Power to the people: Why we should all worry about grid reliability
The nexus between power demand and climate change is undeniable.
There is a broad global alignment that global warming has to be limited to 1.5 C, and most countries and many big corporations are striving to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 at the latest.
The result is that many more users of energy need to be moved to the grid. The move from combustion engines to electric vehicles is but one example.
Demand for power has steadily increased and will continue to do so. At the same time, climate change leads to increasingly extreme weather patterns. Who could forget the Arctic chill that swept across Texas last winter, or the scorching temperatures currently experienced in California, Brazil, Europe and elsewhere — all leading to power outages. The need for air conditioning soars and aging power grids can barely keep up — if at all.
Think also of countries such as Lebanon or Iraq, as well as others in the region, that struggle under the best of circumstances to provide power to their people and are expecting an extra-hot summer. Prolonged blackouts will not make for political stability.
Rolling blackouts during summer are nothing new in California, as the past few years have shown.
Power crunches have a long history. For those who lived in the Philippines or Pakistan in the 1990s, brownouts or load shedding (a more benign term for a blackout) were commonplace and always came at the wrong time. In the early 2000s, then California governor Gray Davis lost his job over the state’s inability to provide power amid a surge in demand led by the emerging tech giants of Silicon Valley.
That was then. What is happening now is by far more serious. Without reliable power grids the ability of many activities to move to electricity and save on CO2 emissions is in peril.
At the same time, the economy is rebounding strongly, requiring more electricity. China’s power consumption rose 15 percent last month compared with a year ago. Several cities in the industrial heartland have introduced power rationing.
Droughts have had a devastating effect on reservoirs and hydropower generation across the globe. According to Bloomberg, the Hoover dam is at its lowest level since 1937. The same is true for many other reservoirs connected to hydro-power plants in Asia, Latin America and Europe.
As if the situation was not dire enough, well-intentioned power generation policies of some countries can run counter to a stable electricity grid. Germany is exiting nuclear power at the same time as it is finally cutting down on coal-fired power generation. Switzerland never “did coal,” but nuclear power plants, which provide 32 percent of electricity generation, will have to be phased out by 2034.
Renewables are the big thing of the future. However, their electricity generation is intermittent since the sun does not always shine in the northern climates and wind is unreliable. There is also the issue of transmission grids, which have become indispensable. In Germany, for example, wind power is generated in the north, while demand is down south. However, nobody wants high-voltage transmission grids in their backyard. What is urgently needed is augmented storage capability and technology as well as reliable grids.
These problems are more serious than they might first appear. It is not only that more and more applications will move to increasingly unreliable grids, but also that many vital services, such as water supplies, air conditioning, heating, cooking or telecommunication will come to a grinding halt without electricity, because their control systems depend on electricity and, with it, on the grid.
The long and short is that if we do not invest massively in the resilience of our grids, life as we know it will come to an end.
The Biden administration’s infrastructure spending plan is a step in the right direction. Other countries also need to invest trillions to shore up the reliability of electricity generation, transmission and distribution. The World Bank, IMF and bilateral donors will be asked to do the same for the least developed countries — for if there is no reliable supply of clean electricity, we can forget the lofty goals of achieving net zero by 2050.
Closer to home, the GCC countries, particularly Saudi Arabia with its Saudi and Middle East green initiatives, stand at the forefront of producing renewable energy and green hydrogen. They are poised to combat climate change while also ensuring a reliable electricity supply. In an interview with this newspaper earlier this week, John Kerry, the US climate envoy and former secretary of state, was all praise for these concepts and their implementation.
• Cornelia Meyer is a Ph.D.-level economist with 30 years of experience in investment banking and industry. She is chairperson and CEO of business consultancy Meyer Resources.