The fallout from the Texas Blackouts continues to reverberate. In this episode, Robert talks to Steve Brick, a consulting engineer who has 40 years of experience in the power sector, about why renewables are the “pandas” of the electricity sector, the myriad difficulties involved in expanding America’s high-voltage transmission capacity, and why the academics and policymakers who are pushing all-renewable scenarios have “reality deficit disorder.” 

Episode Transcript

Robert Bryce  0:04  

Hi, welcome to the power hungry podcast. It’s blackout week here on the power hungry Podcast. I am the host Robert Bryce. We talk about energy, power, innovation and politics. And today it’s blackouts, blackouts, blackouts. And I’m pleased to welcome my friend, Steve brick, who is in Madison, Wisconsin, and he is a independent power consultant with four decades of experience in the power business. Steve, I’ve given you a brief intro, and I warned you I have all of our guests introduce themselves. So if you have given you the brief intro, do you mind just giving us a little bit more about you and yours and say, imagine you just arrived at a dinner party, you don’t know anyone. And you’re asked to introduce yourself go.

Steve Brick  0:46  

I’ll tell you my life story. 45 seconds, Robert. I think I’ve told you this before, but I went to college, to be an ornithologist. I was a biology major. And when I was a sophomore in 1973, I got hired to work on an environmental impact study that was going on just north of Madison, here were 2000 megawatt coal fired power plants were being built. And I was out there counting birds and insects and identifying plants. But I got absolutely fascinated by this massive construction project that was going on. And I worked on that project all for years that I was an undergraduate. And the more I learned about what being an academic ornithologist was all about. And the more fascinated I got with the interaction between energy and human systems, I went I want to do something that’s a little more practical than becoming an academic ornithologist. So I graduated from the university, went off to work for a few years, came back and did a graduate program in energy studies where I beefed up on my engineering and some of the technical things that I didn’t have as an undergraduate. And since that time, I’ve worked in every corner of the power industry, I’ve worked in a public utility regulatory agency, I’ve worked in the nonprofit sector, I’ve worked for an independent power company, worked for a foundation, I’ve come at this problem from every imaginable corner. And here I am now four decades in and I’m still absolutely fascinated by it. And like you, Robert, I’m passionately convinced that there is nothing more essential to modern life than electricity. And so the opportunity to talk with you during blackout week, and it’s just, it’s I’m just been really looking forward to this. Well,

Robert Bryce  2:44  

thank you. I have to add that you, Steve are have the first word and the last word in our documentary juice, how electricity explains the world. So here you are, back. Again, I’m drafting you again for another highly paid, starring role in another project. But let’s just jump in. And I know you’ve you’ve continued your love of birds, because we talked about birds and I saw habit hermit thrush in our yard during the snowstorm, it seems to be have left now. But nevertheless, we won’t talk birds too much here instead. So we spoke yesterday on the phone about what’s going on in Texas. And he told me, we started talking about reserve margin. Now. There are many reasons why Texas grid went to the verge of failure and that we had millions of people blacked out. But one of the key reasons that we talked about yesterday is the issue of reserve margin. What is reserve margin and why does it matter in Texas or in other grids? Why do grid operators care about reserve margin?

Steve Brick  3:47  

Sure, reserve margin is simply that extra increment of power that you have above and beyond your expected demand to step in, when inevitable failures happen on the on the grid, we’ve always planned the grid for failures, right? We expect there’s going to be an outage at a power plant, we expect that there will be the occasional outage of a transmission line. We want the grid to continue to work around those outages. So the reserve margin is simply the amount of generating capacity that we build into the system above and beyond the demand that we expect to step in, in those emergencies. round numbers around the United States around the world. 20% is a typical number for reserve margin. So if you have a demand on a system that was 1000 megawatts, you’d build a system of 1200 megawatts to cover those kinds of emergencies, those kinds of outages and So one of the one of the things about reserve margin is that the larger the footprint you’re operating in as a grid, the better able you are to share reserves with your neighbors. So remember, the the the United States is three big grids, right? We’ve got the eastern interconnect, we’ve got the western interconnect, and we’ve got Texas. And,

Robert Bryce  5:28  

you know, you say that with just a slight hint of derision, which has become common lately. But it’s, and then we have Texas. No, I’m from Oklahoma, right. So I know I’ve been drinking. I’ve been I’ve been drinking the Kool Aid about Texas, right. But I

Steve Brick  5:44  

know but I’ll tell you, I’m I’m I’m actually I’m a fan of Texas, I’ve enjoyed every trip I’ve made to Texas. And I’m not I’m not an anti Texas guy in any way. But Texas made some policy decisions way back in the 1970s, about how they were or weren’t going to be integrated with the rest of the country. And the decisions that they made meant that Texas stands alone, when it comes to providing for its reliability. Whereas here in Wisconsin, where I live, we’re part of a pool that effectively encompasses the whole eastern United States from the from the from the center of the country, all the way to the east coast. And so we can we can share reserves, and we can make reliability decisions across very broad footprint like that. And the western United States does the same thing.

Robert Bryce  6:37  

So Texas, as they because they have those interconnects. But I did just want to interrupt here because I’ve heard a lot about this, and I you know, I we during the filming of juice and in my own travels, and in talking with other people on the podcast, including Brad Rockwell at Coney Island utility cooperative Island grids are common all over the world. Iceland has one, you know, so I mean, let me ask the question then. And just interrupt here. Yes. So effectively, Texas has an island grid. It’s a big island. And it’s not actually an island. It’s not. But is that really the problem? Or was this just really a problem of engineering? Because Island nodes work all over the world?

Steve Brick  7:18  

Yes, right. No, that’s not the problem. What it means is that relatively speaking, Texas probably should have I would say, from an engineering standpoint, Texas would probably want to have slightly higher reserves, because of its Island nature. Right. Now

Robert Bryce  7:34  

the instead of heading higher reserves, it had

Steve Brick  7:37  

lower reserves. And again, one of the one of the big challenges, and we talked about this yesterday, Robert, we’ve talked about it before. Texas has a market structure that does not lend itself to the kind of reliability planning that we can do in other places around the country where we don’t have the same kind of market structure. So here in Wisconsin, good old fashioned, you know, cheese had conservatism. We didn’t deregulate our power markets. And so we’ve got a kind of a good old fashioned system where the utilities are regulated monopolies, and where they are assured through what is sometimes called the regulatory compact, that they will be able to get their money back for any reasonable investment. And those reasonable investments have always included investments in reliability. And in fact, historically, regulators have always liked just a little more investment in reliability because nobody likes to have blackouts. Nobody likes to have power outages.

