No Calling in Sick or Waiting for a Nice Day – The Grid has to Perform on the Worst of Them

Saturday night, the middle of the cold snap, was something to be endured
Published on January 16, 2024

Saturday night, the middle of the cold snap, was something to be endured. Things break at -36 degrees. A quick run to the grocery store was rerouted by a fleet of city vehicles tearing up the street in a considerable manner, most likely chasing a broken water main or some such. Imagine being without water on a night like that.

Half an hour later it got worse – the provincial grid operator issued an alert for people to “immediately limit their electrical use to essential needs only.”

Keep in mind the staggering circumstance, and location, of that alert: Alberta. Even the province’s biggest naysayer would have to admit that the province is an energy juggernaut, blessed with resources most of the world can only dream of, including and especially energy.

If power consumption levels were not reduced, there could have been rolling blackouts. Anyone care to imagine what that would have been like at -35 degree temperatures?

Hopefully every single voter in Canada, and the US for that matter, is paying attention. The false prophecies of utopian energy transitions visions are, quite clearly, dangerously false.

The media feeds you dumbed-down pablum; don’t take it at face value. Instead of listening to blathering about “new installed capacity”, pay attention to actual output. In extreme cold, wind and solar output fall to zero, or very close. It doesn’t matter if there are a billion gigawatts of ‘capacity’ installed.

Everyone needs to understand the fundamental issue that was best described by Nassim Taleb via his turkey analogy. A turkey has 364 days of a very good life, followed by one very bad day come Thanksgiving. It is the bad day that matters, not 364 good ones. A deadly day is a deadly day.

It’s the same with renewables penetration, and how it makes the news ‘on the good days’. Activists and simplistic policymakers (but I repeat myself) tout how a particular jurisdiction may have at such and such a time sourced “xx percent” of power from renewables. Yay, look at the progress, marching ever higher. But it’s not what it sounds like. It doesn’t matter if a country or state or province gets 80% of its power from solar at the peak of a good sunny day, nor if 80% comes from wind on a particularly windy day. Those are misleading numbers, because the system must be fully capable of meeting peak demand every day, and not just ‘on a good day’.

According to AESO, the provincial grid operator, Alberta has 4,481 MW of wind power capacity. At the peak of last weekend’s deepfreeze, it was producing about 1/3 of one percent of that total. Not just useless, but far worse: useless when needed exactly the most.

What matters is: how does the system perform at peak times – what is going to show up on demand?

Just like everyone else that’s trying to bring rationality to this conversation, I need also point out that wind and solar are welcome additions, in moderate amounts, sited where they do the least damage, and as supplements to a grid.

But that’s where the conversation needs to get serious. The real danger out there are people that want an energy transition so badly, or are employed as ‘climate architects’ such that their career depends on it, who sweep some mighty big things under the rug.

“We just need more storage, then wind and solar will be able to carry the load.” Not possible, not if batteries are the vision. Imagine a day’s worth of battery power supply for the entire province. Or two days. The cost would be off the charts, and, then after two days of ‘usage’, how would the batteries get recharged if the cold spell persisted more than a few days? Is that the kind of backup anyone would accept? We’ll have power again if the wind picks up strongly and consistently for the next week, if not, well, good luck?

“Sure we can handle an all-EV world because users can charge at night.” I’ve seen this argument now and then, based on some simplistic studies that show, correctly, that financial enticements can get people to charge EVs at off peak hours. But that’s a red herring in the world we are headed for, “electrify everything”. If we do electrify even half of what we could, then peak demand will still go way up, as will our life-perched dependency on it. More EVs just mean more load. And not all EVs will shift to night charging; it is some pretty weak thinking to imagine that all EV owners will have that optionality, or live in a place that allows it, or won’t be travelling, etc. And remember that the feds’ plan is for all vehicles to be electrified. So maybe J. Consumer in suburbia can shift his EV to night charging, but what about a fleet of city buses, or Uber drivers, or forklifts, or taxis, or…the list is endless.

“We can switch to heat pumps.” This one takes the cake. Heat pumps will exacerbate the problem at the exact worst time – when it is coldest, and when power demand is highest, and when the grid is maxed out. It is the opposite of proponents who say EVs can charge at off peak hours – heat pumps will be called into full service precisely at peak hours. Taleb’s turkey again: a mass-heat-pump system will be wonderful on many days, but on the very worst day, all goes black. And cold. 

There is no joy in this silly debate we seem to be in with ideologues, particularly when the threat of rolling blackouts is announced by the grid operator. But there is also no time to waste indulging people who want to rewire the grid with “well academic studies say this should work.” Set up your own commune somewhere and experiment for a few years and at least one winter cold snap, then let us know how it goes.

Wishful thinking doesn’t turn many wrenches, nor does it heat homes. Wishful thinking is not what an energy system can or should be built on. Energy is life or death in extreme weather. Ideology is the last thing that should be involved in energy supply, and yet we are up to our ears in it, a situation that is becoming dangerous.

People can see this. They may not understand how grids (and energy) work, but they know when something smells bad. That’s why federal government support is at such lows, and why distrust in the media is at such highs. Political scientists telling you “Don’t worry, we know how to design a new grid” are no match for the likes of, for example, real-world experiences such as this relayed by a gentleman named John Wright on LinkedIn: “Currently out at our cabin trying to help out our heat pumps (we run three geothermal units and they are running full out with auxiliary/ supplemental heating coils engaged). We have two propane fireplaces burning full time in addition to all the firewood that we’re also splitting and burning, and all of the burners on the cooktop are on. It’s probably about +12.5° C inside here vs -36°C outside…Everyone seems to ignore the fact that heat pumps are a huge draw on the power grid. Our power bill could easily be $1500.00 to $2000.00 for January…By the way, the power consumption and poor performance is the same in the summer when it is +36°C here.”

And finally, it is important to note that the gradual but persistent undermining of the hydrocarbon industry will have massive consequences, because hydrocarbons underpin everything we use and do. Governmental and media animosity will drive away capital (don’t wonder why dividends are such a popular thing in the oil and gas sector – capital flight in full view) and ultimately weaken a pillar of our economy. Until nuclear energy is ubiquitous, or some technological breakthrough happens, we need reliable, baseload power, which at this time in history means hydrocarbons, here and around the world. That baseload is not guaranteed, it is not a right, it is not going to be sustained if capital is chased away from it.

Voters, it’s up to you. Demand more from your politicians, but also demand better conversations from the entire energy industry as well. We owe you that.


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.

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