There’s positive energy out there, and there’s negative energy, and life is better wrapped in one rather than the other. I get it. I’ve absorbed the cliches and motivational posters; stay away from toxicity and life goes much easier.
The energy world has for a very long time been on the right side of ledger; there is an incredible amount of positive energy development. On the existing oil/gas side, this has mostly always been so – it’s a fantastic, dynamic, entrepreneurial business, and finding fuel for fellow citizens is extremely rewarding. There is also phenomenal positive energy in many energy transition developments – the race to do something (anything) with hydrogen, efficiency gains, solving pollution challenges, finding new ways of providing energy in a changing world. To adapt successfully requires a positive outlook and environment.
And then there’s the rest of it.
The sheer magnitude of negative energy in mainstream energy discussions is either mind-numbing if one can remain emotionally detached, or downright depressing if not.
Even though it is much healthier to avoid it all and block the haters, it’s necessary to know what’s going on. Hey, someone’s gotta do the colonoscopies, right?
The stakes are incredibly high. The negative energy camp, the ones out to destroy the current system before a suitable replacement is verifiably ready, is calling the shots. We need to know what is going to happen as a result.
Here are some examples of situations developing here and there that will have massive consequences if they continue on current trajectories.
The US’ electrical grid system is divided into a series of regional operators whose job it is to maintain consistent, reliable power and…ah hell I’ll just borrow their words. One of them, PJM, is “ a regional transmission organization (RTO) that coordinates the movement of wholesale electricity in all or parts of 13 states and the District of Columbia.” In that region are 65 million people for whom PJM aims to “ensure the safety, reliability, and security of the bulk electric power system” – that’s from their mission statement.
In early 2023, PJM issued a report stating that existing baseload power generating facilities were being retired faster than adequate replacements are being constructed, which is increasing reliability risk and adding risk of rolling power blackouts.
You can use your imagination as to why existing (coal and natural gas fired) power plants are being shut down prematurely, and what kind of replacements are being developed (wind and solar). – activists are running the show. You can also imagine the consequences. This isn’t rocket science. Replace facilities that can run 24/7/365 with ones that work when the weather cooperates, and the results are predictable.
This isn’t anything particularly funny either. The New York Times ran a piece about what a power outage could mean in Arizona, if air conditioning was unavailable at the wrong time of year: “New research warns that nearly 800,000 residents would need emergency medical care for heat stroke and other illnesses in an extended power failure. Other cities are also at risk.” Needless to say, there aren’t enough emergency beds for that kind of mass arrival, and in an extended power outage there is no guarantee the emergency facilities would have power anyway. The same problem would hit most North American cities in a power outage during a heat wave as well; this isn’t just an Arizona story, and the same no doubt would hold true for a winter outage of any magnitude.
Astonishing as it may seem, the concerns of PJM are dismissed as irrelevant by, who would have guessed…activist lawyers. The PJM report is a gross failure, according to a Sierra Club lawyer, penning a piece for a utility website titled “How PJM, America’s biggest grid operator, got its reliability report wrong”. You tell ‘em, lawyers! No one knows a grid better than you: “The report ignores the glaring performance problems of fossil fuel power plants in extreme weather.”
Sitting here in Canada, I can within 30 minutes drive past natural gas fired power plants that run like Swiss watches in minus 40 conditions and plus 40 conditions. True, they don’t like it at the extremes, like much equipment of any sort. But in the decades I’ve been around, I’ve yet to see a rolling power blackout due to ‘glaring performance problems of fossil fuel power plants’ in a climate that is vastly more harsh than Washington DC.
Sierra Club’s Environmental Law section on their website lists 49 lawyers on staff. Taunting lawyers is not a good idea at all, but I will point out that a dozen lawyers of any stripe can shape infrastructure development in the same way a tornado can shape a Kansas trailer park.
The Sierra Club will utilize their budget, PR, and legal might to sway the conversation in a way that the grid’s operator itself declares dangerous.
Crazy as that seems, it can get even worse. Look at California.
The state recently mandated that drayage fleets – the types of trucks/trucking companies that operate in and out of ports – can only replace trucks with zero emissions versions after January 1, 2024. There are an estimated 30,000 such trucks that will have to go all electric in just over a decade, and they have nowhere to charge these things, with only vague promises from government officials that they’ll work it out somehow.
The California Energy Commission estimates the state will need 157,000 high-capacity chargers by 2030 to service electric trucks. Big numbers, but what do they mean? Is that a lot or a little? How does one add context?
