Steven Cherry Hi, this is Steven Cherry for Radio Spectrum.
If you look at lists of the 100 greatest inventions of all time, electricity figures prominently. Once you get past some key enablers that can’t really be called inventions—fire, money, the wheel, calendars, the alphabet—you find things like light bulbs, the automobile, refrigeration, radios, the telegraph and telephone, airplanes, computers and the Internet. Antibiotics and the modern hospital would be impossible without refrigeration. The vaccines we’re all waiting for depend on electricity in a hundred different ways.
It’s the key to modern life as we know it, and yet, universal, reliable service remains an unsolved problem. By one estimate, a billion people still do without it. Even in a modern city like Mumbai, generators are commonplace, because of an uncertain electrical grid. This year, California once again saw rolling blackouts, and with our contemporary climate producing heat waves that can stretch from the Pacific Coast to the Rocky Mountains, they won’t be the last.
Electricity is hard to store and hard to move, and electrical grids are complex, creaky, and expensive to change. In the early 20teens, Europe began merging its distinct grids into a continent-wide supergrid, an algorithm-based project that IEEE Spectrum wrote about in 2014. The need for a continent-wide supergrid in the U.S. has been almost as great, and by 2018 the planning of one was pretty far long—until it hit a roadblock that, two years later, still stymies any progress. The problem is not the technology, and not even the cost. The problem is political. That’s the conclusion of an extensively reported investigation jointly conducted by The Atlantic magazine and InvestigateWest, a watchdog nonprofit that was founded in 2009 after the one of Seattle’s daily newspapers stopped publishing. The resulting article, with the heading, “Who Killed the Supergrid?”, was written by Peter Fairley, who has been a longtime contributing editor for IEEE Spectrum and is my guest today. He joins us via Skype.
Peter, welcome to the podcast.
Peter Fairley It’s great to be here, Steven.
Steven Cherry Peter, you wrote that 2014 article in Spectrum about the Pan-European Hybrid Electricity Market Integration Algorithm, which you say was needed to tie together separate fiefdoms. Maybe you can tell us what was bad about the separate fiefdoms served Europe nobly for a century.
Peter Fairley Thanks for the question, Steven. That story was about a pretty wonky development that nevertheless was very significant. Europe, over the last century, has amalgamated its power systems to the point where the European grid now exchange’s electricity, literally across the continent, north, south, east, west. But until fairly recently, there have been sort of different power markets operating within it. So even though the different regions are all physically interconnected, there’s a limit to how much power can actually flow all the way from Spain up to Central Europe. And so there are these individual regional markets that handle keeping the power supply and demand in balance, and putting prices on electricity. And that algorithm basically made a big step towards integrating them all. So that you’d have one big market and a more competitive, open market and the ability to, for example, if you have spare wind power in one area, to then make use of that in some place a thousand kilometers away.
Steven Cherry The U.S. also has separate fiefdoms. Specifically, there are three that barely interact at all. What are they? And why can’t they share power?
Peter Fairley Now, in this case, when we’re talking about the U.S. fiefdoms, we’re talking about big zones that are physically divided. You have the Eastern—what’s called the Eastern Interconnection—which is a huge zone of synchronous AC power that’s basically most of North America east of the Rockies. You have the Western Interconnection, which is most of North America west of the Rockies. And then you have Texas, which has its own separate grid.
Steven Cherry And why can’t they share power?
Peter Fairley Everything within those separate zones is synched up. So you’ve got your 60 hertz AC wave; 60 times a second the AC power flow is changing direction. And all of the generators, all of the power consumption within each zone is doing that synchronously. But the east is doing it on its own. The West is on a different phase. Same for Texas.
Now you can trickle some power across those divides, across what are called “seams” that separate those, using DC power converters—basically, sort of giant substations with the world’s largest electronic devices—which are taking some AC power from one zone, turning it into DC power, and then producing a synthetic AC wave, to put that power into another zone. So to give you a sense of just what the scale of the transfers is and how small it is, the East and the West interconnects have a total of about 950 gigawatts of power-generating capacity together. And they can share a little over one gigawatt of electricity.
Steven Cherry So barely one-tenth of one percent. There are enormous financial benefits and reliability benefits to uniting the three. Let’s start with reliability.
