In her sixth appearance on the podcast (her last appearance was January 13, 2023), I welcome back Meredith Angwin, the author of the 2020 book Shorting the Grid: The Hidden Fragility of Our Electric Grid. In this episode, Meredith discusses the physical and the policy grids, why no one is responsible for electricity reliability, and why facts are finally “intruding on the narrative” about decarbonization and the electric grid. (This episode was recorded on January 16, 2024.)
0:00 – Robert Bryce
Hi, everyone. Welcome to the Power Hungry Podcast. I’m Robert Bryce. On this podcast, we talk about energy, power, innovation, and politics, and I’m pleased to welcome back for a record sixth appearance on the Power Hungry podcast, my friend, author, and energy reporter, Meredith, who is in Wilder, Vermont. Welcome back to the Power Hungry podcast, Meredith.
0:18 – Meredith Angwin
Thank you very much. I love being on your podcast. You know that. And you keep inviting me, which I’m very grateful for.
0:29 – Robert Bryce
I usually introduce you as the author of Shorting the Grid, The Hidden Fragility of Our Electric Grid, but you’ve been on so many times. But even though you’ve been on, you still have to introduce yourself. So imagine you’ve arrived somewhere, you don’t know anyone, you have a minute or so to introduce yourself. Please tell us who you are.
0:47 – Meredith Angwin
My name is Meredith. I am a physical chemist by training. I went to the University of Chicago. Physical chemistry led me into the energy field, which is not the oil and gas part of it, but the corrosion and pollution control and so forth part of it. I worked in research in that area for a long time. I was one of the first women to be a project manager at the Electric Power Research Institute. And then, you know, I have this white hair stuff, and I’m semi-retired. And I don’t know if that’s really true.
1:26 – Meredith Angwin
But at any rate, we moved away from the West Coast to be closer to our kids on the East Coast. And I began being active in grid oversight by joining the consumer liaison group of our grid operator. And all of a sudden I realized how little I knew about the electric industry. I mean, I knew all kinds of stuff. I had worked on I had worked on geothermal, coal, gas, you name it. I mean, penstock corrosion in hydro plants. I mean, all kinds of stuff. But when I got right down to it, I didn’t really know anything about like how they decide which plans to dispatch when and so forth.
2:11 – Meredith Angwin
So I began looking into how the grid was operated, which immediately led me into looking at how the different groups in the grid were paid, which immediately got me upset about how little, many of the grids, so-called deregulated grids, I call them the RTO, Regional Transmission Organization grids, value reliability. And so I wrote a book about it called Shorting the Grid. And since then, since my book was ahead of its time, in other words, it was before the first Texas blackout.
2:52 – Meredith Angwin
So I’ve been, is a mild level media figure, as well as an author.
3:00 – Robert Bryce
Well, and I think that’s, it has been a remarkable trajectory, right? You’ve been a professional career woman, your mom, now a grandmother, and then your grandmother period, you wrote a book and became kind of a media sensation. And I’ve been privileged to watch it. But now, so let’s talk about what’s happened, because you were on the last on the program, last on the podcast in January, almost exactly a year ago in January 2023. But it now it’s been three years since your book came out a little more than three years but came out in September, October of 2021 right before 2020,
3:40 – Meredith Angwin
It came out October, 2020, it’s kind of shocking. Before Texas. Remember, So. Before Texas.
3:44 – Robert Bryce
Oh, okay. All right, because it came out. Right. Right. Right so right. And and winter storm Yuri was February of 2021. So okay, right. Thank you. So before we started recording, I said, well, so what do you think’s been happening? And you had this great line that facts are intruding on the narrative. What do you mean by that? Because we’re talking about reliability, right? And the fragility of our grid. And we’ve seen now examples of that winter storm URI in 2021, winter storm Elliott during Christmas of last year, where the grid has teetered on the edge of collapse,
4:19 – Robert Bryce
Both the gas grid and the electric grid,
4:21 – Robert Bryce
The gas grid in New York. What do you mean when you say that facts are intruding on the narrative?
