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America’s Outdated Power Grid

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America’s Outdated Power Grid

10 Blocks podcast August 14, 2019
Infrastructure and energy

James B. Meigs joins Seth Barron to discuss last month’s power blackout in Manhattan, California’s self-inflicted energy crisis, and potential energy sources for the future.

“As power outages go,” Meigs writes, “the Broadway Blackout of 2019 was pretty modest.” But energy reliability is becoming an issue in states across the country. California’s largest power supplier, Meigs reports, recently announced that it will begin shutting down parts of the grid to help reduce the risk of wildfires.

Energy problems could get worse as states adopt strict mandates and replace today’s power sources with unreliable green alternatives. The Broadway blackout and California’s fire-prevention strategy illustrate the same reality: the nation’s energy infrastructure is outdated, and upgrading it will require a huge investment.

Audio Transcript

Seth Barron: Welcome back to 10 Blocks, the podcast of City Journal. This is your host for today, Seth Barron, associate editor of City Journal. After the blackout last month that affected a large swath of Manhattan, New York's energy infrastructure became a hot question. Joining me today to discuss that issue and other questions related to energy generally is City Journal contributor James Meigs. Jim was for many years the editor of popular mechanics and writes widely about science, technology and culture. We'll be back with Jim after a short break.

Seth Barron: Jim, thanks for coming on the podcast.

James B. Meigs: Oh, it's great to be back.

Seth Barron: So the recent blackout was caused perhaps by an overheated transformer. Now how can we fix the grid so it delivers steady supplies of electricity without interruption?

James B. Meigs: We've always had blackouts and we will never have a grid that is 100% failure-free. Those transformers fail all the time, usually the grid is set up so that they can just route around the problem. You'd be amazed at how many minor problems that could be. Major problems happen, every week that Con Ed and other utilities deal with. But my worry is that these challenges are getting harder and certain government policies are making it harder for the utilities to cope with the ordinary wear and tear on the system. What kind of policies? There's a few things. One is the green energy policies that are being pushed certainly in New York state by Governor Cuomo and California is another example, which on their face aren't necessarily bad ideas. But the people who are pushing to have, say 50% of electricity comes from renewable sources, as Governor Cuomo is in New York or ultimately up to 100% in California by 2045, I think they've mandated; they're doing those mandates without really appreciating just what a huge challenge this is for the grid itself. I'm not even talking about the challenge of putting up all those wind farms and solar panel arrays, which is is massive and I don't think we'll ever get done in the time schedule, but I'm just talking about the problem of distributing all that electricity around the region. Because when you have a few big power plants pumping out power that can be turned up or down as needed. It's relatively simple to get that power to where the customers are. But imagine instead you have tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of small solar panels on rooftops sending power back the other way down the lines feeding power into the grid in a kind of a random fashion. Someday that will work maybe pretty well and we'll have a very sophisticated computerized grid that can distribute all of that, but we don't want to have that right now. And so what happens is the transformers are under more stress. The management of all this power is more difficult and it's hard on sunny warm days where you've got tons of power being produced all afternoon while the sun is shining, all the, all the other sources of energy have to be pretty much turned off because there's too much electricity flowing around the grid. But then what happens? Around seven o'clock the sun is going down, people are coming home from work, they're turning on their air conditioners, they're turning on their microwaves and the solar power has just disappeared. So you have this massive management challenge of now you also have to crank up all these other sources. And we're not really prepared to handle that efficiently yet. And yet we're mandating these alternate sources of power that whatever the pros and cons are, we don't really have the technological capability to deal with it without increasing the risk of things going wrong.

Seth Barron: But isn't that really just more of a good reason for the green new deal to be enacted? Because then we can really ramp up investment in building a smart grid and building big batteries that can maybe hold the power, the extra power from the day and then we could use it at night.

