The Texas Blackouts prove that our electric grid is getting more fragile and blackouts are becoming more common. In this episode, Robert talks, for the second time, with Lee Cordner, an electrical engineer who has 50 years of experience in the power sector, about the causes of the blackouts in Texas and California, how close the Texas grid came to collapse, the importance of baseload power plants like nuclear reactors, and why schemes that aim to power our society solely with renewable energy are doomed to fail.

Episode Transcript

Robert Bryce  0:04  

Hi, and welcome to the power hungry podcast. I’m Robert Bryce. This is the podcast where we talk about energy, power, innovation and politics. And as you might have heard, there was a little blackout down here in Texas. So this week, we’re calling it blackout week on the podcast. And when I think blackout I think of my friendly coordinator, league coordinator. Welcome to the power hungry podcast.

Unknown Speaker  0:29  

Thank you ever just called blackout kit.

Robert Bryce  0:33  

Now, Lee, we’re on the podcast last summer, I believe it was in August. And I’m just guessing you’ve done that you’ve been in the electricity business, your whole career, you’re consulting engineer, and have spent decades on this. Let me just start with the UN you introduced yourself last time. So I don’t want to have you reintroduce yourself. I think that’s a sufficient introduction. Last summer, a lot of people in Texas were just gleefully pointing out that the blackouts in California and oh, haha, is that what happened with the mighty the as the hubris caught up with Texas? Tell me Give me the short answer about why Texas and California are having blackouts? Well,

Lee Cordner  1:18  

I think when you asked me that question about California, I couldn’t help but be a little gleeful myself. And my quick answer was it got too hot. And I guess the answer to the Texas problem is it got too cold. But, you know, the power grid should be able to handle both of those emergencies, right. I mean, you have people like me, who spend their whole lives concentrating on making the grid more reliable, more, sound more, you know, able to, to live through whatever kind of weather event or wind event or whatever comes along. And, you know, that’s kind of like a religion to us, grid engineers. And that is that reliability is everything. We just, we just live and breathe that you know, and, and sometimes we get accused of, you know, gold plating the system and building the golden Cadillac, and nothing’s too good for our ratepayers. You know, that kind of stuff gets said, but you see what happens when it fails. And we have seen a couple of great sort of instances now where, you know, if you don’t pay enough attention to what might happen, if you don’t think of that sort of Black Swan event, and you don’t prepare for them, you don’t build a grid that’s robust enough to handle it. Well, hell, you know, people die, people could freeze to death. You know, hospitals can’t function, you know, on and on. So, I think, you know, the Texas and California thing, have a couple of things in common. But I think there is a couple of things that aren’t common to, you know, Texas and California. I mean, California has failure was pretty much because everybody turned their conditioner on. The temperatures were hot enough that the solar generation, California relies so heavily on stopped functioning at its peak and started to decline. California was planning on using power from out of state, no other states who are doing a better job should be pitch in and help. And I heard that referred to as arriving at the airport the day before Thanksgiving, hoping to fly standby, you know, just nobody would sell many towers. Nobody had any, because everybody was on.

Unknown Speaker  3:50  


Lee Cordner  3:52  

you know, it’s just a horror to me to think that somewhere, some engineer like me, made a decision to make the grid not as robust as it could be or should be, and rely on the kindness of others to bail you out.

Robert Bryce  4:10  

Can I stop you there? Because I think that’s key that this the line that I’ve been saying is that we’ve had too much focus on on decarbonisation, and not nearly enough on resilience and reliability. Yeah. Yeah. Is that Is that a fair assessment?

Lee Cordner  4:28  

Well, let me give an example of that. I think if you look at California, you know, pg&e is sec rape cases that go back to say 2005, when they really kind of got serious about about hooking up renewables. If you look at those rare cases and see, you know, the transmission, people say we need 50 $500 million for grid reliability. And we need $50 million for connecting renewables. Well, the decision they would always get back is you can have $25 million for grid reliability, and $75 million for hooking up renewables. So renewables has been a priority, not only in interconnection, but also an operating considerations, etc, etc, they’ve sort of been handed life on a soft pillow. And the whole at the expense of making the grid more reliable. I mean, you know, it’s right there in black and white, if you want to read it, you know, the, and then the state catches on fire, because lo and behold, one of these neglected powerlines fell over, because they didn’t have the money to fix it. And there’s, you know, there’s only so many, there’s only so many transmission, linemen who are trained to work on voltages at 230 500,000 volts are not, it’s not a big group. And it takes seven or eight years to train somebody to do that job. It’s a very dangerous thing. And so when you have resources that are limited like that, I don’t care how much money you have, you don’t have enough people that are trained to do this work. So you have to decide where to allocate them. And they’re really good at following directions. And that’s what they did in this case, that priority was renewables. That’s what they did. And grid reliability suffered?

