The agenda mirrors many of the policies that Inslee has piloted in Washington. Next week, the governor will sign a bill committing the Evergreen State to a carbon-neutral grid by 2030, and a zero-emissions grid by 2045. It will represent a long-awaited victory for Inslee: After years of trying, and severalfailed attempts to put a statewide price on carbon pollution, Inslee will succeed in passing an ambitious climate policy in Washington. And he has found this success not by trying to tax carbon pollution, but by going sector by sector, coaxing and prodding individual parts of the economy to change their ways. It is a strategy he now hopes to bring to the White House.
“Whether they do it in the collective interest or in their own is very much in question,” Summers told me. “I use as a parable for a lot of things what happens in developing countries, where the urban electric system doesn’t work well, and therefore the businesses start building their own generators to take care of themselves, and therefore there’s no longer a constituency or pressure to fix the existing electricity system, and meanwhile the society is falling apart.”
On July 23rd 2012 particles from a much larger solar ejection blew across the orbital path of Earth, missing it by days. Had it hit America, the resulting geomagnetic storm would have destroyed perhaps a quarter of high-voltage transformers ..
.. America runs on roughly 2,500 large transformers, most with unique designs. But only 500 or so can be built per year around the world.
.. Eventually, months later, about three quarters of the benighted area has power for at least ten hours a day. It would have been worse had 41 countries not dismantled transformers for reassembly in North America. (The most generous donors have to accept rolling blackouts.) Martial law ends six months after the original energy surge. Roughly 350,000 Canadians and 7m Americans have died.
.. The sun probably poses a greater risk of a sustained outage than hackers or saboteurs
.. a complete collapse of the grid could probably be prevented by protecting several hundred critical transformers for perhaps $1m each.
So California especially, they balance solar with natural gas. In Germany, they balance wind with coal. And this leads to this very ironic situation where the places with the highest penetration of renewables also have greenhouse gas emissions which are going up.
DAVIES: And this is a fascinating thing that you describe where a utility will literally have an old plant running on fossil fuels – coal or diesel – and it sits idle until there’s a decline in some other energy source. And then they fire up this expensive, antiquated, polluting equipment?
BAKKE: Exactly. Yeah, either a dip in another energy source or a big surge in use. So we usually use – they’re called peakers, and we usually use them, for example, on a very hot August day when everyone turns up their air conditioning. So that’s another case where the plants that are making electricity aren’t making enough. And so these plants have to get turned on.
But you need all the coal sitting around to run them. You need the people sitting around to be called in to run them because they’re complicated machines – giant complicated machines.
DAVIES: So if we – if the people, if the utilities, if the grid could figure out a way to manage all this renewable energy coming in and not have to have these old, antiquated plants at the ready, it would save a lot of money, effort and pollution, right?
BAKKE: Absolutely. Absolutely. And one of the things, for example, that Texas is doing right now, they have the highest amount of wind energy in the country. And they – their – Texas wind blows at night, so they’ve done two funny things. One is that there’s one utility that just gives away electricity after 9 p.m.
So the electricity is free, again, because they need people to use it. So everybody at 9:00 p.m., everybody sort of stands up and turns on their dishwasher
.. I think that this idea – the idea that with either zero or we’ve failed needs to be put aside a little bit to say, what would it look like if we could get to 80 percent? How would we have to revive – what would we have to do to the system in order to get to 80 percent renewables – because once we can do that, then we can look at and say, how do we get to 90 percent – as opposed to this sort of we’re going to completely eliminate any kind of fossil fuel, leave it all on the ground, and we’re going to run all on renewables.
The upside of renewables is that they can for sure make more electricity than we need. There’s not – there’s not a shortage problem. There’s, in a way, an excess problem. But that is not – that’s not the issue. That’s in part why I feel like this book actually matters is because it’s not about generation. That’s not the end of the story. That’s the beginning of the story. And the rest of the story is about the ways in which we use that power, the ways in which we transmit that power, the ways in which we care for that power, we store that power or we don’t store it, we balance it – all of these grid-related sort of human questions.
So, yes, absolutely, I think it’s absolutely possible. But let’s get to 50 percent. Let’s get to – I think 80 percent – by the time we get to 80 percent renewable and integration, we are going to have confronted all of the big problems that are facing us right now.