Why didn’t the heat wave cause power failures?

July 28, 2011

Last week a record-setting heat wave afflicted much of the United States — yet there were no brownouts.

Electricity shortages during heat waves long have been common. We tend to miss what doesn’t happen, and what didn’t happen last week was electric power scarcity.

Two factors are at play, one positive and one vexing.

The positive factor is gradual decline in electricity demand. From 1996 to 2007, U.S. power consumption rose 23 percent. Since then, consumption has declined 16 percent. Taking population growth into account, per capita demand decline since 2007 is even greater. Details are in this fun report — every day must be a party at the Energy Information Administration.

The recession is not the root cause — electricity consumption began to moderate before the economy cooled. Homeowners, and businesses, finally are getting religious about high-efficiency lights, programmable thermostats and other power-saving technology. If the United States could achieve, in petroleum use, the same demand-curve moderation observed with electricity, America’s dependence on Persian Gulf dictatorships would decline, along with U.S. greenhouse gas output.

Now the vexing factor. When George W. Bush took office in 2001, he declared a looming electricity crisis that would require a national crash program to build generating stations and power lines. This political wolf-cry was forgotten when 9/11 happened. Forgotten, that is, by pundits and national candidates for office. But not by the permanent bureaucracy: last week the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission published rules, years in the making, intended to trigger a major initiative to build power lines.

There are places in the country where lines, and other grid improvements, are needed. But the regulatory bureaucracy is behaving as though power transmission were the crisis Bush once proclaimed it to be — even as moderating demand reduces stress on the system. The potential is for a white elephant: lots of capital sunk into long-distance power lines even as electricity demand continues to moderate, or as localized “distributed generation” catches on.

Here’s the kicker — environmentalists, who for decades opposed power lines because they made possible large, centralized coal-fired generating stations, now are supporters of new lines.

Other things being equal, you’d expect the Obama administration would overturn the Bush administration’s initiative to invest large sums in centralized electricity infrastructure. But now that the environmental lobby perceives an interest in such infrastructure, this has caused Obama’s regulatory agencies to favor the Bush-begun push. The FERC decision makes it easier to build power lines across state borders or through the jurisdictions of grid-management firms such as PJM.

Why has the political left switched sides on power lines? Big solar power installations will be in deserts or other areas far from cities, requiring new electricity lines. Most wind farms will be in rural areas. Colorado, for example, just approved a 150-mile, $180 million line to bring wind and solar electricity generated in the alpine area of the state to Denver.

Set aside whether the economics of remote solar and wind power make sense. The 2010 book “Power Hungry” by Robert Bryce contends that remote solar and wind farms will require so much capital that greater greenhouse-gas reductions could be attained, at lower cost, via energy conservation technology at homes and businesses.

But solar and wind are politically correct. Politicians want to be photographed at groundbreaking ceremonies for high-tech green power. And there’s no way big solar and wind energy facilities will fly without a commitment to invest billions in new power lines and their attendant rights-of-way. Utility customers will face higher rates, and investors lower dividends, as new lines are built to solar and wind facilities.

Considering enviros once campaigned for small-is-beautiful solutions such as roof solar panels for schools, that environmental lobbyists now back huge investments in power lines seems one of history’s little ironies. What if it turns out the small-is-beautiful view was right all along?

Distributed generation — lots of local, low-output power plants rather than a few high-output central facilities — may be the next new thing in electricity. Distributed generation would eliminate transmission losses, which can claim as much as a third of watts in a large grid. Local generation would make the power system less susceptible to regional failures, such as the Northeast blackout of 2003. And distributed generation may not just mean local green power: it could mean lots of small natural-gas or hydrogen-fired generators. It could mean small, local-use atomic reactors running on nuclear waste.

Right now central power generation using coal is more cost-effective than distributed generation, even considering transmission losses. But the engineering action is in new ideas for local power, which not far into the future may become a more cost-effective way to generate watts, while cutting out the middleman of transmission. In 19th century Europe, district steam plants made heat for apartment buildings and offices, because the on-site furnace was neither safe nor efficient. That changed. The same change may be in store for how we obtain electricity.

In a decade or two, by the time billions of dollars have been spent and the lines built, power generation may have gone local. Then long-distance power lines may become the next Iridium, a very complex and costly infrastructure for a problem that turns out to have a local solution.