4:26 – Meredith Angwin
Well, the narrative has been that the most important thing we can do is decarbonize the grid or we’re all going to die. Now I don’t get, I’m not a climate specialist, so I don’t get into how quickly the climate would change or how bad it is or whatever. I just want to say that The most negative views of how we’re all going to die if the climate changes are out for, you know, 40, 50 years from now. If we lose our grid, we’re all going to die a lot faster. And so the reliability of the grid is really important.
5:04 – Meredith Angwin
I mean, I can’t overemphasize the importance of it. Then, you know, one person said to me, well, Meredith, you shouldn’t use the word reliability. Find another word. Reliability has become a Republican word. I said, well, I consider it a word about processes. Is it reliable or is it fragile or is it, you know, is it easy to set up or is it hard to set up? Is it easy to wreck or is it hard to wreck? Anyway, so at any rate- I have been very.
5:37 – Robert Bryce
Sorry, sorry to interrupt, but I wanted to explore that idea that reliability is a Republican word. I. But It’s that.
5:42 – Meredith Angwin
Somebody said that to me. They. You. Ma, You shouldn’t, you shouldn’t talk about reliability. I said, I can’t help it. I mean, if the grid goes down, you can read anything you want. You can go online to practical engineering. You can read books. We could lose over 50% of the people in the United States if the United States grid was down for a couple of years, a couple of months.
6:15 – Meredith Angwin
And I just really feel that people ought to know this. And of course, people don’t want to know it. I mean, in the sense that when I was growing up during the Cold War, I’m that old. Yes. Anyway, when I was growing up during the Cold War, I really didn’t want to know about how the Russians could wipe me out in two minutes. Okay. I, you know, I didn’t want to know about ICBMs. I was like, you talk about something else, you know, because I couldn’t, I couldn’t stop the Russian ICBMs. And I figured that the best thing to do was just not worry about it.
6:56 – Meredith Angwin
My husband and I like a little, a little essay by Robert called AES Triplex, Triple Brass. And in that essay, he says, why do people think it’s so amazing that other people live on the slopes of active volcanoes? We’re all living on the slopes of active volcanoes in one way or another.
7:23 – Robert Bryce
What was the name of the Stevenson essay again, please?
7:26 – Meredith Angwin
Aes Triplex. Triple Brass.
7:29 – Robert Bryce
Okay. Huh, okay. Yeah, well, that’s interesting. We’re all living on the edge of the volcano. And it is interesting as you think about that. And you have, I mean, it’s been remarkable to see how you self-published your book. You self-published Shorting the Grid. You created Carnot Publishing, if I remember in the press.
7:51 – Meredith Angwin
Yeah, Carnot Communications.
7:52 – Robert Bryce
Carnot Communications, named after Sadi Carnot, the French scientist who invented thermodynamics, if my history is correct. Can’t seem to lay my hand on your book here at the moment.
8:03 – Robert Bryce
But you’re underscoring the absolute essentiality of the grid, the fragility of the grid, and that if it goes down, and this is the part that to me I’m still trying to get my head around because this idea, oh, people talk about the grid, and oh, well, we’ll just fix the grid, or we’ll just expand the grid, or we’ll modernize the grid, with absolutely no concept of what it is, or how it works, or how the governance of it works, or how all these different companies work to, you know, and contribute to it.
8:31 – Robert Bryce
It is such a complex, the more I study it, and I’m just finishing making 10 slides to try and explain what is the grid in 10 charts. And I’m leaving out,
8:39 – Meredith Angwin
8:40 – Robert Bryce
I’m leaving out everything. You know, I’m not everything, but I’m, it’s only brushing the surface of kind of making people helping. I think hopefully understand, well, what are we talking about when we talk about the grid? So if I, let me put that question to you, what is the grid?
8:53 – Meredith Angwin
The grid is everything that connects us to electricity. I’m talking about the electrical grid. So I call the grid being divided into two grids, and that’s a theoretical construct I came up with. The first grid, you can see part of it out your windows. There’s power lines, there’s power plants, there’s a dispatch center, there’s all the things, there’s a line to your house, et cetera. Okay, that’s the physical grid, and it has certain rules, which are mostly due to physical constraints you know how much power can a certain size power line carry how much.
