Electric Anarchy – Life without fossil fuels

Imagine you had demanded world leaders 10 years ago to stop using fossil fuels in 11 years. You would have been laughed out of the room. Everyone was aware that life without fossils would not be possible or conceivable. They did not even consider it and they had no qualms about saying so.

Not so today. Today a 16-year-old child can go and speak to assembled world leaders. She can shout at them, make threats and demands that all fossil fuel use must stop and she gets a standing ovation.

What has changed?

It was not our ability to cope with the shock of a sudden fossil fuel-free society. True, wind and solar have become cheaper. They are still not quite as cheap as they like to claim though. Battery technology sure has made some strides. But now we now hit the limits of fundamental physics. 

And we also start to experience the effects of unstable electricity production. They are delivering flicker electricity into the grid which it is not designed for. Londoners got a taste of what’s in the offing. The first large scale blackouts have also hit other major urban agglomerations.  There will be much more of that.

But wind and solar still account for a tiny piece of electricity production. And E-Vehicles (let alone hydrogen vehicles) are yet to become more than an oddity on the streets.

Understand: an electricity grid is a pretty unforgiving thing. You cannot pump electricity in at will, and neither can you take out this way. Electricity production needs to match offtake. Otherwise, the grid cannot cope with the variations anymore and goes down. In the past, there were only stable production points. 

Some of them were on-demand production. They could and would cover spikes in electricity production. Meanwhile, more steadfast sources such as river-hydropower produced the baseload. Demand was much more variable. Yet, it was not unpredictable. Demand spikes and lows followed certain patterns. Utilities knew those quite well and worked with this knowledge. It was and still is a system that’s not perfect but with a couple of tweaks worked well. 

One of those tweaks was that grids and attached systems were overbuilt. This spare capacity was there to cope with foreseen and unforeseen demand swings. And its this “fat in the system” that has made the electric grid in developed countries so very stable. When did you have your last major blackout?

In comes a lot of unstable production. It all delivers electricity at variable loads. But this variability is not the “off or on” kind. 

Windmills and solar panels don’t produce a stable load even when they are producing. They deliver a different amount of electricity every single minute. The reliable side of the equation was always production. Renewables make it unreliable now. 

The “fat in the system” absorbed a lot of this new instability so far. But the intention for this overcapacity was to absorb shocks without going down.

Now it has to absorb constant variations in load from flicker power generation. Up to a point, the subterfuge held up. 

But this is no panacea. One day the inevitable had to happen. Existing overcapacity was stretched thin. Enough so for the system to fail. And there will be more where that came from.

Renewable electricity sources were never asked to pay for the service they enjoyed. We need to bring the grid up to the task of absorbing renewables. 

They have gotten used to the freebie and now they want more of it. There goes our once reliable grid. 

Renewables bring our technological and financial systems to the breaking point already now. Imagine how it will be when all fossil fuels disappear.

Let’s go through that scenario for a moment.

Imagine that you have a magic wand and by one move with it you end everything fossil and its products from Earth. What would happen?

Most people only think about power and fuel for vehicles. But its way more than this.

Still, let’s direct our gaze at the electricity situation only for now. Transport and the rest will follow in further posts. 

Now, all we have is renewables and nuclear. The massive overhang of wind and solar in most other countries will fry the grid. Massive volumes of electricity when the wind blows and the sun shines. None when they don’t. So not only will there be less power to go around all over, but whatever is here will be interruptible. There will be many brownouts and blackouts even during the daytime. The only way to balance this is by demand management.

This means that at certain times your power supply will go down without warning. The buffering capacity of the grid is not able to cope with those extreme load swings. And there will be no time to give you warning as the production side is so erratic. 

Whatever electricity is available would have to be reserved for essential use. No private use of electricity will be possible. If you don’t have your own windmill and/or solar array or mini-hydropower, you are in a hard place. 

That said, even your own generation asset won’t save you. There is an urgent need for essential uses. The government would requisition private solar and wind asset to feed the grid. Your home remains dark and cold. Remember, the common good takes precedence. You would only use it for your selfish needs such as dinner, a warm shower or god forbid, television.

Countries like France, Slovakia, and Hungary with lots of nuclear power will be better off. Austria with massive hydropower will be much less challenged as well. They will have more and much more stable power. But prices for power in surrounding countries will be stratospheric. Utilities controlling those nuclear and hydro assets will cash in on the opportunity. 

Governments will have to step in to prevent sales abroad. They will even cut interconnections. That will also happen on a sub-national level. Towns and communities will gather around their dams and nukes. 

Still, it won’t suffice for everyone. The global society we live in today will be gone very fast. Instead, we will form small clusters of humans around islands of stable energy. Expect military conflict for those assets. National borders won’t matter in such a scenario. Those in control of such assets will want to remain so and they won’t care very much for national cohesion. Those bereft of such things but in control of military hardware will do what they have to do to convince them otherwise. Expect conflict – not only between nations.

Expect plenty of crime around them as well. The difference between violence by the state and the violence of the mob will be indistinguishable.

In time, another problem will stand up. Windmills need permanent maintenance. Lots of mechanical parts that are prone to break down and need replacement. But the new, insular economy that’s taking the place of what we knew so far won’t be able to provide many of those anymore. 

Plus, those parts are not cheap. Economic output has evaporated so there is no one who can pay for those things. This will – in time – take a toll on the variable power input. It will also reduce the availability of power further and contribute to the decline of society. 

This means no entertainment anymore at all. No television, no internet, no mobile phones, but also no lights. Get used to candles and torches again. No soccer matches at night, no theater except with torches and no sound amplification. Things will get small again. 

But it goes further. No microwave, no ice cream, no fridge, no hot pockets. No hairdryer, and as the cosmetics industry is all but gone no more makeup. Nightlife is going to be dim anyhow so it won’t matter. Also, as things get much more menial, you won’t have the time to worry too much about such frivolities. 

As said before, there will be islands of wealth and stability amid all this squalor. Society will stratify. Higher human causes such as individualism and emancipation will disappear. In a subsistence society, there is no energy and will to allow people to go after their individual desires. A small caste for sure, but not the bulk of the population. Life will resemble much more a medieval fiefdom rather than the modern society we have grown up in. 

An immediate investment burst into new nuclear and hydro will happen but it takes time to bring those plants online. It is estimated that it takes at least 5000 new-built nuclear plants to replace fossil generation. But the population will decline a lot anyhow so this need will reduce. 

And remember, there is not much money to go around as economic activity is stunted. During this time human society will disintegrate. 

It will take more than 10 years for the system to stabilize. Electricity for non-essential items will creep in. By then, society and the economy will have disintegrated so much that it won’t matter anymore. 

Read next week on what will happen to transport.

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