James B. Meigs: That's the plan. Everybody who supports this kind of policy will always say, "we're going to have storage." But we are nowhere close to having the kind of storage we would need. Remember, it's not just for a few hours when the sun goes down, it might be for a couple of months in the wintertime. A lot of this is highly seasonal, especially in a place like New York. Do you really want to run that Buffalo power grid on solar power in February? Have you ever been to Buffalo? The sun doesn't shine a lot. So this is not an argument for the Green New Deal. In fact, the green new deal is really typical of the kind of green-thinking that is based more on kind of emotion and wishful-thinking than in really understanding how the grid works. And I'm not opposed to transitioning our electricity supply to lower carbon sources. I'm a big fan, as City Journal readers, know of nuclear power. I'm working on another piece about that right now. And here's the irony: a lot of the same people who are supporting wind and solar are actually shutting down, advocating shutting down nuclear plants. These are the most dependable sorts of power. They're the biggest source of carbon-free power. And yet people are saying, well, it's not renewable because there's not an infinite supply of uranium. There's plenty for hundreds of years, but we use this word "renewable" to mean green and everything good. But the real issue isn't whether it's renewable. The real issue is, is it environmentally friendly? Does it make economic sense? And when you look at things that way, the wind and solar have pros and cons, but they have a lot of cons are being ignored. Nuclear has a lot of pros that are being ignored by some advocates. Not all. There's quite a few people, including some of the candidates running for the Democratic nomination for president, who are supporting nuclear. But it's a little bit depressing how many environmental groups don't.

Seth Barron: Hold on a second here. You're saying that nuclear should be counted as a form of green energy and that that it's not harmful to the environment and it's basically renewable. But nuclear power is as the potential to cause catastrophic damage that can destroy entire countries and regions. As we saw, anyone who watched that Chernobyl movie will know. Three Mile Island almost melted down. Now that was 40 years ago. And then in Japan they had that major problem. So clearly moving away from nuclear power seems like the right idea.

James B. Meigs: That's the standard argument and if you ever go on Twitter or social media and talk about nuclear power immediately people come like, "haven't you heard of Chernobyl? Didn't you see the movie on HBO?" And the reality is that even Chernobyl only killed a couple of hundred people. And that was the worst imaginable accident. One that happened in an Eastern Bloc country that was under Soviet-style management that was extremely negligent. Not only was the accident the result of incredible negligence and the design and management of the plant, but in the aftermath, they covered it up, they hid it, they didn't have a free press to expose what was going on. That kind of accident could never happen today. And even so, the tens of thousands of casualties, hundreds of thousands of casualties that were predicted by anti-nuclear extremists never materialized. So on the other hand, in the years since, hundreds of thousands of people have died from the pollution from coal fired power plants. So you could make an argument, and this has been made by some climate activists actually, that every nuclear plant actually saves lives by replacing the power from a coal-fired plant. And I really believe that's true. All energy sources have their risks. An oil rig blew up in the Gulf of Mexico and killed 11 people. An oil train derailed in Quebec and killed nearly 50 people. Coal mines collapse. Nuclear, compared to those other sources, is actually very, very safe. And I say that to someone who lives pretty close to the Indian point plant up the Hudson in Westchester County. Hmm.

Seth Barron: Well that's an interesting point. Sticking to the question of energy in New York. Governor Cuomo, he's shuttered Indian Point.

James B. Meigs: It's not closed yet, but it's on its way to be closed within the next two years.

Seth Barron: Right, they're decommissioning Indian Point and he's blocked fracking in all of New York state and he's not allowing pipelines to be built. Gas pipelines. So I guess that's cut off development in parts of Westchester and even on Long Island. But he's going to replace it all with massive turbines, wind turbines off the coast of Long Island. Are there any issues with, you were talking about transmission and distributed networks, is there a problem with moving electricity hundreds of miles that way?

James B. Meigs: Yes. It's really hard. It's really hard. For a number of reasons. For one, you lose a lot of it in the transmission process. So the farther away the power is generated, the less efficient it is in terms of you actually able to use that power in your house. The other thing is we don't have the grid to transmit all that power. We would need to build huge arrays of new transmission lines. Talk about a NIMBY nightmare. And we've seen that really many parts of the country, when people do try to build new transmission lines, when they try to build big wind farms, there is a lot of local resistance. Just because it's green doesn't mean people want it in their backyard and it's become very difficult to get these things built. I find it kind of ironic, people always say, "well we can't have nuclear power cause it just takes forever to build new plants." And it does, it takes way too long. How long does it take to build a transmission line halfway across New York state? That could take decades by the time you get all the approvals and fight all the lawsuits and get through that whole process. So I think that there is a lot of unrealistic thinking on the part of the governor.

Seth Barron: Well, how about, Mayor de Blasio made a deal with Hydro Quebec to buy extra power from there. And that's going to... that's green power, I guess?

