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Vulnerability and Diversity in Energy

    News about our energy system is particularly unsettling these days. There’s the Russia and Ukraine conflict disrupting global oil and gas markets, along with fears of Ukrainian nuclear power plant meltdowns. The capping of oil production by OPEC, as well as post-pandemic capacity and labor issues in the refining sector add to the mix. All of which translates into falling gasoline prices but still record high diesel prices and an undercurrent of shortage concerns. Don’t forget the fears of sky-high winter heating bills.   

    On the other hand, renewable natural gas, the kind collected from landfills, is the subject of booming investment. Trapping and processing the methane earns credits that can be sold to refiners and oil importers who use them to meet federal renewable-fuel mandates. Yet New York, and some  cities in California and beyond, are banning new natural gas hookups.

    Demands for more electric power are everywhere and the challenges for the electric power sector fulfilling todays’ demands, let alone those of the future, are more daunting than we know. The to-do list: switch from fossil-based power generation to renewables as fast as possible, boost reliability, shore up grid infrastructure, and accommodate new power-hungry customers in the transportation sector.

    Recently I heard that it could take two years for a single new electric substation to be permitted and built. Others estimated that to meet the demands and timeframes of zero emission fleet vehicle mandates in California, there may need to be thousands of vehicle charging facilities coming online each month, noting that progress was woefully behind schedule. Meanwhile some heavy-duty electric vehicles are now in full production, new battery production facilities are announced, and new EV choices for consumers are appearing.

    I’d be remiss not to mention what appears to be a malicious attack on a Duke Energy substation in North Carolina over the weekend, putting more than 45,000 electric customers into darkness that might last for many more days.

    This roller coaster of news underscores, at every turn, the importance of energy in our daily lives and our vulnerability to disruptions in energy supply. Whether caused by external events, policy shifts, or other factors, we are only one storm or event away from disruption. Fortunately, in the case of the grid attack in North Carolina, the hospitals, businesses, and governments were prepared and able to switch to diesel back-up generators to provide electricity for critical services until the grid power is restored.

    During times like these the value of diversity in our nation’s energy systems can’t be understated, making the current mix of nuclear, fossil-based, and renewable power including wind, solar and hydro-electric a strong line up. The same goes for the transportation system, where a decade from now there will undoubtedly be many more EVs in our garages, some heavy duty EVs, hydrogen and fuel cell trucks delivering our packages, right alongside plenty of diesel and natural gas trucks. In this case, diversity in energy supplies is an asset, not a liability. 

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