Meredith Angwin, author of Shorting the Grid, chats with Mark Hinaman about her journey in learning about the grid, demystifying it for herself, and writing a powerful book about it and some of its shortcomings. They discuss existing issues with electricity markets, the shortfalls of renewables, and the benefits of nuclear energy to the grid.
Watch the full conversation on Youtube. Follow along with the transcript on Descript.
[00:00:00] Meredith Angwin: The other thing is to look at nuclear instead of looking at it as like, Oh, well, we can put up with it. You know, I guess it’s not as risky as I thought. It’s really a beautiful source of abundance. And we should remember that. It’s really abundant. It’s the The nuclear material that we have on this earth was made in dying stars billions of years ago and captures the energy of those stars.
[00:00:32] Intro: Just because the facts are A, if the narrative is B and everyone believes the narrative, then B is what matters. But it’s our job in our industry to speak up proudly, soberly. And to engage people that are in energy poverty, they need us. America cannot meet this threat alone. If there is a single country.
Of course the world cannot meet it without America. That is willing to. We’re gonna need you. The next generation to finish the need scientists to design new fuels. And focus on net public benefit. We need engineers to invent new technologies. Over absurd levels of radiation. Entrepreneurs to sell those technologies.
And we will march towards this. We need workers to operate a. Assembly lines that hum with high tech, zero carbon components. We have unlimited prosperity for all of you. We need diplomats and businessmen and women and Peace Corps volunteers to help developing nations skip past the dirty phase of development and transition to sustainable sources of energy.
In other words, we need you.
[00:01:36] Mark Hinaman: Okay. Welcome to another episode of the Fire2Fission podcast, where we talk about energy dense fuels and how they can better human lives. My name is Mark Hinaman, and I’m joined today by Meredith Angwin, author of Shorting the Grid and an energy expert on this topic. Meredith, how are you doing?
[00:01:52] Meredith Angwin: Thank you.
Fine. Thank you. I’m doing fine. It’s nice to be here on your podcast.
[00:01:59] Mark Hinaman: I am honored actually to have you on. I mean, you’ve, you’ve been on Robert Bryce’s podcast four or five times. One of the top guests. And I’ve really enjoyed listening to you and topics that you’ve become an expert on. I’m excited to learn from you today.
So, Meredith, for the audience, why don’t you give a brief introduction to yourself, kind of 30 to 60 seconds or elevator pitch, and then we can dive into some of your background.
[00:02:25] Meredith Angwin: Okay, I am a physical chemist. I have a master’s degree in physical chemistry, plus some work toward the PhD. After that, I went to work mostly for the utilities on corrosion control and pollution control. And I ended up being one of the first women project managers of the electric power research Institute.
Later I semi retired to Vermont and I got involved in defending the Vermont Yankee power plant, which unfortunately did shut down, but not because I and a bunch of friends didn’t try to keep it open. And after that, I was writing a blog about Vermont Yankee, which led me to interest in the grid and how Vermont Yankee interacted with the grid, and basically that’s how I ended up writing a book about the grid.
My background is chemistry, not grid maintenance or anything like that.
[00:03:23] Mark Hinaman: Got it. And your book, Shorting the Grid that came out, what, a couple years ago in 2020?
[00:03:28] Meredith Angwin: It came out in, yeah, it’s three years ago in October. It, it seems like it’s flown by.
[00:03:36] Mark Hinaman: Yeah, absolutely. I really loved it, but before we dive into it Vermont Yankee, that was that a nuclear power plant gas plant.
[00:03:44] Meredith Angwin: It was a nuclear power plant the only one in Vermont. It made 70 percent of the electricity that was made in Vermont. And the governor of Vermont basically had political reasons why he could get more supporters if he said he was going to shut that plant down, and it ended up being shut down.
And I wrote a blog the newspapers were very prejudiced against Vermont Yankee. They they had a hard time saying anything went well there, but if there was the tiniest glitch, it was on the front page. So, at any rate I began writing a blog about Vermont Yankee. And one of the people who was reading the blog said, I noticed that you’re writing a little about the grid, and I said, yeah.
And he said, well, have you thought of joining the consumer liaison group for our grid operator? And I said, I didn’t know our grid operator had a consumer liaison group. Anyway, I joined it and that’s when I began really understanding the grid through sort of immersion.
[00:04:50] Mark Hinaman: How long did it take you to move from novice to expert on the grid?
[00:04:57] Meredith Angwin: Well, I really can’t say. I think that I would say that I began as a novice. Maybe in 2010 when I began my blog and every now and again, I’d have to talk about Vermont Yankee and how it interacted with the grid. And then 2014 to 2018. I was on the Coordinating Consul of the Consumer Liaison Group.
And that gave me a sort of semi insider’s view of the grid and introduced me to people who were very knowledgeable about the grid. So I would say that from 2014 to 2020 when I wrote the book was my most intense study of the grid. But I had really been studying it before from 2010 to 2014.
[00:05:48] Mark Hinaman: And the grid can be such an abstract idea. It’s this much more complicated, like series of wires and channels and switches and generation. And I mean, a lot of people just say, well, it’s, it’s our outlets and it’s where our power comes from. But it’s fascinating to me. I feel like the more I learn about it, the less I understand it.
