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Welcome to Our World of Energy!

Our World of Energy (OWOE) is a multi-media campaign that has been created to provide an unbiased view of energy, including pros and cons of each source, to the American public. It is OWOE's intent to help inform the public on where the energy that drives modern life comes from, why this subject is important, and how technology is changing the industry to address modern problems such as climate change, scarcity of resources, and environmental impact.

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February 22, 2021

OWOE Staff: So what’s going on with the power grid in Texas? Last week the state was hit by a polar vortex winter storm (Uri) that brought snow and ice and record low temperatures. Such storms aren’t especially rare – it snows and ices in Houston about every ten years. But this time it created one of the biggest power outages in US history (Fig 1), and the Texas power grid came within minutes of failure. Then the real fun began. The Governor blamed the power failures on the wind turbines in West Texas freezing up, but had to retract the comment almost immediately when the grid operator, ERCOT (Electric Reliability Council of Texas), announced that the majority of the power outages were due to gas supply shortages and freezing of the conventional thermal power plants. A former Texas Governor claimed that Texans would rather endure power failures than have more regulation of the industry. Senator Ted Cruz, from Texas, who had a history of denouncing renewable energy as the cause for California’s power outages fled the cold to take his family to Cancun and immediately had to fly back due to public outrage. A photo of a helicopter deicing wind turbines in Texas went viral as an example of renewable power being dependent on fossil fuel and chemicals, until the photo was identified as actually being an extreme case of deicing an old-style turbine in Sweden from 2014. Texans who signed up for electricity plans that charge based on wholesale electricity prices are now facing bills in the thousands of dollars. Etc, etc.

Fig. 1 – Texas 2021 blackout compared to largest blackouts in US History based on customer-days without power (original chart of 10 largest from Rhodium Group, modified by OWOE)

Although the tendency to jump into the political fray is great, OWOE will continue to stay above that and focus on energy fundamentals. The Texas power grid is unique in the US as the state essentially manages its electrical power independently of the rest of the country (see OWOE: How many electrical grids are there in the US?) By not engaging in the transmission of power across state lines, the Texas power grid does not fall under US regulations and oversight and is managed by ERCOT, a nonprofit corporation that is overseen by the Public Utility Commission of Texas and the Texas Legislature. Texas lawmakers deregulated the energy market in 2002 as a means to foster innovation and lower energy prices. This has been very successful, resulting in a competitive, market-based approach to pricing electricity that has allowed Texans to enjoy some of the lowest electricity prices in the US (e.g., Texas average retail price in 2019 per the EIA was 8.6 cents/kWh compared to California at 16.9). However, it now appears that this free-wheeling approach has led to too much focus on cost and not enough on resilience.

The problem with power generation in Texas during the storm was not the cold weather per se – it was being unprepared for the cold weather. Wind turbines regularly operate in the cold, down to minus 40 deg C or more, including in Iowa, Canada, and even Antarctica. However, to do so requires additional investment costs in terms of heating and deicing systems and engineering design. North Dakota gas wells were better designed for the cold and didn’t freeze up during the storm. Similarly, thermal and nuclear power plants operate successfully in every cold climate in the world, except apparently in Texas. But all power plants are dependent on motors, water lines, chemical supply lines and various other systems that can be susceptible to the cold and must be designed appropriately. Your OWOE editor was the project manager for the design and construction of a coal plant in central Texas that became operational in 2009. The operator, Luminant, invested in insulation and heat tracing throughout the plant to prevent against freezing. As a prime example of the weakness of Texas’ low cost approach, the Sandow 5 plant, which also boasted advanced pollution control equipment, was shut down in 2018 as “…the standalone economics of the Sandow complex no longer support continued investment in the site in this low wholesale power price environment” (Vistra Energy). ERCOT determined that the plant was not required to support ERCOT transmission system reliability, and, ultimately, 585 MW from an older, more polluting and less reliable, but cheaper to operate, coal plant was kept on the grid. Clearly, in Texas it doesn’t pay to invest dollars in plants or equipment for improved performance if it impacts short term operating costs.

After the winter storm of February 2011, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) studied the outages and curtailments that arose across Texas and New Mexico. Although not as serious as this recent storm, it was certainly a harbinger of what can and did happen. The report identifies problems with winterization of generating plants and the gas supply system and lack of sufficient reserve generation. The report also references back to recommendations arising from a 1989 cold weather event aimed at improving winterization practices. These recommendations were not mandatory, and many of the generators that experienced outages in 1989 failed again in 2011.

The bottom line – Texas had cold weather power generation problems in 1989 and 2011 that were extensively studied, but recommendations for improving resiliency of the grid were not mandated by ERCOT nor the Texas Legislature and were ignored by the utilities. The situation last week shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone involved in power generation in Texas. Low electricity costs are great, but the cost for resilience to prevent such occurrences in the future should be built into the system for the benefit of residents, commerce and industries.

It should be very straightforward to improve the Texas grid without abandoning all the benefits that currently exist. 1) Let the engineering community review the past reports in order to condense many hundreds of pages of documents into the fundamental requirements for each component of the power grid and supply chain, 2) have the politicians mandate such recommendations with a reasonable timeline for implementation, 3) have ERCOT proactively monitor implementation, and 4) let the market-place reset the cost of Texas electricity at a rate that provides both short term benefits and long term resiliency.

Meanwhile, we can all chuckle at the expense of Gov Abbott, Former Gov Perry, and Senator Cruz and praise NY Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who had the integrity to put aside the antipathy of her detractors from Texas and raise funds for the people of Houston who are suffering from the results of this Texas-created disaster. (Ok, maybe we did have to make one political comment!)