Robert Bryce  8:44  

So just just in revenue, the idea of the integrated utility and to correct me if I’m wrong, that means you have one company, they own the generation they own the end, they own the wires, and they own the meter. That’s it. That is and you have one chain of command throughout. That’s right. That’s right. But we don’t we well, I live in Austin. It’s kind of a mix of those, but we don’t, we’ve disaggregated the system. So we have wires, companies and generators only and this is a much more complex system to manage. Is that fair?

Steve Brick  9:16  

It’s that’s absolutely fair. The generators in Texas play as purely competitive actors. There’s no regulatory guarantee that any of them are going to get their money back through the power markets. So that’s, that’s very, very different. And one of the things I would argue that we’ve found, if we look around the United States, the the places that have moved most aggressively toward deregulated markets are coincidentally the places that have had the most reliability problems in recent times. California, moved very early and very aggressively to deregulate its power markets and and the reliability problems that they’ve had over the past several years have been well publicized. New England moved very aggressively to deregulate power markets in New England. And several winters ago, they had similar kinds of problems with gas supply and had outages because their regulatory markets don’t do a good job don’t do as good a job of delivering reliability as kind of traditional markets do. And now we have Texas and Texas, in some sense, may have the most kind of pure market kind of system that, you know, they have what’s called an energy only market. And so one of the things that that it’s, it’s unlikely you just don’t see companies making massive investments in the kind of thermal power plants that you need to maintain reliability. If there’s not a guarantee that they’re gonna get their money back, this is an asset that’s very expensive billions of dollars of investment. And if they got a bet on on getting it back from the market, they’re not very likely gonna, gonna gonna dive in there.

Robert Bryce  11:05  

Well, I think that’s the key point that I keep coming. Keep hearing over and over. And just a reminder to all of you listening, I’m talking to Steve brick. My good friend, he’s an independent power consultant has 40 years of experience in the electric power business. He doesn’t have a podcast, a book of film. No, he’s, I think you told me you want to recommend that people look at Meredith angwin, his new book, during the grid, which I think I probably sold more copies of Meredith’s book, and I’ve sold of mine, but that’s okay. She’s she Maybe her books better for certainly. right on point right now. Yeah. But but but she made the point. And I wrote I had published a piece in Forbes, just a little bit ago, talking about her point was, which was, this was the failure in Texas was a case of grid mismanagement, the system was not set up to reward resilience and reliability. Is that fair?

Steve Brick  11:59  

Yeah. Yeah. And, and, and, and again, what I would what I would say is that, um, you know, I’ve noticed the earth hot, the electric reliability Council of Texas has been taking a lot of heat. I would say

Robert Bryce  12:14  

you saw that the three or four board members resigned just today? I didn’t see that. No, Chairman, the chairman resigned to the board two or three of the board members. I don’t know who they were there were several out of state board members who were catching all kinds of hell because they don’t live in Texas. And yeah, but and understand that too.

Steve Brick  12:31  

Oh, and again, I don’t I, you know, there’s a lot that’s going to emerge about this, this event in the next, I would say in the next 12 to 18 months and a lot of the stuff that I hear, you know, being proclaimed confidently on CNN or any of these other sort of news outlets. I’m kind of going, we don’t really have the information to make that kind of a strong declaration. aurka i don’t i i think and again, you and I were talking about this earlier, I think in the end, at the end of the day, if we’re if we’re sober. And we look at the sort of root causes in the chain of events that led to the outages in Texas. There’ll be plenty of blame, to go around and, you know, are caught doesn’t get to make up the rules. It isn’t like Erekat said, oh, let’s have a let’s have an unreliable system. berkhout has to manage the system, according to the rules that the Texas legislature and the Railroad Commission, who are who jointly kind of set the rules for deregulation in Texas, are count has to implement those rules.

Robert Bryce  13:41  

And just just interrupt was the Railroad Commission regulates oil and gas, are you sure you’re not talking about the Public Utility Commission?

Steve Brick  13:47  

I mean, the public utilities, back in the day, by the way, back in the day, the Railroad Commission regulated everything. Okay. And I’m still in that habit of calling it calling at the Railroad Commission, because

Unknown Speaker  13:57  

I have no problem.

Steve Brick  13:58  

I’m, you know, I have I have an old brain.

Robert Bryce  14:01  

No, no worries. So you’re so you’re and I think that that’s a key point is that, and you know, there’s gonna be a lot of heat on all the people that are caught, but they are the regional. They’re the RTO, the regional transmission operator there, they are the ones who oversee the market, but they didn’t create the rules, they’re implementing the rules.

Steve Brick  14:18  

And and you know, and I know, I don’t know a lot of people that are cut, but I know the kind of people that work at places like that. They’re there, many, many of them are electrical engineers. And what I can tell you about electrical electrical engineers, from a reliability standpoint is if the world is up to them, they would build the system with belt suspenders, gray tape, and staples, you know, they want they want they left to the engineers would have five redundancies. And so, again, a lot of these kind of tendencies that deregulation has forced into the system are kind of very anti A traditional engineering caution.

Robert Bryce  15:03  

And so why was that? I mean, you know, it’s been funny for me to watch it. And let me ask this question. First, I want to come back to this idea about the about how why this market was created the way it was. But I’ve been stunned, frankly, and I’m a longtime critic of the wind business, you know, proudly. So I, you know, they, I talked to a lot of people who’ve left their homes because of noise from wind turbines that there are a lot of external issues that they don’t deal with. There. I’ll cut to the point or the question, there were a flood of stories in the immediate aftermath of the blackout, saying it’s not windfall. How much of the I know there’s not a single fault single cause of why these blackouts happen. But how much blame does the wind industry deserve in this blackout situation?

Steve Brick  15:58  

Yeah, I would say it’s, it has been much overstated in the press. Urquhart does a very good job of kind of estimating the reliability value of wind. And the reliability value that ercot assigns to wind is quite low.