Photo: Detroit Edison’s Trenton Channel Power Plant is seen in Trenton, Michigan April 8, 2009. U.S. concerns about the potential for cyber-attacks on critical infrastructure extended to the American electrical power grid on Wednesday and experts pointed the finger anew at Chinese hackers, among others. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook



















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By “Iridium” I assume you are talking about the satellite cell-phone system which turned out to be quite useful. Just not to private industry. Anyplace private industry goes they have cell coverage. Governments, however, have found it useful. The tsunami warning system, for example, uses the Iridium system to send data.

Posted by wiredog | Report as abusive

Gregg, your logic is good, but power generation and distribution is so critical to the health of our technological civilization that a belt-and-suspenders approach is well worth taking.

While I agree that local power generation is by far the superior option in the very long run, nevertheless the vicissitudes of energy supplies may make next year’s outlook for power grids much brighter. Nothing could be a better investment in our future than BOTH a rock-solid grid AND small solar and wind harvesting installations, built on any and every scale. For example, in the future we might see home lighting, appliances and other miscellaneous loads being driven by rooftop solar cells, while vehicle charging, home heating and air conditioning power come through the grid on a 24-hour staggered schedule. With advances in batteries starting to come down the R&D pipeline, every home may soon have an energy storage module, making it easier to mix and match local and distant sources of power.

Posted by Ralphooo | Report as abusive


If they just would give better incentives for home solar/wind generation and light/insulation savings… but there is not much “political glamor” into that.

And yes, we need to solve the energy storage problem at the home level, without relying on the grid for power back.

Posted by robb1 | Report as abusive

Natural gas is available in most areas. NG plants could be used locally, avoiding line loss. We no longer need coal plants. NG is much cleaner, is the most economical of all clean energy technologies, and can also be used in vehicles.

Posted by ronwagn | Report as abusive

Distributed generation has been working great in NJ, for a number of chain clients including Wal Mart and Whole Foods. The statement “And there’s no way big solar and wind energy facilities will fly without a commitment to invest billions in new power lines…” is contrary to sensibility -The essence of rooftop solar is the elimination of the HV lines, and the generation prices have never been lower. Solar will begin to shine in this environment, with or without subsidies

Posted by auger | Report as abusive

[…] Why didn't the heat wave cause power failures?Reuters Blogs (blog)Set aside whether the economics of remote solar and wind power make sense. The 2010 book “Power Hungry” by Robert Bryce contends that remote solar and wind farms will require so much capital that greater greenhouse-gas reductions could be attained, … […]

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Unfortunately Easterbrook reveals his bias too often in this piece. When he dismisses those who call for further stimulus as “special interests,” he undermines his own credibility. Nobel laureates like economists Stiglitz and Krugman are hardly special interests. Professor Robert Reich isn’t a special interest. If Easterbrook can’t abide their expertise or if it doesn’t conform to his narrative he should explain why they’re wrong and he’s right.

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[…] Will power lines become white elephants? […]

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[…] Will power lines become white elephants? […]

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The energy story is changing rapidly and old standards are proven wrong time and again. We must consider the long term cost of operating power plants as well as the cost to build them. Fuel free systems are the way to save money in the long run. Land based wind power is cheaper and faster to install than coal or nuclear power. Natural gas is questioned as how clean it really is, with methane being 20 times more objectionable for global warming than CO2. However, in burning, gas has the advantage over coal. Recent disaster at Japan is showing the losses possible when relying on nuclear power, and the large amount of power lost when it is offline. Solar power is perfect to offset peak loads during daytime hours, and prices are coming down to be equal to new nuclear in installation cost, but far ahead in safety. http://thinkprogress.org/romm/2011/06/06  /237150/stunner-new-nuclear-costs-as-mu ch-as-german-solar-power-today-and-up-to -0-34kwh-in-2018/

Solar costs in the US are still higher than in Germany but prices continue to improve. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-05-26  /solar-may-be-cheaper-than-fossil-power -in-five-years-ge-says.html

Many businesses are finding their own wind turbines can save money as well. https://eshop.macsales.com/green/wind.ht ml

While utilities see a different picture of generation investments, homeowners are saving money by owning their own solar power. While electric bills never stop, owners can pay off systems in 10 years or less and enjoy free electricity for another 20 and more years after that, so investing in home solar can save the most.

One thing for sure is fossil fuels will continue to go up in price as world supplies lessen and hard to reach sources are required to fill the gap. Even coal is going up, and it depends on railroad delivery, and that depends on diesel. The cost of pollution and environmental cleanup cannot be ignored, with health care costs related to coal use being estimated at $300 to 500 billion each year in the US. http://www.energyboom.com/yes/harvard-st udy-estimates-coal-power-has-300-500-bil lion-hidden-costs

Posted by aligatorhardt | Report as abusive