Thursday, December 3, 2020

"To Save the Climate, Give Up the Demand for Constant Electricity"

 The third piece of our look at what people are talking about, energywise.

As intro'd in last night's "Mariana Mazzucato: We may need climate lockdowns to halt climate change.":

Sometimes I get the feeling I'm being groomed to accept things I normally wouldn't.

Sort of a cross between Rotherham and Hegelian dialectic, given two awful choices, choosing the one that seems slightly less awful but that's not enough so rinse, repeat.

 From Boston Review:October 5, 2020:

The writer "David McDermott Hughes" is a Professor of Anthropology at Rutgers.

Waiting to ensure uninterrupted power for everyone as we transition away from fossil fuels will cost too much time—and too many lives.

Many decades ago electricity became the new oxygen, and the vast majority of Americans today believe they need it every moment of every waking or sleeping hour. The United States has built a vast infrastructure for generating, transmitting, and consuming it—all almost entirely based on planet-destroying fossil fuels and nuclear power.

Electricity has become the new oxygen. The vast majority of Americans today believe they need it every moment of every waking or sleeping hour.

Those fuels hold and store energy. If you accumulate enough of them, you can generate electricity abundantly and reliably. The result is that the average American household uses electric resources far beyond its needs while losing power for fewer than six hours per year. Renewables can provide that plenitude—and already do through wind and solar farms in Texas and California—but not necessarily all the time. The sun shines at us constantly, with more energy that we can possibly use at any moment, but the Earth’s rotation puts us in shadow at nightfall. And wind, of course, can simply stop. As a result, the leading fossil- and nuclear-free sources of energy bounce from feast to famine, raising the possibility of more frequent and longer power cuts. Critics—often supporters of natural gas—say wind and solar power are “not ready.” Renewables, they warn us, pose an “intermittency problem.”

For those seriously concerned about climate change, the inverse—the demand for electrical continuity—may be the real problem. Today’s most ambitious plans to abandon fossil fuels—which are certainly not supported by the natural gas industry—allow ten, twenty, or thirty years to wire the whole country with solar and wind power, running all day, every day, for everyone, everywhere. The plans differ in speed, but all agree on the last point: except for six agonizing hours per year, electrons must flow 24/7/365. To make that steadiness possible, solar plants will have to store some electricity during the daytime feast to last through the nocturnal famine. “As economies shift to variable renewables,” environmental activist Paul Hawken writes in his aggressive climate proposal Drawdown (2017), “management of the power grid with energy storage systems is critical.”

We ought to consider enduring much more than six hours of electrical downtime every year for the sake of transitioning more rapidly away from fossil fuels.

But storage means batteries, and battery technology takes time to sell and install. In the case of utility-scale batteries or battery farms, investors have to negotiate with regulators and neighbors. Such friction is impossible to measure now, but additional equipment and infrastructure always create delay. That lost interval—years, in each of the transition scenarios—matters profoundly. Carbon dioxide can trap heat in the atmosphere for 120 years. For the most precarious people, a year’s emissions mean the difference between life and death.   

So just how critical is continuity, then? And critical for whom? The U.S. grid sends 30 percent of its electricity to residences. As of 2017, 63 percent of those were single-unit, detached dwellings. Under Hawken’s plan in Drawdown, these houses will require battery farms and high-tension lines, and until they get them, they will probably draw power from natural gas at night. Thus, each household demanding continuous electricity marginally exacerbates the climate crisis. Perhaps, then, it is critical that we not store energy for these houses. At least, we should not do so in a way that hobbles the transition away from fossil fuels. We ought to consider waiting a few years for storage—enduring much more than six hours of downtime every year—for the sake of transitioning more rapidly away from fossil fuels. But few people have championed such residential intermittency. Why not?

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Self-sacrifice is not popular, especially at home. After Jimmy Carter suggested we turn down the thermostat in winter, Ronald Reagan banished sweaters to the political graveyard. No one will recommend that we spend the winter being cold. Forgoing the stove for a few hours is a different kind of sacrifice; it doesn’t degrade our quality of life so much as reschedule or interrupt activities. Delay is the kindest form of rationing. Yet we are so wedded to availability, predictability, and continuity that any break seems like a sacrifice. Long before the lithium-ion battery, we became addicted to electrical continuity.