9:38 – Meredith Angwin
How quickly does this kind of plant get dispatched while other plants can come online much faster? That’s the physical grid. The policy grid is really what everybody talks about, because the policy grid is about how the different plants get paid, what kind of subsidies they have, and so forth. And so everybody talks about the policy grid. Now the policy grid, of course, influences the physical grid greatly. So if, if you’re not going, if you decide you’re not paying, say, coal plants anymore, there won’t be any more built.
10:15 – Meredith Angwin
I mean, it’s pretty straightforward in that sense. But unfortunately, in many areas, including mine, it’s not as straightforward as we’re not paying coal plants. It is a complex system of subsidies and rules and and, and, and It’s, it’s a morass, it’s a bandage after bandage to keep it going. And the bandages are all being fought about because one bandage gives higher rewards, higher payments to natural gas plants, and another bandage gives higher payments to baseload plants.
11:01 – Meredith Angwin
So who’s going to get the bandage this time? I mean, it’s just really… And the trouble is that reliability just doesn’t show up in it, whether it’s a Republican word or Democratic word or French word. Forward. It isn’t coming across. And one of the things I will.
11:21 – Robert Bryce
Let me let me interrupt you there and it’s not coming across because ultimately no one’s responsible for it. I mean,
11:26 – Meredith Angwin
11:27 – Robert Bryce
The part that I think when we talked about winter storm URI now and it’s cold here in Texas today and there’s been the ERCOT has issued a conservation appeal and but we we’ve had plenty of power there’s been there haven’t been any blackouts but One of the things that we talked about during Winter Storm Uri, I remember interviewing you when the blackout was still ongoing or the power had just come back on, but ultimately the buck didn’t stop anywhere. Isn’t that one of the key issues now?
11:54 – Robert Bryce
We think about the grid, both the physical and the policy grid, that still the reliability football or the reliability thing never lands anywhere. Who owns the reliability problem?
12:07 – Meredith Angwin
Nobody owns it. That is the biggest problem. And one of the things I said was that there was more ownership of the reliability problem when we had vertically integrated utilities. If the vertically integrated utility didn’t give you the power you wanted, you knew who was responsible. And you could either possibly sue them, or you could call your legislature and say, what do you mean you’re letting them make a 10% profit off of me? They don’t do it. And the legislature would manage to get them fined.
12:43 – Meredith Angwin
Or the Public Utilities Commission would manage to get them fined, and then they wouldn’t be making the profits. So they had a tremendous incentive to keep your power reliable so they wouldn’t get into trouble. But as you can see from the lawsuits about URI, you know, everybody sort of slips away, you know. I mean, ERCOT isn’t going to pay anything. On lawsuits, I don’t think, I don’t. I. Don’t.
13:10 – Robert Bryce
No, They. Were, they were deemed by the courts to be uh have, uh have sovereign immunity, right?
13:16 – Meredith Angwin
Yes, they have sovereign immunity when they want it. And when they don’t want it, they don’t have it. And so, for example, you know, sovereign immunity usually comes with some responsibilities, uh but they don’t they don’t they don’t have that. So, I mean, This is the example I often give. I say, let’s say there aren’t enough power plants online and some grid operator in an RTO system can’t call on power plants because just not enough of them were built. So you go to the grid operator and say, so what’s going on?
13:53 – Meredith Angwin
Why don’t you have more power plants online? And they say, that’s not our problem. We just dispatch the ones that are there. What’s called resource adequacy, the numbers that are built, that’s up to the states, that’s up to the state PUCs, and so you go to the state PUC. Why aren’t people building power plants? Well, if you looked at how they’re paid, and if you looked at if you looked at the, the chances that they wouldn’t make back their investment,
14:26 – Meredith Angwin
You see why they’re not building power plants around here. And we can’t do anything about that. I mean, that’s all the RTO, that’s all the Read’s rules. That’s not our rules. We build them, they will build them if they can make money. We can’t make them make money. The Read can make them make money, but doesn’t care if they’re built and so forth. So somebody said to me, Meredith, you’re always talking like you like monopolies and top-down planning. You know, what kind of person are you?
14:53 – Meredith Angwin
And I said, well, look, actually, I don’t like monopolies and top-down planning per se. I just like accountability. And that’s what we ain’t got.
