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June 07, 2018

An Antifragile Energy Supply

How do we make sure that all Americans have a secure source of energy in the future? The question is important even if the Trump Administration answer that we ought to be mandating the use of coal and nuclear plants has more to do with politics than energy.

Where’s the problem?

Our electrical grid is ancient in design and implementation. It is vulnerable to both physical and cyber attacks. The grid was located to deliver power from coal and nuclear plants which are aging out of service. It was designed to take advantage of the predicable baseload power such plants generated. The grid wasn’t designed for either the intermittency or locations of current wind and solar power sources. The failure of the obsolete and poorly maintained grid in Puerto Rico is extreme but should be a wakeup call.

Even though the electrical grid is increasingly insufficient for modern reality, we are increasing our dependence on it. More and more cars (still a very small number in absolute terms) are electrically powered. Currently we use the fossil fuel in our cars to take us away from areas where electricity has failed and even to power our cellphones during a blackout. We’re not ready for a time when an electrical failure also implies a transportation failure. Think how much worse the crisis in Puerto Rico would be if ambulances, trucks, and cars couldn’t move.

For good environmental and economic reasons, the use of electric heat pumps rather than oil or gas burning furnaces is being promoted (I have two). Again, though, we are increasing our reliance on an electrical grid which is not sufficient for its current tasks. The power fails (perhaps because of a long cloudy windless spell) and people are without heat, light, and transportation to get them out of Dodge. They can’t call for help and help can’t get to them. Not a pretty picture but not far-fetched either.

“Antifragility” is a concept developed by Nassim Taleb in his book Antifragile. Wikipedia defines antifragility as “a property of systems that increase in capability, resilience, or robustness as a result of stressors, shocks, volatility, noise, mistakes, faults, attacks, or failures.” Our energy distribution system in fragile by any definition; it should be antifragile. The Internet, as an example, is antifragile as a communication network because of its lack of a central point of failure, the diversity of resources which make it up and, most important, dynamic routing.

How do we make our energy distribution system antifragile?

  1. Allow the electrical grid to evolve. Our ludicrous permitting process makes it nearly impossible regulatorily and prohibitively expensive to build a new power line. We have electricity shortages in New England but can’t find a way to bring abundant, cheap, clean Canadian hydropower south without going through somebody’s backyard or constructing a transmission tower where someone might see it.
  2. Allow gas pipeline infrastructure to grow. We are retiring our nuclear plants in New England; we need more baseline electric power generating capacity. We don’t want to burn coal and, in the winter, natural gas generating plants run out of fuel. There is a surplus of natural gas in the Marcellus just to our west. It can’t get to New England because there isn’t enough pipeline between here and there and capacity expansions have been blocked politically. The gas distribution network is also a useful alternative to complete dependence on the electrical grid as a way to bring power to homes, factories, and vehicles.
  3. Allow distributed generation and energy storage to grow. Both renewable and non-renewable local energy projects are priced and delayed out of reach by the combined lobbying power of those who don’t want nearby development and those who’d prefer no economic growth.
  4. Don’t mandate one energy source over the other. Such mandates, as we’ve see now with the proposed coal and nuclear mandates and the ethanol mandate, are usually political inspired. They induce fragility by constraining choice. Obviously, environmental constraints on emissions and wastes are appropriate, however; so long as they’re not written for the explicit purpose of favoring a popular energy source (see Renewables Are a Means, Not an End ).
  5. Stop “incenting” electric cars. Electricity is not an energy source. Every watt that a Tesla runs on has to be generated. Nationwide, that means that Teslas are coal-powered a third of the time and fossil-fuel-powered most of the time. It is more energy efficient to burn natural gas directly in a car than to burn it in a power plant, run the electricity over lossy lines, charge a battery, and then use the electricity to turn the wheels. Less CO2 emissions as well. People may prefer electric cars and should be able to buy them; but distorting the economics with subsidies makes our entire energy infrastructure more fragile.
  6. Repeal the Jones Act, which prohibits carrying goods between US ports in foreign vessels. This winter LNG was shipped from Siberia to Massachusetts at the same time as LNG was being exported from Louisiana to Asia because there are no American LNG tankers, which would have been allowed to go directly between the two states.
  7. Do build a new electrical backbone which is distributed, cyber-attack resistant, and which can carry power with little loss from any region of the country to any other as supply and demand vary. All electricity sources become more economically viable with a more capable grid. Because of our huge size, the wind is usually blowing somewhere and the sun shining somewhere (during the day). The fact that the US started as a huge free trade zone (even when it was small) and that we now stretch from sea to shining makes us antifragile so long as we have the transmission and transportation networks to conquer distance.

See also Bailout Coal and Nuclear Plants?

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