battery is the gas turbines are wrapping up too fast, it’s wasteful fuel, you can get the batteries to kick in for a little bit, and let the ram gas tokens ramp up at a steady manner. And there are many. And similarly if you are at home and you’re concerned about someone at home, who is not doing well, half a battery that can hold your house for the central parts of your house for 24 hours. You know, there are a lot of good things for batteries, the idea that they’re going to backup the entire grid is just it just is not going to
Robert Bryce 41:56
happen. And I and why would Why is that? what’s the what’s the what’s the key issue?
Meredith Angwin 42:01
Well, the key issue is that it takes too much money and too much
material to backup an entire grid when
Robert Bryce 42:11
you look at so copper, lithium, cobalt, those those things,
Meredith Angwin 42:15
those things night, we have energy storage on the grid right now. And 90% or more of it is pump storage. That is you big Have you dig a big reservoir up a hill. And then you have a turban at the base of the hill which you can run in reverse. So in the middle of the night, when power is cheap, you run that turbine and you pump water up the hill, then in the day, when you need that power when you need extra power, he left the water down. Well, fine. That’s a lot of landscape, you know. But the thing is, is that actually can provide many megawatt hours of power. The problem with with a battery is let’s say you go look at the one they put Elon Musk Korean. In Australia, I believe 100 100 megawatt battery, well, actually, you have to use 125 megawatt hours to charge it. And you get 100 megawatt hours back, because there’s loss in the round trip to the conversion. Yeah. In the conversion. Well, there’s often losses and conversion. But people, people seem to have this idea that batteries are going to solve everything. They don’t take into account. That hundred megawatt hours. Excuse me, that’s tiny. For my Yankee. What are the reasons Vermont Yankee shut down? was everybody considered it just too small for the grid? It was 600 megawatts. And it could do that 600 megawatts for 18 months without stopping. Meanwhile, a battery can do 100 megawatts for an hour. And that’s going to backup all the solid? I don’t think so.
Robert Bryce 43:58
So does any of this make you I mean, you’ve been around this business for a long time. Does it make you cynical about how this is? it? is are we we’re kind of what I hear you saying is we’re kind of plunging forward without any kind of coherence, about understanding the importance of the grid. Does it make you cynical? Does it make you hopeful we’re gonna be there with you.
Meredith Angwin 44:19
I’d like to say that I don’t think I have a big cynicism gene or whatever. I don’t think I get cynical easily. I do. Get unhappy about it. I get sad about it, because I do have grandchildren and grandchildren are in high school. Well, some are in grammar school and some are in high school. And I think what kind of world will they will they grow up into? Will there be steady energy or will they won’t there be and if there isn’t steady energy, it’s just not going to be the kind of world that I’m used to or you’re used to or whatever. It’s going to be the kind of world That our grandparents or great grandparents knew on the, on the farm in Tennessee or in Czarist Russia, or I mean, it’s just not gonna be the same world. And so I write these books, in the hopes that somebody will read them and decide, it’s worth trying to do something about this because it is worth trying to do something about the degradation of reliability on our grid.
Robert Bryce 45:26
Well, and so let’s jump to that for a minute. Because you you talk about the issue of of price, but you also talk about and hear you say, My preference you so you talk about a high quality electric grid, my preference would be for a grid with nuclear plants running as baseload. They are non polluting and reliable, and relatively inexpensive. And then you say, then, in addition, then we would have some some renewables and some gas, but you’re coming out for square in favor of nuclear? So let me let me ask the question directly. So we’re seeing nuclear plants closing, not opening, and a lot of them closing, not opening. So what’s what’s needed to stimulate more growth in nuclear, because what’s happening is this steady degradation of the nuclear fleet in the United States to where and all of it essentially is being replaced by gas fired generation. So what’s needed next for nuclear to to not only grow, but to not close in the United States?
Meredith Angwin 46:31
Well, we could start by getting rid of capacity payments.
Okay, that would be help.
Robert Bryce 46:38
And so just a quick capacity payments means that the grid operator is paying a generator to have to just be there and available to run if needed. That’s right. And
Meredith Angwin 46:47
those capacity payments
are often more than half of the total payments in a gas plant gets because it doesn’t necessarily run all the time. But not
Robert Bryce 46:59
all artios have capacity payments, right? In Urquhart capacity payments, it’s an energy only market.
Meredith Angwin 47:06
And let me ask you, have you ever heard Oh, my gosh, nuclear plants have threatened enercon? Not much.
Robert Bryce 47:13
Okay, fair point.
Meredith Angwin 47:15
I mean, look, nuclear capacity, California doesn’t have capacity payments and nuclear plants are threatened there. But that has to do with the politics of California,
Robert Bryce 47:24
in which are, which are beyond unexplicable.
