In the Dark

If you’ve read my bio, you know that I’ve worked in utilities for over thirty years. Electric utilities, to be precise. For longer than over a quarter of the world’s population has been alive, I’ve worked to keep the lights on, from planing to working outages in weather they won’t let prisoners work in. I’ve seen many things, from equipment burning up in my face to lightning daisy chaining through equipment. But one of the most memorable was the day we didn’t have quite enough electricity to go around.

That’s been decades ago. In those days Load Management was the buzzword. Energy use, known as demand, makes a wave shape, with periods of high energy use, the peak, for only a few hours a day, with other times far less. This meant you made sure that there was enough generation to cover peak demands, while at other times it was essentially idling. Load Management makes more efficient use of generation by cutting off the top of the peak, so to speak. With Load Management, we were going to forestall building power plants, because they simply wouldn’t be needed for a long time. If we did need extra power, known as capacity, why, we’d just buy it on the open market, because someone always had some extra power to sell.

Being young and green, I embraced the promise of Load Management, as did a good many others. All except this one grizzled Engineering Tech, who’d been doing that job for years and pointed out that while we were trimming the peak, the bottom of the load curve was steadily increasing. This meant that we had less capacity, and in his opinion this was a Bad Thing.

One sweltering morning we came to work and were immediately asked to come to our supervisor’s office. There we were told we had lost a generator due to Murphy’s Third Law, there wasn’t much extra capacity to be had, and load projections for that day were high. We were then told to come up with a plan for rolling blackouts.

The difference between a rolling blackout and a regular blackout is that a rolling blackout is used by the utility to prevent the grid from going down in a full fledged blackout. Basically we cut off different parts of the grid at different times so that we reduce the load by a certain amount, without keeping everyone off for the entire length of the emergency. So we were given the amount we needed to shed, and within an hour we’d come up with a rolling blackout plan. It was reviewed and approved, and by afternoon we had crews in place to implement it.

It was a tense afternoon. We watched the load climb despite emergency measures, then the situation worsened when a section of transmission line burned down from the load. But though we came within a hair of rolling blackouts, we managed to hold off. For a few more days that week it looked like we’d have to implement the plan, as we did a few more times until we had built enough generation. In those years it took running rented diesel generators the size of semi-trailers to keep the lights on, because generating plants don’t magically appear on command.

It’s a time I never want to see again. Unfortunately, we’re headed down the same path. These days the buzzword is renewables, not Load Management, but unfortunately it has the same effect. For not only have the suits not grasped that we don’t have enough ways to store solar and wind generated power, but they are operating on the delusion that we no longer need coal burning plants, or even nuclear. And now I’m the grizzled utility guy, who see this and notes that it’s removing capacity before replacements are brought on-line, and sees us heading toward disaster.

Forget for a moment that solar and wind are still higher than base generation (that’s coal, hydroelectric, and nuclear). The problem is there’s no really efficient way to store the energy they generate. The same thing is true about base generation, but base generation works at night and when the wind doesn’t blow. Now, no really efficient way to store energy is not the same as no way, and here the best option is dual reservoir set-ups where you use the extra power to pump water into the upper reservoir, then release it through generators to turn it back into electricity when it’s needed. If we had enough of those, solar and wind suddenly become a replacement for base generation. But we don’t. This means that we have to have enough base generation to make up for when solar and wind just doesn’t make enough electricity.

Except that the current administration is doing its utmost to shut base generation down. That’s coal. And whatever you think of Anthropomorphic Global Warming, if you shut down generation with nothing to replace it, you’re going to have less electricity available. That’s what happened on that hot summer day when theory ran aground on the rocks of reality and I helped plan for a rolling blackout. Unlike these yo-yos, I’ve seen what happens when there’s not enough electricity to go around.

That day we were lucky. Unfortunately, you can’t engineer based on luck, or wishful thinking, or hair brained ideologies.

Not having enough electricity to go around is only part of it. Even in 2014, the current administration spokesmen were admitting that under their plan the cost of electricity would nearly double, and now Obama wants to enact plans that will drive it up even higher. Go look at your electric bill. Then ask how you’re going to pay it when it more than doubles. And power costs are already climbing higher.

Of course, there’s one benefit to rolling blackouts. You don’t use any electricity when it’s off. And from what this old utility guy sees, there’s a good chance this is exactly what will happen.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to look for those rolling blackout plans.