Robert Bryce  6:33  

Well, you know, that’s, and yet the avalanche and has been an avalanche. I think the wind industry has every journalist in Washington and New York on speed dial, because right after this failure in Texas, the immediate reaction was don’t blame win, don’t blame win, don’t blame win, right. And yet, when I look at it, and I’m, I’m a longtime critic of the wind business and and the subsidies that they’re getting, because they’re very, they’re lavish, but I looked up some numbers that Texas public policy Foundation, they’re they’re conservatives, but they estimate it in a study in 2019, that between 2006 and 2029, the total cost of taxpayers and consumers of renewables of subsidies for renewables in Texas will be $36 billion. Well, I haven’t looked up the cost of the South Texas project, which is the city of Austin is own 16%. And for all of my career in Austin, in journalism, and you know, when I started the Austin Chronicle, oh, it can’t have a nuke, you know, selling nuclear nukes. Nope, the nukes bad. But I don’t know what the final tally was. But it’s a staggering number, even if they’re off by, you know, a few billion dollars here, they’re $36 billion just for renewables over a 15 year period. Well, it’s more than that 20 year period. But still, it’s a staggering amount of money. Yeah, that’s not going to resilience or reliability.

Unknown Speaker  8:00  

No, no.

Robert Bryce  8:04  

I guess the question is, so that, you know, I made a long speech there. Is that the similarity between California and Texas that this, this that all the focus? I mean, you said it before, but it’s on the on on renewables and not resilience?

Lee Cordner  8:15  

Yes, I think that’s fair. Yeah, I think apparently, your win friends have done a really good job of muddying the water as to who was at fault. You know, you look at all those little printouts from the air card. And, you know, see how much wind was supposed to be online? And how much wasn’t? How many frozen? How many didn’t come in a gas was frozen. And that kind of stuff. And, you know, I mean, okay, when played apart, frozen gas wells played a part clearly, everybody turning their heater way up, play apart. So it’s really kind of hard to parse this one for me. I’m not as familiar with Texas as I am with California. But it seems to me that, you know, maybe some good old weatherized gas storage might have might not have

Unknown Speaker  9:05  

been a bad idea.

Lee Cordner  9:06  

So you could get more out. I mean, that California doesn’t have the kind of gas production that Texas has. So no, California has gas storage, they have underground above ground gas storage. You know, they keep a lot of it, because they know they’re gonna need it later. So, I don’t know. It seems like the gas system needs some help, too. But you know, all those windmills free isn’t solid. When you saw the little picture of a helicopter with a guy hanging from a bucket, squirt and de ICER on a wind machine is like, well, that’s an energy efficient thing to do.

Robert Bryce  9:40  

A helicopter thing that is that was going making the rounds. And I don’t know the provenance of that. But let me ask you because you mentioned that idea about gas and it was a point that I made in the Forbes piece that I published about a week ago. Yeah, that has had remarkable traction. And I’m you know, I’m pleased to see it finally getting you know, getting the attention, you know, Getting some attention. But to me what makes you know is that one of the key lessons already is that the gas grid is so incredibly important because it can deliver big surges of energy during times of peak demand. So my question is, would batteries have made any difference in this in this situation here in Texas?

Lee Cordner  10:17  

No, the batteries are frozen solid. They don’t want to get as cold. Leave your car outside for three or four days. Sub Zero temperatures go outside protostar. See what happens? meals are worthless. The worst thing you can do for cold weather, warm weather. Yeah.

Robert Bryce  10:38  

And that’s one of the things that I’ve been trying to be careful, right, that overstate things and try and make sure well, what’s the evidence and so on? But it seems to me Yeah, this was it was crazy cold, and Austin was under it was below freezing for six consecutive days, which is a long time in a city like this that isn’t really built for it. Yeah. But is it? Is it? Is it enough to just sit? Well, it was cold? You know, of course, we had a blackout? Is it enough to say that? Or is that just a cop out?

Lee Cordner  11:05  

That’s heresy. Just make people like me flip over? No, you have to plan for that, you know, I spend my whole life planning for grid reliability. And you can’t ignore that if it’s ever happened in the past, you’d have to say, it’s gonna happen again. You know, you got to be ready for that. And they weren’t. And I think, you know, part of the problem if I understand the Texas thing properly, and I may or may not, but they don’t do capacity contracts, right. It’s just an

Robert Bryce  11:38  

energy only market,

Lee Cordner  11:40  

energy only market. And I think California found out about that sort of thing in 2001, when they had all the rotating blackouts, because people decided that it wasn’t worth the money to produce, you know, that they weren’t getting paid enough and etc, etc. And they made their point, you know, they, they weren’t. And so California sort of evolved into, you know, some capacity contracts, which, once you have people sure of getting paid, then they can make the kinds of improvements to their equipment that would allow them to run through, you know, cold weather or whatever. But as long as they’re just hanging on a tight rope, then every penny matters. And, you know, you can do you make an upgrade and power plans, you weatherize the gas delivery system? Or do you just kind of hope for the best and, you know, hang on day to day price to price bid the bid, you know, so it’s got to be some kind of that there

Robert Bryce  12:41  

was no reward for resilience. Is that is those what I hear you saying?

Lee Cordner  12:45  

Yes, no, that’s absolutely right. That’s great.