[00:06:10] Meredith Angwin: Well, that keeps happening. I’m sorry to say that it keeps happening. And it happens to me also. And one of the things I decided not to… I beat myself up about the fact that I didn’t understand all of it because when I was asking questions, for example, I got to know a fair number of people at the grid operator, ISO New England, and I’d call one of them up and I’d say, look, can you help me understand this?
And I asked my question and sometimes they’d answer it and sometimes they’d say, Oh, I don’t know. Meredith, that’s kind of an operations question, and I’m more in the regulatory area. Or, Meredith, that’s more of a a dispatch question, and I’m over in the operations. I mean, you know, there are all these subsets.
[00:06:54] Mark Hinaman: The people inside may not even understand all of it.
[00:06:57] Meredith Angwin: No, they don’t. I mean, I don’t mean that in a bad way if it’s just that the situation has become so complicated that I don’t think that people can understand it except as an overview. And there’s always some kind of gotcha where you think you understood it and then you discover, Oh, look at that, you know, and it’s very annoying.
[00:07:18] Mark Hinaman: Yeah. So you cover a lot of that in your book, Shorting the Grid, which I recommend everyone grab a copy of, go read it. It’s fascinating. Yes,
[00:07:27] Meredith Angwin: I’m going to show it right now because that’s the kind of thing I do.
[00:07:31] Mark Hinaman: Okay. I love it. Yeah. What drove you to write it? And then, yeah what are one or two?
of these kind of more complex technical issues that you have to explain to folks more often.
[00:07:43] Meredith Angwin: Okay. What drove me to write it.
[00:07:45] Mark Hinaman: Those are two big questions, so take your time.
[00:07:47] Meredith Angwin: Okay. What drove me to write it was that as I was learning so much with the consumer liaison group and so forth, I I found it was difficult to explain it to people because everything I said seemed to have a backstory.
Unlike, for example if someone said to you, there was a small tritium, a tritium leak at the nuclear plant. We’ve got to do something about it. I might be able to say, look, the if you drank the water with the tritium in it. And you drank two liters a day, you would get far less radioactivity within you than eating half a banana.
You know, I could make it simple, okay? Bananas happen to be naturally radioactive to some extent, but it’d be really hard to hurt yourself by eating them. And at any rate so, but when I began to try to explain the grid, I was like, you I began to sound like one of the people who I ask questions of.
No, you see, that’s actually… a question that the PUC has to answer, not the RTO or something like that. And one of the problems is that there are many, many, many layers of regulation and different groups regulating on the grid. And when I read the book, The Big Short, I realized that the same thing was happening there, that nobody really.
Could understand all the different financial mechanisms and products and rules that were going on about the big short. I mean, the idea that a bank will lend money for a homeowner to buy a house and that that Mortgage will be packaged with a bunch of other mortgages for ease of of administration. Those are easy ideas, but what actually was going on with the collateralized debt obligations and trading and all kinds, and layers and layers of things, it got to the point where the bank You, in the old, you know, simple mechanism view of getting a mortgage, you needed to have a down payment and a good credit record and some earnings.
And then the val mortgage was both valuable to you and valuable to the bank because you had a very high chance of repaying As things got more complicated liars loans, that is loans through the blank, bank didn’t check anything. It didn’t check that you, you had a job, didn’t check that you, you lived where you said you lived.
Those were as valuable to the bank as the best mortgage of two cardiac surgeons who happened to be married to each other. You know, I mean, it was so I felt that things were getting very things and, and the book, the big short really showed me how that kind of thing can perpetuate itself.
And it occurred to me that what was happening on the grid was the same thing, that what was valuable to Investors or whatever wasn’t something that made kilowatt hours for the grid and necessarily so I think I don’t know if it’s a chapter or a sub chapter in my book, I’d have to look it up, but I have a section in the book called, making kilowatt hours is a fool’s way to run your company because the kilowatt hours are not how you get paid. Everybody’s looking for subsidies and for you know, complex rules about, about capacity payments. And that’s where all the excitement is. And just. Turning out kilowatt hours.
I mean, it isn’t valued. But of course, it’s what the grid needs. I mean, as somebody who turns on my lights, I want that grid to be turning out kilowatt hours very reliably and very fairly inexpensively. But if you look at how the grid is governed, reliable and inexpensive is not. not part of the big thing.
I mean, the big thing is much more complex. And there’s an old phrase about that. And you, I’m sure you know it. If you if you can’t blind them with brilliance, baffle them with bull droppings.
[00:12:21] Mark Hinaman: That’s, that’s wonderful.
[00:12:23] Meredith Angwin: And I must say that this is this is what happens a lot. You know, you might think, oh, I can’t understand the grid. Well, that’s because they’re. They’ve built so many systems that it’s meant to be baffling. There’s another book about the grid which is not, which is totally my, my favorite.
But it’s called Short Circuiting Policy by a, an academic Leah Potts. And, no, Leah, I’m forgetting, Leah Stokes. And at any rate One of the things she says in the book, which I, I really agree with, is the fog of enactment. That is, people are passing laws that are so complicated that you really don’t know what the consequences are going to be about electricity.
Some of them you can figure it out and it’s not good, but some of them it’s just like, huh? Wait a minute. Oh, okay. You mean if this and that, but not that. You know, that’s what she calls the fog of enactment.
[00:13:26] Mark Hinaman: Is that because some of these lawmakers understand them themselves? Or why does that happen?
[00:13:33] Meredith Angwin: Well, the lawmaker has an incentive to understand it.