James B. Meigs: If you don't mind flooding native lands and massive ecosystems, hydro power is great. I find it kind of funny, a lot of environmentalists are celebrating that form of renewable energy. And once you build the dam, it is very clean. There's a lot to be said for it. But I grew up in the era when we were fighting dams. We certainly don't want to go back to building lots more of them, I don't think, and drowning ecosystems when there are better alternatives available. As for the deal to buy hydropower from Quebec, New York state already buys tons of power from Quebec. And when we talk about clean energy, a lot of times it's not stuff being generated locally. A lot of it is just the power from the huge hydroelectric dams in Quebec that we're talking about. The issue is we don't quite have the capacity to bring all of that power down the Hudson that we need. So again, there is a plan in the works to build more transmission capacity. If we kept our nuclear plants open, we probably wouldn't need it.

Seth Barron: So what is the barrier to building more nuclear plants?

James B. Meigs: There are a number. One is kind of depressing, not that easy to fix, which is we've gotten really bad at building large capital-intensive projects, whether public or private in this country and in much of the West. China can build nuclear plants pretty economically. Korea does it pretty well, but in the U.S. and even in parts of Europe, the costs have gone up in a frightening way. Doesn't mean it's still not worth trying. But boy, they have gone wildly over budget and that's alarming and there's no easy answer to that. There are new designs coming along that are much smaller. It could be built in factories rather than on site and then just delivered by truck and instead of having one giant reactor, you might have 10 or 12 set up in an array, conceivably in a place like an old coal fired power plant that shut down. You build a bunch of small nuclear reactors there instead, hook them right up to the grid. I think this is promising. It might be an alternative. But in the short run, what a lot of environmentalists are saying now, and others, is let's keep the ones we've got running. We've invested in them, they're perfectly good. Most of them could run for another 40 years with no problem. Let's work to figure out how they can get properly paid for the power they produce and keep those going. That will also help with these issues of grid reliability, which are again, being exacerbated by these alternative energy sources that are so erratic in their production of power.

Seth Barron: Now that you've written also about California and it's power issues and something about wildfires. Could you elaborate on this?

James B. Meigs: The last two years, 2017 and 2018, were the worst in the history of the state for wildfires. More than a million and a half acres burned in both those years. And last year, I think close to a hundred people were killed in those fires.

Seth Barron: I assume that's due to climate change?

James B. Meigs: Well, everybody says it's due to climate change. New York has, excuse me, California has always had fires. Climate change will probably make that worse, may already be having an impact, but I'm always a little suspicious when people immediately say climate change. It's very difficult to attribute. These trends have a lot of year-to-year variability and say, well, there's more thunderstorms this year, it must be climate change. And then the next year if there's less thunderstorms, well, what caused that? All that said, California is in a bad situation in terms of fires, always has been, looks like it might be getting worse. And the power companies are blamed for any fire related to their equipment, whether they caused it through negligence or not. So for example, I think I said this on the last podcast, if somebody, a truck crashes into a power line, it goes down and then it causes a fire that burns down a neighborhood. The power company is responsible for that even though they weren't the ones that knocked over the pole.

Seth Barron: You mean in a tortious sense? For liability?

James B. Meigs: Yes, in terms of liability. So this puts the power companies in an absolutely untenable position because they're also required to deliver power to all these remote communities where their power lines have to pass through this intensely fire-prone environment. Now there is evidence that PG&E, the biggest, they didn't do as good a job trimming undergrowth and vegetation as they should have. There's things they could have done better. But I have a hard time seeing how, under the current rules in this current fire environment, any utility could operate under this liability cloud? Who would ever want to invest in that company? And PG&E actually has said, they estimate their liability from the last couple of years at about $30 billion and they declared bankruptcy early this year. The California legislature has a plan to help give them a little bit of liability or some significant liability relief. But here's the part people aren't really talking about. So why are people living in those areas in the first place? And some of it has to do with lack of, the anti-development policies in the California cities. So if you can't afford an apartment in LA or Oakland or San Francisco or Burbank, then you wind up going farther afield. About a third of people in California live in what's called the "wildland urban interface." It's basically, you build your house out at the edges of the forest. That town of Paradise that burned, in whats called the campfire, is a great example of that. Lots of middle-income retirees who couldn't afford to stay in the towns where they lived. Of course, living in the Sierra foothills is lovely, but the power company isn't allowed to charge a big surcharge for serving people in these fire-prone areas. So we've created a slow-motion catastrophe that is very difficult to unwind. You can't tell all these nice people that they got to leave their retirement home that they saved up for. But the real problem isn't the fire. It's the people in the way of the fire. If the area was uninhabited, just a few ranches or something, that fires swept through there, it's no big deal. Those areas have always burned every 50 years or something. The trees survive. If you're looking at pictures of Paradise, it's really interesting. The houses are all burned. The trees still have pine needles on them. The trees mostly survived. They're evolved to survive fire. So these power companies are in a position of supplying power to these remote communities. There's lots of people moving to those communities and then the power companies are forced to pay the entire tab for these communities that have grown explosively over the last few decades. We just can't continue down that path. There's no simple solution, but we can't just pretend like the power companies will always have plenty of money to pay every time this happened.