Robert Bryce  16:16  

in the single digits of capacity, right,

Steve Brick  16:19  

it’s in the single digits of capacity. And it particularly because Texas has so much wind, that as you, you know, the first increment of wind that you build may have a kind of a 20% capacity value. But that falls off very steeply as you add more and more and more wind, because, of course, the wind production is highly correlated, really, you know, in the West Texas area, it’s highly coordinated, a highly correlate, and so correlated with I’m sorry, what? with with with weather, right? So when When, when, when, when the wind is blowing all the wind in West Texas is producing a lot when the wind isn’t blowing, none of its producing. So your marginal capacity value goes down very, very quickly.

Robert Bryce  17:07  

And fast. And just that capacity value, because it clear to people who aren’t familiar with these terms, because there are a lot of terms there’s a there’s a big vocabulary in the electric sector. But the the capacity value, I think there’s about 30,000 megawatts of capacity, wind capacity in Texas, but that are caught. I don’t know these numbers right off the top of my head, but I think it was less than 10%. They were counting something like it was 2000 3000 megawatts as being available during extreme winter weather is that the memory serves? Is that about? Right?

Steve Brick  17:38  

Yeah, that’s that that’s that sounds about right. And

Robert Bryce  17:42  

but in for a nuclear plant, that, you know, like the South Texas project, which is roughly 2000 megawatts, they would be counting roughly 9000 megawatts or Yeah, exactly. Very close to the maximum,

Steve Brick  17:54  

they would count most of it. Yep. And depending, you know, depending upon the circumstances in the time of year, they’d count all of it.

Robert Bryce  18:00  

Okay, so back to the question that so I’m sidetracked a little bit. But so how much is it? Right? Is it fair to blame, when to show that to make the point that when bears should shoulder a significant part of the blame? Is that is that what Yeah, no, I

Steve Brick  18:16  

don’t, I would say that’s not fair, I would say are caught credits wind appropriately for, you know, they understand that it’s a resource that’s variable, you can’t count on it. When it produces energy, it’s great because the energy is cheap. But you better be prepared to step in, when the wind doesn’t blow and when the wind turbines don’t operate. So, you know, is there some blame? Yes, probably some blame. But I would say the the stories that have said when was singularly responsible for the outages in Texas, are simply untrue. And we do have we do have some examples globally. Robert, you and I’ve talked about this where there were outages in very unique situations in South Australia, for example, where there there was an outage where, you know, you can pretty well you can pretty well sort of sort out the causes of that outage in wind played a very, very major role or the unavailability of wind played a very major role in in what was a effectively a statewide blackout in South Australia. And that’s not that that’s not the case here. Texas, you know, wind isn’t great in the winter in Texas, people weren’t counting on the wind at this point. And it was it was just a variety of other other factors that clearly came into play.

Robert Bryce  19:38  

So if I can interrupt because it was a point that I made in the piece that I just published on Forbes about this, which was that the estimates by Texas public policy Foundation, which is a conservative think tank here in Austin, they estimated that something like $36 billion will be spent on Texas wind between 2006 2029 it was a big number. Yeah. And so my reaction to that was, well, if the state and federal taxpayers are paying that much to, to deploy wind in Texas will, if it’s not available during times when the version of that grid is on the verge of collapse, why are we spending so much money on it? I mean, is that a fair point?

Steve Brick  20:19  

Yeah, it’s a perfectly fair point. And I, you know, I think I can give you my version of an answer to that question, please

Robert Bryce  20:24  


Steve Brick  20:25  

Well, um, as I like to say, wind and solar, are the charismatic megafauna of the energy ecosystem.

Robert Bryce  20:37  

These are the the lions and the Tigers and the bears and the elephant.

Steve Brick  20:40  

And they’re the pandas. You know, I mean, everybody, you know, everybody loves, everybody loves, you know, but nobody ever stood back and said, You know, people said, what are we going to pay for this stuff? But nobody really ever asked the question, well, what is the value that wind and solar contribute to the system? And if we’re going to pay something for them, and I think it’s absolutely fair, that we pay something for them, what we pay should be somehow related to the value that they give the system,

Robert Bryce  21:20  

the resilience and reliability value?

Steve Brick  21:23  

Well, I don’t think they give much in terms of resilience and reliability, what they do is they give us a source of cheap energy, but almost no capacity. Well, if we were going to, if we’re going to just pay them on their energy value, which is, you know, I think I could make a case that we’d start there, maybe we’d give them a little, you know, kind of kicker for the fact that they don’t emit any pollutants. But I believe that that would add up to far less on $1 per megawatt hour basis, then then then these resources are being paid. I think we are routinely overpay for wind and solar, we pay much more than they’re worth as a system resource. And in fact,

Robert Bryce  22:04  

I mean, the other thing, when you say pay, are you saying that we’re subsidizing them too heavily?

Unknown Speaker  22:09  

Yeah. Yes, yes.

Robert Bryce  22:11  

Okay, so, you know, I’m gonna give you So who are you working for? Why are you saying this? What, you know, if this is the immediate response, when there’s any, and this was the immediate response from all, you know, all these journalists, none of whom live in Texas? Well, most of whom don’t live in Texas? Oh, well, you know, it’s the fossil fuel industry is captured Greg Abbott, and all these other critics of the wind business in Texas, they wouldn’t be saying this otherwise.

Steve Brick  22:34  

Yeah, I mean, you know, I, I don’t have any connection to the wind industry, although I’ve actually done you know, in years past, I did a consulting project for a Ouija for the American Wind Energy Association. I don’t have a dog in the hunt. But to me, it’s a matter of just kind of raw power system economics, that if you want to have a rational system, if you want to have a rational grid, you pay the resources that are on that grid, something that relates to the value that they contribute to the grid. And those values are things like capacity and capacity, think of capacity as the horsepower in your car, you don’t use all the horsepower all the time. But if you want to pass somebody, you know, in a, in a dodgy situation, you’re really glad you’ve got the horsepower to do it, you’ve got the energy that comes out, which are the kilowatt hours, you’ve got a whole range of sort of reliability related attributes, we talked about reserve margin, within that broad category of reserves, there are, you know, five, or six or seven different types of reserve that the that the grid typically wants to have. And some resources, you know, a natural gas plant, a nuclear plant plants that are more traditionally thermal that have rotating inertia, they can provide those reliability resources, whereas some of the other resources that are more variable like wind, like solar, it’s more difficult for them to provide those resources. And in some cases, they don’t provide those resources at all. So you pay if you pay, you should pay the resource what it gives the grid not pay the resource, because it’s it’s the panda of the energy system, and you think it’s cute.