But the lawmaker has to be… I mean, I don’t know how they can do it. They have to be experts on everything. I mean, you know, the lawmaker may have to decide on land use problems in at the edges of the national forest in his state. He may have to decide. I mean, there could be debates on the appropriate hunting season.
There could be debates on What kind of changes to riverbanks are allowed or how far back houses have to be from, I mean, and then of course, there’s electricity and then there’s then there’s unemployment payments and how they get allocated. And so what I’m saying is that the lawmakers have a really full plate.
And in the Halls of Congress, they tend to have a staff, but in the state legislature, not so much a staff. I mean, the ones I’ve seen, the a committee, like for example, the Energy and Environment Committee, Environmental Committee, will have one assigned clerk to it. It may have eight committee members.
Well, there are other committees with another assigned clerk, but this is not huge backup. Yeah.
[00:14:53] Mark Hinaman: Yeah, there’s not a lot of resources at the state level to really study these things and get super educated on them. Yeah. Yeah. Okay, so I liked your analogy to the Big Short and how we’re not valuing things correctly.
You know, it seems like something that was taken for granted for a long time with the grid was that oh, energy generation sources are just reliable, and so they’ll just work. They’ll work when we turn the lights on, and they didn’t have to value reliability as much as perhaps we have to value it now.
Additionally, you know, just last night, there was a member of the Colorado Energy Office that said very confidently and with great gusto that renewables are the cheapest source of energy available to utilities to build. Is that true? If not, why not? No.
[00:15:40] Meredith Angwin: I mean, the short answer is no, I don’t want to be beating around the bush about this.
[00:15:48] Mark Hinaman: Renewables are not the cheapest, right? So tell us why.
[00:15:51] Meredith Angwin: Well, the thing is, renewables are the cheapest, comes from a very narrow look at what’s going on. And that narrow look is typical nowadays because we don’t have vertically integrated utilities that are responsible for the power plant and the and the, transmission and then sending it to your house distribution. And nowadays, the The different merchant plants compete with each other in auctions. They also can get power purchase agreements, but those are often secret and so it’s easier to write a book about the auctions because they’re visible and they actually do make a lot of difference.
But I guess what I’m saying is that there’s, if you look at the auction, you can say, well, The wind turbine is bidding in at 0 cents per kilowatt hour, while that nuclear plant is bidding in at 4 cents, and the gas plant is bidding in at 7 cents. So obviously the wind turbine is the cheapest thing on the grid.
But that isn’t completely the case, because the nuclear plant and the gas plant can be turned on and off to meet the requirements of the grid and the the wind turbine can be turned off, but it can’t be turned on, not by humans. And you know, the wind has to blow. So, What happens is that I went into some studies about this, and you have to look at not just the cost to make the next kilowatt hour of electricity with a wind turbine or whatever, you have to look at the system cost to the grid.
The way the grid is managed in the days before there were a lot of wind turbines, the idea is that you, you had a you looked at what the highest demand on the grid was. You added 10 percent to that. Then you said, okay, we have to have enough power plants to be Supply the highest demand on the grid plus 10 percent or maybe plus 15 percent so that if a power plant is offline or is having problems, we still have enough on the grid and then each power plant shouldn’t be more than 10 percent of the grid because we don’t want to have You know, we’ve got this 10 percent margin of safety.
And what if one of the power plants is 30 percent and that’s the one that goes down? So, you know, so there were these rules and they, they worked very well to keep the grid reliable, unfortunately. You can guess that the wind turbine is not going to be available a lot of the time. And so the wind turbine, if the wind turbine is one megawatt, I’ve seen studies about this, it has to have about one megawatt of fast acting resources in the background, so that the wind dies down and the other one goes on quickly.
You don’t know. You can say that means the wind turbine is useless. Well, it isn’t useless because it’s, let’s say, they’re fast acting resources of gas on fire plant and you don’t want to use a lot of gas and you can say, well, the wind turbine saved me the gas while it was available. Okay, but when you get right down to it, you’re going to have to build two objects, each of which is capable of one megawatt hour, or, you know, output.
In order to have the equivalent of one object if it was just the gas turbine. Yeah. And so that becomes very expensive, and that’s part of the system cost to the grid. And then, if you begin looking at, and this really annoys me, but people will say, well we can have 100 percent if we have batteries. I don’t go for that because we really don’t have that kind of battery yet, but you know, things could happen.
We could have them, but let’s look at that for a moment. Let’s look at this wind turbine, and it can produce, say, one megawatt at a time, and it contributes to what the grid has to have when it needs a lot of power. Okay. Now you say, well, you can charge your battery with it. Not while it’s providing power to the grid.
It’s only one megawatt. So you have to build another wind turbine next to it to be charging up the battery while the wind is blowing strong and the wind turbine is providing to the grid. And so now, what have you got here? You’ve got three different systems. You’ve got your first wind turbine, your second wind turbine, and your battery.
Yep. So that’s the kind of thing that makes it makes it saying, well, the marginal cost of the next kilowatt hour from that wind turbine is zero. It’s sort of like, yeah. And if you put enough among the grid, everybody’s going to go broke.
[00:21:07] Mark Hinaman: That’s, that was very well said. You’re able to articulate it much more succinctly than me. I, I often struggle with this, but it’s I mean, it’s really, yeah, you got to overbuild, right? Like you have to build more than is required and that reduces the efficacy or the efficiency of the capital deployed.
