Everyone wants a clean environment. Everyone. From roughnecks and roustabouts in the oil patch to Washington K-Street lobbyists — everyone wants clean air and water. But lately, the green movement appears to have hugged one tree too many. Suddenly, we are putting people at risk today to avoid a hypothetical risk a century from now. This will affect contractors and the rest of the country in ways we can speculate, but others we cannot imagine.
Most environmentalists are proud to consider themselves political “progressives,” but their energy policies are downright regressive. They are moving us from the first world to the third using primitive, intermittent energy sources to generate electricity and mandating everyone use electricity and only electricity for heating, cooking, water heating, and transportation.
This has created the ironic situation where California bans the sale of gas and diesel powered cars starting in 2035. Other progressive states immediately follow the Golden State’s lead. Ironically, a week later, California has to beg residents not to charge their electric vehicles between 4 p.m. and 9 p.m. in an effort to prevent blackouts. You know, when the late afternoon heat is high, the summer sun is setting, and solar collectors are collecting less.
California’s Governor Newsom then asks residents to set thermostats no lower than 78°F while comfortably wearing a zip-up hoodie, prompting social media outrage over the fact that the setpoint in the room where Newsom delivered his message was clearly below what he was asking of the rest of his constituents.
Parts of California and other areas around the country are banning natural gas in new construction. Thus, peaking power on really cold days usually involves converting natural gas in a combustion turbine at a 20% to 30% efficiency level, wheeling it down transmission lines, across transformers, with transmission line losses to deliver it to the home for backup strip heat. This is better than a 97% or higher AFUE furnace?
Combine all-electric homes with all-electric cars on a grid built for far less demand with reliable nuclear, hydro, and fossil fuel based generation being reduced in favor of intermittent, unreliable solar and wind generation, and the inevitable result is periodic blackouts. This is regressive. This is going backwards. This is third world.
There is nothing wrong with an all-electric home … if you want one. There is also nothing wrong with an electric vehicle … if you want one (and can afford it). By the same notion, there is also nothing wrong with a preference for cooking with gas, heating with gas, or driving a diesel powered F-250. Unfortunately, the regressive progressives are not pro-choice when it comes to energy consumption. They are pro-mandate.
Even if you agree with their goals and think the electrification of everything is a noble pursuit, the supporting infrastructure is not ready. Trying to force the conversion from a fossil fuel economy to a green economy too soon is like diving into the deep end of a swimming pool that’s only been filled with six inches of water. It’s going to hurt and there’s going to be some damage.
We Need Supply Certainty
When T. Boone Pickens somehow convinced Texas lawmakers and utility regulators that wind was a great baseload source of power, no one envisioned the record cold of February 2021 when the wind turbines froze and the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) lost 25% of baseload capacity. Sure, they could have winterized them like they do up north, but they didn’t, and they can’t be retrofitted now.
That may seem like a once-in-a century event, but it gets hot in Texas every summer. According to the Texas Public Policy Institute, ERCOT’s reserve margin dropped below 2% at times during the summer of 2019, and the state escaped similar blackouts that summer by a whisker. Guess what? The wind doesn’t always blow on really hot summer days. So why base your electric reliability on something unreliable?
According to Jason Isaac, a former Texas state representative and director of Life; Powered, a Texas Public Policy Foundation national educational initiative regarding energy, “In just one summer week in 2019, wind generated between 2% and 63% of its installed capacity.”
How can you rely on something like that? The answer is you cannot.
A century and a half ago, ranchers built windmills to pump water because they didn’t have anything better. Now we do, but we’re regressing.
Solar is no better. Yes, there are places where the sun shines a lot, but never at night. In the winter, daylight hours shorten, especially up north, and the lower angle of the sun further reduces solar collector capacity.
Wind and solar might work if we could store energy at scale. Unfortunately, that battery system does not yet exist, and there is no assurance it ever will.
One renewable energy source we can use is hydroelectricity. But there is incredible resistance to damming up wild rivers and impacting the habitat of snail darters and other similar creatures, so hydro’s a non-starter these days.
We have the ability to generate lots of cheap, reliable energy using non-polluting clean coal technologies. But coal is a fossil fuel, so we don’t. We can generate on-demand energy using oil and natural gas, with gas being the cleanest burning fuel, but they are fossil fuels, so we don’t.
This brings us to nuclear. We can build failsafe, modular, smaller, affordable, reliable nuclear plants. Instead, we’re decommissioning existing plants without a clue how to replace the lost generating capacity. Nuclear is the greenest source of reliable electricity that exists. If the progressives won’t support nuclear, they are not serious about reliability.
The Peaking Problem
Coal, hydro, and nuclear provide steady levels of power. Yet demand is not steady. People use more electricity during different times of the day and season. Demand peaks. Supply needs to match the peak. This requires a variable generation source like oil or gas combustion turbines.
Throw in a few renewables and their intermittent nature can be managed around if there is enough gas generation. Throw in a lot of renewables and eventually, the only way to achieve a balance is controlling demand by, oh, shutting off a few hundred thousand connected thermostats, limiting setpoints, or other means. Peaking is a problem made worse by intermittent renewables, and as a major source of peaking, HVAC is in the crosshairs.
Update the Grid
Solving the generation problem is only a partial solution. The nation’s electric grid is not built for the increased demand of full electrification, combined with converting the fleet of automobiles to electric vehicles. Our grid needs to be reinforced and updated. It also needs to be hardened.
In William R. Forstchen’s thriller novel “One Second After,” he describes a world where the grid is lost due to an electromagnetic pulse attack on the United States. We do not want to live in a world without electricity. Projections are that roughly 90% of the population would not last the first year if we were to lose the grid. We could protect the grid for far less than the money we’ve shipped to the Ukraine. Why don’t we?
The future might involve the elimination of most uses of fossil fuels, but we are not ready for that future today or over the next decade unless there is some breakthrough in battery technology or generation technology. To make this energy transition before the foundational work in reliable generation and grid enhancement is accomplished is to take our country backwards — to regress to a time when the lights may or may not come on when a switch is flipped.
The frightening part for HVAC industry practitioners is the odds that bureaucrats and regulators will try to incorporate HVAC into their schemes more than they already have. Sometimes it feels like the HVAC industry is the government’s soccer ball because we get kicked around a lot.
With prices expected to jump another 20% to 25% with SEER2, it would be a tragedy if the progressives make air conditioning unaffordable for the masses. The elites like Gavin Newsom will always be able to turn down their thermostats so they can comfortably wear their fleece in the summer. Meanwhile, the average American gets fleeced.
Reach out to your congressional representatives online. Tell them we need reliable energy. We need choice in the way we heat our homes, cook our food, and power our vehicles. Tell them we need to reinforce and harden the grid. Tell them to back the regulators away from the HVAC industry because whether the climate gets hotter or colder, the ultimate solution is to adapt. The solution is HVAC.