Meredith Angwin 47:28
Which is really not what I want to be discussing here.
Robert Bryce 47:32
But But Vermont, which is maybe you could maybe move to Maine to get a little further away, but it would be harder to
Meredith Angwin 47:41
well, you know, even in California, ah, they basically threw out a governor because of the rolling blackouts.
Robert Bryce 47:49
Right, you know, great, great Davis, Gray Davis.
Meredith Angwin 47:53
That’s right. And iron shorts. And Eggers is basically generally pro nuclear.
Robert Bryce 47:59
But he also mandated big increases in renewable energy as well.
Meredith Angwin 48:02
Yes, he did. He did that. But
Robert Bryce 48:06
my question, so what do we need to do to you know, for nuclear to not close and and you said, throw away payments,
Meredith Angwin 48:13
I try to,
I think we should be either going back to a system of integrated utilities where the buck stops somewhere. Okay. And where the, the payments aren’t sliced and diced so much that one plant can undercut another because that plant gets more capacity payments, compared to the the other plant and all this confusing stuff. I think that our to artios basically, should go back to being regional transmission organizations worried about transition, and not worried about that not doing these ever more complex layers of auctions, kilowatt hour auctions, followed by capacity auctions, followed by capacity options under different rules followed by capacity auctions under different rules with a different auction that can bid into the auction under different rules. I mean, we have to go away from all that stuff and have some accountability. Okay, that’s, that’s one thing. And the other thing is, I can’t just say, hey, just do what they did. But you you understand that that Ontario is an RTO. Okay, Ontario is an RTO. And Ontario is very heavily nuclear and is staying that way. And so you have to look at what they did with price supports for different kinds of plans, and, and, and so forth, to see Ontario as a model. Now,
Robert Bryce 49:53
up there because of course, followed Ontario as well, and they’ve seen they made huge payments to the renewable generation Some massive increases in electricity rates. And in fact, that was one of the reasons why the McGuinty government was turned out they turned they were left as a rump party in Ontario. So yes, I take your point about that they have kept their nuclear plants open. They just recently refurbished. I think it was the Bruce plant and that and, and so on. But Ontario has problems too. No,
Meredith Angwin 50:20
no, absolutely. It absolutely has problems with overbuilt renewables. It raises electricity rates unnecessarily. I mean, I’m not trying to say Oh, yeah, that’s the greatest thing. But it overbuilding renewables to not cause it to shut down it’s baseload and nuclear plants. And it has a very clean grid with Hydro and Nuclear. And and I guess the thing is that people imagine that for reliability, you’re going to have to have dirty grid, you know, you’re going to have to have a lot of oil or coal or gas. And you don’t Ontario’s the example of that. But they had to be very deliberate about it. And it was a conscious choice to make sure that they kept their nuclear capacity. That’s right, it was a conscious choice. If they if they hadn’t made that choice, they probably would be in what I call the I’ve called sometimes the fatal trifecta where you overbilled renewables, you, you, you back them up with natural gas, which which may not be available, when you want it, we and then the third part of the fader project factory, say, oh, we’ll get we’ll get power from our neighbors. We’re going to import power and we don’t have to do it all ourselves. Well, the trouble is that the power crunches come with weather problems. And your neighbors are probably going to have to say whether
Robert Bryce 51:53
the the the the fatal trifecta you just described what happened in California with the blackouts in August.
Meredith Angwin 51:59
Exactly. It’s perfect. It’s a perfect example.
Robert Bryce 52:02
It’s too much reliance on imports, too much reliance on gas and too much. And too much reliance on renewables.
Meredith Angwin 52:09
happened. It could happen anywhere. It happens in Vermont happens in California. It’s not a matter of it’s a cold weather phenomena. Okay. Okay. Go ask a question.
Robert Bryce 52:22
So is California then? You know, we’ve been talking nearly an hour, I don’t want to take up your whole day. But is California just the example of what what could what not to do then in terms of managing the grid?
Meredith Angwin 52:34
Yeah, it’s one of the big examples. Yeah, I would say so.
Robert Bryce 52:38
It is you pick on California these days?
Meredith Angwin 52:41
I know. It’s easy to pick on them. But the main thing is, the thief mismanage their grid and have for 20 years and have for 20 years. Right. But the thing is that if you look at announcements from ISO New England announcement from archives, and if you look at them through the lens of is this becoming the fatal trifecta, you’re going to find that a lot of times you’re going to say, yeah, it’s headed that way.
