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Oct 5, 2020
16 Min read time
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?
• • •
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.
• • •
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
Storage technologies beyond chemical batteries are either more expensive, more speculative, or both. Solar actually provides one option. Concentrated solar-thermal plants focus sunlight on a vessel of molten salt, heating water to spin a turbine; the salt will hold heat overnight. Unfortunately, the mirrors necessary to build such massive arrays cost a good deal more than conventional photovoltaic panels. Today the world mostly stores bulk energy by pumping water uphill from a lower reservoir to an upper one; this “pumped hydropower” is very efficient but takes a lot of space. A string of reservoirs along the Appalachians and parallel ones in the Rockies, Cascades, and Sierra Nevada could store power for all our coastal cities, but this idea is not popular—to put it mildly—among conservationists, hikers, and hunters. One can also exploit gravity with a smaller footprint. A train in California dubbed the “Sisyphus Railroad” rides up with excess electricity, and, in periods of low supply, generates electricity as it rolls down. The train cars are very heavy. On the same principle, the startup Energy Vault programs employs cranes to stack and unstack enormous bricks. No one has constructed this device at operational scale. Although the energy of gravity is age old, its storage prototypes are starting from behind.
To succeed, any one of these storage solutions would require the massive financial and political investment of a Green New Deal. We need to make that investment, certainly, in generating and storing renewable energy. But we don’t need to slow down the former while the latter catches up. Germany need not remain stuck at 7 percent solar on the grid—its current level of progress—until it can also store 7 percent. Don’t restrain a solar farm for the sake its lagging twin, the battery farm. Of course, hospitals and some industries require continuous power. But some of us—those of us fortunate enough to live in houses—can tolerate intermittency. We can pause the microwave.
• • •
In fact, planned interruptions already happen elsewhere all the time. They are called “load shedding,” and households are the load. For a stretch in the late 1980s and 1990s, I lived in Harare, Zimbabwe, where the Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority (ZESA) brought current to my house. Zimbabweans, many of whom were enjoying their first connection to the grid, used the abbreviation as a synonym for virility. The amount of current depended to a large extent on Kariba hydroelectric dam and reservoir two hundred miles away. The dam, in turn, depended on rain in the vast Central African catchment of the Zambezi River. In the 1980s, and probably due to climate change, annual precipitation began to oscillate wildly. When too little rain fell, the Kariba reservoir failed to reach a capacity, and Harare would lack electricity for months. So ZESA planned a rotation among the suburbs. Generally, that meant losing power for half a day per week. The power cut might have been shorter, had people not circumvented it by using their electric stoves immediately before or after. Still, rationing residences allowed hospitals and other essential services to keep running. Only the utility’s reputation suffered: “ZESA” became Zimbabwe Electricity Sometimes Available.
Some of us—those of us fortunate enough to live in houses—can tolerate intermittency. In fact, planned interruptions already happen elsewhere all the time.
Puerto Rico’s equivalent agency, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), is widely and justifiably ridiculed. In 2018, a year after Hurricane Maria, Puerto Ricans were still attempting to reconstruct the electricity supply. Mountain residents had endured the better part of that year without current, and—even when back on the grid—their power went out unpredictably and alarmingly. When I visited, some activists were hoping to secede from PREPA through community micro-grids. An organization was distributing solar panels—two or so at a time—to the most at-risk, isolated households. The effect would be transformative, said the leader of this effort. I’ll call him Raimundo, a pseudonym. Raimundo spoke of “energy independence” and of ending the colonial relationship between Puerto Rico and fossil fuel corporations. Indeed, inhabitants of central Puerto Rico had successfully blocked an oil pipeline some years before. In the grandest vision, the upland could power its own homes and grow its own food too.
Homeowners and residents didn’t want the lights to go out, even briefly. The terrain, though, almost invited interruption, and in circumstances far more frequent than hurricanes. The sierra conjoins the variable weather of mountain and island: clouds roll in without warning, and midday solar generation drop off a cliff. In 2018 such a natural power cut posed no problem for lighting. Charities were already saturating Puerto Rico with “lanterns”—cylindrical devices containing a small panel, LED bulbs, and a USB-rechargeable battery. For everything else, one would need an energy storage device at least as large as a car battery.
Really, I asked Raimundo? He gave me a withering look: “A car does not run without a battery.” (Actually some diesel engines will start with a push or, if the driver has parked strategically, with a roll downhill.) The battery was, he admitted, “the weak point in the configuration.” It would last only seven to ten years and require constant checking. If one drains a battery too low—below 10 to 25 percent, depending on the model—it will die sooner. With the “configuration,” one looks with anxiety not at the sun but at the little charge dial on the battery. These problems, Raimundo said, were regrettable but inevitable.
