A Free-Market Energy Blog

Living without Electricity: A Personal Report (natural gas, anyone?)

By Tom Tanton -- November 7, 2019

“Nevertheless, you’d think the Governor and others would be actively trying to make things better, rather than just pointing fingers. Well … they are making it worse by taking away the one alternative to electricity that can provide cooking and hot water and space heat and does so much more efficiently–natural gas.”

I sit here at my computer this morning after suffering through the latest “PSPS” (public safety power shutoff), which left me without electricity a total of ten full days in October.  Kind of ironic given my 45+ years in energy policy–and frustrating too since this is less an Act of God than an Act of Man–or Government.

I understand the need to reduce fire risk in California’s hot dry climate where utilities (such as PG&E) need to de-energize power lines lest they spark when blown down or branches fall on them.  But there’s got to be a better way than leaving literally millions in the dark for days, only to get maybe six hours of power before losing it again for 2–3 days. 

As an Indian friend said half in jest “If I’d known it was going to be like this, I’d have stayed in Delhi.”

Who to Blame

Much has been said about who’s or what’s to blame:

  • The greed of the involved utilities;
  • Regulator/Legislature’s distracting virtue signaling and general incompetence;
  • The environmentalists’ refusal to allow vegetation management under the wires
  • Everybody’s reluctance to pay for undergrounding all the wires.

The problem is not limited to the regulated private utilities (called ‘public utility’ for some arcane reason); the large fire threatening the Getty Center has been traced to a transmission line owned by Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP), a government owned-and-operated utility. (I guess government greed competes with private-utility greed.)

Natural Gas to the Rescue?

Nevertheless, you’d think the Governor and others would be actively trying to make things better, rather than just pointing fingers. Well you’d be wrong … they are making it worse by taking away the one alternative to electricity that can provide cooking and hot water and space heat and does so much more efficiently.

I’m talking about natural gas; not the natural gas used in power plants to generate electricity which is then sent to homes and offices, but the natural gas piped around (some of) our cities that is used directly as the leading alternative to electricity. Natural gas already provides three times the energy at one third the cost. The one alternative to the use of electricity for critical public health and safety…want hot water for sanitation or to cook or just to stay warm in the dead of winter? Turn to natural gas.  Oh wait…

‘Deep Decarbonization’ Threat

California state officials and electric utilities are moving to eliminate the direct use of natural gas—state officials because it ‘contributes’ to climate change and electric utilities because they see a potential new, and large, market. Never mind those same utilities are having a hard time keeping the lights on as it is.

The LA Times ran an article on October 22 outlining the growing divisions.  But don’t think it’s limited to California: electrification (the term used for ‘electrify everything’) and the elimination of the direct use of natural gas is picking up steam in other states and at the Federal level (see here, here, and here.

In fact it’s garnered sufficient interest that electrification proponents hold a big ol’ conference soiree’. Why, they’re even talking about electric airplanes. One would think (at least THIS one thinks) that the makers of backup generators, often fueled with natural gas, LPG or propane analogues, would be fighting this trend tooth and nail.

National and most state energy policies for several decades have sought to increase energy diversity for electric generation. What is disheartening, disingenuous  and downright dangerous is the move to eliminate diversity in how energy is delivered.

For electricity that’s called transmission and distribution, or T&D. If diversity in the types of energy provided (wind, solar, nuclear, gas fired combined cycles, hydroelectric, etc.) is good…and is provided by consumers making free and informed choices…then wouldn’t the delivery mechanisms also need to be diverse?

After all the one major cause of customers being offline has to do with disruption of the T&D systems: tress falling on wires, wires getting blown down by high winds, etc. In work done by LBNL, distribution outages (the smaller lower voltage systems that run to individual customers) were found to be responsible for more than 95% of customer outages, when measured by duration of outage.

All told, electricity is extremely reliable, with the median value of System Average Interruption Duration Index (SAIDI) for North American utilities of just under two hours per year. A lot of Californians exceeded that on one day, and the next and next. But natural gas delivery is also exceedingly reliable, partly due to the fact that natural gas systems include storage, not yet available with electricity. And much of that infrastructure is already underground protected from the weather.

