This weekend was Compost your girlfriend Earth Day and the “Science lovers” took advantage of that day to have a March for Science – I don’t understand why it didn’t take place during the month of March, but maybe the organizers were worried about their plans being disrupted by a couple of feet of global warming. Anyway, moving on. This was of course a chance for lots of left right-thinking sorts to pontificate about how Trump was waging a “War on Science” and so on. The usual sorts (Bill Nye, Neil de Grasse Tyson) were on hand to bloviate and lots of Democrats with bylines shills journalists were there to uncritically report on the whole thing.

No doubt as a part of that Completely coincidentally there were various press releases from Eco-friendly leeches lobbyist groups complaining about things like Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s inquiry into the effects of renewables on the stability of the electrical grid and supply system and these things were uncritically posted on Social Media by right on sciency people who made snarky jokes about how dumb Perry is and so on.

Which is all well and good except that Perry’s question is actually a very good one. And it is one that we all want to know the answer to. Those of an electrical engineering persuasion want to know the answer because it’s their job to cope with the political demands for more wind and solar power and the rest of us want to know because it affects whether we spend money on backup generators, batteries and other ways to keep our increasingly electrically powered life working due to the electrical supply in our developed world becoming about as reliable as that in some third world kleptocratic hellhole.

Those of us who remember studying this sort of thing in our school physics lessons recall that electricity has the property that it can’t be stored in a circuit and that the equations always balance once you allow for some milliseconds of lag from capacitance/inductance. The electrical grid system is a marvel of engineering and the people who run them are dedicated to making sure that the supply matches the demand all the time,

A balancing authority ensures that electricity demand and supply are finely balanced to maintain the safe and reliable operation of the power system. If demand and supply fall out of balance, local or even widespread blackouts can result. Balancing authorities maintain appropriate operating conditions for the electric system by ensuring that a sufficient supply of electricity is available to serve expected demand, which includes managing transfers of electricity with other balancing authorities.

When it doesn’t, “bad things”™ happen. Blackouts and brownouts are obvious but, as long as the power comes back fairly quickly they mostly don’t impact residential customers. However things can be much, much worse for manufacturers:

To illustrate the problem that renewable energy instability can cause, here is an example. When the voltage from German’s electric grid weakened for just a millisecond at 3 am, the machines at Hydro Aluminum in Hamburg ground to a halt, production stopped, and the aluminum belts snagged, hitting machines and destroying a piece of the mill with damages amounting to $12,300 to the equipment. The voltage weakened two more times in the next three weeks, causing the company to purchase its own emergency system using batteries, costing $185,000.

These short interruptions to the German electric grid increased by 29 percent and the number of service failures increased 31 percent over a 3-year period, with about half of those failures leading to production stoppages causing damages ranging from ten thousand to hundreds of thousands of Euros. These power grid fluctuations in Germany are causing major damage to a number of industrial companies, who have responded by getting their own power generators and regulators to help minimize the risks. However, companies warn that they might be forced to leave if the government does not deal with the issues quickly.

The issue here is that of economic efficiency. Post WW2 and before the widespread deployment of renewables, the electricity suppliers have been able to guarantee extremely high quality electrical supply so that most consumers have not needed to buy their own systems to handle supply issues. In the case of the German company cited above that was $185,000 that they didn’t need to spend and no doubt the hundreds or thousands of other precision engineering companies were in a similar position. That means that the new grid instability has cost german industry millions, probably billions of Dollars/Euros in capital expenditure that they now need to make and which they did not need to previously. This is an example of Bastiat’s Broken Window Fallacy on a national scale and may in fact have contributed to Germany’s recent anemic GDP growth.

Another good example of “bad things”™ was last year’s outage in South Australia. South Australia is on the bleeding edge of renewable energy supply and that bleeding edge was indeed a major contributory factor to the outage (my underlining):

Historically, the rate of frequency change following an interconnector failure has been managed successfully using load shedding, as demonstrated during a blackout earlier this month.

But the AEMO found in September, “the proportionally low amount of conventional generation dispatched in SA at the time of separation, and the subsequent low inertia, resulted in a higher [rate of change of frequency] than had been experienced during previous separation events“.

Prior to the statewide blackout, windfarms had been providing 883 megawatts (MW) of power, the interconnector was operating close to its limit and providing 613 MW, while traditional thermal generators were providing just 330 MW of electricity.