15:06 – Robert Bryce
My mother would protest, that’s what we ain’t got, as you put it just there, but we ain’t got that ain’t got none I think you mispronounced it ain’t got none of that.
15:15 – Meredith Angwin
15:16 – Robert Bryce
But right there, and that’s the key, I think, especially after Winter Storm Uriary. So, well, who’s responsible here? Well, the market failed. Well, who made the market? Oh, a bunch of lawyers. Well, why are they lawyers? Because they couldn’t do the math to get into engineering school, right? That’s my old joke. But the market is, we’re leaving this to the chance of the market. Well, let me ask, I think we talked about this before, but it’s something that I find endlessly fascinating because people in the business who watch this, we’re treating electricity as a commodity, right?
15:44 – Robert Bryce
Because we’re saying, oh, it’s a market, right? And we’re going to have this restructured market as Ken Lay called it. But is electricity a commodity or is it a service? And are we making a mistake by calling it a commodity?
15:55 – Meredith Angwin
Well, it’s a service. I mean, it’s a service. And I mean, people kind of used to understand that. And then they stopped understanding it somewhere around the idea that you could just put your own solar on and you wouldn’t need the service. But of course, you do need the service, because the sun only shines a certain number of hours a day and getting your own battery pack and enough solar for all your needs would not be very feasible. But it is that kind of idea that we could be independent.
16:37 – Meredith Angwin
We could buy exactly what we want. We don’t have to depend on others. That’s a very attractive idea. And people have loved it and gone for it. And I understand why.
16:54 – Robert Bryce
But if it’s a service, to interrupt there, if it’s a service, then that means it’s a monopoly, right? And if it’s a monopoly, then it should be managed as a monopoly. And instead, this top down, your idea earlier about having this vertically integrated utility, and this goes back to the Enron days in the docuseries. And one of the reasons I wanted to have you on, self-serving here, but you’re one of the stars of our docuseries Juice, Power, Politics, and the Grid, and we talk about the Enron effect, the idea that Enron pioneered, which was, oh, we’re going to restructure, we’re going to deregulate the market, and we’re going to treat electricity as a commodity.
17:34 – Robert Bryce
So as you look back at this history of the business, how much of that stems back, the problems that we’re having now, how much of it would go back to those ideas that Enron promoted and the commodification or the idea, the attempt to commodify electricity?
17:52 – Meredith Angwin
Well, a lot of it goes back to that. I mean, people will come to me and say, ha, look at it, a vertically integrated utility had an outage too during terrible weather. And I said, yeah, but it wasn’t because they didn’t have enough power plants. It was because of the terrible weather per se, as opposed to what happens in the commodity areas where the electricity is sold at auctions. Okay, and everybody’s trying to get the best price and, and it isn’t treated as anything except something that can be auctioned off because one, one electron is as good as another.
18:34 – Meredith Angwin
Then, you know, you, you find yourself those areas are the ones that have more outages, higher prices, fragility. I want to talk for a moment about the word fragility because I use that word quite deliberately.
18:52 – Meredith Angwin
Because something that’s fragile breaks easily. It’s not that something that isn’t fragile will never break. I use an example that if I had a beautiful inherited crystal wine glass that somehow I’d gotten and I dropped it, it would break. I have a water bottle here, I can drop it and it won’t break. That doesn’t mean I couldn’t destroy it. I could, I could run over it with a car. But what I’m saying is fragility is how easily it breaks. And one of the things I see happening on the grid is, for example, California started by having flex alerts, you know, conserve, conserve, conserve during very hot weather, you know, fires were going on and so forth.
19:43 – Meredith Angwin
And now they have them every evening in the summer. That’s a fragile grid when you can’t get through an ordinary summer evening without a flex alert.
19:56 – Robert Bryce
So what do you, and we’ve talked about this before, but I think it’s so critical now because we’ve had now FERC, we’ve had NERC, we’re continually beating the drum saying, we’re facing reliability challenges. We’re facing reliability challenges and we need to do something about it. But FERC and NERC are, well, NERC has no regulatory authority. FERC has some, but not enough to force more power, you know, plants to be built. Why, despite all these, well, let me see, it was last year, John Moore, NERC’s Director of Reliability Assessment and Performance, said that, this is the direct quote, he says, just to say it, for the fourth or fifth time, managing the pace of our generational retirements and our resource changes to ensure we have enough energy and essential services is an absolute necessity.