Seth Barron: I have a question that's related to something you said, and it's not really on the topic of energy. But we've seen a large uptick in natural disasters that have caused displacement of people and floods and hurricanes. Say in the Outer Banks or in the down in the Gulf of Mexico. And I have a question. Is it the case that things are getting worse or is it that we are now, we've developed out to areas that may be used to be considered uninhabitable or barely-habitable and that what appear to be major disasters killing people, displacing them, causing billions of dollars worth of damage; it's really just because people are living where they shouldn't be living. And we have a huge population now, a much larger population than we did in the past. You see what I'm saying?

James B. Meigs: So there's actually a name for that. It's called the "expanding bulls-eye effect." And there've been some interesting papers studying this. So take the Outer Banks. When I was a little kid, I used to go down there and it was mostly just sand dunes. It wasn't very inhabited. So if a hurricane hit, it might hit a few motels in a few houses, but not a lot. Today, it's wall to wall houses in certain areas. So if a hurricane hits all of a suddent it's like, wow, $5 billion of damage to this area. If it was just sand dunes, that wouldn't happen. And as someone who leans more towards the libertarian end of the spectrum, I say, what incentives did we put in place to encourage that? Certainly if you look at Florida, there are massive incentives to encourage people to build in the most hurricane-vulnerable areas. And then it's not just the disaster relief that people get after a storm. It's helped with insurance. It's a state-run insurance, it's federal flood insurance. So there are a whole bunch of programs that actually subsidize the risk. And who wouldn't want to live on the beach? Of course, but it's a bad place for people to be building condos and stuff. And they've actually been pretty lucky. Florida's had fewer big hurricanes in the last 15 years than in some previous eras. When it does come, I guarantee you, and it costs $100 billion to fix; everybody's going to be saying, well, this is a result of climate change. But the same thing could have happened without climate change. The problem is all of the construction that is put in harm's way when there are other ways to develop, other ways to build that are a lot safer, both in terms of flooding and in terms of fires. There are ways to do it that are a lot safer, but they require some choices. At the very least, I feel like we shouldn't be subsidizing people to go and live and put themselves and their homes in areas we know to be dangerous. If they'd want to do it on themselves and pay for it, pay for their own insurance out of pocket. Okay. But why should the rest of us be subsidizing it?

Seth Barron: I sort of wonder because you hear a lot about climate change and the rising sea levels and that Florida will be underwater soon and Manhattan could be underwater soon. But nobody seems to be leaving these areas and peoples are still building and insurance companies are still insuring.

James B. Meigs: Well, some insurance companies are becoming more cautious about different risks. But we don't know. There are all of these models that talk about sea level rise. We don't know how quickly that might happen if it happens. But I think it's hard for people to look longterm. And yet, it's funny, if you fly over some of these areas, you realize the stuff that's above sea level is barely above sea level. Sea level rise or not, why didn't anyone think to build on this sandbar? You go out to the Hamptons and you realize like any storm could just wash away big chunks of some of those islands. And yet we, we pretend. We'd like to think that these things should be permanent. I think in many cases we'd be better off retreating to more defensible terrain. And if people do in system living those places, they certainly can't complain when the inevitable happens.

Seth Barron: So you've written on popular science and technology. So you have your thumb on the pulse of what's happening. Let me just throw a few ideas at you and see what you think about, like, in terms of the future of energy. What about wireless transmission of energy?