There are clues. The generic news flow, of course, covers the issue with the kind of starry-eyed fanboy fodder we’ve come to expect. Reuters tracks down one ‘success story’, a small trucking firm that found an 800 amp panel in an abandoned hay-bailing operation (in LA…wonder what that was all about – LA isn’t famous for fields of alfalfa) somewhere near the port of LA that the owner was able to craft into four charging stations within a year. (These sites – existing small and unused already-wired sites – are like gold, apparently.)
Four down, 156,996 to go. But even then, where does that fit on any kind of sensibility scale? What does 157,000 charging stations look like, both physically laid out and in terms of consumption?
Hard to say, but here’s what a tiny fraction of all that looks like – and it’s a disaster.
A vice chair of the American Trucking Association recently testified in Washington before a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee about the cold hard realities of electrified trucking. In one example he gave, a trucking company in Joliet, Illinois tried to electrify 30 of its trucks. These modest plans were thwarted when “local officials shut those plans down, saying they would draw more electricity than is needed to power the entire city.”
He gave another example: “A California company tried to electrify 12 forklifts. Not trucks, but forklifts. Local power utilities told them that’s not possible.”
California has not the slightest clue how it will provide power for all those trucks, and the sheer logistical challenge will be multiplied by the fact that the state wants to electrify everything else at the same time it accelerates development of intermittent power.
Grim as those examples are, they are far, far from unique.
Testifying before a US Senate committee on energy, FERC (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) members, including at least one Biden appointee, made the following comments with respect to the premature closing of hydrocarbon power plants: “There is a “looming reliability crisis in our electricity markets…The United States is heading for a very catastrophic situation in terms of reliability…We face unprecedented challenges to the reliability of our nation’s electric system.”
Those are bone-dry regulators talking, not a group known for hyperbole and grandstanding. Yet you can almost sense the panic; they are the ones that will be in the firing line if things go really sideways.
And yet, check out this mindblowing counteroffensive underway against even electrical grid operators themselves. ISO NE, the Independent System Operator of New England, has a Consumer Liaison Group (CLG) to ‘facilitate interaction between ISO NE and regional electricity consumers’. In December of last year, climate activists from the No Coal No Gas organization packed a meeting and elected a full suite of fellow activists to the Coordinating Committee of the CLG. No Coal No Gas has set out to, you guessed it, shut down any remaining coal and gas fired power plants.
No surprise there, I suppose, that’s what they do. But what makes that counteroffensive so shocking are comments like this from one of the meetings: ‘Another speaker paraphrased a prior statement by ISO-NE that it would prioritize grid reliability and proper market function as the clean energy transition moved forward. “I’d like you to reverse that,” he said — make preserving conditions for life on planet Earth the priority rather than keeping the lights on and the capitalist free markets functioning…What we really want to hear is that your heart is in saving life — not in the lights coming on every time someone wants to make an egg…”
Think about those words. There is a direct line from the Sierra Club’s fleet of lawyers to activists like this, ones so clueless that they think they are better serving humanity by de-prioritizing grid reliability – at the same time that they demand everything be electrified.
It is unnerving and creepy to even observe all this mayhem. It’s like watching helicopter news coverage of a drunk guy stumbling around on an LA freeway. Someone’s gonna get hurt, badly.
The freeway drunk is nothing compared to the energy mayhem underway though, relatively speaking. Many people are going to get hurt. This game only accelerates as long as squadrons of activists here and there and everywhere do all they can to limit hydrocarbon distribution and development.
The negative energy messaging is easy and effective though. Look out the window. See smoke? Fossil fuels caused that. See a drought? Same. See heat? Same. See a flood? Same.
The weather itself is now used as a bludgeon against the way of life we enjoy, and against the way of life 7 billion people are trying to emulate. Want to live a good life, enjoy travel, buy things? Want air conditioning? A fridge? You’re destroying the planet. Or, even more befuddling, the people that provide the fuel that allow you to benefit from these things are destroying the planet.
Talk about negative energy.
It sucks to spend any time in that world. It’s best always to focus on positive energy and to avoid the opposite. But pretending this madness isn’t happening isn’t the answer either.
Terry Etam is a columnist with the BOE Report, a leading energy industry newsletter based in Calgary. He is the author of The End of Fossil Fuel Insanity. You can watch his Policy on the Frontier session from May 5, 2022 here.