Peter Fairley Historically, when grids started out, you would have literally a power system for one neighborhood and a separate power system for another. And then ultimately, over the last century, they have amalgamated. Cities connected with each other and then states connected with each other. Now we have these huge interconnections. And reliability has been one of the big drivers for that because you can imagine a situation where if you if you’re in city X and your biggest power generator goes offline, you know, burn out or whatever. If you’re interconnected with your neighbor, they probably have some spare generating capacity and they can help you out. They can keep the system from going down.
So similarly, if you could interconnect the three big power systems in North America, they could support each other. So, for example, if you have a major blackout or a major weather event like we saw last month—there was this massive heatwave in the West, and much of the West was struggling to keep the lights on. It wasn’t just California. If they were more strongly interconnected with Texas or the Eastern Interconnect, they could have leaned on those neighbors for extra power supply.
Steven Cherry Yeah, your article imagines, for example, the sun rising in the West during a heatwave sending power east; the sun setting in the Midwest, wind farms could send power westward. What about the financial benefits of tying together these three interconnects? Are they substantial? And are they enough to pay for the work that would be needed to unify them into a supergrid?
Peter Fairley The financial benefits are substantial and they would pay for themselves. And there’s really two reasons for that. One is as old as our systems, and that is, if you interconnect your power grids, then all of the generators in the amalgamated system can, in theory, they can all serve that total load. And what that means is they’re all competing against each other. And power plants that are inefficient are more likely to be driven out of the market or to operate less frequently. And so that the whole system becomes more efficient, more cost-effective, and prices tend to go down. You see that kind of savings when you look at interconnecting the big grids in North America. Consumers benefit—not necessarily all the power generators, right? There you get more winners and losers. And so that’s the old part of transmission economics.
What’s new is the increasing reliance on renewable energy and particularly variable renewable energy supplies like wind and solar. Their production tends to be more kind of bunchy, where you have days when there’s no wind and you have days when you’ve got so much wind that the local system can barely handle it. So there are a number of reasons why renewable energy really benefits economically when it’s in a larger system. You just get better utilization of the same installations.
Steven Cherry And that’s all true, even though sending power 1000 miles or 3000 miles? You lose a fair amount of that generation, don’t you?
Peter Fairley It’s less than people imagine, especially if you’re using the latest high voltage direct current power transmission equipment. DC power lines transmit power more efficiently than AC lines do, because the physics are actually pretty straightforward. An AC current will ride on the outside of a power cable, whereas a DC current will use the entire cross-section of the metal. And so you get less resistance overall, less heating, and less loss. And so. And the power electronics that you need on either side of a long power line like that are also becoming much more efficient. So you’re talking about losses of a couple of percent on lines that, for example in China, span over 3000 kilometers.
Steven Cherry The reliability benefits, the financial benefits, the way a supergrid would be an important step for helping us move off of our largely carbon-based sources of power—we know all this in part because in the mid-2010s a study was made of the feasibility—including the financial feasibility—of unifying the U.S. in one single supergrid. Tell us about the Interconnections Seams Study.
Peter Fairley So the Interconnection Seams Study [Seams] was one of a suite of studies that got started in 2016 at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado, which is one of the national labs operated by the U.S. Department of Energy. And the premise of the Seams study was that the electronic converters sitting between the east and the west grids were getting old; they were built largely in the 70s; they are going to start to fail and need to be replaced.
And the people at NREL were saying, this is an opportunity. Let’s think—and the power operators along the seam were thinking the same thing—we’re gonna have to replace these things. Let’s study our strategic options rather than have them go out of service and just automatically replace them with similar equipment. So what they posited was, let’s look at some longer DC connections to tie the East and the West together—and maybe some bigger ones. And let’s see if they pay for themselves. Let’s see if they have the kind of transformative effects that one would imagine that they would, just based on the theory. So they set up a big simulation modeling effort and they started running the numbers...
Now, of course, this got started in 2016 under President Obama. And it continued to 2017 and 2018 under a very different president. And basically, they affirmed that tying these grids, together with long DC lines, was a great idea, that it would pay for itself, that it would make much better use of renewable energy. But it also showed that it would accelerate the shutdown of coal-fired power. And that got them in some hot water with the new masters at the Department of Energy.