Robert Bryce 53:11
Well, it appears that mean Keller here in Texas ercot, has already warned about a lack of and load is growing in California, we have areas in West Texas, where huge increases in demand in the Permian, a lot of it related to oil and gas development, but people are moving here and demand in the state is growing. And there’s already discussions about their lack of generation capacity that’s going to be reliable. But let’s cast this forward a little bit, Meredith, because we’ve talked about a lot of things. So your book is really and I hold it up, but I have it, I’m
Unknown Speaker 53:44
willing to do it.
Robert Bryce 53:45
All of our listeners who can’t see the book that she’s holding up, it’s a night It’s a beautiful cover with alignment and silhouette. But you your book is a warning, and then you end with a call to arms and you talk and you have a section called what can we do. And you say subscribe to utility dive, you say, you know, to get active at your local, go to your local state p UC meetings, Public Utility Commission, your Public Utility Commission should announce these meetings on their website. So you’re, you’re encouraging people to, as you say, we must take the grid away from the insiders or our children may be outsiders in some very unpleasant ways. So you’re saying that you’re active, you’re asking people to be more like you to get active and go to these meetings? Because it matters. Is that Is that a fair assessment?
Meredith Angwin 54:31
That’s a fair assessment, you know, but you know, and I think that’s that’s worth doing. The thing is, people don’t even know that this is something that can be done. I mean, most people, somebody might walk around a nuclear plant saying save this nuclear plant and somebody else might walk around the nuclear plants saying shut this nuclear plant down, but nobody seems to know that there are grid level decisions being made and they should be taking an active role in those decisions, trying to influence And slows decisions. So yeah, I think so the other thing is that you can, you can listen, if some politician is speaking and you’re going to vote for a or you’re going to vote for B, and you hear one, one guy talking, and you think, oh, he’s just buying into the fate of trifecta, he’s heading us there, you might vote for the other one, you know, so I guess, if you might also write a letter to the editor or something, but I don’t want to put the burden that somebody’s got to be just like me, in order to make a difference, but I do think people have to at least pay attention and be willing to understand where the slide is happening, why the bad things are happening. And and be willing to at least write a letter or vote for somebody who’s not in favor of that or whatever.
Robert Bryce 55:55
So a quick just interruption here. So I meant to do this before. I’m where I radio guy, I would be chastised. I’m sure by the station manager, I’m talking to Meredith angwin, about her new book shorting the grid, the hidden fragility of our electric grid. She’s on twitter at Meredith angwin. And she Are you on Facebook as well. You on Facebook.
Meredith Angwin 56:16
I’m on Facebook is on Meredith angwin, though I prefer if people will go to Meredith angwin. Author because Meredith angwin is my personal page. So it’s Meredith angwin, author on Facebook. Gotcha. And, and then on Twitter, Meredith Anglin, I’m at gmail at Meredith thing when at gmail, so I’m pretty. And I also have a website, man everything.
Robert Bryce 56:36
Meredith penguin.com. That’s right. Okay, good. So I’m getting glad to get that so. So these issues, as we talked about, and I, you know, I started my career writing my first book was on Enron, which had a big role in the California blackouts, of course, but yeah, 20 years ago, but these issues are, I mean, they are crazy complicated. And what I admire, one of the things I admire about your book was, one, I can see how much work you put into it. And second that you try really were did a very good job of making some of these crazy, complicated issues. Simple enough that that will, you know, when I was when I’ve been writing out, I would write for my mom, right? So she understands it the first time, right? So given the complexities, who’s writing on these issues, I’m talking about electricity specifically, whose work do you admire? Or what what publications Do you follow to to keep up on all of this, this this, this business?
Meredith Angwin 57:31
Well, of course, I admired your work on electricity. I’m
Robert Bryce 57:33
reaching for compliments here. I’m just really,
Meredith Angwin 57:37
I would say that I like at power magazine as Sonal Patel is an excellent writer.
Robert Bryce 57:45
So Neil Patel
Meredith Angwin 57:47
Yes. At power magazine. For bloggers. Oh, gosh, I’m gonna get into trouble with all the other bloggers but Steve applin at Canadian Canadian energy issues and right atoms and atomic insights in terms of the grid. there not many people who are following it Don dears has power for the USA. He has a blog. He follows the grid.
Robert Bryce 58:17
You mentioned utility dive I think they’ve got some good reporters though. Yeah,
Meredith Angwin 58:20
utility dive My apologies for forgetting utility dive and RTO insider utility jive is free and they have some excellent reporters. And, and RTO insider has wonderful record porters, but it’s a paid subscription service. So you have to you have to be dedicated to subscribe to it. Sure. Because you have to pay for it. So if you’re looking around the web, utility dive power magazine you can get for free and
and a couple of the bloggers that I mentioned.
Robert Bryce 58:57
And so you read those, so when you’re not working on electric stuff, what else are you reading as another question, I like to ask people about what you know what, what are their books? They’re reading fiction nonfiction?