Robert Bryce  12:48  

So the the and that agrees with some of the best coverage of this that I’ve seen and and Meredith angwin I mentioned before, she said that this was grid mismanagement, the rules, I’m reading what she said the rules that set up the grid do not care about reliability. And there was another good there was another good analysis on Judith Curry’s website, who’s been on the podcast before. And it was the nom de plume was policy engineer. And he wrote this, he said, taxes Texas, stacked the deck to make wind and energy or wind and solar more competitive than they could be in a system that better recognizes the value of dependable resources, which can supply capacity benefits, and energy only market helps accomplish the goal of making wind and solar more competitive, except capacity value is a real value. Ignoring that as Texas did comes with real perils. Does that ring true to you? Yeah,

Lee Cordner  13:43  

no, that’s it. That’s entirely true. It’s very well stated. I think it’s just, you know, and when they say it’s intermittent, that means it’s intermittent. It doesn’t. I mean, there’s no fooling around with that. You know, I love it here in Oregon when they say that, oh, you know, in our little newspapers as well, you know, they’re putting 100 megawatts of solar in and they’re taking out 100 megawatts or 200 megawatts of coal. And it’s cheaper than coal. It’s 30% of the time. Coal is 100% of the time. Nobody accounts for that when they say oh, wind is cheaper than gas. Oh, Windows cheaper the nuclear winter? Yeah, it is 30% of the time, you know, and they’ve just been able to cherry pick that these goop the cream off the top of that thing and leave all the nasty stuff for everybody else to pick up,

Robert Bryce  14:34  

you know, and jeans. And that’s an interesting point there because the way I’ve thought about it is that wind and solar are free riding on the back of the the firm generators. Is that is that the right description? Yep.

Lee Cordner  14:50  

Yeah, no, there’s there’s no two ways about that. They don’t pay the cost of their participation in the grid.

Unknown Speaker  14:57  

And when you suggest

Lee Cordner  14:58  

they should, they Run to the legislature and wave their arms and find a you know, compassionate audience and some regulator or some legislator who will pass a bill that says they can, you know, I mean, they this is this is institutionalize

Robert Bryce  15:14  

it’s an institution that again, it’s an institutional,

Lee Cordner  15:18  

nobody’s institutionalized, I mean that the fact that they are catered to, and the fact that they don’t pay the cut the true costs of what they do, and their true costs of their participation is great. I mean, maybe the smartest utility guy I ever met a guy that worked for Southern California Edison, and he said, at the beginning, he said, we are going to have to keep two systems functioning, we’re going to have to keep that old system functioning, even though it doesn’t get us much, just for those times when renewables don’t pull in what they’re supposed to do, if you don’t do that, and I think the reason that California fell in the ditch, and maybe the reason it happened to Texas as well, is because they want to get rid of the old system, right? As soon as it was in California, as soon as you don’t need a gas plant anymore. So is that gas plant hasn’t run for eight months or a year or something like that, check it, you know, get rid of it, shut it down. They’re dying to shut down gas plants, they’ve got another 2000 megawatts scheduled to shut down next year, I don’t think they’ll do it, they got a little wake up call on it. So I think they’ll probably keep on running. But that’s not gonna go away. I mean, you and I have talked in a number of times about how anxious they are to get, you know, homeowners and businesses off of natural gas. Well, that same thing, you know, that same thinking applies to the grid, they want to get rid of those natural gas plants and shut them down. So they can ever come back on again, fast. And I think that the reasonable course of action would be, let’s see, renewables carry the system for a couple of years or three years or four years, then we can get rid of the gas plants, you know, and Okay, you have to pay to keep them open, you have to pay to keep them there and functional and maintain. But compared to the disaster, that happens when renewables fail, it’s, it’s cheap. You know, compared to the big budget, carnivals, that’s enough. But yeah, it’s just more ideological need to get rid of stuff.

Robert Bryce  17:31  

So what I hear you saying is that again, that this decarbonisation has been the mantra with know, that and resilience and reliability have been pushed out of the utility system thinking or the system’s thinking here. Is that is that fair?

Lee Cordner  17:50  

Well, yeah, I mean, people think reason, reliability and resilience is a given. They’ve never had a reason to doubt it. Right, which I think on a larger picture, is, you know, sort of what’s wrong with the climate movement. I mean, people want the climate problem solved, with no inconvenience to themselves. They still want to go to Cancun, you know, on the airplane, they just want the airplane to be

Robert Bryce  18:18  

electric. Don’t pick on my buddy, Ted Cruz now.

Lee Cordner  18:26  

You know, just popped into my head. I think that’s what it trails back to this problem with resilience and the credit. People don’t know what it’s like to live without power. I mean, you’ve done a lot of your movie, you know, talk to a lot of people who don’t have reliable power, it sucks to have reliable power. And it’s so common in America. I mean, we’ve never had to deal with it. We just take it for granted. You reach over and switch the lights on. The lights go on, you know, what if they only got power 30% or 40% of the time? How would that change your lifestyle? with that? Would your climate goals remain intact if you only had power? 30% of the time? I don’t think so. Way to spoil. I mean, I always use Afghanistan as a great sort of counterpoint to this, you know, people in Afghanistan, are responsible for about 10 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year per person. In the United States, it’s more like 120. So if we wanted to solve climate change, if we were serious about solving climate change, we would like live like people in Afghanistan, it would be over. You wouldn’t have to fool around with green energy and all this kind of stuff. You just change your lifestyle. You know, you get your two outfits. You get, you know your little garden in the back maybe a couple of goats and, you know, cook dinner over dried goat poop and you got whacked.

Robert Bryce  19:56  

Or just use energy one month, a year.