Steven Cherry By 2018 the study was largely completed and researchers will begin to share its conclusions with other energy experts and policymakers. For example, there was a meeting in Iowa. You describe where there is a lot of excitement over the scenes study. You write that things took a dramatic turn at one such gathering in Lawrence, Kansas.
Peter Fairley Yes. So the study was complete as far as the researchers were concerned. And they were working on their final task under their contract from the Department of Energy, which was to write and submit a journal article in this case. They were targeting an IEEE journal. And they, as you say, had started making some presentations. The second one was in August, in Kansas, and there’s a DOE official—a political appointee—who’s sitting in the audience and she does not like what she’s hearing. She, while the talk is going on, pulls out her cell phone, writes an email to DOE headquarters, and throws a red flag in the air.
Steven Cherry The drama moved up the political chain to a pretty high perch.
Peter Fairley According to an email from one of the researchers that I obtained and is presented in the InvestigateWest version of this article, it went all the way to the current secretary of energy, Daniel Brouillette, and perhaps to the then-Secretary of Energy, former Texas Governor [Rick] Perry.
Steven Cherry And the problem you say in that article was essentially the U.S. administration’s connections to—devotion to—the coal industry.
Peter Fairley Right. You’ve got a president who has made a lot of noise both during his election campaign and since then about clean, beautiful coal. He is committed to trying to stop the bleeding in the U.S. coal industry, to slow down or stop the ongoing mothballing of coal-fired power plants. His Secretary of Energy. Rick Perry is doing everything he can to deliver on Trump’s promises. And along comes this study that says we can have a cleaner, more efficient power system with less coal. And yes, so it just ran completely counter to the political narrative of the day.
Steven Cherry You said earlier the financial benefits to consumers are unequivocal. But in the case of the energy providers, there would be winners and losers and the losers with largely come from the coal industry.
Peter Fairley I would just add one thing to that, and that is and this depends on really the different systems. You’re looking at the different conditions and scenarios and assumptions. But, you know, in a scenario where you have more renewable energy, there are also going to be impacts on natural gas. And the oil and gas industry is definitely also a major political backer of the Trump administration.
Steven Cherry The irony is that the grid is moving off of coal anyway, and to some extent, oil and even natural gas, isn’t it?
Peter Fairley Definitely oil. It’s just a very expensive and inefficient way to produce power. So we’ve been shutting that down for a long time. There’s very little left. We are shutting down coal at a rapid rate in spite of every effort to save it. Natural gas is growing. So natural gas has really been—even more so than renewables—the beneficiary of the coal shutdown. Natural gas is very cheap in the U.S. thanks to widespread fracking. And so it’s coming on strong and it’s still growing.
Steven Cherry Where is the Seams study now?
Peter Fairley The Seams study is sitting at the National Renewable Energy Lab. Its leaders, under pressure from the political appointees at DOE, its leaders have kept it under wraps. It appears that there may have been some additional work done on the study since it got held up in 2018. But we don’t know what the nature of that work was. Yeah, so it’s just kind of missing in action at this point.
My sources tell me that there is an effort underway at the lab to get it out. And I think the reason for that is that they’ve taken a real hit in terms of the morale of their staff. the NREL Seams study is not the only one that’s been held up, that is being held up. In fact, it’s one of dozens, according to my follow-up reporting. And, you know, NREL researchers are feeling pretty hard done by and I think the management is trying to show its staff that it has some scientific integrity.
But I think it’s important to note that there are other political barriers to building a supergrid. It might be a no brainer on paper, but in addition to the pushback from the fossil-fuel industry that we’re seeing with Seams, there are other political crosscurrents that have long stood in the way of long-distance transmission in the U.S. For example—and this is a huge one—that, in the U.S., most states have their own public utility commission that has to approve new power lines. And when you’re looking at the kind of lines that Seams contemplated, or that would be part of a supergrid, you’re talking about long lines that have to span, in some cases, a dozen states. And so you need to get approval from each of those states to transit— to send power from point A to point X. And that is a huge challenge. There’s a wonderful book that really explores that side of things called Superpower [Simon & Schuster, 2019] by the Wall Street Journal’s Russell Gold.