20:46 – Robert Bryce
They keep saying the same thing over and over and over again, but the message still doesn’t seem to be heard. Why not?
20:52 – Meredith Angwin
Well, the thing is, you’re talking about a message and I’m a writer, I’m really into messaging. But when you get right down to it, what makes things change is either loss or gain. In other words, if there was a law passed that, you know, that every state had to have uh one hundred and ten percent of its power demand built within state, well, then you you’d have a change in things or if there was a, you know, if there was a subsidies, you know, or something. But what I’m saying is that what we have now is you can’t change behavior by sending a message usually.
21:35 – Meredith Angwin
I mean, maybe you can, but most people don’t change their behavior because of a message. They change their behavior because to not change it would be illegal. Okay. Or they want to change it because of some gain to themselves, which in the world of utilities and generating plants and so forth, some gain to themselves means increased market share or profits. So Merck and Ferg are talking heads. I mean, they might as well be on some late night news hour, you know, for all the good it does.
22:17 – Robert Bryce
Well, let’s talk about the Northeast because you’re in Wilder, Vermont. I know it’s cold and snowing there. We talked about that earlier before we started recording 20 degrees and snowing. You’re in ISO New England and the Everett LNG terminal is now in Boston is slated to be closed in May due to the closure of the Mystic Generating Station. And Constellation is the one that owns the LNG terminal saying, well, we can’t do anything about this. But this seems the perfect example, again, of a discrete decision being made by one profit-seeking entity, and because they’re making that profit decision, it’s going to affect the reliability for entire states.
22:59 – Robert Bryce
How do you read that? I look at this, and FERC and NERC issued a joint statement late last year saying this is a bad idea, but I don’t see any headline saying it’s that, it’s this is this closure is going to be stopped.
23:12 – Meredith Angwin
No, the closure won’t be stopped. And I, you know, I, I’m as happy to blame a business as to blame a government. I’m an equal opportunity blame caster. But I don’t think we can just look at Constellation and say, look what they’re doing. Because you see, the thing is that The reason that Mystic and the terminal there, Mystic is a power plant and the Constellation terminal has a different name. But at any rate, the reason those two are still in business is that Mystic had a reliability must run contract with ISO New England.
23:59 – Meredith Angwin
So if Mystic was guaranteed a certain amount of money per kilowatt hour that it produced. So if it produced a kilowatt hour at a time when the grid was, let’s say Mystic was guaranteed seven cents per kilowatt hour, I have no idea, nobody tells me, and I’m not trying to find out other people’s situations. But what I’m saying is that Let’s say that Mystic had a seven cents, said, okay, you’re going to get seven cents per kilowatt hour reliability must run. So it puts some power on the grid at the time the grid is running three cents per kilowatt hour and then I saw New England through ancillary services charges, probably, I’m pretty sure it’s ancillary services charges, gives them the other four cents per kilowatt hour.
24:53 – Meredith Angwin
So that’s what’s keeping Mystic going. But there have been a whole lot of protests and You know, I think we’re, we can’t call anything around here a success, as long as we, although the bottom line is we’re paying Mystic to stay in business, you know, how can you call this transition a success as long, and so anyway, the reliability must run contract will end, and Mystic and the terminal will end with it. That’s what’s going to happen. And you can’t say, well, Constellation is shutting it.
25:28 – Meredith Angwin
Constellation looked at it and said, if we don’t get the amount of money we need to keep it going, we’ll shut it down. We’re not, you know, we’re not, as the old saying goes, I’m not in business for my health. Bye. Right.
25:44 – Robert Bryce
Well, I’m looking at this group called Toxics Action Center has targeted the Mystic Generating Station as one of the five largest polluting power stations in the state. That’s in Massachusetts. So they’re pushing to have this closed. But I’m looking at, you know, who is Toxics Action Center? It just seems like the number of NGOs that are working on these kinds of things that are climate focused, but they have no understanding of the need of the reliability of the grid or any of these other things.