Unknown Speaker  20:01  

Making a good one

Robert Bryce  20:01  

and the 11 months do nothing? Well, I think that that’s directionally correct. This idea that we want to solve climate change but with no inconvenience, right that oh, you know, and, and yet there’s another part of this degrowth movement on the left of Oh, we’ll just use less and my automatic responses will okay you use less I’m not waiting I don’t ever waste energy you use you know, you waste energy. All you other profligate use wasted energy. So let’s let’s move on here, just because I think that the there’s some similar obviously, there’s similarities between Texas and California and that they’re, they’re their Keystone states in a very big economies, the two biggest states in the country. They have their they also have their own power grids. They have their own independent system operator. So they are their own RTO. So there are some some significant similarities here. And in fact, I was talking with someone earlier today. Well, California is regulated to the nth degree in Canton, Texas, isn’t how I asked this before, but I want to revisit it because as I’m talking about it, it is remarkable that you would have blackouts in two states that are so politically different. climatically different, but they’re large and enormously influential economies and in politics. Yeah. Is it? But is that what is the commonality is the commonality in both states? Just a lack of understanding of the the fragility of the grid? What’s at the root of this?

Lee Cordner  21:35  

I yeah, that’s a that’s a great question. I think that regulation in California is reflective of the fact that they had been at this deregulation thing a little bit longer than Texas, and they’ve lived through a couple of hiccups. And that, you know, I think if, if you read regulated the airlines, which we used to do, they would plan for the Christmas rush, right? And you’d have 1000s of airliners, sitting and doing nothing,

Unknown Speaker  22:10  

all year.

Lee Cordner  22:11  

And then on Christmas, they’d all be used, and everybody could get home, and then that would be wonderful. And I think that’s kind of where Texas falls down is they just haven’t come to grips with the fact that if you’re in the electric business, you have to plan for Christmas, you know, you can’t just tell people, No, you didn’t buy a ticket in time. So I’m afraid you’re going to have to freeze to death. That doesn’t work. So if there’s ever kind of a natural environment for regulation, it’s the utility business, you just can’t leave it up to the free market. California is regulation II

Robert Bryce  22:55  

stop you there. Because it brings up a point that, you know, my first book was on Enron now 20 years ago. Yeah. And one of the guys that I interviewed was a lovely guy named Jim wall. Zell, and he was a pipeline guy. And he said, so long time ago, when I was working on my book on Enron, he said deregulation of the electric market is not going to be good for the consumer, it has deregulation in electricity been good for the consumer?

Lee Cordner  23:18  

No, no, it’s horrible. And I was kind of in the middle of the initial natural gas deregulation, and the natural gas deregulation was good for the consumer. You know, it’s a fairly simple thing, you know, you can store it, you can get more it’s, you know, and what the utilities have done is hidden, a lot of costs, cross class rate subsidies, etc, etc. They’re very non transparent gas rates. And they deregulated the gas business, that transparency showed up, and gas prices went down. Electricity never was going to work that way. I mean, I had some hopes for it in the beginning, and I think you’re in run, buddy, you know, probably was the smartest guy in the room on that day, because most of us were hoping that it would do the same thing, the guest ID, there’s just different, you know, you just can’t get a handle on all the complexity of the electric market, you know, gas was pretty simple compared to that can’t be generated anymore.

Robert Bryce  24:27  

And I think that that’s a key point. And it’s one that I’ve thought quite a lot about is that the complexity of the American electric grid is like no other country in the world, we have the most decentralized ownership of any grid in the world. 3007 different electricity providers, we got tvpa in the Grand River dam authority in the Lower Colorado River Authority, and we have Bonneville Power Authority. And then we have 900, electric co Ops, you know, a couple 100 into you know, publicly owned utilities. I mean, it’s incredible that the thing even works?

Lee Cordner  25:01  

I mean, why does it work? I know it should.

You know? Yeah, right? No, no, you’re right. It isn’t tremendously complex machine. And there’s all sorts of agendas. And there’s all sorts of different regulations. Every time you cross state lines, you know, it’s a whole different thing. I mean, we did a lot of projects, my old company did a lot of projects that, you know, with transmission generation that cross state lines is quadrupled quadruples, the amount of complexity and difficulties and you sit for days with the new tariff book and the new rate book trying to figure out what the heck they’re talking about, meaning we use the same terms from place to place, you know, you, you’re just lost.

Robert Bryce  25:53  

So let’s let’s talk about transmission, because this is one of the areas that I think is, again, the general consumer doesn’t understand. And a lot of academics clearly don’t understand it. Because in the last year or so, I’ve seen, I don’t know how many studies many, and some from some of the most prestigious universities in America, Cal Berkeley, Stanford, Princeton, MIT, with these big elaborate studies that Oh, wind and solar are cheaper. And we can take they’ll take over the grid if we just build enough transmission, and all we need is Oh, we need just need a double existing transmission, or maybe triple or quadruple it, and then everything will be solved.

Unknown Speaker  26:33  

Yes. But no

Robert Bryce  26:35  

requires this massive growth in interstate transmission. Is that a reasonable approach?