Unknown Speaker  24:27  

Yeah, and

Robert Bryce  24:28  

let’s see, let me let me interrupt because I this is a point that I want to get to because I was on a panel or I moderated a panel a few years ago with Bill Magnus at ercot. And the issue of grid inertia came up what is grid inertia?

Steve Brick  24:42  

So the grid, you know, this is a fun fact that everybody should know here’s here’s my takeaway for the program, Robert, everybody needs to remember this. There’ll be a test I’m

Robert Bryce  24:51  

still stuck on pandas. So if you’re gonna throw in some more, you know, more golden gems here. I’m gonna go

Steve Brick  24:58  

so the grid is One single interconnected machine. So let’s just talk about Texas, all of the generators that are connected to the grid. And all of the devices that are connected to the grid that use electricity operate together in synchrony. There are some single machine. And because back in the day, Westinghouse one and Edison lost, we have what’s called an alternating current system. and alternative

Robert Bryce  25:35  

medicine one a direct current DC,

Unknown Speaker  25:38  

Edison wanted

Robert Bryce  25:38  

direct current and and and Westinghouse proved that AC was much more effective, particularly over long distance and moved the electricity from Buffalo from Niagara falls into the city of Buffalo. And that that was the that was the key experiment in 1893, something like that.

Steve Brick  25:54  

Yeah, I’m bad on those dates, but you know, a while ago, so that what that means is that our system operates at a particular frequency in the United States, we operate a system at 60 hertz, meaning that alternating current alternates, back and forth 60 times per sec. And the most important thing about keeping the grid stable is that you have to keep grid frequency with in about a half a cycle, either up or down of that 60 hertz. So 60.4 59.6, everything is fine 60.7, things start getting dodgy 59.2, things start getting dodgy, that’s an enormously tight sort of range within which we have to operate the system. And what’s amazing is if you think about that system as as sort of oscillating back and forth, that oscillation is provided on the generation side by lots and lots and lots of very large rotors, that are mostly rotating at 3600 revolutions per minute. And when you turn on your light at home, the system slows down just a little bit. And someplace, a generator senses that and increases its output a little bit and speeds the system back up. So it stays within that 59.5 to 60.5 hertz

Robert Bryce  27:35  

range. And just to be clear, so what when you flip on your air conditioner refrigerator, and you see the lights dim just a little bit, that that’s a change in voltage, which that changes the frequency and that frequency has to run within that very narrow margin. Okay, so, and voltage, just to remind people that’s akin to water pressure in a pipe, that amount of pressure that has to be kept in that pipe. And that needs to be, you know, be kept at a very steady state. So back to grid inertia,

Steve Brick  28:05  

back to grid inertia. So we have lots and lots of power plants that have generators that spin at 3600 RPM, and that’s the inertia in the system. And if you, for example, cut the power plant off, that rotor will continue to rotate, because there’s so much energy sort of contained. there so much inertial energy, it will continue to rotate for quite a while.

Robert Bryce  28:35  

So it’s that kinetic energy that has been been created through the steam going through the term that the the generators that spin that, that that steel,

Steve Brick  28:45  

that’s been the rotor that that create the inertia on the system, and the more inertia you have, the more you’re able to respond to swings.

Robert Bryce  28:54  

So when I turn, I can turn on a lot of lights, and it’s not going to change the frequency.

Steve Brick  28:57  

And that and again, that happens, you know, that happens all the time, right? You’ve got a you’ve got a large factory, for example, and they have a process. And you know, it’s possible that they can just bring that process on almost instantaneously. And that can, you know, you’ll hear a large sucking sound on the grid when that happens. And the reason that the grid doesn’t crash when that happens is because we’ve got sufficient inertia committed sufficient ability to ramp up and meet that demand even under under very sort of short terms. So you know, when bad things happen on the grid, very often it is because we fail to maintain system frequency. So the 2004 blackout, and the Northeast. You know, it all started I mean, now we know a lot about root causes of that 2004 blackout, right, there was a there was a high voltage transmission line, that sort of tangled with some vegetation and that started to change. chain of events. But effectively at some point in that event, frequency started to become unstable, it started to go outside of that safe range. When that happens, the reason that’s a concern, it’s a concern for a lot of reasons. But the biggest reason it’s a concern is power plants, which are obviously very large and very expensive, can be damaged. If they’re attempting to send 60 cycle power out into a grid, that is somehow or other oscillating wildly away from 60 cycles. So what the way the way they work is, if the if the sensors in a power plant detect that the system is that frequency is not stable, they desynchronized the power plant, because they would rather protect the power plant. And, and and create a sort of a localized reliability problem, then attempt to override that frequency instability.

Robert Bryce  31:00  

And that’s the ride through capability is that what is that right, what is Yeah, right term? Yeah, I mean, so so let me let me get back to the point why I think this this matters is that there was a lot of reporting around bill Magnus saying that frequency fell to 59.93. I talked to an engineer yesterday told me it actually felt a 59.3. You remember, that’s below

Steve Brick  31:23  

the 59.5 that I talked about, right? So it’s 9.93? Would that be a problem? 59.3 is a problem.

Robert Bryce  31:32  

And so what happens if it falls below? 59? What would it I guess, let me ask this question, because I referred to it today. But how close did Texas come to a complete grid meltdown?

Steve Brick  31:42  

Pretty close? I mean, we’ve heard that from what

Robert Bryce  31:45  

would that have looked like?

