The captain of the HMS Titanic, Edward John Smith, famously said, “I cannot conceive of any vital disaster happening to this vessel. Modern shipbuilding has gone beyond that.”
His confidence at the time was understandable, given that the general public had yet to experience a large-scale maritime catastrophe.
Curiously, the more enthusiastic proponents of wind and solar power may be demonstrating a similar fearlessness regarding the future of renewable energy.
Energy Secretary Rick Perry recently proposed that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) revalue the baseload power generation of coal and nuclear power plants due to their on-site fuel supplies.
In response, the renewable and natural gas industries submitted a joint letter to FERC saying, “There is substantial evidence showing that …. outages caused by disruptions of fuel supply to generators appear to be virtually nonexistent.”
These critics of Secretary Perry’s proposed cost-valuation rule certainly sound confident, almost defiant. They say the current electric power grid is resilient, reliable, and effectively beyond systemic failure. What could possibly go wrong?
A few days ago, a power outage shut down Atlanta’s Hartsfield International airport, by some measures the world’s busiest, canceling more than a thousand flights and stranding thousands of passengers.
Georgia Power reported that even its backup systems were disabled. Passengers were grounded for 11 hours or more. A Georgia Power spokesman told The Washington Post, “Fires almost never happen in our underground facilities.”
Overzealous provincial officials in China’s frigid north have been shutting coal power plants, plunging almost a third of households, hospitals, and schools in 28 cities into freezing darkness.
Officials in Hebei admitted that the massive switch from coal to natural gas was “way too much.” An Environmental Ministry spokesman told The South China Morning Post that “some local governments want to push ahead with the program while there are still subsidies.”
An explosion at a natural gas hub in Austria panicked power markets that were already reeling from a closed gas pipeline in the North Sea.
A Swedish utility spokesman said the fire occurred “at the worst possible time for a big gas hub to burn.”
In addition to leaving one dead and at least 18 injured, the blast at the Baumgarten station sent prices soaring across the continent, from Great Britain to Italy — which announced a state of emergency.
The Austria blast was followed by days of an “unplanned outage” stemming from a crack in an undersea gas line in the North Sea at Troll, Europe’s largest offshore gas field.
Because output was affected in Norway, the UK’s largest supplier, Britain must wait two weeks for LNG shipments from Qatar to ensure sufficient supplies following the closure of its largest storage site that supplied up to 10 percent of peak winter demand.
Elsewhere, gas supplies are growing but pipelines are stalling. In Richmond, Va., environmental obstructionists sued to block a pipeline connecting gas fields in West Virginia to consumers in North Carolina.
The Mountain Valley Pipeline faced “the most rigorous regulatory process” for a comparable project in state history, said the state water board.
“So what?” said the Sierra Club and its allies in Appalachian Mountain Advocates. Natural gas, once wooed by the Club as a bridge fuel, is now dismissed as a carbon plague carrier.
Finally, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) this week projected plunging reserve margins after Luminant announced the end of 4,000 megawatts of coal-based power in early 2018.
“Reserve margins are expected to fluctuate in the current market design,” said ERCOT, but “a variety of tools” can maintain reliability even as the level next summer is expected to be less than half of the level projected in May. The size of the drop reportedly surprised state energy experts.
All these incidents — doubtless just the most publicized — occurred this month. They reveal troubling problems for power grids and infrastructure in both the U.S. and overseas.
If past is prologue, it appears that caution and pragmatism are needed in planning America’s energy future—to anticipate power shortages and emergencies before they happen.
Read more at The Spectrum