Lee Cordner  26:44  

Well, it is, if you’re willing to do a couple of things up front. First of all, you need to get rid of states rights, and just you know, have that be over with states really can’t exist in this new world. The second thing you have to do,

Robert Bryce  27:01  

okay, well, that, that might be a challenge, okay, then the

Lee Cordner  27:06  

second one is easier. And that is that you have to take sovereign nation status away from all of the Indian tribes. They can be pretty obstructionist. When it comes to long line transmission, you know, somehow or other over history, managed to get Indians living on big huge chunks of worthless land out in the middle of desert, well, they’re right in the way of any sort of transmission project you want to build. And they don’t like it, when you show up and say, I think we’re going to have to take some of your land and you know, just kind of do some things with it that you might not approve, but they’ve been through that they don’t like it. They’ve been tremendously

Unknown Speaker  27:49  


Lee Cordner  27:51  

to deal with in terms of, you know, getting rights away, etc, etc. So, okay, you got, you got rid of them, I think they can’t play, then you got to get rid of the fishing game people to national parks, national parks, department, you know, sort of all those giant government agencies that won’t let you do anything out in the wilderness. All those have to go. Alright. And once you’ve gotten those four or five entities sort of wrapped up, then yes, let’s build transmission everywhere. I don’t know for the work, but I think I think that’s where you have to start thinking about it.

Robert Bryce  28:25  

Well, so Okay, so that’s a very long and sarcastic answer, if you don’t mind me saying. But I see what you’re saying. But you’re the punchline is I’m feed it back to you is that it will that it’s very difficult to build transmission, high voltage transmission on an interstate basis because of states rights because of because of Indian tribes that have had land land use issues, all the wildlife issues permitting that this is an extraordinarily difficult proposition. Is that a fair sentence that

Lee Cordner  29:00  

just about can’t be done. There’s a section of transmission line in Southern California between what they call every substation and on the Arizona border, that Southern California Edison has been trying to upgrade for 15 years. So transmission line that’s there. They want to either put bigger wire on

Unknown Speaker  29:20  


Lee Cordner  29:21  

they want to build another transmission line on an existing right away right beside 15.

Robert Bryce  29:28  

And what’s the name of the line? What’s the name of the property?

Lee Cordner  29:30  

They refer to it as this East adeptus line?

Robert Bryce  29:34  

Say it again? east of Devers that’s what they call it east of Devers de Porres.

Lee Cordner  29:39  

Yeah, okay. And they the Arizona You know, when they finally thought they had it, the Arizona Public Utilities Commission jumped in and said no, so yeah, it’s just it’s just been painful. Finally, when I first decided to let anybody who wanted to build transmission lines anywhere they wanted to And sort of volunteered that one said what we’d like to get another company to do that.

Unknown Speaker  30:07  

A couple of other,

Lee Cordner  30:09  

which is not what you say. But a couple of other companies showed up, spend two or three years on it walk away, this is never going to happen. So for those academics,

Robert Bryce  30:21  

that was an interstate line, which makes it more complicated, right, that you’re building across the state line? Yeah. And isn’t that the issue that, you know, and I bring this up, because it just staggers me to see these study after study saying, oh, we’ll just build 1000s of 10s of 1000s of miles of new high voltage transmission. And then our system, our model shows it will all work. But it just with its historically uninformed, I would just pass a bill in 2017 prohibiting the use of eminent domain for high voltage transmission, the state of Arkansas blocked the planes in eastern clean line and killed it. I mean, this, these kind of controversies are happening all over the country. And yet, it’s so is it fundamentally, it’s, is it fair to say that these high voltage transmission line projects are, are doomed because of all the land use conflicts that they’re going to create?

Lee Cordner  31:11  

Yeah, no, as long as you can draw a lot of draw lines on a map, and and do a model is perfect. When you get your feet down in the real world. You know, I worked on a project for a while where we were trying to get 1000 megawatts of gas power, there’s a an Indian tribe was fracking, a big piece of shale, and they had a lot of excess gas from around, hey, you know, we’re trying not to flare it and they’re trying to, you know, collect it and do something with it. And basically, it was free fuel. So they wanted to build 1000 megawatt power plant, and get the power to Salt Lake City and or Denver. The obstacles to that, and it doesn’t sound huge. I mean, there’s nothing out there. You know, the biggest problem you’ve gotten building transmission lines from the look at it is getting over the with the mountains there. And that turns out to be the easiest thing to do you. I mean, I stumbled across, you know, the chain gang project out there in Wyoming where they’re building 16,000 megawatts of wind. And they want to get that to the magic market in California where they can sell it for $150 a megawatt hour. It’s a pretty pervasive rumor that won’t go away that California will pay anything. Why would they pay 150 for a wind from Wyoming when they can get 40 new solar inside the state boundary time. But anyway, that persists. If only we get a transmission line through, they have now been trying for almost 15 years, and they are no closer than they than they were when they started.

Robert Bryce  32:57  

The Golden West project is that

Lee Cordner  32:59  

Yeah, yeah. And the transmission, private transmission transmission line. Yeah.

Robert Bryce  33:05  

So one way I thought it was this is this accurate? I you know, lately we’ve seen Dakota Access Keystone XL, all these other pipeline projects in the in the ground pipelines? Yeah. Atlantic coast pipeline being canceled and something okay. Well, you think it’s, here’s how I would put it and said this, see if you if, if I’m on the same wavelength here. If you think it’s difficult to build a pipeline in the ground, try and put it 200 feet up in the air. Yeah, because you’re Yeah, you’re moving liquids and gas underground. But then you’re gonna move electrons and you’re gonna put 200 foot high when, you know, towers and those wires 200 feet in the air. It just just seems like it’s even here cause more conflict because people are gonna see it.