Self-sacrifice is not popular, especially at home. After Jimmy Carter suggested we turn down the thermostat in winter, Ronald Reagan banished sweaters to the political graveyard.

This steadiness became normal and expected at home and in the economy when—and precisely because—the home and the economy converged. First, they diverged from a common concept. As developed in the seventeenth century, the term “economy” derives from the Greek word for household or family management (oikonomos). Both units rely upon internal cooperation. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, they also ran at roughly same tempo: when breadwinners slept, so did production and trade. Factories of the Industrial Revolution, however, moved to continuous production. High-energy manufacturing—in blast furnaces, for example—was just too costly to stop and restart. The economy of making goods thus became an insomniac while the family slumbered. Then, for buyers, sellers, and traders of goods, the digital revolution set an alarm clock without snooze. “Business continuity” is now vital—defended from hackers and blackouts alike. So just about every part of the economy outstripped the family completely. The former is always on, whereas the latter—except where someone works the night shift—appears to turn the lights off at night.

In subtle ways, the family has been catching up to the economy. Perhaps, the change began in the 1960s when the electric clock replaced the wind-up alarm. This technology turned an unnoticed midnight blackout into potentially career-wrecking tardiness. Then the digital clock colonized all our appliances, from the TV to the stove: you can’t turn them off anymore. If the contractor installs them compactly, you can’t even unplug them. Now—through the Internet of Things—they are all going to talk to each other all the time. That will certainly be convenient; houses will run themselves, heating, cooling, and maybe eventually cooking and cleaning through timed algorithms and web-based data. The household will run like always-on, continuous business.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 has forced almost all white-collar workers to telecommute. Thanks to Zoom, meetings have dispersed from the conference room to bedrooms and kitchens. Business continuity now requires uninterrupted electricity in millions of households. For the moment at least, the economy and the family run on the same circuit, and we would seem to need continuity now more than ever. Today’s viral interruption, however, may actually teach us how to live with intermittency.  

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We will certainly need to be taught. In 2014 the German grid—6 percent of it working on solar energy—only scraped through an eclipse by drawing on other sources of electricity from neighboring countries. The operators saw that one coming. Wind is harder to predict than the sun. In August, still air hit California’s wind farms during a heat wave, and despite drawing from public and private batteries, the grid still went down in some locales. The more experimental sources of energy—tides, waves, and ocean currents—all vary by hour, season, and forces so mysterious that we call them acts of God. To make matters worse, none of this intermittency coincides with the rhythms of human life. Workers arrive home—where they will cook and turn on appliances—just as the sun is setting, so demand peaks while supply plummets. Many Americans, of course, fall outside this comfortably employed, nine-to-five, meat-and-potatoes routine, but the privileged ones who live this way consume enough energy to set the pattern for everyone else. A familiar criticism of solar energy—“Can’t store. No power after four.”—thus continues to constrain the move from fossil fuels to renewables.

Lithium-ion batteries are moving into position to overcome that constraint, but they create problems of their own. Like most form of mining, lithium extraction produces toxins—imposed, on this case, on indigenous down-winders in Chile. Also like mining, the lithium trade concentrates power and wealth in the hands of few, corporations. Sometimes called “bottlenecking,” this process converts a resource too plentiful for profit—like sunlight—into a scarce and lucrative commodity. Right now, Tesla seems on track to gain a controlling share of any smart grid connected to electric vehicles; its Powerwall battery is out-competing less toxic technologies, and it could eventually dovetail with software known as “demand response.” Through that automated collaboration, your neighbor’s car would wash your dishes, but only at night when she doesn’t need the former and you can wait for the latter. Google’s Nest program will call the shots. A corporate juggernaut is thus taking shape, one that has the power to slow the energy transition and make it less just. Tesla and Google may not have intended to lay the battery trap, but they are now poised to snap it shut.

A corporate juggernaut is taking shape, one that has the power to slow the energy transition and make it less just....


Also last night: 

"Tesla CEO says electric cars will double global electricity demand"

The next thirty years are going to be lit unlit.