Zimbabwe and Puerto Rico provide models for what we might call pause-full electricity. By abiding an interlude—by shedding their load—people can preserve life near and far.
I was not quite convinced. Puerto Ricans need electricity mostly for refrigeration. Food spoils quickly in the tropics, of course. Also, the island’s population suffers from a particularly high rate of diabetes; patients need to keep insulin and other medications cool. So, people told me, a fridge needs to run continuously—but, in fact, it doesn’t. No appliance that heats or cools runs continuously. Fridges, freezers, air conditioners, and ovens all try to hold a certain temperature against an outside space that is either hotter or colder. If the outside space remained at, say, 75° Fahrenheit—or even if it warmed or chilled at a regular rate—the appliance could run on steady current.
Yet the outside of any oven, room, or house fluctuates unpredictably. Since nature is fickle, the appliance has to fluctuate too—hence the thermostat, which turns your fridge from the low hum of operation to the silence of intermission. With a good seal, your fridge will keep cool during an intermission of three days. (My family made it through Hurricane Sandy on two door-openings per day.) A top-loading fridge works even better. I met a transplanted Minnesotan operating one of these devices in the mountains. At the bottom of the fridge he set the thermostat for 32.5°; the top never heated up beyond 40°. Insulin keeps its effectivity even when stored 46° and will remain viable for four weeks at room temperature. This mountain man found a future with intermittency. “When you solarize your home,” he told me, “you have to solarize your life.”
Zimbabwe and Puerto Rico thus provide models for what we might call pause-full electricity. Admittedly, neither Zimbabweans nor Puerto Ricans chose to accept this rationing. And in Zimbabwe, official incompetence has reduced electricity to a nearly unbearable degree. Still, Zimbabwe’s past and Puerto Rico’s potential indicate just and feasible ways of living amid intermittency. With a pause, life goes on. By abiding that interlude—by shedding their load—people can preserve life near and far. If my town’s blackout will lessen, say, the force of Puerto Rico’s next hurricane, then, please, shed us half a day per week.
• • •
COVID-19 has pulled back the curtain on inequality and racism in the United States. Less dramatically, it has shown us our obsession with continuity. Take the oil industry. ExxonMobil and other supermajors invest billions of dollars to make sure that oil and gas ship from their underground warehouses continuously. Only occasionally have oil executives wondered what would happen if consumers stopped buying their product. They labeled this unlikely event “demand destruction” and laughed at the endeavors of Greta Thunberg and the anti-fossil fuel movement. They were thus totally unprepared for the demand-destroying global lockdown in March. Pipelines kept pumping, oil accumulated at terminals and tanks, and—for one crazy day in April—sellers would pay buyers just to take it off their hands. They had oversupplied the market. The injunction “Drill, baby, drill!” was predicated on the assumption of nearly constant demand, without intermission.
Continuity costs too much. Climate change kills, and it kills vulnerable people first. Intermittency saves lives.
Now the pandemic has interrupted everything and cut many lives short. Though some societies—notably New Zealand—are still relatively secure, no one knows how long this will last. With the possibility of a new wave this winter and further viral recurrences, commerce may not run smoothly for quite some time. Many have already adjusted to shortages and rationing of basic goods from beans to toilet paper. To explain that kind of intermittent economy, some politicians have lately been reaching for an unlikely metaphor: inconstant electricity. They describe the slow, trial-and-error reopening of restaurants, schools, and businesses as turning a dimmer. The economic lights will not simply spring on; they will flicker as disease rises and falls. No one wants to lives this way, of course. But responsible leadership must be prepared to dim the economy with shelter-in-place orders—if not in Washington, then in Wellington. When required for safety, interruption means survival and life.
What applies in the pandemic also applies—and also with desperate urgency—in the climate crisis. We can live with some intermittency and rationing—at least until batteries and other forms of energy storage are up and running everywhere. Hospitals certainly need 100 percent reliable equipment—perhaps some “continuous” businesses and cell towers too. And, in cities, elevators, streetlights, and subways must run reliably. One could imagine battery-assisted, semi-smart micro-grids connecting such infrastructure as well as home medical devices. But we don’t need the entire residential third of U.S. electricity consumption to run off lithium or to operate seamlessly. We don’t need Nest or permanent telecommuting. For a while, let’s eat a cold dinner here and there. Continuity costs too much. Climate change kills, and it kills vulnerable people first. Intermittency saves lives, and it saves vulnerable people first. Let the pause take its place in continuous climate activism.
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