Steve Brick  31:47  

Well, what it would have looked like is, you know what I would say it would have looked like his as system frequency. And in this case, system frequency was falling, because you said it was 59.3. Right, that’s that’s that’s two tenths of a hertz below that safe, 59.5 level that I talked about, as power plants detected that they would attempt to do what they could to bring frequency back up. But if all the power plants are already dispatched, fully, nobody’s going to be able to do anything to bring the frequency backup. And as that signal persists, power plants are going to desynchronized they’re going to cut themselves off from the grid. And then that’s just that, that can just become a daisy chain where everything in the control area cuts itself off. Now the problem with Texas is Texas is the controller. So if

Robert Bryce  32:46  

so then that would take us if they all cut off, that takes us to what’s called Black start, is that right? Then everything goes everything goes dark, there’s no electricity on the entire grid that’s available, and you have has to be restarted from the beginning. And then in a grid like this, where we have 70 at peak 70,000 megawatts, 70 gigawatts of demand, how long would that take?

Steve Brick  33:08  

Well, you know, it can take you know, I’m in 2004 in the northeast, it took 48 hours to get everything back up and running. You know, because again, you start plant by plant, area by area so power

Robert Bryce  33:29  

plants synchronize with each other to get them back in all in synchronicity that then that synchronicity has to grow from plant to plant as they’re brought on and matched with demand.

Steve Brick  33:40  

Yeah. And then here’s another great example of things that that purely competitive markets don’t don’t necessarily capture very well. Not every plant has black start capability.

Robert Bryce  33:54  

See, I didn’t I didn’t know that. But yeah, just let me just finish this question about black start because I was doing some fair amount of speculation honestly in the in the piece that I wrote. But if we if Texas did go to black start, and you’re at a point where your sub freezing temperatures and attenders is in the single digits when in on the night of the 14th, early morning of the 15th.

Unknown Speaker  34:13  


Robert Bryce  34:14  

and you have snow falling, the roads are impassable. There’s it’s not just snowing, it symbolizes freezing rain. And what then if you go to to the grid goes to black start, then all your nursing homes, hospitals, fire stations, police stations, all are suddenly in the dark.

Steve Brick  34:32  

Yeah, I mean, you know, one thing, one thing to recognize large nursing homes, hospitals, a lot of public buildings have emergency generation, right? They’re going to have a diesel generator that is going to detect the fact that the grid has just gone on vacation, right. And that diesel generator

Robert Bryce  34:54  

and they didn’t have they didn’t have vacation leave on the schedule.

Steve Brick  34:57  

Yeah, this was this is unplanned leaf, right. So So, so for really sensitive places of infrastructure, you know, it’s hard to imagine a hospital these days that doesn’t have an emergency generator. Now, you can’t, you know, that emergency generator isn’t typically sized, so you just kind of like, go on with what you were doing right? You’re gonna, you’re gonna, you’re gonna be reducing operations to absolute minimal levels. Well, and a lot of the larger assisted care facilities, my mom and dad live in a place, not very far from where I live. They’ve got an emergency generator, with that facility. You know, emergency generators are actually kind of cheap. And I’m one of the things I’m going to want to watch is I’m going to be interested to see how the sales of emergency generators go in Texas now that this has happened. Oh, yeah.

Robert Bryce  35:47  

I mean, I referenced a piece today that generac In fact, it’s a Wisconsin company.

Unknown Speaker  35:53  


Robert Bryce  35:55  

They said their demand is out through the roof, they can’t keep up with demand that everybody wants one. So Well, let me let me get back to that. So I appreciate that the the discourse on the on the reliability thing, I want to, I want to go back to this idea of reliability and renewables. So is, is why are we seeing more blackouts? Is it we’re seeing that we saw and Is it is it just a function of this effort to deregulate the power market? And should we? Is it a mistake? Was deregulation a mistake?

Steve Brick  36:30  

Well, let me answer. Let me answer that. That last question. First, Robert, way back in the 90s, when we started talking about deregulating our power markets, I was doing work for a new england NGO that was very much involved in kind of trying to shape utility policy. And we took a look at, you know, how the regulatory system was working, and then said, Well, we can’t do any worse under deregulation. And we tried to then have some conversations about what rational deregulation would look like. Now, that was more than 20 years ago. I would say that, starting in the early 2000s, as I looked at the impact that the regulated power markets have had in the United States, and in Europe and elsewhere, I started to have a lot of buyers regret. And I started to rethink my kind of earlier positions on deregulation, and I, you know, I I don’t think, you know, I have never seen any convincing sort of empirical analysis that’s that, that demonstrates benefits of deregulation to us customers, you know, amongst economists, it’s just accepted as a matter of faith. Right? It’s, it’s, it’s, it’s creedal. Yes, markets are better, therefore, people are better off. I’m not so sure. Because, again,

Robert Bryce  38:06  

if I can interrupt, because I think that’s a critical point. And it’s one that I thought about a fair amount of years ago, I heard a guy who is the head of wapa, the western area, power Association, Western area, Power Administration. It’s a government entity that manages power in the in the western states. And he made a point then, that I hadn’t really thought about, he said, we’ve got this whole electricity business wrong, we’re selling watt hours, we’re selling a commodity, we’re really selling a service. And that, to me is interesting, because it changes if you think about it as a service, it changes the idea about what it is the business model should be. Right, you’re not selling widgets, you’re selling a life saving, supply of the ability to do work. And that is central to everything we do. And so Is that a fair? I mean, how do you how do you? And I’m trying to follow on your point about deregulation, whether it’s been a benefit. But if we saw the electricity business as more of a service instead of the watt hour commodity business, which is what it turned into in Texas, would that have fundamentally changed how the market worked?

Steve Brick  39:13  

Yeah, I mean, I, my problem is, I’m not sure I like the term service. It’s it, it feels like it understates the importance of electricity to me somehow, you know,

Robert Bryce  39:26  

better give me a better word.

Unknown Speaker  39:28  

I’m not coming up with it. But

Unknown Speaker  39:30  

But, I mean,

Steve Brick  39:33  

honestly, Robert, I, you know, one of the things that that I’ve become so passionate about the older I’ve gotten, is that in terms of just kind of keeping modern society running, there is nothing more essential than electricity, full stop. Now, if that’s a service, well, that’s fine. We’ll call it a service, but it feels like it’s more than that. I mean, and this is, this is Why I, you know, it’s like, I do a lot of teaching. And I always start my classes, because my classes always have to do with energy and always have to do with electricity. And I always say, Alright, think of one thing in your life that you do that doesn’t involve electricity. And it’s always dead silence, right. And somebody will go, Well, you know, I flushed the toilet. And it’s like, well, how do you think that water got from the sewage treatment from the from the water treatment plant to you? And how do you think it’s going to get back there? So yeah, I mean, we treated it, we decided it was just another thing that people consumed, and that they’d be better off if we deregulated it. And I think we didn’t, we didn’t really think about the long term implications of what does this mean for reliability? What does this mean for continuity of service? What does it mean, for our ability to shape the grid in the way that we want to shape it? You know, if you’ve got if you’ve got a deregulated grid, what you’re basically saying is, the makeup of this incredibly important system is being left to the workings of the market.

