“I am not a Democrat. I am not a Republican. I am disgusted,” Robert Bryce told the 77th Annual Meeting of Kentucky Electric Cooperatives in Louisville.
Following up with Robert Bryce
On his podcast, in his books and in testimony before Congress, the veteran energy journalist is one of America’s strongest advocates for a “reality check” on what U.S. energy policy means for average consumers, such as the approximate 1.8 million Kentuckians served by electric cooperatives.
Kentucky Living readers spoke out after Bryce’s July article explained how the United States Environmental Protection Agency is advancing rules that ignore warnings from other federal agencies about threats to electric grid reliability.
We reached out to Bryce to ask him about the concerns voiced by our readers.
What is the biggest reality check we need to understand about energy in America?
The biggest reality check flies in the face of the rhetoric and hype coming out of Washington and NGOs, (non-governmental organizations). It is one unassailable fact: Hydrocarbons are here to stay. This idea that we’re going to quit using coal, oil and natural gas anytime in the near term? It’s just not true.
Why is that not true?
People make the mistake of saying we shifted to cellphones, so we can do the same with energy. It’s just not a valid comparison. Hydrocarbons are going to stick around because of the vast scale of our energy and power needs. The reason we use coal, oil and natural gas isn’t some vast conspiracy; it’s that those energy sources can provide the staggering amount of energy we need to make our economy work at prices that consumers can afford and do so reliably.
It’s easy to say, “just switch to wind and solar,” but it’s incredibly hard to do. Because not only are those sources very energy diffused, meaning they require a lot of land, a lot of equipment and a lot of material inputs, they’re also incurably intermittent.
What is the reality check on intermittent sources of energy?
Imagine you have a business driving an Uber, but your car only runs sometimes. At any time of day, it may not work, and you can’t use it at night. If you can’t depend on your car, then you need a backup car to make sure you can still provide that driving service when people need it.
The exact same thing applies to the electric grid. You can build all the solar and wind capacity you want. But if you can’t count on it to deliver electricity when you need it, you have to build a whole other set of generation plants equal to the size of that renewable capacity in order to assure reliability. If you have to do that, that costs money. And who pays for that? Ratepayers.
And you have to be able to carry the same number of passengers as the other car.
Right. And what people forget about is how delicate the electric grid is. You have to balance production and demand precisely every second of every day of the year.
This idea of, “We’ll just have blackouts”? Well, if you have blackouts, people die because we depend so much on the electric grid.
What makes this even more problematic is electricity is very difficult to store. Are batteries getting better? Yes, but they need ideal conditions. They can’t be too hot, they can’t be too cold, they can’t be discharged too fast, they can’t be charged too fast. They’re kind of like Goldilocks; everything has to be just right. That is why hydrocarbons have persisted to this day, because they are so incredibly good at providing the energy and power that we demand at prices consumers can afford.
What about the reality check on climate change? If some people’s contention is that all you’re doing is making it worse and we have no choice but to reduce our use of the dependable power sources, what’s your response?
My answer is simple. Climate change is a concern; it is not our only concern. We have to balance our efforts on addressing carbon emissions and greenhouse gases with the broader needs of our society. And that includes affordability, reliability and resilience.
It would be foolish—it would be, in fact, insane—to just say, “Oh, we’re simply going to quit using hydrocarbons because of climate change.”
If we’re facing more extreme weather, hotter or colder, or both, or more extended, we’re going to need more energy, not less.
We need to use hydrocarbons intelligently and efficiently, but we have to balance our societal response to the possibility of climate change with our absolutely essential need to keep the economy going. This is going to be a slow process. It doesn’t happen overnight. It took many decades to build the power networks we use today, and it will take decades to change them.
Meanwhile, the demand for electricity is increasing but the government is pushing to take offline the most dependable sources. How do you describe that reality check?
Including electric vehicles, we are adding a whole bunch of new demand onto the electric grid at the very same time the government’s own energy agencies are warning of a reliability crisis. Hydrocarbon fuel power plants are being prematurely retired and replaced with intermittent renewables. This is a recipe for disaster.
What is the reality check the average consumer needs to know about their electric service?
We have grown up in an era where electricity is cheap, abundant and reliable. And our systems are pretty resilient. But we take that reliability and affordability for granted at our extreme peril.
The electric grid is the mother network upon which all of our most important systems depend. We have to be incredibly thoughtful, we have to be very judicious, very careful, in how we change this network. And I fear that there is not enough care and not enough attention being paid to this headlong rush to try and transform our grid in a very short amount of time. And the stakes simply could not be higher.