The have been a lot of reports about this monumental fuck up – and lots of plans to fix it – although most of the latter involve having a large gas fired power station on standby the entire time (which kinda defeats the whole “green” thing). The UK House of Lords produced a report (The Economics of Renewable Energy: Recent Developments, 4th Report ) in 2008 in which one of the expert witnesses (Dr Phillip Bratby) explained the issues quite clearly (my bolding):

 17.  I now turn in greater detail to the technological concerns with wind turbines. As a physicist, it offends my learning, experience and intelligence to attempt to produce electricity on a large scale from wind power. This is for four reasons. Firstly because of the very low energy density of wind (the energy per volume of moving air). For comparison and in round terms, the energy density of moving water is about 1,000 times as great, that of fossil fuels (coal, oil, liquefied gas) is about 1 billion times as great and that of nuclear is about 1 million billion times as great. Thus wind turbines have to be enormous to capture a useful amount of energy. Secondly, because the power of the wind is a function of the cube of the wind speed, the electrical output is very sensitive to the wind speed. Thirdly, because of the variability of the wind, wind turbines only produce electricity at about 25% to 30% of their rated output (capacity or load factor). Fourthly, because of the intermittency and unpredictability of wind the electricity production bears no relation to the demand for electricity. In summary, wind turbines are enormous, produce a pathetically small amount of electricity, intermittently, unpredictably and not when it is most required.

18.  The CO2 emissions saved by wind turbines have been calculated based on the CO2 emissions from displaced plant (coal and gas-fired power stations). A consensus figure of 430 kg/MWh is currently used. However, this figure is only part of the equation needed to calculate the CO2 emissions saved. Also to be included in the equation are the CO2 emissions resulting from the manufacture and construction of the turbine (estimated by various people at the equivalent of between several months to many years of operation—the payback period); the electricity losses down the low voltage distribution line to the consumers (estimated at between 5 and 15% of the electricity generated, due to the long distance as the result of the remoteness of many turbines); and the CO2 emissions produced by conventional power stations operating very inefficiently on standby (and burning fuel) ready as backup to meet the electricity demand when the wind drops. Evidence form Denmark and Germany suggests that CO2 emissions savings from the use of wind turbines are at best small and at worst, they may actually lead to an increase in CO2 emissions.

[…]  20.  Because of the intermittency and unpredictability of the wind and thus of the electricity generated by wind turbines, wind turbines cannot replace a significant number of conventional power stations. Thus wind turbines are being constructed as a secondary source of electricity. In essence, the consumer is paying for two sets of electricity generation; the conventional despatchable power stations, necessary to meet demand at all times and wind turbines which operate only when the wind blows and which then displace despatchable power stations.

(It is worth reading his entire memorandum, but this section shows the problems)

The good news (to Greenies) is that engineers can mitigate many of these potential bad things – albeit at some expense and with a significant loss of efficiency. For example the Danish wind power providers end up shipping a lot of their power to Norway where it is used to pump up water in pumped storage hydro-electric dams, in return Norway’s dams act as backup when the wind dies. In Australia they have figured out that they can gain some of the benefits of conventional power (the inertia from large conventional generators helps a lot to smooth supply) by tweaking the wind turbines software. This is one of those things that would have been nice to know before the outage but at least it should help, along with the nice gas power station and an enormous battery system, in the future.

The supply of electricity is of course far from the only thing that the Marchers for Science take for granted; there’s also things like the availability of fresh food, the internet, clean drinkable water (and bottled water if you don’t trust the tap or want to virtue signal), not to mention being accustomed to the lack of buildings and other structures collapsing, aircraft falling out of the sky and so on. All of these require engineers, technicians and other allied technical specialties to perform their magic and it seems to me that the Marchers take them for granted. All the Science they are so proud of is of limited value until some other person takes it and turns it into a product that we can use and abuse as desired and which we then employ other people to keep in working order.

In fact I’m reminded of Rudyard Kipling’s poem about “The Sons of Martha” and their counterparts the Sons of Mary first published 110 years this week.

THE Sons of Mary seldom bother, for they have inherited that good part;
But the Sons of Martha favour their Mother of the careful soul and the troubled heart.
And because she lost her temper once, and because she was rude to the Lord her Guest,
Her Sons must wait upon Mary’s Sons, world without end, reprieve, or rest.

It is their care in all the ages to take the buffet and cushion the shock.
It is their care that the gear engages; it is their care that the switches lock.
It is their care that the wheels run truly; it is their care to embark and entrain,
Tally, transport, and deliver duly the Sons of Mary by land and main.

They do not preach that their God will rouse them a little before the nuts work loose.
They do not teach that His Pity allows them to leave their job when they damn-well choose.
As in the thronged and the lighted ways, so in the dark and the desert they stand,
Wary and watchful all their days that their brethren’s days may be long in the land.

Perhaps next year we can have a day to celebrate the work the engineers and their relatives do to keep civilization collapsing and leaving us all looking like North Korea. Since April 22nd is Earth Day, I propose that the next day, April 23rd (a.k.a. St George’s Day) be Engineering day when we give thanks for all their efforts on our behalf.

Furthermore, since Engineers and their like tend to be practical people, instead of wandering around carrying placards with witty slogans in support of them, we should give thanks in a practical manner by buying them a beer or other beverage (or cake or other food or …) and perhaps something they will use in their work keeping civilization ticking over for the rest of us.