Unknown Speaker  41:11  


Steve Brick  41:13  

I think electricity is too important to allow the shaping of that system just to the market, right? So answer to the last question you gave, I think, you know, if I could figure out a way to put the genie back in the bottle in the places where the genies out of the bottle, I would do it. I just don’t know how to put the genie back in the bottle.

Robert Bryce  41:36  

And I don’t think it’s going to happen in Texas, I think that, you know, there’s going to be some time passing, and there’s going to be a lot of pushback by the incumbents who’ve made up, you know, carved out a lot of business in Texas. And they’re, I think they’re gonna really push back against any effort at significant regulation, including I think, capacity markets. But yeah, let me you, you had a story that we discussed yesterday on the phone about your interaction with arcot. And it was you had a colleague working with you and remind me of that, if you don’t mind, if you could tell that story in short order.

Steve Brick  42:09  

Sure, I had a I had a very junior colleague working with me, I was lucky enough one summer to have a incredibly bright, undergraduate electrical engineering student from MIT, do an internship with the organization that I spent a lot of time working with. And I had asked her to help me kind of understand a concept that was at that time, relatively new in the in the world, I was trying to get a better handle on what are the real reliability implications are building more and more wind and more and more solar on the system, because those resources don’t behave like the resources that we’re used to having. And from the standpoint of system frequency, from the standpoint of maintaining frequency, there has evolved a concept and a product called synthetic inertia.

Robert Bryce  43:07  

Good. I’m glad we went back to this because we didn’t quite close out the discussion of inertia, right. But yeah, just real quick reminder. So the grid has has grown around this idea around the reality of having these big spinning spinning machines that provided inertia, which I would compare two pumps, pumping electricity into the market, and that that pump is has to have some force behind it. And you need that force of that spinning, spinning machinery to push that electricity into the into the pipe. So I’m gonna say So anyway, but now we’re back to inertia, thank you.

Steve Brick  43:40  

So so the the large wind projects that that are built all over the country that that are, you know, populate West Texas,

Unknown Speaker  43:50  


Steve Brick  43:53  

doubly fed induction generators is the is the term of art used for them, their turbans vary their speed, depending upon the speed of the wind, as opposed to you know, in a coal fired power plant, or gas fired power can be 3600 RPM is the way so they generate at direct current. And then they go through what’s called an A power from a wind project goes through an inverter, which converts it into AC power for use on the grid.

Robert Bryce  44:29  

And this is the same with solar as well, solar producing dawsey. Yeah, and so solar and wind, their peculiarity is that they are not providing I’m cutting to the, to the key point here. They’re not providing inertia into the grid. There’s no spinning mass behind wind and solar, that helps that that makes the pump pump those electrons into the system.

Steve Brick  44:48  

Yeah. And and there is spinning mass, of course, in a in a wind turbine, but it’s it’s isolated from the grid by virtue of the existence of the inverter. So very clever. Electrical Engineers said, Well, we can create an synthetic inertia, we can effectively create a piece of hardware and associated software that a wind developer or a solar developer could add to his project, that would send a signal out into the grid that would look to the grid, like inertia and would allow wind and solar to contribute inertia when they were operating. And I had to I mean, no, I’m, I’m less about electronic things and more about physical things. So I had to really let my head get around that for a while before I at least understood that it could work. And so this very talented undergraduate did a literature review for me and kind of came back and said, Well, this is what the literature says, she did it in about half the time that I’d allotted for the work. And she said, You know, I’m really interested in Texas, I’d like to do a study of Texas, because they’ve got a lot of wind, and they’ve got a small grid, relatively speaking. And I’d like to see what the reliability implications of the wind that they have. So I said, that sounds like a great plan. You know, we’ve got the data that we need to do that study, go off and do

Robert Bryce  46:20  

it. And how long ago was this?

Steve Brick  46:22  

Oh, this was five years ago, I think, Okay. And so she, you know, came back and gave me a paper, very densely reasoned full of partial differential equations. And I read the paper. And I said, those are interesting implications. But it’s been 40 years since I did any partial differential equations. So I asked to another colleague of mine who is more recent and better at math, to go over the math, just to make sure the math was right. She came back and said, Yep, this math is right. So what this intern determined was that Urquhart should probably be radically changing its reserve calculations, in light of all the wind that was bringing on the system. And the standard protocols for establishing reserve and other reliability criteria, probably would no longer apply. So let me give you an example of one of those criteria. Robert, we talked about the basic reserve margin, but then remember, I said there were several slices of reserves underneath that. So one of the things that you want to have on a system is called spinning reserve. And spinning reserve is basically generation. That is, if it’s thermal, it’s hot. It’s rotor is spinning, but it’s not synchronized with the grid. And that’s your first line of defense. Right? That can

Robert Bryce  47:59  

be the first the first standby there. That’s the first band. All right, ready to go? Yeah.

Steve Brick  48:04  

So back in the day, back in the dark ages, we used to say spinning reserve is set to equal the largest unit that is committed to the grid at any given time. So in Texas, the largest, you know, back in the day. Sorry, I’m having a senior moment, the largest, big big coal plant east of Houston was the biggest,

Robert Bryce  48:28  

biggest thing I will we will look at South Texas projects, or we’ll just assume 1100 megawatts or megawatts.

Steve Brick  48:34  

I was gonna say, South Texas. So you’d want to have back in the old day, you’d want to have 1200 megawatts for the eventuality if that South Texas trips offline for summaries of

Robert Bryce  48:46  

the spinning reserve that’s ready to ready to go.