Lee Cordner  33:44  

Yes. Oh. Great story about Southern California Edison, then no good deed goes unpunished. The name is they volunteered to build what they call the hatchapee renewable transmission line. And at repair expenses, they you know, trying to be good citizens. And here they come with this 500 kV transmission line. They get to the city of Chino Hills, they put up these 250 foot tall towers, it made the city of Chino Hills look like some sort of seagoing sailing, you know, sailing vessel that was eight miles long. You know, I mean, these things that up there, they were huge. towers in this city of Chino Hills, rebelled and sued them and took them to the commission, and some political wrangling one thing and another. Southern California Edison was told to underground that eight miles of overhead line, even though they had the towers, they’re already building already functioning. That turned out to be about a billion dollars a mile. It was something that had never been tried before. It was a science. fair project basically, just dollars

Robert Bryce  35:02  

a mile

Unknown Speaker  35:03  

a mile. Yeah. Yeah.

Robert Bryce  35:06  

So are we running up in them? So let me ask another question. So our Texas in California now already running up against the limits of renewable deployment. What’s next?

Lee Cordner  35:20  

It’s an interesting question, because I’ve kind of been thinking about, what’s it going to take me in California is at 30% ish renewables. Now?

Robert Bryce  35:30  

What’s interesting for electricity only?

Unknown Speaker  35:32  

Yeah, yeah.

Lee Cordner  35:34  

So what’s it gonna take to add that next 20%. So, right now, as we speak, the California ISO is accepting applications. For more renewable power, they have this thing where they do their next, you know, cluster study and interconnection studies that’s going on right now, they’ll get 200 applications of which, less than 10 will make it through the process and actually get built and get collected. And the reason for that is that there’s no place to plug it in the California grid. Looks like your house, if you had every outlet with a plug in, if you had plugged in something to every outlet in your house. And then your spouse comes home with a giant, you know, wine refrigerator to put in the garage and you say, well, gee, that’s great. But we’re out of outlets. We just call an electrician have him at another outlet. electrician comes and says, it’s not really the other outlet isn’t like your house has to be rewired. To do this. You’re just running into max. So let’s call an electrician, the electrician comes by says you got to replace the main switch. Here’s the bill $40,000. Well, that’s what that’s what generation interconnection, renewable interconnection looks like today. In California, there’s no place to plug it in. So you call the electrician and say, we got to rewire the house. And unfortunately, the bill for that is going to be somewhere between 50 and $100 billion.

Robert Bryce  37:14  

That’s to get to 50%. This is that’s and that’s your to be clear. That’s your estimate for what California will have to spend in order to increase its renewable generation production from about 30%. Now to 50% over the next 10 or 15 years. Yes. And, And therein lies one of the things that I think is remarkable is that California already has some of the highest electric rates in the country. pg&e just won an 8% rate hike in was in October. Yeah. 1%, right after San Jose and Oakland said they’re gonna ban the use of natural gas, I remember that. But this is only is this only the beginning then of higher electric rates in California.

Lee Cordner  37:57  

You ain’t seen nothing yet. Yeah, two things are happening. Number one, the investment in infrastructure to get to 50%, renewables will be stunning. The other thing that’s happening is that all of the previous infrastructure that was built to, to fund renewables was done in a very interesting way. The way the interconnection process works, is that the utilities identify the cost in network upgrades, that that it’s going to require to connect these generators to the line and the generators put the money up front, right, so the generator paid for this. So it’s going to cost you $10 million to interconnect units, reasonable figure a million dollars to interconnect your, you know, 200 megawatt solar thing to the grid. You paid Edison $10 million. And then after you start operating over five years, they pay it back to you. So all of that solar that’s now starting to come online and has been online for a year or two, all the money that all those developers invested in the grid now has to be paid back. So not only are we paying back, but we’ve also got to think about that 50 100 billion dollars going forward. And that won’t fit in the right pace easily that will double the transmission portion of the rate, effectively, I think, over the next five years if they if they do it, I mean they they kind of have to do it.

Robert Bryce  39:46  

So in terms of a percentage increase in terms of California’s electric rates, what would that mean? Are we talking about a 1015 20% increase over the present?

Lee Cordner  39:54  

Yeah, overall, wait. 2025 Yeah, again,

Robert Bryce  40:00  

You know it and it seems like this, this, this cycle of an issue of higher cost with greater renewable penetration is something that’s completely ignored by in the wake of this Texas blackout that, Oh, don’t blame the wind. But yet we’re, we’re having real life examples of how increased penetration of renewables is increasing the cost of power for particularly for low and middle income consumers. To me, I find just, I just hate that I just find it to be it’s it’s a climate tax that’s not being labeled a climate tax, and a lot of people are making money on it.

Lee Cordner  40:39  

Oh, boy, oh, boy. Oh, boy, they really are. Yeah, yeah, for sure. And I, you know, for me, when more sarcastic.

No, is cashed out, you know, for all for all sorts of people, you know, me included, you know, you know, renewables been very, very good to me and our little company. So, you know, I keep trying to retire and working and send you’ve been doing this for 50 years?