[00:21:28] Meredith Angwin: That’s right. The capital becomes less efficiently utilized. The rate payers still have to pay for the capital, whether it’s efficiently utilized or not, because, you know, I want to
[00:21:39] Mark Hinaman: highlight that point a little bit, which this this is one of the things that upsets me the most is there feels like there’s a perverse incentive in grid operators and utilities that they get compensated based on how much capital they deploy.
So if suddenly we’re giving them the authority to write blank checks to build, overbuild, then they make more money.
[00:22:01] Meredith Angwin: Well, that’s the way. It used to be and is still some places, but basically what you’re talking about is cost of service agreements, which is how the grid used to run before the auctions were put in.
And that’s actually why the, one of the reasons the auctions were put in. People were saying, Oh, We are getting a really gold plated grid here because the way for the owner of this power plant to make more money or this utility is to spend more money so that they get a higher rate of return on their capital investment.
It’ll be the same, same
[00:22:38] Mark Hinaman: rate of return, but more dollars
[00:22:40] Meredith Angwin: if the percent is, yeah. In other words, it’s the difference between 8 percent of $1, 000, 000 and 8 percent of $2, 000, 000. So the rate of return hasn’t changed, but the money in your pocket has changed. Exactly. Or the money taken out of the, the rate payers has changed.
So people were really concerned that it was gold plated, and that’s why they wanted auctions where supposedly the very least expensive power plant would be the most likely to be deployed and nobody got paid extra because they they had just built something. So you built it. Good. I hope you can make some money.
You know, that sort of thing is supposed to you know, now that you’ve spent $2, 000, 000, you’ve got another 8 percent rate of return on those $2, 000, 000. Aren’t you happy? But unfortunately, there is no perfect way to run a grid and the business of not giving the power plants some security of how much They will be able to make has led to a lot of complicated rules on the grid.
And it has provided a lot of work for lawyers. So if you really want, you know, I think that this was the, I, sometimes I look at the RTOs and I think what a gift to the legal profession.
[00:24:05] Mark Hinaman: That’s a, that’s a tough one for me. My partner is a lawyer and she,
[00:24:09] Meredith Angwin: well, my aunt is a lawyer. There’s nothing wrong with lawyers.
to lawyers than to engineers, that’s a difficult way to run a grid.
[00:24:24] Mark Hinaman: Well, it’s, it’s less, it’s truly from an energy perspective, less productive, right? I mean, you’re going to have less, it’s going to be less efficient and it’s going to cost more.
[00:24:34] Meredith Angwin: Well, I don’t mean to knock lawyers too much. I’m just saying that
[00:24:39] Mark Hinaman: I’ll knock them all day.
[00:24:44] Meredith Angwin: I’m just trying to explain that when the rules get too complicated, then there’s an awful lot of time writing white papers and briefs and And appeals to FERC and FERC answers and FERC orders and appeals to the FERC orders and it just goes on. So do you maybe
[00:25:06] Mark Hinaman: have an example of a complicated rule or a way to characterize this?
[00:25:11] Meredith Angwin: Oh sure, I’m happy to, totally happy to. Okay, the first thing we have to say is that it.
Just by making kilowatt hours. And I said that before. One of the problems is that the amount of energy used during the day varies. So that people are using a lot of energy at dinner time and not so much at 2 in the morning. And so you have to have power plants that are there for you at dinner time but are turned off at 2 in the morning.
That’s how the grid works. Okay, what about that power plant that’s turned off at two in the morning? In the old days with the gold plated grid, it was still getting its rate of return, and it still had money to keep itself ready to run. But in the new day, where it has to be paid on as it’s used, you know, when it wins, the chance to get on the grid during the auction.
Then it’s offline a lot and it isn’t getting a lot of payment. And so there was quite a bit of concern, quite rightly, that a lot of the power plants that don’t run 24 7 would just disappear from the grid. They wouldn’t be able to make it. Bye bye. And then all of a sudden, when people came home for dinner, who’s going to, who are they going to call?
You know, those plants wouldn’t be there anymore. So what they came up with is what’s called a capacity payment. And the capacity payment is separate from the energy payment. Not all areas have capacity payments, but that’s another story. Let’s assume we’re in an area with a capacity payment. So the idea is that the the power plant gets paid per kilowatt hour when it’s operating and it also gets paid per kilowatt installed just for being there, okay?
And so it has a capacity payment, the I’m here and I’m installed and I’m here and it also has an energy payment. Well, this has turned into a lot of fun because what happens is that here’s a power plant, say, and it gets its capacity payment and the grid is very stressed and the grid operator says, it’s your turn, you gotta get on.
And it says, oh. Sorry, but the dog ate my lunch. I can’t get on. So what do you do about this? So, the grid operators have made all sorts of Rules, some of which they put in place, and then they’re overturned by FERC is not being appropriate and others they put in place.
So, for example, there’s an inventory energy rule and are, in our area and in our grid operator inventory and energy means is they will pay the power plant so much per day for the if it has a full days of fuel stored on site. So that’s great for the. Gas plants and well, they, they have a hard time, but they will store oil rather than gas and oil plants and so forth.