26:18 – Robert Bryce
And so constellation is a rational actor. Well, if we’re not going to get paid, we’re going to close the power station. We close the power station. We don’t need the LNG plant. And it has What is it, a total of 1,400 megawatts? Well, that’s a significant amount of power generation that’s needed by the entire Northeast. So again, it seems there’s no sensibility in terms of the overall look at.
26:43 – Robert Bryce
What does this mean in the big picture? Instead, it’s a whole lot of little pictures that have a little bit of overlap with each other, but it’s not making for a cohesive system. Am I making sense to you?
26:56 – Meredith Angwin
Yes, you are. The thing is, though, that the cohesive system would be if there was a really strong entity that could control resource adequacy.
27:14 – Meredith Angwin
And there isn’t such a thing, because in the systems where everything is done by auctions, RTO systems, as I call them, Well, they are RTO systems, but people used to call them deregulated, which had a kind of touchy-feely like modern future sort of thing. Anyway, in those systems, there’s nobody responsible for having resource adequacy who has the power to enforce it. It just doesn’t, like,
27:53 – Robert Bryce
Again, the buck doesn’t stop anywhere.
27:56 – Meredith Angwin
The buck doesn’t stop anywhere. And the idea is, of course, the idea is that that doesn’t matter because the market will take care of it. Well, the market really doesn’t take care of it all the way. I mean, if you set up a market so that people lose money some of the time when things are stressed, that doesn’t matter too much unless people losing money equals people losing their lives. You see what I mean? In other words, if Joe’s power plant looks at the situation and says, I I can’t, I can’t, I can’t get on right now.
28:41 – Meredith Angwin
I mean, gas is too expensive and and the amount they’re willing to pay me is too little, and I’m off. I’m I’m off, I’m off line. Nobody’s going to do much about that. He’s just made a rational market decision, and the market’s supposed to cure everything. The market can only cure things up to a certain extent. I mean, you know. It’s been a long time since I read Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations,
29:13 – Meredith Angwin
And I hope that I can remember it right. But one of the things he pointed out, I think, unless I’m forgetting, is that if you had a waterfall on a river, then a town would grow up around that waterfall because ships would have to take their cargo off, ship it around, put it back on the uphill side of the waterfall. He said, so none of those towns is going to want to put in a canal with locks around the waterfall. Yet for the whole region, a canal with locks, it would be a great help because then you could ship things further up and down that river.
29:56 – Meredith Angwin
So I guess what I’m saying is that we’ve got that situation sort of happening now where what’s good for the region isn’t good for the local.
30:09 – Robert Bryce
Or what’s good for Constellation, if we bring it back to the LNG plant in Boston, is what’s good for Constellation or bad for Constellation. The Constellation is going to make that decision for themselves because they are only looking at this through their lens. But I’m glad to revisit some of these things, because it’s in, you know, with the docuseries coming out, we explore these issues with Enron, with the idea of electricity as a commodity, with this idea that the market is going to cure all this.
30:39 – Robert Bryce
But let’s talk more specifically about nuclear now, because this is one of the issues that I know you worked on, Vermont Yankee, and trying to prevent the closure of Vermont Yankee. And that’s where.
30:49 – Robert Bryce
Some of your motivation for writing Shorting the Grid came from Let me ask the question just directly then. Can nuclear plants work inside RTOs? I mean, new nuclear. Can we build new nuclear plants in these deregulated or restructured markets?
31:06 – Meredith Angwin
No, we can’t.
31:09 – Robert Bryce
31:10 – Meredith Angwin
We can’t because the initial expense of building them would be very hard to recoup in the auction area because the auctions mean that you’re always trying for the lowest energy cost. And so the clearing price can be lower than the nuclear plant could use. As a matter of fact, there’s a whole literature about these things, which isn’t a nuclear literature per se, but when they began setting up the RTOs, there was a literature called the search for the missing money, because a high cost, a capital cost plan, even if it was low…
32:10 – Robert Bryce
32:11 – Meredith Angwin
Operating cost, couldn’t be built. So it was like the search for the missing money to build a high capital cost plan. Now, as you’re probably aware, there are many situations in which high operating costs and high capital costs are at odds. So for example, let’s say I have a house here in Wilder, Vermont, and I decided that I’m paying too much for my fuel bills. And I have it insulated. Actually, it has been insulated. It’s a lovely, cozy house. But what I’m saying is that that is a cost, an upfront capital cost, which will save me on operating expenses.