Steven Cherry The politics that led to the suppression of the publication of the Seams study go beyond Seams itself don’t they? There are consequences, for example, at the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.
Peter Fairley Absolutely. Seams is one of several dozen studies that I know of right now that are held up and they go way beyond transmission. They get into energy efficiency upgrades to low-income housing, prices for solar power... So, for example—and I believe this hasn’t been reported yet; I’m working on it—the Department of Energy has hitherto published annual reports on renewable energy technologies like wind and solar. And, in those, they provide the latest update on how much it costs to build a solar power plant, for example. And they also update their goals for the technology. Those annual reports have now been canceled. They will be every other year, if not less frequent. That’s an example of politics getting in the way because the cost savings from delaying those reports are not great, but the potential impact on the market is. There are many studies, not just those performed by the Department of Energy that will use those official price numbers in their simulations. And so if you delay updating those prices for something like solar, where the prices are coming down rapidly, you are making renewable energy look less competitive.
Steven Cherry And even beyond the Department of Energy, the EPA, for example, has censored itself on the topic of climate change, removing information and databases from its own Web sites.
Peter Fairley That’s right. The way I think of it is, when you tell a lie, it begets other lies. And you and you have to tell more lies to cover your initial lie and to maintain the fiction. And I see the same thing at work here with the Trump administration. When the president says that climate change is a hoax, when the president says that coal is a clean source of power, it then falls to the people below him on the political food chain to somehow make the world fit his fantastical and anti-science vision. And so, you just get this proliferation of information control in a hopeless bid to try and bend the facts to somehow make the great leader look reasonable and rational.
Steven Cherry You say even e-mails related to the Seams study have disappeared, something you found in your Freedom of Information Act requests. What about the national labs themselves? Historically, they have been almost academic research organizations or at least a home for unfettered academic freedom style research.
Peter Fairley That’s the idea. There has been this presumption or practice in the past, under past administrations, that the national labs had some independence. And that’s not to say that there’s never been political oversight or influence on the labs. Certainly, the Department of Energy decides what research it’s going to fund at the labs. And so that in itself shapes the research landscape. But there was always this idea that the labs would then be—you fund the study and then it’s up to the labs to do the best work they can and to publish the results. And the idea that you are deep-sixing studies that are simply politically inconvenient or altering the content of the studies to fit the politics that’s new. That’s what people at the lab say is new under the Trump administration. It violates. DOE’s own scientific integrity policies in some cases, for example, with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. It violates the lab’s scientific integrity policy and the contract language under which the University of California system operates that lab for the Department of Energy. So, yeah, the independence of the national labs is under threat today. And there are absolutely concerns among scientists that precedents are being set that could affect how the labs operate, even if, let’s say, President Trump is voted out of office in November.
Steven Cherry Along those lines, what do you think the future of grid unification is?
Peter Fairley Well, Steven, I’ve been writing about climate and energy for over 20 years now, and I would have lost my mind if I wasn’t a hopeful person. So I still feel optimistic about our ability to recognize the huge challenge that climate change poses and to change the way we live and to change our energy system. And so I do think that we will see longer power lines helping regions share energy in the future. I am hopeful about that. It’s just it makes too much sense to leave that on the shelf.
Steven Cherry Well, Peter, it’s an amazing investigation of the sort that reminds us why the press is important enough to democracy to be called the fourth estate. Thanks for publishing this work and for joining us today.
Peter Fairley Thank you so much. Steven. It’s been a pleasure.
Steven Cherry We’ve been speaking with Peter Fairley, a journalist who focuses on energy and the environment, about his researching and reporting on the suspension of work on a potential unification of the U.S. energy grid.
This interview was recorded September 11, 2020. Our audio engineering was by Gotham Podcast Studio; our music is by Chad Crouch.
Radio Spectrum is brought to you by IEEE Spectrum, the member magazine of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers.
For Radio Spectrum, I’m Steven Cherry.
Note: Transcripts are created for the convenience of our readers and listeners. The authoritative record of IEEE Spectrum’s audio programming is the audio version.