But then they decided, well, you know, we don’t want to waste the rate payers money. So even though coal plants and nuclear plants have a lot of fuel stored on site ordinarily, we’re not going to pay them for their fuel stored on site because after all they would, but of course you understand that if you pay one kind of plant and you don’t pay the other kind of plant for the same outcome, you’re really being prejudiced against the one kind of plant.
So, okay, so that’s what I mean by it’s a lot of fun, that sort of thing. How do you get the plants to be available with fuel when the grid is stressed? Okay, that’s one thing. Here’s another one from the same question. So, The the
the wind turbine doesn’t just get paid its capacity payment and its energy payment. It also gets subsidies, such as the production tax credit, and it can sell a renewable energy certificate or credit. Every time it makes a kilowatt hour, it can sell that certificate for that kilowatt hour to a utility who needs to have quote, renewable on their grid.
The utility doesn’t have to buy its kilowatt hour, it can just buy its REC. So the thing is, the grid is paying for the kilowatt hour and the utilities are swapping these RECs and sending money to the power plant. So that means that these power plants that are like a wind turbine can bid in at zero cents per kilowatt hour because they’re, they’re Expenses are being covered by the production tax credit and the rec, and they can bid in at minus two cents per kilowatt hour.
Okay, so at that point, they’re, they’re bidding in very low in the energy markets and. Nothing’s being done about that, but they’re bidding in very low in the capacity markets. And all of a sudden there’s a lot of trouble because if you remember a gas fire plant, it’s only there when there’s a high demand on the grid.
It depends on its capacity payments. So if there’s all these wind turbines bidding in very low, the capacity. Clearing price goes down and all of a sudden you don’t have enough capacity payments to keep the the gas fire plants going. At which point you had they came up in our area that came up with MOPR minimum offer price rule, which means that the the wind turbines and other such power plants that have substantial subsidies are not allowed to consider their subsidies when building bidding it. So the wind turbine maybe actually cost 2-3 cents per kilowatt hour to run it and have the You know, the oil there and the people who will take care of it, the oil for the gears and stuff, and people will take care of it and people inspecting it every now and again, and okay.
So you have your wind turbine, let’s say it takes 2 cents, but actually it’s bidding in at zero because it gets subsidies, which more than make up for the 2 cents, well, the other plants that depend on those capacity payments, like, well, whoa, whoa. I mean, I, you know, they get subsidies that isn’t. They’re not actually the cheapest thing on the grid, they’re just getting subsidized.
Anyway, so, you put this MLPR in place, Minimum Offer Price Rule, the wind turbine has to bid in at 3 cents, or whatever, not counting its subsidies, okay Twitch Urban is bidding in considering it’s subsidies, and then the MOPR rule says no, you have to bid in as if you didn’t get any subsidies. At which point the wind turbine says you’re just trying to put me out of business. Meanwhile, the gas plants are saying if it can bid in with the subsidy, it’s putting me out of business.
And there’s a lot of fun about this. And so pretty soon that FERC says you can bid in with, the MOPR rules can only last for two years or whatever. And then so, but if you try and explain to somebody what the MOPR rules are, All people have heard about them, and it says they’re going to kill the renewables.
And if you begin saying, well, let me explain about capacities and about the gas turbines, and the fact you need a gas turbine to back up the wind turbine, but if it can’t make it, it won’t be there. And you see what I’m saying? Absolutely. Actually, I didn’t get to the next phase, and I’m not going to. But basically, at one point, The idea would be that there would be two capacity auctions and one capacity auction would only be for plants that got subsidies.
And so their clearing price would be very low, but the other plants would still have a high clearing price and then somehow or other these would both be on the grid.
[00:33:23] Mark Hinaman: Yeah, so I think that those two examples were a great way to demonstrate this is complicated and it’s, it’s not an easy problem to solve.
And I think a lot of the history demonstrates that most grid operators and utilities have tried to approach this fairly and utilize multiple different technologies to sell the same kind of service, but it’s, it’s complex. So for listeners, other than your book, which again, we recommend they go out and buy how do people learn about this?
What are some of the best sources of Material, content that they can read about and, and learn more about how do people understand, understand it
[00:34:01] Meredith Angwin: better. Well, I would say that some of the best content out there is your RTO will have a website. So for example you can go to the ISO New England website or the MISO website and you can see a lot.
And, and it’s important to like go to your. Website every day so that you can kind of and or at least every few days so that you can kind of see the trends then there are other things which are really good. I don’t know if you know, Emmett Penney. Oh,
[00:34:35] Mark Hinaman: yeah, our mutual friend Emmett Penney and his article grid or his newsletter grid brief.
Yeah. Shameless plug for him. He’s yes.
[00:34:45] Meredith Angwin: So, so I guess what if you could do worse than going to your your local grid operator to get an idea of what’s going on there and going to and and subscribing to grid brief, which at this point, I believe is free every day. There’s another one that’s just started out.
I think it’s called. Grid status or grid IO. I don’t remember the title. I’m sorry. It’s a year old. I should remember the title. And then the other thing is that there’s a A magazine or a newsletter you can get online called Utility Dive, in other words, diving into the utility industry.
And that is also free. When you get away from those, everything begins to get pretty expensive. I subscribe to RTO Insider, but I don’t tell people they should subscribe because it’s, I mean, if you want to, go ahead, it’s a great thing, but if you, you know, not everybody is $1, 300 a year worth of interest in.