Unknown Speaker  41:16  


Robert Bryce  41:18  

About 50 years. Yeah. Well, and it’s one of the reasons why I wanted to have you on because, you know, when I talked when I thought about, well, who do I want to talk to about this, I don’t want to have people who have necessarily have a lot of skin in the game. Now I want to be able to just really can say what the reality is. So Well, let me jump back to Texas, because one of the things that would, to me was really interesting and scary was the drop in frequency. And there were a couple of stories that came out about during the critical period, I guess, late on the night of the 14th. Early on the morning of the 15th that the frequency dropped, the grid operates at 60 hertz. So let me ask the question here. So can you briefly and I do mean briefly explain the importance of voltage and frequency and why then the frequency drop could lead to a blackout? Um,

Lee Cordner  42:11  

frequency is your first indicator that things are wrong. 60 cycles per second is probably the most heavily monitored number in the modern age. You know, we’re damn serious about 60 cycles per second

Robert Bryce  42:25  

60 hertz. Yeah,

Lee Cordner  42:27  

yeah. So that’s very short time intervals, right. So the difference between 59 cycles per second, and 60, is, you can imagine it in such a small amount of time. And the modern measuring of that is like out to three or four further decimal points. So you’re talking about hundreds or 100 thousandths of a second, you want to know what the frequency is doing every 100th of a second at the very, very minimum, because when that starts to change, it tells you what’s coming, right, it means you’re starting to be overloaded, for lack of a better way to put it that you’re going to need more generation. So

Robert Bryce  43:17  

the frequency is the leading indicator on changes in voltage on the grid. Is that Is that a fair? That’s Yeah,

Unknown Speaker  43:23  

that’s what you watch.

Robert Bryce  43:26  

The voltages effectively if you’re going to use a water metaphor is akin to water pressure. Right? Okay. grid. Okay. Well, and just one quick, I’ve been in a couple I was in the New York ISO Control Center, they have at the top of every of all the monitors in the whole room. And this was the same at arcot was a frequency monitor that went 60 with three digits behind it to make that point, right. So that is the number that is monitored the most closely.

Lee Cordner  43:52  

It is absolutely insane. It portends voltage loss, right? Yeah. So if you let that go, if you let frequency go, and you’ve got low voltage, and then you have to start shutting things down, because it doesn’t get any better, unless you jump in with more generation and fix it. So the new era solar and wind run on inverters, they are not big rotating pieces of metal anymore. Big rotating pieces of metal have a lot of inertia. So you would have you’d see the frequency start to decline, but it would decline slowly, at least slowly in electrical terms, right? You’d have a little bit of time with all of this rotating mass out there. It would continue to generate electricity and we’ll give you a few seconds to get switches open or switches closed or take a load off or put more generation on. Well, they’re an ISO study just came out their newest transmission plan. They try to plan out what frequency control will look like in the year 2030?

Robert Bryce  45:05  

And you’re talking about California ISO now?

Lee Cordner  45:06  

Yeah. Okay. And their conclusion is, it probably won’t work unless they have a lot of rotating generation around and when I say around Washington or you get in Canada and Nevada, Idaho, so when those inverters start to lose frequency, it happens really, really fast. Edison and pg&e are building because you don’t have that energy, right? You don’t have all that spinning metal out there that will continue to run, what you have is instantaneous drop off. So really hard to handle it. You just you things have to happen so quickly, if you’re just running on inverter base stuff, that is Oh, thanks by about 2030 they won’t be able to handle it on their own, they will have to lean on Idaho, Washington candidate, Arizona,

Robert Bryce  46:08  

even though they’re there, they’re not interconnected with those those, those those those artios.

Unknown Speaker  46:15  

They are?

Robert Bryce  46:16  

Yeah, well, they are but they have their independent RTO. But right, but they’re saying that they need better interconnections with their neighbors, otherwise their grid is going to be destabilized.

Lee Cordner  46:26  

Yes, yes, Idaho. Arizona goes to solar two, that’s probably somebody who’s got to keep that inertia, or switch to be

Robert Bryce  46:35  

clear, I the way I’ve thought about it, and correct me if I’m wrong, that inertia, this has been the basis of the electric grid since the time of you’re talking about Southern California Edison, I’m talking about Thomas Edison right to on the Pearl Street plant, it was coal fired generators with big spinning big spinning generators. And that spinning creates inertia on the grid, which is which keeps the pressure I think of the electrons dead under pressure, like in a water line. So without without that spinning mass that is in AC systems, then you and you add more DC or systems that aren’t producing that same inertia, right undermines the the effectiveness of the existing grid. Is that Is that a fair? The music, but it can undermines the frequency stability of the of the existing grid? Is that fair way to put it?

Lee Cordner  47:30  

Yeah, you know, there’s, it’s possible you can build technology that is fast enough. I mean, Southern California Edison is building, you know, fiber optic lines, connecting substations all over the desert, where the over the desert where the renewables are, to try to get messages fast enough, so that they can get ahead of this frequency modulation business. They call it remedial action schemes, and there is expensive, and they’re growing, because the fear is that if you don’t get on top of these inverters fast enough and add more generation, that they go down so quickly, that you know, in the summer on peak, you know, you’re blinking the grid off and on repeatedly over maybe the course of the same day. So got got to fix this, you know, this isn’t something that’s not gonna make any friends and your customers if you really do that,

Robert Bryce  48:32  

because blackouts are just bad for the consumer.