Conclusion

Maybe it’s time to serve the consumer who just wants hot water, warm air, and a home cooked meal. Stop the insane electrify everything movement. I may sit in the dark, but at least I’ll be warm and fed.

And watch out. Much more pain and a lot more of us will vote with our feet and move to Texas.

7 Comments


  1. Ed Reid  

    Tom,

    Welcome to life “on the bleeding edge” of deep decarbonization. Also, welcome to the “joys” of grid-connected solar systems which rely on the grid for inverter synchronization. The solar industry has loved net metering, but “the bloom might be off the rose”, at least in CA.

    Reply

  2. Mark Krebs  

    I’ve read from numerous sources that emergency (electric) generators are “flying off the shelves” in California. Most of these are gasoline-fueled but many are “dual-fueled” (gasoline/propane). These can be readily converted to natural gas if so desired but I don’t know if that voids the warranty.

    For considerably more money, backup systems factory designed for natural gas or propane are available from many of these same “big-box” stores; if any are still in stock.

    As this predicament is expected to last for years, this may be a wise investment. However, considering everything else going on in California, moving out is another option.

    Personally, if I still lived in California and owned property, I’d be concerned about a real estate crash devastating my net worth given the direction things seem to be heading.

    Reply

  3. Mark  

    El Dorado country had a year to learn from a PSPS that was implemented in the area just before the inferno in Paradise back in 2018. $800k in investments by EID (1) for “150 generators placed at strategic locations” keep the potable water flowing in the county and ensured that the sewage treatment plants keep working this year. We had 4 PSPS of various durations (66 hours being the longest black out to 23 hours being the shortest) at our place this year.

    We ran our gasoline generator (paying $4.24 gallon for high test fuel) off and on throughout each PSPS to keep our food safe, etc. We used our propane cook stove throughout the events, using matches to ignite the gas, and ran a portable Mr. Buddy propane heater to take the chill off the in-law quarters. We did put on lots of extra clothes as our temperature dropped to the upper 30 and low 40’s during the black outs.

    We confirmed that no generators were available in the country on the first day of the first PSPS and Folsom was out of stock as well. When the grid is out our PV system does not operate. We lost essentially 6 days of generation (give or take 144 kWh) when the grid was down during the events. I do wish we had sourced a dual fuel generator years ago (our Honda only had 52.3 hours on the clock when we bought it a few years back- it has 85.5 on the clock currently). We filled our propane tank earlier in the year for $1.70 a gallon- the fracking revolution has cut our costs in half over the last 5+/- years! I am a bit unsure how much we pay in cap and trade (ie carbon tax) fees for this fuel. Natural gas and propane are now part of the cap and trade program.

    Friends of ours who live above Folsom Lake, in the rolling hills, have seen their fire insurance jumped an extra $2000.00/year or so AFTER having removed most of the trees within 100 feet of their structure and agreeing to a 10 thousand dollar deductible. My area was developed in the 1980’s and EID’s potable water infrastructure was installed which includes fire hydrates which has keep our insurance in check during the latest reevaluation of risks. I can see a red hydrant from the deck of our in-law quarters. The development to the south of our place has underground utilities which reduces our risks a bit a well.

    1) https://www.mtdemocrat.com/news/heroes-emerge-during-pge-power-shutdowns/

    Reply

  4. Wayne Lusvardi  

    Thanks for the field report Tom. I guess everyone loses all the food in refrigerators when there is a planned blackout.

    And where are all those electric vehicles reverse metering power back into the grid?

    Reply

  5. Bill Chaffee  

    It’s ironic that the power is shut off during high wind days which should be ideal for wind power generation. Shows what a fraud wind power is for grid scale generation.

    Reply

  6. Wayne Lusvardi  

    Wind turbines will stop if the wind velocity is excessive. Cut out speed is 55 mph. Kincade Fire was 96 mph. Getty Fire was 70 mph.

    Reply

  7. Mark  

    It seems that the state was windless a few days ago at 1800-

    http://content.caiso.com/green/renewrpt/20191107_DailyRenewablesWatch.txt

    Glad there is still a lot of dispatch able sources of supply available! I wonder how CASIO will be deciding who gets de-energized when their isn’t enough supply to go around.

    We plan on keeping the LS 430’s tank fairly full during the fall to always have stock of fuel available to run our generator.

    Reply

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