32:54 – Meredith Angwin
And many houses, especially poorer people’s houses, they can’t come up with the money for the capital costs, so they pay higher operating costs. This isn’t an unusual thing. I mean, the first car I bought was an old Junker, and I tell you, it was in the shop all the time. And eventually I got a new car, and then I had a high capital cost and lower operating costs. I mean, this is a common experience for everything.
33:22 – Robert Bryce
And so it’s that balance then. But to get back to the key question here is that that nuclear plants cannot, new nuclear can’t be built. I mean, we just finished the Vogel 3 and 4 are coming online, or 3 is already online. That’s in a regulated market. And Southern Company owns the nuclear plants. But that wasn’t built in a restructured market or deregulated market like Texas. So there’s one example. But as I look at the SMRs that are trying to get into the marketplace, I’m looking at them thinking, it’s going to be really hard for you to make a living in these restructured, deregulated markets because you have high capital costs and uncertain viability in the auctions or in these energy-only markets.
34:12 – Robert Bryce
So it sounds like we’re in agreement on this.
34:14 – Meredith Angwin
Yes. One of the things that was very interesting to me, I wrote about it at the time in my program, Yes, Vermont Yankee blog, is at one point, Entergy announced that it was going to close or sell its power plants in New England. And it’s nuclear plants, and everybody’s, ah, Entrgy’s getting out of nuclear. It was selling a combined cycle plant, too. What Entrgy was doing, and they even announced it, but nobody paid attention, it was getting out of the deregulated areas.
34:50 – Robert Bryce
They could be more certain of their business prospects in regulated markets. And that was what they were doing.
34:54 – Meredith Angwin
And so, you know, the people were like, oh, well, they’re giving up on nuclear because it’s too expensive. And I’m like, well, you know, gas isn’t too expensive per se, but they just don’t want to be in these deregulated markets anymore.
35:11 – Robert Bryce
So let’s talk about gas and then we’ll close. I wanted to keep this shorter than an hour because to just mark the docuseries coming out. But The fatal trifecta, you’ve coined that phrase, which I think is a really good one, and you talk about it in the docuseries, Juice, Power, Politics, and the Grid, over-reliance on renewables, over-reliance on just-in-time natural gas, and over-reliance on imports. So we talked some about renewables and their limits, we talked, and imports I think is fairly understood, but Winter Storm Elliot last year, the whole entire the northeastern U.S.
35:47 – Robert Bryce
Narrowly averted what would have been a complete disaster because of the lack of the over-reliance on natural gas. I’m pro-natural gas. You know, the U.S. Has an abundance of gas. But what do you see happening now when we see more and more dependence of the grid on gas-fired generation? Is this going to end in tears?
36:09 – Meredith Angwin
I think it may. You understand that in the old days, the gas was only maybe, I don’t know, 30% of the grid or so, and it’s getting to be more than 50% on more and more grids. That’s harder to make up. In other words, if the gas begins failing because of well freezing or compressors not working well in very cold weather or whatever, then it’s a lot harder to deal with 50% going offline than 30%. And of course, it wouldn’t be that all the 50% went offline, but I mean, You really didn’t want.
36:58 – Meredith Angwin
Your grid to be dependent on one kind of system, overly dependent, and especially a system which has just-in-time delivery situation. But, you know, nuclear in France is like 70% of grid used to be at any rate, but nuclear, and it had problems when they weren’t keeping it upright and they had a They had to take plans down for refurbishing. But nuclear stores two or three years worth of fuel in its it just in the reactor. So a nuclear is unlikely to be having to go offline because it ran out of fuel because something happened during a storm.
37:42 – Meredith Angwin
That didn’t happen.