Lee Cordner  48:36  

Well, yeah, I mean, it’s, again, a guy like me, who spent 50 years being indoctrinated the unreliability of

Unknown Speaker  48:46  


Robert Bryce  48:48  

So just one last thing about the frequency. So there was there was a lot of written about the fact that Texas was on the precipice of this of a grid collapse. Yeah, that the frequency dropped to 59.9 59.93, something like that. I talked to a guy today, in fact, who is a former workout engineer, told me it dropped as low as 59.3. If the frequency drops drops below 59 or so what happens? Well,

Lee Cordner  49:16  

basically, if you can’t, you have to shed load, if you don’t shed load at that point, things start catching on fire, you know, all over the road, all electric motors and all those induction machines out there, see dramatic increase in current and decrease in voltage and heat up and, you know, an electrical fire, it’s a distinct possibility. If you don’t get them offline.

Robert Bryce  49:44  

It could have resulted in if you can’t disconnect enough people from the grid enough load from the grid, you you damage the grid, and there was a talk about a possibility in the system black that the whole system could have gone down. Is that is that a reality? Is that a real possibility?

Lee Cordner  49:59  

Absolutely. At least and, you know, again, we’re talking about hundreds of a second, you know, and with a lot of that rotating mass out there, you can prolong that for maybe 10 seconds, maybe even 20 seconds if you have enough of it. Within birders, you really are talking about hundreds of seconds.

Robert Bryce  50:21  

So is it fair to say that the more so the more? Is it fair to say the more renewable capacity and more renewable generation wind and solar you add to the grid? The more you destabilize the grid?

Lee Cordner  50:33  

Yeah, I think the more the more risk you take with with frequency, for sure. And with today’s technology, yeah, that would destabilize the grid.

Robert Bryce  50:46  

Which is a bad thing.

Lee Cordner  50:49  

Some would say

Robert Bryce  50:55  

sarcasm just only grows Nick’s mind just rear its ugly head yet even more. Well, so what about? Well, just a few more things, Lee. And again, my guest today is Lee cordner. He’s a consulting electrical engineer with five decades of experience in the electricity, business, almost all of it in California. And so he has a unique view on the situation in California, he doesn’t have a call to action because he doesn’t. You don’t really care about selling anything. You’ve never bought

Unknown Speaker  51:27  

one of the lights stay on in Oregon, I’m fine.

Robert Bryce  51:30  

He’s moved from San Rafael, California to a beautiful place in near the beach in Oregon, and seems much happier for it. So what maybe the last couple of things. So what what are the future? If you were going to talk to the policymakers in Texas, what would you say? Because I talked to a guy this morning said, well, you just sent a letter to the governor. And you know, he said, Do xy and z, what would you say to him?

Lee Cordner  51:59  

The thing that’s smartest guy I ever met at Edison said, keep the old system functioning until the new one is on its own and reliable and stable. You just can’t think you’re done with natural gas. Because you have 1000 windmills, you’re not gonna come get you? So yeah, you know, okay, so it’s a little more expensive to keep two since two systems going, you’ll be glad you did.

Robert Bryce  52:27  

Well, then what about the we haven’t talked about nuclear, and I’m a longtime fan of nuclear. You know, I’ve said it 100 times, if you’re anti nuclear and anti carbon dioxide, you’re pro blackout nuclear generation during, during the Texas blackouts performed better than anything else. We’re looking at the closure of nuclear plants in Illinois and New York, what? What, how important is nuclear to the stability of the grid?

Lee Cordner  52:52  

Well, if you can get it and keep it, there’s nothing like it, you know, it’s, it’s going to be there, you know, the capacity factor, nuclear 90% never falters, it never loses frequency, it just keeps going. So, as a building block for the grid, you know, it’s not bad, you know, like, Okay, so, you know, and get a bunch of nuclear plants, get the baseload covered in nuclear plants, and then fool around with the, you know, the peak solar is a wonderful for the peak, you know, people are up using power and sun comes out. But this notion that wind and solar can carry the whole thing. And when I say the whole thing, I mean, the grid is is is today, all those millions of electric cars, and all of those new hot water heaters when we get rid of natural gas. I mean, if you really think that’s possible, I don’t know what I can’t help you. It’s just it can’t be done. No, it won’t go.

Robert Bryce  54:00  

So just to repeat, am I right? When you’re saying trying to build an all renewable system to for all transportation, water, etc? You’re just saying it won’t work?

Lee Cordner  54:10  

I can’t see it. You know, I know. Even just mechanically. I mean, from a policy point of view, it’s wonderful, right? I wish I wish we could, you know, but from a sort of mechanical boots on the ground, sort of, how’s this gonna work? You know, the place that I’ve always sort of made my living. I just can’t see it work, and just can’t see how it ties together. All right,

Robert Bryce  54:37  

we’ll leave Let’s stop there. Because that’s that’s a good good way to stop this because you know, you have far more experience and practice. Well, anyone I know and I’m pleased you could spend some time with us. Lee, you live well in a in an undisclosed location in Oregon these days. Lead coordinators, a consulting electrical engineer. A wonderful guy, a great friend of mine. Lee, thank you very much for being on the power hungry podcast

Unknown Speaker  55:06  


Robert Bryce  55:06  

We’ll do this again because I just love the way you you talk about these issues. And so I want to do it again. Hopefully we won’t have to have another blackout. Before we do it. To all of you out there in podcast land. Thanks for tuning in to the power hungry podcast. You know what to do on those star ratings on your podcast, favorite podcast outlets. So give me give me a whole slew of stars on there. And tune in the next time. We’re gonna have more guests this week on blackout week on the power hungry podcast. So stay tuned. And until next time, thanks and see. See you soon. All right. Thanks, Lee.

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