February 1, 2021

OWOE Staff: It’s a new year, we have a new president and administration, and we have new hope that the plan to vaccinate Americans is going to finally end the pandemic. What we don’t have is new thinking on what this country should be doing for a long term, rational and strategic energy policy. OWOE believes it is the right time to propose a comprehensive energy policy that balances America’s needs with the planet’s needs and is based on sound economics, realistic technology and good common sense. The OWOE energy policy combines several key elements, including: firm commitment to dramatically reduce dependence on fossil fuels in a planned and rational manner, sustainable investment in renewable technologies, and establishment of a North American Energy Alliance (NAEA) between the US and Canada to aggressively develop and globally sell our existing energy resources.

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January 20, 2021

By OWOE Staff: Happy 2021 dear readers and supporters of OWOE. As everyone is aware, 2020 was a most unfortunate series of events, beginning with the release of a virulent pathogen from China which resulted in a wide range of foreseeable acute and long range economic, social and energy consequences. Thus, OWOE staff are working hard to analyze these consequences to provide meaningful insight about energy matters going forward. We plan a variety of interesting updates to our core energy information, tools and blogs this year and perhaps even a contest involving energy self-sufficiency at the local level. Many of the changes happening in the world of energy are the cumulative results of individual changes in consumption resulting from economic turmoil compounded by inept government policies and continuing industry business practices.

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December 23, 2020

Guest Blog by S. A. Shelley: For almost all of human history, trade has been facilitated by water borne craft. Mesopotamia? They had boats on the rivers and in the gulf. Egypt? Boats on the river. Rome? Boats hauling grain from Egypt to Rome. China?  The Chinese were sailing and trading along East Asia for thousands of years.  By the time of the Clipper ships, naval architects had mastered wind power such that a clipper ship could make a transatlantic voyage in about 12 days . A modern fossil-fueled container ship can make the same voyage in about 8 days.  By 2018 goods carried on ships amounted to nearly 11 billion tonnes with some economists estimating that between 80% to 90% of all goods produced globally travel by ships across some water at some stage of production.

Ships today tend to be powered by fossil fuels, and when looking at the amount of CO2 emitted per tonne of cargo moved per kilometer, ships are by far the most efficient way to move goods (Fig. 1).

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November 30, 2020

Guest blog by S. A. Shelley: On the morning of October 25, on CNN, Ms. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez spoke about fracking and how it is necessary to ban all fracking in the U.S. by 2025.

Fracking for energy is responsible for the overwhelming majority of gas supplies that feed America’s economy, including the heating of homes. As noted in previous blogs and based upon scientific fact, not woke feelings, burning natural gas is one of the cleanest ways to continue powering economies while economies transition. Yes, there are problems with fracking, including leakage of methane from poorly tapped wells, but with political imperative these problems can be fixed, now-ish without doing major economic damage.

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September 21, 2020

Guest blog by S. A. Shelley: With so much talk about Green New Deals (U.S.A.) and a Green Way Forward (Canada) these days, I thought it might be worth looking at the poster child for green energy, Germany and its frequently lauded Energiewende . Way back in 1971, the Germans started thinking about ways to shift their energy mix in order to promote sustained economic prosperity, especially, at that time, in the face of Global authoritarian (communist) threats. It was necessary then to find ways to reduce West Germany’s dependence on the Soviet bloc for energy supplies. After all, in case of war, one cannot expect one’s enemy to continue supplying fuel for one’s tanks and jet fighters.

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August 2, 2020

Guest blog by S. A. Shelley: OWOE bloggers and other industry analysts often discuss technical and economic aspects about energy, such as oil demand or cost of renewables. But not enough attention has been focused on the changes in business thinking that has reduced engineering capability in Houston since the oil downturn in 2014.

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June 7, 2020

Guest blog by S. A. Shelley: A long, long time ago in a land far, far to the north, during a training class the instructor told a parable of twelve donuts. Eat one, you are not full; eat two, still not full. But eat all to the twelfth and you will be full. So why not just eat the twelfth donut? Because in all forms of reality, one must make a series of steps to achieve one’s goals. So it is with the energy transition; you have to have several steps and can’t just jump to the last one (candlelit cave dwelling organic farming for all).

Thus, I am saddened by the many Social Justice Warriors (SJWs), especially the most righteous ones in Canada, who demand that all forms of fossil fuel consumption must cease immediately in order for the planet (peoplekind) to survive. That won’t work without instantly throwing society into chaos and jeopardizing peoplekind of all genders, creeds and irrationalities. To achieve the goals of energy transition, one needs a vision and a path, a series of attainable steps. One must also work with existing technology while developing new technologies. A significant first step can be using natural gas as a transition fuel to replace more intense carbon emitting technologies. Natural gas must not be so quickly dismissed by intersectional SJW saboteurs.

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April 1, 2020

Guest blog by Mr. R. U. Cirius: Here are some interesting and somewhat offbeat energy stories that haven’t gotten much media attention during the first three months of the year.

UoA Windship renewable energy vessel

Students from the University of Acadians (UoA), not to be outdone by their archrivals at the Massachusetts Technology Institute (MTI) (see story below), have turned their focus toward harnessing wind energy. Last year, after placing 20th of 20 teams at the Canadian National Concrete Canoe Competition, the students decided their expertise was better suited to larger vessels. By focusing their collective background and skills on the problem, they developed a new, high-tech, 100% renewable fuel, cargo vessel which they have named Windship (see Fig. 1). They believe it will revolutionize marine transportation in the 21st century.

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March 30, 2020

Guest blog by S. A. Shelley: In Part 1 of this blog on Oil Supply, l examined the supply-demand history of oil over the past decade, which has set the stage for the dramatic changes in the industry that are just beginning. In this blog I’ll explore some of the likely consequences and will venture to predict some of the dramatic events to come and some of the likely irreversible impacts recent events will have on the world oil industry.

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