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Electricity: Time to Flip the Switch!

We are probably all familiar with the story of the business that says “our work can be good, fast or cheap, pick any two”.  There is a somewhat similar idea for electricity systems.  Your electricity grid can be reliable, affordable or clean.  Pick any two. But, if you want “clean”, the other two may be unavailable if you force your grid to go clean with the wrong technology.

Many Western governments have committed their populations to the goal of net zero by 2050, with something like 40-50 percent of that goal to be reached by 2030 or 2035.  To achieve this, governments have spent and will spend enormous sums to “decarbonize the grid”. That means increasing the percentage of total electricity generation from wind and solar, while reducing or even eliminating the contribution of fossil fuels.  If the percentage of renewables rises to over approximately 30 percent that reduces the reliability and increases the cost of your electricity supply.

Imagine your life without electricity, even for a few days.  No furnace or electric heat in winter, no lights, complete thawing of all food in your freezer and refrigerator, no way to charge computers, phones, or anything else.  An outage of even a few days can be dangerous, especially in winter, when outages can cause many deaths from cold.  We have taken our electricity for granted, but those days are coming to an end.  

As European countries have reluctantly discovered  – particularly the UK and Germany – even before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the time had come to flip the switch to “off” for adding more wind and solar, and to “on” for adding more fossil fuel. 

The EU and the UK spent too much, too quickly, on intermittent, unreliable wind and solar generation and too little on preserving reliable nuclear and natural gas generation.  The result?  An electricity system that is both unreliable and unaffordable, and will remain that way for many years.  Even worse, as a quick fix, Germany has been forced to revert to increased coal generation, even razing an entire village to expand a coal mine.  Replacing closed nuclear and natural gas generation with coal is hardly green, but clearly necessary. In Germany’s coalition government with the Green Party, Robert Habeck, Vice-Chancellor and Federal Minister for Economic Affairs and Climate Action has reluctantly approved this expansion of coal as a ‘temporary’ necessity. 

So let’s look more closely at the choices of reliable, affordable and clean.

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