James B. Meigs: Yeah. Tesla, the great inventor, after whom the car is named. He demonstrated that back in the early 20th century. It's possible but super inefficient. So don't count on it over long distances. You can do it over short distances. They already do, you have this inductive charging for your phone and stuff like that. But the amount of energy would take to do it over long distance is infeasible.

Seth Barron: I imagine there must be like an exponential drop-off in intensity.

James B. Meigs: Yes, exactly.

Seth Barron: What about wave energy? Like having, machines out in the tides that capture...

James B. Meigs:  I love this. I've always thought like, yeah, there's so much energy in the oceans. There been a lot of experiments, feasible. But every idea like this also has its own environmental downsides. You're putting all these structures out in these marine ecosystems that other, that porpoises and whales and fish have to travel through. I think there are certain places where that could work to some degree. I don't think it'll be a major contributor to our energy supply. There's also tidal forces and currents run. I mean, the East River. There has been an experimental project in the East River right off the east side of Manhattan to put some rotors deep in there. There's huge tidal currents through there, and they generate some power. It's kind of a cool idea.

Seth Barron: It's just not enough.

James B. Meigs:  It's probably not. We may get to a day where we get 3% from this and 6% from that and 10% from that. But again, I hate to keep harping on nuclear power. We have a system right now that produces massive amounts of power efficiently and safely. Before we out-think it, let's make sure we're using the most straight-forward sources that we have. There's one nuclear advocate always says, if nuclear had been invented last year, everyone would be ecstatic. They'd be like, this is it. This is the solution.

Seth Barron: How about cold fusion?

James B. Meigs:  Yes. Someday maybe. There's been so many scandals around that. But leaving aside cold fusion. As everybody knows, fusion is the process of fusing hydrogen atoms; in that process, huge amounts of energy are released. It's what powers the sun. It's what powers hydrogen bombs. But to do it, you have to generate massive quantities of heat and in a very compressed space. They'd been working on this since, I grew up near in Princeton, New Jersey near one of the great research projects on that. It was always said, oh, it's going to be 20 years away. Some people say it's still 20 years away, but there's actually some really cool research on smaller reactors that can do this. Small-scale. Bill Gates has invested, and others. They're actually getting some venture-capital money coming into this field. There's a team from MIT that set up a company that's working on this. So not cold fusion, hot fusion, but on much smaller scale. If this became something that could roll out massively, it would be a huge boon to the planet. There's a lot of people out there who still need electric power. And the world is becoming richer, it's becoming industrialized, people are moving to cities. They're going need electric power. They're not going to stay in a little villages cooking over dung fires forever. And so it'd be nice to have a nice clean source and a cheap source of that power. So it's a long shot in the near-term, but fusion could be that. I don't think we should be betting the farm on it.

James B. Meigs: Is there a concern with wind power that if you use the wind, if you capture the wind with a turbine to generate electricity, that that wind can't be used for something else such as drying the dew?

James B. Meigs: Well, it's interesting. There's been a little bit of research on this and theoretically if you put up enough wind turbines, it does slow down the ground level winds somewhat. Who knows? That could have various pernicious impacts down down the road or downstream from those installations. I have a hard time believing we'll ever develop anywhere near that extent. But here's what does happen. Any bird or bat flying through that area is really vulnerable. And wind farms already killed tens of thousands of some of the most vulnerable birds like eagles, large raptors and lots and lots of bats. And bats are really under stress today for various reasons. So there are certain species of bat that could just go extinct if we continue building.

Seth Barron: Are they just running into it or do they get caught in a vortex?

James B. Meigs:  No, they're just running into it. It's funny you look at those rotors, it's like, they're not going around that fast. How come a bird can't just fly around it? But that's the whole rotor. At the wing tip, it might be going a hundred miles an hour. They don't see it as a whole entity the way we might understand what it is. So they might fly near the edge and not realize it that big guillotine is coming down on them at a rate of speed they can't anticipate.

Seth Barron:  Well, from a massive rotors to dams to desktop nuclear reactors, I feel like we've covered a huge amount of territory here. Ee'd like to hear your comments about today's episode on Twitter at City Journal Hashtag #10blocks. If you like our show and want to hear more of it, please leave ratings and reviews on iTunes. This is your host, Seth Barron. Jim Meigs, thanks for joining us.

James B. Meigs:  It's always a pleasure, Seth.

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