So, I mean, so I would say that grid brief, your local RTO website, utility dive, and then lots of excellent podcasts. Robert Bryce has a podcast. I think there are there’s a a very cynical substack called Green Leap Forward, which compares the push to be a hundred percent renewables with Mao’s Great Leap Forward.
It isn’t as fierce as that all the time, but that’s the basic idea. If you remember, Mao’s Great Leap Forward entered in nothing but famine. That’s what happened.
[00:36:29] Mark Hinaman: I’ll have to check that out. That’s that sounds interesting.
[00:36:32] Meredith Angwin: And another, another one I recommend is Irina Slav. She has a sub stack, which is pretty inexpensive.
It’s like 50 a year. Most of the sub stacks are more and, and, and Robert Brice, oh my God, you’ve got to follow Robert Brice’s power hungry podcast and subscribe to him on sub stack too. So, I mean, there are a lot of places you can get a lot of information, and some of them cost a little money but But the ones I’ve named, with the exception of RTO Insider, they cost, you know, 50 to 80 a year.
They don’t cost, you know, a thousand a year. So, and you can say, well, I’m just going to go with the free ones. I’m going to go with Robert Bryce’s podcasts. And I’m going to go with Emmett Penny’s grid brief. And you know, and you’ll, you’ll learn a whole lot.
[00:37:27] Mark Hinaman: Yeah. I think those are great recommendations.
So, Meredith, I came up with this question just before our interview, but something that’s always, no, I actually sent it to you. So maybe you had time to think about it, but yeah. Something that’s always fascinated me about the industry is kind of the lack of growth. In the utility industry specifically or economic opportunities.
So I contrast this against kind of the oil and gas industry where I’m from, where, I mean, it’s boom, bust, people can go broke, but they can also get rich. And there’s kind of this entrepreneurial spirit and it can be very, very vibrant at times. When I contrast that against the utility side of the energy industry, it can feel kind of sleepy.
I think part of that’s due to their guaranteed rate of return, their limited growth opportunity, like, and also it’s a regulated monopoly. It’s harder for startups and entrepreneurs to enter into it. On the other hand, as we talked about earlier, they aren’t guaranteed a rate of return. So even if they do bad business or they have gold plated facilities, In
[00:38:29] Meredith Angwin: the integrated areas, they’re guaranteed a rate of return.
They’re not guaranteed a rate of return in the RTO area.
[00:38:37] Mark Hinaman: Right. So maybe, how about you comment on well, let’s start with describing the difference between RTO and integrated utilities. And then comment on, you know, is this an issue, this lack of growth opportunity and wealth generation in, in the utility industry?
Is it the best solution? And if not, how, how could we fix it?
[00:39:00] Meredith Angwin: Well, I think that it, the first thing is the RTOs versus the integrated utilities, the easiest thing to say is that when you have a. RTO, you have your local distribution utility, and it’s in charge of distribution and actually does get a rate of return and then it buys the electricity from merchant generators that do nothing but make electricity, and so one of the if the
merchant generators aren’t making money, they can just quit where in the integrated version, you’re supposed to have enough, the PUC is supposed to be sure that there’s enough power available for, for people. The other question is really a, a quite an important one and a, and a difficult one because when you get right down to it The utility industry is, yeah, there is auctions and stuff, but when you get right down to it, it is a natural monopoly, just like a city supplied water.
You’re not going to have four pipes going to your house for four different water companies and choose the one that that happens to be cheapest at the time, and you’re not going to have four wires to your house and choose the electricity company that happens to be cheapest at the time. It’s a natural monopoly built around a geographical area.
And Because of that, it isn’t like entrepreneurial. You can’t add a geographical area. The best you can do is include your efficiency and perhaps encourage people to use more of your product, which was of course a very big deal until like the. I don’t know, the 70s or something. I mean, if you think about all the kinds of things that were introduced in the 50s, washing machines dishwashers, irons electric stoves television, I mean, there was growth then.
Let’s put it this way. There was growth then. I think that that’s a problem and I don’t know really how it can be solved In the long run, because the utilities, unfortunately, if you’re an EE major, and you could get a job, for example, designing circuits or at a startup of some kind of electronics thing, or you could go to a utility, you might think, yeah, I could go to utility and take a nap at my desk for the next couple of years.
That isn’t it. Exactly how it works, but obviously, there’s no way to get rich at a utility per se. The one place that there is innovation is with the the vendors. So, for example, there’s a lot of innovation now in the nuclear area where there are many, many, many startups in, in nuclear energy. I think that’s the close call that Europe had last Winter when it couldn’t get gas or whatever has made everybody think, you know, if we had a nuclear plant here, it would have fuel on site for the whole winter.
It’d be really nice. I mean, we might have problems the following winter if there was an embargo or something, but it wouldn’t be this sudden death experience, you know? And so the, there’s a lot of innovation in the in the vendor area. And I think that that’s where, and also, another thing that’s very nice about utilities is I think that The people I know who work for utilities, they have a very strong feeling of serving their towns and their areas.
I mean, they know.
[00:42:55] Mark Hinaman: The sense of public service that they have is immense.
[00:42:58] Meredith Angwin: It’s a central public service. If the grid went down for the whole United States, there would literally be millions of deaths. And if you want to read something scary, you can always read Ted Koppel’s Lights Out. You know, but don’t read it before bedtime.