Steve Brick  48:48  

Yeah. Well, the problem with wind, because of the huge amount of correlation and output, you know, you were saying, I can’t remember the numbers, but I think it’s you know, you got 30,000 megawatts of wind in West Texas. Well, when that wind drops off, more or less, it all drops off at the same time. And if you’re using the old fashioned spinning reserve criterion, you’re going to miss what is it potentially much larger drop off in wind? And so, you know, my my intern concluded that rocket needed a much more radical concept for dealing with spinning reserve and dealing with the potential loss of you know, most of most of its wind over a very short period. And, you know, I thought that was a very interesting study, we reached out to her cot to say, Hey, you know, you guys probably already know this, but we thought you’d be interested to see this this study. We never never heard back from her.

Robert Bryce  49:55  

So let me we’ve been talking we’re getting closer to an hour here, Steven. I want I don’t want to Take much more than an hour or maybe stop before we get to an hour. But as you know, there have been a number of studies a large number, I mean, it’s full dozen, but it’s at least a half dozen studies that have come out in recent weeks, months, and even maybe a couple years. Stanford, MIT, Princeton, Cal Berkeley, you know, some of the most prestigious universities in America have produced studies that say, well, we could just go to 100% renewables and all we need is this is and this is the question I want to ask. They all nearly all assume one massive amounts of generation capacity, that would be 234 times as or five times as much capacity as we have. Now in the US, we have about one terawatt 1000 gigawatts, 1.2 terawatts, something like that 1200 gigawatts of installed generation capacity, the United States, they’re assuming that we would have three, four or five terawatts of capacity. Okay, well, so, alright, we can maybe build all that stuff. But the the key tripping point, it seems to me the key, the key problem is that they all assume massive amounts of high voltage transmission capacity will be built, in very short order to make that happen. Is it reasonable to assume, as many of these studies have done in recent in recent months, and one in particular from Princeton assumes that we’ll see doubling tripling of high voltage transmission, is that realistic?

Steve Brick  51:28  

No, it’s not. And again, I mean, these these these studies are are studies that say, you know, we’ve, we’ve done the math, we’ve devised a scenario that is highly reliant on variable renewables. I don’t know that I don’t know that Princeton was your specifically referring to Princeton, I don’t think they zeroed in on 100% renewable scenario, but they’ve got a high contribution from variable renewables in all their, in all their scenarios.

Robert Bryce  51:59  

And, and the goal was, okay, so fair enough. Fair, fair point. Their point is that, if we put enough resources, we get to net zero, we will have no zero emissions from our energy sector, if we follow this path and a lot of its renewables. Okay, fair enough. Please go ahead. Yeah.

Steve Brick  52:14  

So, you know, and again, there have been some studies done that were just bad, right? studies that got the math wrong, where there were kind of bonehead assumptions that that end and

Robert Bryce  52:26  

inappropriate calculations. And I’m going to say this was Mark Jacobson study, the one he did with with the man named Dellucci from Cal Berkeley, that was debunked in the in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Mark Jacobson, to his eternal discredit, sued for defamation, Chris Clark in federal court in Washington, DC for a million dollars, or I forgot the exact number, it later withdrew the lawsuit and then had to pay legal fees in the case exceeding $600,000. So I’m just gonna call it out because it’s a it is a black mark forever on the reputation of that particular academic, and I think it’s a black mark on his institution, but I digress.

Steve Brick  53:09  

Alright, so, you know, the Princeton study in some of these other studies, I’m familiar with all of them. I’ve done studies like that myself, as you know, Robert, they don’t suffer from the same kind of defects that Jacobson’s work, did. They are indicative of something that is at least feasible or possible from an engineering standpoint. But that’s not and that’s fine. And it’s, I think it maybe is the job of academics to do studies like that. Um, but that’s not the end of the conversation. And in a sense, it’s the beginning of the conversation. And what I would say about the about the, the build out about the massive expansion of the grid, about, you know, tripling quadrupling quintupling, the the amount of installed capacity and then and then one thing that never really gets hot, highlighted as much but the embedded assumptions about how much people will have to change their behavior to accommodate a grid like this. What I would say is all of that suffers from a common but not widely remarked syndrome, called RDD. Have you heard of RDD? I have not. It’s reality Deficit Disorder. And one of the one of the problems with being old and grumpy, which is what I am is And I can

Robert Bryce  55:01  

attest to that. I’m not gonna argue that point.

Steve Brick  55:03  

Yeah. And but Robert, you know, that I had a job working for, for, for an independent power company, we build power plants, we built associated transmission lines, we built associated gas lines. So I’ve got, you know, scars on my back from dealing with a public that while the public wants cost effective, reliable electricity doesn’t want any infrastructure anywhere near it. And getting anything built is very difficult. And you’ve, you know, you’ve noted this in a lot of the work that you’ve done on, on public opposition to wind around the country. But it but but it’s, it’s fundamental to who we are.

Robert Bryce  55:49  

And it’s more about people care about where they live. Yeah. And they’re not just gonna say, Oh, sure, run over us. And that’s the part that I just kind of, it staggers me sometimes when I look at these academic studies, and I’m thinking, do these academics never talk to small town politicians or small town landowners or rural landowners, but so let me just

Steve Brick  56:07  

ask, by the way, the answer to that question, Robert, is, yes, they don’t. Yes, yes, they don’t? Of course.

Robert Bryce  56:16  

Of course not. So why would they do that? What are the Let me ask the question specifically. And then let’s wrap up here in just a moment. But what what is the difficulty because we’ve heard we’ve heard now, in fact, the New York Times just a day or so ago, put out there an unsigned editorials saying they’re in favor of electrify everything. And again, which has been the mantra of the climate activists in America and it’s one of the things that I wrote about in Forbes that uh, you know, that I’m, I’m, I’m adamantly pro electricity like you have been, you’ve been all over the world. I’ve been all over the world. I’ve seen poverty and deep poverty, I’m absolutely in favor of electricity. But this idea, we should electrify everything is just plain madness. But it hinges on perhaps more than anything else, this idea that we can build massive amounts of high voltage transmission. So let me just put that question to you again. What are the key obstacles to building to doubling tripling quadrupling the amount of high voltage transmission in the United States? What are the key obstacles?

