January 2022 | Vol. 27 No.1
by Pat Walsh, Contributing Writer
Zeroing in on the NEMA Annual Meeting theme of “America’s Electrified Future,” keynote speaker Robert Bryce challenged the association to identify innovation drivers, diversify generation, and improve access to reliable electricity for all, especially in developing countries.
In a lively presentation sponsored by Encore Wire Corporation, Mr. Bryce drew on his experience as a journalist and author to counter pessimistic messaging that society is heading in the wrong direction. He supported his premise with comprehensive statistics peppered with droll humor.
Mr. Bryce turned to a few 19th century titans of the electroindustry to make his case for “smaller, faster, lighter, denser, and cheaper electricity” that will sustain today’s electrical grid as well as the grids of the future.
In 1879, Thomas Edison said he wanted lighting to be so cheap that “only the rich would use candles.” He and his contemporaries succeeded. That changed everything, rivaling the disruptive nature of Guttenberg’s printing press.
According to Mr. Bryce, the story of electrified lighting parallels the history of literacy. Lighting enabled the poor to read at night. It freed women and girls from “the pump, the stove, and the washtub.” It enabled the vertical growth of the modern city.
Not only did electrification change everything, he said, it increased the quality—and quantity—of life. When the industrial revolution began in the early 1800s, life expectancy was about 30 years. It doubled by 1960, and is now 73—for seven billion people globally.
“We’re building more stuff to use more power, but we are not using more power,” he explained. U.S. electricity demand has been flat for 15 years, but this could change if we see an uptick as we move to “electrify everything,” citing, for example, that more electric cars would increase demand.
In charting the innovation drivers in the U.S. that will enable a richer, freer, and greener world, Mr. Bryce zeroed in on manufacturing. In analyzing the asymmetric growth and demand reported by individual states from 2006 to 2020, he attributed negative change, primarily in the north and east, to losses in industrial and manufacturing sectors, a decline in coal production, and increased electricity costs.
On the other hand, positive change, primarily in the west and south, is driven by a growth in industrial and manufacturing sectors, natural-gas and coal production, and increased population.
The growth in Texas is complex, due not only to the oil-and-gas-rich Permian Basin, but also to population gains. Mr. Bryce cited, in particular, a sizable migration from California, which he attributes to that state’s increased electric rates and deindustrialization.
But with that growth comes significant challenges.
Lessons from Texas
According to Mr. Bryce, it is macro trends—beginning with deregulation in 2000 and culminating with the February 2021 winter storm and grid failure—that bode trouble.
Mr. Bryce explained that over the past 20 years, electricity generated by natural gas has more than doubled, resulting in an electric grid that is more dependent on gas than ever before.
Last year’s blackout resulted from a failure on the ERCOT grid. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) manages the flow of electric power to about 90 percent of the state’s electric load. The blackout began with a fundamentally flawed model that treated energy generation as a commodity and not a service that rewarded resilience and reliability.
“Electricity is not a commodity,” he said. “You cannot disaggregate it, disintermediate it, and sell it like sneakers and hotdogs. It is a critical service ... that cannot be allowed to fail.”
The disruption was four minutes from a disastrous black start (the process of bootstrapping the power grid into operation). Such an event would have resulted in a catastrophic grid crash that would have stranded more than 25 million people without electricity and dependent services for weeks.
As it was, the blackout left millions without power, water, and heat in frigid temperatures for nearly two days. Hundreds died. He believes a “fatal trifecta” of an over-reliance on natural gas, renewables, and lack of imported electricity was to blame. Instead, he advocated for power plants that have on-site fuel storage as well as economic incentives to assure grid reliability.
Referring to the blackout as an “epic government failure” resulting from a lack of planning, thinking, and understanding, Mr. Bryce segued into what the Department of Energy calls “major disturbances and unusual occurrences” on the U.S. grid. Incidents are up nearly thirteen-fold from 2000 to 2020.
According to the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) Electric Reliability Organization (ERO) Performance Assessment, the number one factor affecting grid reliability is generation capacity. Because of the grid’s dependence on renewable sources, it is increasingly sensitive to climate changes wrought by extreme temperatures as well as wind and solar droughts—those happen when wind and sun fail.
For example, in Europe, wind droughts are causing the lowest wind speeds in decades, resulting in what Mr. Bryce called, “the underinvestment in hydrocarbons and overinvestment in renewables, resulting in the deindustrialization of Europe.”
Questioning the logic of making the electric grid more reliant on weather, he warned that closing nuclear and coal plants is a recipe for disaster. “A cold winter in Europe could trigger mass-mortality events, as people who can’t afford to heat their homes freeze to death.”
In the U.S., hundreds of projects to integrate renewable resources have been rejected or restricted since 2015 due to land-use conflicts, binding constraints on renewables, and voter preferences.
Iron Law of Electricity
Because people, businesses, and countries will do whatever they can to get the electricity they need, electric grids reflect the societies they power. Based on that, Mr. Bryce defined the key issues for the electroindustry as affordability, reliability, and resilience; asymmetric demand growth; and electrification of everything.
In reiterating the need for a generation resource mix, including nuclear power, he cautioned against alternatives based on metals and minerals. Citing challenges of scale and mass, he projected that megatons of critical minerals are needed to replace hydrocarbons, and China controls that market.
“The idea that the U.S. is going to cede control of its economy and the most critical elements of energy and power sectors to Chinese supply chains is disturbing,” he said.
While the U.S. is experiencing a boom in generation capacity, and global electricity demand has increased 500 terawatt hours per year, about 40 percent of the world’s population live in places where average energy consumption per year is less than what powers a common refrigerator.
Based on that disparity, Mr. Bryce divided the world into three sectors:
- High-Watt World—62 countries that use more than 4,000 kWh/person/year
- Low-Watt World—68 countries that use 1,000–4,000 kWh/person/year
- Unplugged World—74 countries that use less than 1,000 kWh/person/year
“Electricity nourishes humans like no other form of energy ever has,” Mr. Bryce said in demonstrating how electricity poverty exists by region, population, and religion. While 1.4 billion people live in the high-watt world, 3.3 billion live unplugged. That disparity, he posited, is a recipe for unrest.
“Your industry is critical. Anything you and your companies can do to alleviate that disparity, I’m all for it.”