It’s about, it’s about a power grid going down. So, anyhow, so there is a feeling of public service, and especially for the people in the distribution and transmissions. Well, everybody. I mean, for Pete’s sake, the person running the dispatch center for the power plants. He knows he’s, he or she knows he’s got to, they’ve got to keep that, that demand and and supply very closely balanced in real time, or bad things are going to happen. And they, you know, they take it very seriously. And there are often several people. Watching different aspects of it at the same time, you know, in the control room. So there’s a feeling of camaraderie between the control room people and also a feeling of we are really helping our community.
Let me tell you about the helping community thing, which is, I think very funny in a way. The first time I went to a control room and I saw these two big TV monitors up there and I said, well, the guys have time to watch TV. No, no, no. If there’s a traffic accident or a, or a fire or anything that’s disrupting, they have to know about it because it could be very quickly reflected in the electricity demand.
And so that’s why they have news programs all over the, in, in the dispatcher’s control room.
Anyway, so I guess I guess that there are rewards knowing that you’re keeping your community safe and so forth. If you think about it our daughter in law’s a nurse. You don’t get rich being a nurse, but there are other other rewards, right? I mean, it’s paid reasonably. Not as well as it should be, but it’s paid reasonably and people are appreciative of what you do.
[00:45:05] Mark Hinaman: You know, what’s come to mind when you were describing that is there is a paradigm shift that has happened and is evolving that could transform this. So you described, you said, well, it’s challenging to have entrepreneurship and startups and wealth generation in markets and companies that are dominated by monopolies.
Which is entirely true, right? But, there, there are, with renewables and people putting solar panels on their roofs, there’s this attitude that, wow, we can generate distributed power sources. I mean, that’s, that’s a trend that is developing to not have centralized power sources, but rather distributed.
And then you mentioned technology innovation specifically in nuclear. Something that comes to mind, or came to mind while you were describing it was, well, why didn’t, why don’t… People generate all their power on site and historically it’s been because you have to get a fuel to your home or your facility or your building and to have, you know, an oil pipeline or a gas pipeline or a coal train go to every single facility is really impractical.
But if we had micro nuclear reactors at each facility that only needed to be refueled once every 5 to 10 years, then that could really. dramatically shift. Even if they’re a backup generation source. I mean, there there’s generator diesel generator sales are skyrocketing nationally. You know, I know people that are buying them all over the place.
But if you if you could license and build and distribute micro nuclear reactors to every consumer that wanted them or business that wanted them, then that could fundamentally shift this idea that power gen. Is or needs to be a monopoly. Do you agree? I guess that’s the question. Do you agree?
[00:46:55] Meredith Angwin: It would be actually better to have the equivalent of community nuclear.
That is, you know, for a little area of nuclear. I mean, there’s a certain amount of overhead in even a small plant and putting enough You know, concrete around it and so forth to keep it safe. And, and so I would tend to say community nuclear, but you know, in terms of keeping it safe let’s look at the fact that as my friend, Rod Adams said that he he spent years sleeping within what, a hundred feet of a nuclear reactor and spending all this time with it.
I mean, because that’s what. Life on a submarine is like, you know, so,
[00:47:40] Mark Hinaman: I like that though. Community, have it, have it be part of your HOA fee. Right, rather than every single house builds their own.
[00:47:48] Meredith Angwin: Yeah, yeah, and we better not to have every single house have its own. I wanted to say one other thing about distributed generation. The thing is that people say, well, solar, it’s distributed generation, you know, it’s on my roof. It’s on your roof. It’s, we got a big solar field down, down by the interstate or someplace else, you know, that’s not an old parking lot, whatever. But It, since the sun sets all at the same time, it’s really like a huge plant.
And, and remember my, the rule was that we would have no plant more than 10 percent in the old days, so that if one plant went down, it wasn’t a big deal. So now we’ve got these duck curves, and these duck curves are proving that Distributed iteration is actually a mega plant. It just happens to be distributed over an area, but it goes on and off pretty much simultaneously with itself.
[00:48:47] Mark Hinaman: Yeah, that’s, that’s a fascinating way to think about it. And it’s entirely true. So, I have heard some proponents of it push back and say, well, if we could just interconnect well enough, then, you know, if a cloud goes over… Houses in Colorado, but not over the houses in Wyoming, then You know, if the wires are just connected far enough, then we can Compensate, or there will be enough averages and balances.
[00:49:12] Meredith Angwin: That’s very Ambitious. It’s very utopian. It’s very hard to get transmission lines built. And people object to them. And, and it’s hard to get the rights to build them. And furthermore, they’re expensive and they’re vulnerable. I mean, I don’t like the idea of a transmission line strung across the Rockies.
I mean, the Rockies are pretty fierce weather. I mean, I guess, It sounds cute. But it really it isn’t practical.
[00:49:46] Mark Hinaman: Okay, so you mentioned a book that described rolling blackouts. This was a topic that I wanted to address. There’s been some people that have, think that these could become more common in the future as we add more intermittent sources.
Do, do you mind commenting a little bit more about… Blackouts or brownouts or the reliability issue, perhaps.
[00:50:08] Meredith Angwin: Okay, I’m going to say that the book I talked about doesn’t describe rolling blackouts. It describes large blackouts that last for some period of time, from a few days to whatever. The book is by Ted Koppel, and it’s called Lights Out.