Steve Brick  57:10  

Yeah, well, the first is the public hates it. Nothing the public hates more than transmission. And made more difficult in the United States by the fact that we have a very fractured system for approving any kind of large infrastructure like that, you know, and, and so we always say people, people always, you know, it’s fashionable to talk about, we need to talk about permitting reform, right? Well, you can talk about it in Washington all you want. But if you think the public at the state level, at the county level,

Robert Bryce  57:48  

at the local level in Little Rock in Des Moines, and Arlen and Hartfield and

Steve Brick  57:53  

are going to see their ability to weigh in on this sort of stuff to some kind of federal czar, you got another thing coming, I think we will always have a fractured system because the rail politique of the United States says, that’s, that’s who we are. So I’m very skeptical about the ability of, of building tons and tons of new transmission. public opposition is an obstacle. Cost is an obstacle. And it’s and really overall, you know, transmission is a small cost of the, of the system. But everything always gets boiled down to the individual project. And these individual projects always have big numbers. So, you know, I don’t think it I don’t think it likely that that, you know, we can build the transmission of the of the sort that is envisioned in a lot of these studies. And in fact, one of the things that I’ve been saying on these studies is, if we really want to have a serious look at changing the carbon footprint of the system, let’s do a study of what can be done by only using existing sites for new generation and existing transmission lines. Because we have a lot of we got a lot of power plant sites around the country that are that are that are, have been retired, that are closed down where you know, if you want to build a new power plant, that’s a pretty good place to look for. It.

Robert Bryce  59:20  

Looks great. And that’s a great point. And so let me let me just follow up on that. And maybe we’ll close out after this one, because this is the other part of this that it seems to me. When we were in Lebanon, we interviewed a guy at 24. And his name was, gosh, well, you were you had a senior moment. I’m trying to remember his name just off the top of my head anyway, he gave us a quote on camera. He said, this, the amount of infrastructure and in every given country is essentially fixed. And I’ve thought about that quite a lot since then. And so but the take to get back to this transmission point, that yeah, if we’re, if the amount of high voltage transmission capacity that we have in the United States is fixed, it goes to your point then We should, then the opportunity means putting new power plants where old power plants were. And if that’s the case, we’ll they have to have small footprints. And to me that just screams one on one and only one answer if we’re serious about decarbonisation, and that is put nuclear plants where the old coal plants were, is that? Does that make sense to you?

Steve Brick  1:00:21  

Well, again, it makes more sense to me than trying to build lots and lots of transmission. Now. On the other hand, you know, there’s a lot of obstacles that nuclear has to has to hop, hop through to gain the kind of public acceptance that we need to that it would need to get. But I do I do personally think that, especially some of the new advanced nuclear technologies are are, you know, I’m optimistic that they might, at some point, become some of the charismatic megafauna of the energy ecosystem, there’s certainly not today, there’s you know, and you got to be realistic about that there’s the level of public opposition and, and kind of deeply embedded mistrust of nuclear is is a huge obstacle.

Robert Bryce  1:01:12  

So last question, then, and I know I said it was gonna wrap up. So what do you say to people who say we should electrify everything?

Steve Brick  1:01:19  

Well, I say, first of all, there are things that are just absolutely recalcitrant to electrification.

Robert Bryce  1:01:26  

So let’s be realistic about that. And what are those?

Steve Brick  1:01:30  

cement? For example, you know, I assume we’re going to continue to live in a world that is going to want cement for a while, very hard to electrify the cement making process.

Robert Bryce  1:01:44  


Steve Brick  1:01:46  

transportation, you know, elements of the transportation system are highly electrified, well, you know, local short distance kind of stuff. And, and, you know, from a standpoint of light duty vehicles, the cars we drive, that’s, that’s a huge chunk of our miles traveled. But, you know, probably not a great solution for over the road semis, probably not a great solution for for

Unknown Speaker  1:02:14  

pushing going.

Steve Brick  1:02:17  

But again, the other the other. The other thing that’s worth thinking about is, just because a particular end use may be amenable to electrification doesn’t mean in the long run that we’re going to wind up electrifying it. So we’ve got a lot of studies out there. A lot of you know, sort of deep technical analysis of work. Where could we do electrification? Well, one of the things we know about technical potential studies is we never achieve, we never capture the entire technical potential, right? We’re always going to get something less than the technical potential, there going to be all kinds of reasons why certain sectors or certain geographies remain recalcitrant to electrification. So that, you know, the the more sober people in this debate that I know, and I do know a few of them. You know, recognize that there’s an opportunity to increase the use of electricity and reduce emissions, assuming the electricity is coming from a zero emission source, but that there are going to be a lot of end uses where we’re going to need some other solution. And that may be a carbon capture solution that may be a zero carbon fuel solution, like, like hydrogen. And I know, I hesitate to mention hydrogen, Robert, because I know you’ve got strong feelings about it.

Robert Bryce  1:03:37  

But I’m a skeptic.

Steve Brick  1:03:40  

But, you know, again, we’re not going to electrify everything. Not now, not soon, probably not in my grandchildren’s lifetime.

Robert Bryce  1:03:50  

Well, let’s stop there. Steve, we’ve been on for more than an hour now. So it’s been great. It’s great to reconnect and get you on camera again, even though it’s on zoom. And, but this was great fun. My guest, Steve brick is an independent power systems consultant, an independent power industry consultant who’s had a long career in the business he is not recommending anything is only a call to action. Steve, it’s to read Meredith England’s book is that right? Your you read that it’s

Steve Brick  1:04:18  

a great book. And it’s a book that I obviously sympathize quite deeply with. But it’s it’s a good read. She’s She’s She’s done a good job, writing on a kind of a geeky technical topic.

Robert Bryce  1:04:29  

Yeah, I agree. And she’s, she’s getting a lot of traction with it. And I’m happy for that. Well, we’ll talk again another day about natural gas use in Africa and what that might mean in electrification efforts there because that’s an interesting area. And Todd moss from the energy for growth hub on the podcast A while back who talked about some of those issues, but many Thanks, Steve. Many thanks for being on the power hungry podcast here on blackout week. We’re gonna have I think one more episode of the power hungry podcast during blackout week, so don’t miss that one. And thanks to you, Steve, for spending time with me and thanks to all of you in podcast land. I will see you on the next episode of the power hungry podcast.

Unknown Speaker  1:05:13  

Thanks, Robert.

Robert Bryce  1:05:14  

Thanks, Steve.

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