Meredith Angwin

Energy Analyst & Author

As the summer winds down, dangerous things are happening on the grid. As an example, nobody thinks the California rolling blackouts are over.  As a matter of fact, it might not be too far-fetched to say, “If you are hopeful about the grid right now, you aren’t paying attention.”  Is it time to panic?


Some people quote Greta Thunberg, who apparently says that we should panic:  “Adults keep saying we owe it to the young people, to give them hope, but I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic.”

However, when people quote those sentences, they are taking Thunberg’s words out of context. Here’s the continuation of her statement.  “I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if the house is on fire, because it is.”  In other words, she wants adults to act quickly, not to panic. If everybody panics because the house is on fire, nobody will act to put out the fire.

In the course of their lives, most people learn how to not-panic in various circumstances. We take formal and informal anti-panic training , and we learn about action. In teaching a child to swim, you usually start by teaching the child to put their head in the water and blow bubbles. Yes, your nose is under water, but no need to panic! As long as you are blowing bubbles, you will be okay. Keep blowing those bubbles, and remember that you can raise your head any time and take a breath.

Fire fighters, military people and first responders take much more elaborate anti-panic training. My husband told me about the most difficult part of his Navy training: learning damage control. “Walk into the blazing compartment, you have a hose, put out the fire.” In other words, “Don’t panic.” That was heavy-duty anti-panic training.

The Grid

Meanwhile, in California, the weather forecasts are looking bad (hot) and the grid forecasts are looking bad, too. The grid operators are pulling out all the stops to prevent more rolling blackouts. The California RTO made the classic RTO mistakes that I describe in my upcoming book:

  • letting intermittent renewables dominate the auctions,
  • not having enough fast-acting backup (natural gas), and
  • expecting electricity imports from neighboring areas.

In New England, this fatal trifecta happens in very cold weather in winter when our plants can’t obtain natural gas (used for heating) and Canada needs its own electricity at home. In California, it happens during hot days in summer after natural gas and nuclear plants were shut down, and when neighboring states need their own electricity at home. When an area depends on intermittent renewables, just-in-time natural gas (no storage) and the kindness of neighbors (at times when the neighbors are also stressed), that area can expect problems, including rolling blackouts. My new book Shorting the Grid: The Hidden Fragility of Our Electric Grid describes why this painful triplet is far more common in RTO areas. The book should be out next month.


So, where is the hope?

In terms of hope for the grid, I believe that citizens have to keep track of grid decision making, especially in RTO areas. This is not easy, because many of the important meetings are closed to the public. Vertically-integrated areas are more transparent. But with some attention, you can keep track and maybe even influence decisions on your grid.

We can build clean reliable low-emissions grids with existing technology, and even more technology is being developed. To learn about existing well-operated, low-emissions grids, I recommend the book A Bright Future: How Some Countries Have Solved Climate Change and the Rest Can Follow by Joshua Goldstein and Staffan Qvist. This book looks back at how France, Ontario, Sweden and other countries achieved reliable, low-emissions grids, with nuclear energy and hydro power. Looking toward new technology in the future, I recommend Thorium, Electricity Cheaper than Coal, by Robert Hargraves  and the documentary The New Fire, directed by David Schumacher and available on Amazon and other services.

Hope and action go together. To have a clean grid, we have  to keep a careful watch on the distorted decision-making processes in the RTO areas. To have a clean future grid, we have to encourage new nuclear plants and keep the older ones operating.  And yes, the RTO areas are a major part of the problem.

(And yeah, buy Shorting the Grid as soon as it comes out!)