It’s about how unprepared we are and what the consequences would be of an EMP strike or what’s called a Carrington event. Have you ever heard of a Carrington event? Okay, well, the sometime in the 1850s, the sun had a there was a lot of material and and electromagnetic Being sent out from the sun and some kind of huge flare, and I think those huge flares have a special name, but I don’t know the name.
So anyway, it was sent out from the sun, nothing we can control about it, and in that time, there was almost no electricity, all there was was telegraph lines. And they melted and they, they had the operators couldn’t touch the keys and it was really quite an a a difficult situation. And if you, you think about it, all there was, was the telegraph lines and what would happen now?
With such an event. So you can look up the Carrington event. You can just look it up on Wikipedia if you want, but People don’t know about it you know people are very like we want everything to be perfect and so forth and so on and really the world has a lot of dangers and By being smart we hope to protect ourselves against most of them Yeah, so yeah The rolling blackouts in Texas in 2021, one of the problems is they didn’t roll, they got stuck, which is not impossible because you could see they did.
And so they were when people were out of power for 48 hours, it was very cold out, and about 200 people died.
[00:52:28] Mark Hinaman: Yeah. Okay, so Meredith, we’re coming up on our time, but what. This is a nuclear podcast and we haven’t, we talked a little bit about nuclear, but not a ton. So, in, in your view what’s one of the most impactful steps that we as a society can take towards trying to build more nuclear and how can people help?
[00:52:49] Meredith Angwin: Well, I think as a society we could. We could begin to put it in context with other things. For example is nuclear safe? Well, compared to what? Compared to dams, compared to fossil, compared to not having electricity, compared to, I mean, we, we look for some unreasonably high level of safety yeah.
Which we don’t look for in other things. For example, I get on planes all the time and I am aware of the planes crash, but I also know that planes have been crashing less and less as we’ve gotten better and better at it. I mean, when I was in high school, I lost a young, I didn’t, I didn’t, I wasn’t. He wasn’t my best friend or anything, but he lived on the same block as I did.
And his family decided to go down to Florida and their plane crashed. And so, I mean, I’m just trying to tell you that, yeah, planes, that, that wasn’t, it was a terrible thing, it wasn’t such an unusual thing. Nowadays, it’d be very unusual for a commercial plane to crash. But at any rate, we have to look at it in terms of what do we get and what do we, And we don’t actually risk very much.
People that would be one of the things. The other thing is to look at nuclear instead of looking at it as like, Oh, well, we can put up with it. You know, I guess it’s not as risky as I thought. It’s really a beautiful source of abundance. And we should remember that. It’s really abundant. It’s the The nuclear material that we have on this earth was made in dying stars billions of years ago and captures the energy of those stars.
So there’s like, it’s just such a beautiful abundance and I feel that if we could look at what it could do for us. What it does do for us and what it could do for us with desalinization of seawater and All kinds of power for for example, we could grow food in greenhouses because the power would be very inexpensive in cold areas.
Anyway, things like that.
[00:55:19] Mark Hinaman: I love that. So, yeah, so what I heard was normalizing the risk and really the cost benefit in society and trying to highlight more of the benefit than the risk and cost. So. I think that’s, that’s a tremendous approach, very intelligent and rational. And it’s a great story to tell, right.
And we should be telling it. So. Okay. Well, Meredith, why don’t you leave us kind of with your vision of the future? What’s the world going to look like in the next 10 to 20 years and how are we going to help people get there?
[00:55:50] Meredith Angwin: Well, for the future, I think what we can do, the first thing we can do is keep all existing nuclear plants that are in reasonable shape and Most of them are operating and we repair and revitalize some that have been shut down very recently.
For example, palisades may be revitalized and there are a whole bunch of plants in Germany that were just shut down in the past six months and they could be put back online. And then we should be building nuclear plants and I think that people say, Oh, they’re too expensive, but you know, they’re not.
We have not, well, they’re very, they can be very expensive. Fodal is a very, very bad seed that it got so expensive. But when you get right down to it, even a plant like Fodal will be making very Reliable power for decades and we should be appreciative of that.
[00:56:49] Mark Hinaman: Probably centuries, right?
[00:56:51] Meredith Angwin: It might well be centuries.
Somebody somebody said something to me I thought was very good and said, well, you know, you can say a nuclear plant’s expensive and it takes a while to build. You can say yeah, a two story house is expensive and takes a while to build. Let’s have tents! We’ll all live in tents. No, no, they’re not expensive and they don’t take very much time to put up, but they have some other drawbacks.
And similarly, the the different things like wind turbines are less expensive, but then they have to have the backup. So they get more expensive. They’re less reliable. They’re more subject to problems with the weather. And so, I, what I would like to see is nuclear plants as base load plants for the whole world, basically, the whole world.
And I’ve been looking at some studies that show that the, Electricity that’s on all the time is about 60 percent of all the electricity that’s produced. And the other 40 percent is the variable part. So if we had nuclear as base load, boy, we’d decarbonize hugely. And then we could have some nuclear as load following some solar as load following, some gas substituted by solar when solar is available.
I mean, we could have a lot of choices. And a low carbon economy and a lot of energy, a lot of electricity if we could just build nuclear as as the 60 percent that runs all the time.
[00:58:24] Mark Hinaman: I love that vision. Let’s, let’s go do it. So, Meredith Angwin, this has been wonderful. Thanks so much for chatting with me.
[00:58:32] Meredith Angwin: Thank you very much.