37:46 – Robert Bryce
So this, but it’s that over-reliance on a single fuel is the key here. Is it fair to say then the key to a robust grid is diverse fuels? But if we’re going to pick one, and I think agree on this, we’re going to pick one fuel and focus more of our grid on one fuel, the obvious choice would be nuclear because you have the on-site fuel, you have more fuel security, and therefore energy security. Have you changed your mind or your view on any of that?
38:13 – Meredith Angwin
No, I think that is still true. I don’t like to say, oh, all we need is nuclear because, you know, other fuels have other virtues. I mean, and so I tend to like a mixed grid, but it should have, I mean, in my opinion, a mixed grid would have at least 50% nuclear to take care of the what’s on all the time and to have a lot of power available, which is stored right there at the power plant. You know, I as opposed to. Delivered. The fuel is stored right at the power plant.
38:51 – Robert Bryce
A Lot of a lot of a lot of fuel, you mean at the power,
38:56 – Meredith Angwin
I’m sorry, I said power, right? That’s bad, bad, bad, bad. But you corrected me. Thank you.
39:04 – Robert Bryce
Well, Sue, we’ll draw to a close here a little bit earlier than usual. As I said, Meredith, my friend, let’s station break. My friend, Meredith, she is the author of Shorting the Grid, The Hidden Fragility of Our Electric Grid. I know you are working on another project, but we’ll wait and talk about that another day. But what are you reading now, Meredith? What’s on your, what’s on the top of your list?
39:25 – Meredith Angwin
Well, you know, I’ve been reading a lot of really good books and I’m, I’m shy to, I haven’t reviewed them all. For example, I have here, let me see if I can just reach over here. There’s a Brian Giff’s book, In the Dark. There’s a book by Sean Connors called Chain Reaction is a novel, and it takes place with the trials and tribulations of trying to bring an SMR on a small modular reactor into the grid. I mean, I think there’s an explosion of good books about nuclear. I mean, when I started out, the only pro-nuclear book I could find was an excellent book, Gwyneth Craven’s Power to Save the World.
40:23 – Meredith Angwin
It was the only one. Now, your book was good. It was an excellent book, too. Power hungry because it was pro nuclear, but it was sort of like natural gas to nuclear. It wasn’t so much about the virtues of nuclear, which is look, I love your book. I recommend it all the time. I’m just saying that, you know, there were no straight up pro-nuclear books besides Gwyneth Craven’s just straight up that is it nuclear is the answer books and now there are so many of them and I’m so pleased.
41:01 – Robert Bryce
I am too and there have been a lot that have come out so what gives you hope Meredith.
41:06 – Meredith Angwin
What gives me hope is that I think that younger people who didn’t live through the Cold War are not scared of nuclear as much. And the other thing is that reality is pushing through. And the idea that everybody is most concerned with climate change is batting up against the fact that people in Chicago can’t drive their electric vehicles because of the cold, can’t charge them, that people can’t, don’t want to have grid failures, want to have robust grids, whatever that takes. And I think that is really, that is very hopeful to me.
41:56 – Robert Bryce
Yeah, I think that your point about the facts are intruding on the narrative and I’m hopeful that that is in fact the case because it’s overdue and the grid is, what is that line, was it, mine is a terrible thing to waste, the grid would be a terrible thing to waste as well. But
42:13 – Meredith Angwin
42:15 – Robert Bryce
You’ve done a great job, a yeoman’s job, with shorting the grid and really have had a big impact. And it’s been great to see you getting traction in the marketplace of ideas.
42:28 – Meredith Angwin
42:29 – Robert Bryce
Congratulations for that. But let’s draw to a close there. My guest has been Meredith. You know where to find her. She’s on Twitter, at Meredith. Her book is Shorting the Grid, The Hidden Fragility of Our Electric Grid. Meredith, thanks a million for coming back on the Power Hungry podcast.
42:44 – Meredith Angwin
Thank you so much for inviting me and I’m so looking forward to your docu-series. I just can’t tell you how excited I am about it.
42:52 – Robert Bryce
Well, thank you. I am too. It’s been a long road, but we’ll stop there. Thanks to all of you out there in podcast land for tuning into this episode of the Power Hungry Podcast. Until next time, see ya. Of their thing.