Meredith Angwin 59:09
Well, I’ve been
I’ve been bouncing back and forth between a very enjoyable book and a very hard book. The enjoyable book is a young adult book. So his His Majesty’s dragon about it’s sort of like Horatio Hornblower, but with Dragons. And then the really hard book I’ve been reading, I sort of am punishing myself because I feel I need to read the book. It’s called the the color of law. And it’s about how the Federal Housing Authority and so forth, basically, forced segregation by not loaning to places like Levitan unless they put in a restraint. of Covenant, again selling to sell edge African Americans.
Robert Bryce 1:00:03
So it’s about redlining.
Meredith Angwin 1:00:05
It’s about redlining. It’s a long book about redlining. And it for me, I feel it’s important to, to read it because, you know, they go to the section on Chicago, and I’m like, Oh, my gosh, I remember that, because I grew up in Chicago, you know, and stuff like that. And, I mean, I was just a little kid. So I don’t remember well, but anyway, I want to, I want to get an idea of what was going on sort of outside of my vision. But it’s a tough book. And every now and again, I go back to the the dragons in their relationship with their, their aviators, and just having a lot of fun. And that is another book, unfortunately, remember that? The author, but is that all these people with superpowers, and one of the super one of the people has a superpower that everybody really dislikes? He his superpower is to know everything. And his name is? Well, actually, because that’s how he starts every set. I just find that. I just found that amusing. So I don’t know if I have enough. No, that’s great.
Robert Bryce 1:01:17
So last question, then Meredith. And again, my guest is Meredith angwin, the author of shorting the grid. Oh, where did I put my hair? It is shorting the grid, the hidden fragility of our electric grid. So you’ve written a fairly sober book. I mean, let’s be real. I mean, it’s not this isn’t like necessarily light reading. It’s it’s a, it’s a call to action to get people to understand what the fragility of the most important network in modern society. And so what gives you hope?
Meredith Angwin 1:01:49
Well, what gives me hope is that there are a lot of young people who are very pro nuclear now that in other countries like Czechoslovakia, they’re building nuclear plants, that Ontario with an RTO, has managed to keep and refurbish nuclear plants.
And that to some extent,
the bloom of 100%, renewables is just around the corner is wearing off a little bit. I mean, that people are beginning to think low carbon, rather than 100%. renewables, at least I think they are. I think it’s it’s happening. I see it with root side generation atomic, and mothers for nuclear, who are a generation or two younger than me, and who understand that low carbon is important. And nuclear is a little carpet.
Robert Bryce 1:02:49
Well, that’s good. I agree. I think that there has been something of a change of shift in the I would say, even in the last five years or so. And I think it may be began with economic eco modernist Manifesto. And I think some of the other things that have happened in the interim that have made people realize well, that that there’s no, this idea that we’re just going to do renewables that will, I hope be put on the scrap heap, because it’s, well, I’ve made my views on that clear, but I was glad to get your views on this. So Meredith, any any final thoughts? Any things that we’ve missed here that you wanted to bring up? Well, we just finished 25 Well, I don’t know how many 3030 or 40 chapter book you
Meredith Angwin 1:03:38
you know, when Ryan Adams, I was on his podcast, and he said, You have all these chapters in the book, but you forgot my pride and joy, the glossary?
Unknown Speaker 1:03:48
Unknown Speaker 1:03:51
Meredith Angwin 1:03:53
But yeah, one of the problems is that nobody can understand what people are talking about with the acronyms on in the RTO areas. Um, I would say, try to be aware of what’s going on on in your area. I think that’s it, you know, if you see some news article, and it doesn’t make sense to you go on the web and Google the topic and just try and figure out what’s going on in the grid in your area. And, and you don’t have to do anything right off. Just just figure it out. Because what’s really happening right now, is nobody has the vaguest idea what’s happening. They’re all back where I was about 10 years ago and saying, not allowed to delist from Ford capacity option. Hmm.
So I think this is,
in other words, a kind of awareness. It’s almost a Zen thing. When you become aware, then you can begin to change things.
Robert Bryce 1:04:57
Well, that’s good. Well, Meredith Thank you, Meredith Penguin, author of shorting the grid she’s on twitter at at Meredith angwin. She’s also on Facebook and a whole bunch of other places. Meredith, thank you very much for your time. Good luck with the book. All you out there, go ahead and buy it. It’s on Amazon. I have it I just bought it on my Kindle. And thanks for listening to the podcast. If you like the power hungry podcast, go to rate this podcast.com slash power hungry and give us 1000 stars to thousand stars. I think you can do that. Thanks again, Meredith and y’all out there tuning in again next time for the next edition of the power hungry podcast.
Unknown Speaker 1:05:35
Thank you very much.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai