102: The Micro and the Macro – The Future of the Electric Grid

Matt and Sean talk about the grid, transmission lines, and energy independence. 

Watch the Undecided with Matt Ferrell episode, “Exploring the Power Grid of the Future”: https://youtu.be/YcuzTliUnXw?list=PLnTSM-ORSgi7UWp64ZlOKUPNXePMTdU4d

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Hey, everybody welcome to the still to be determined podcast this the podcast that follows up on topics from the Youtube channel undecided with Matt Ferrell I am still not Matt Ferrell I’m trying as hard as I can I promise. And chortling in the background is Matt Ferrell Matt how you doing I’m okay, it’s still early days in 2022. The pandemic is still cruising along at top speed and we’ve had our first snowstorm here in New York City so
I’m good how you doing.
Looking out of control same here.
I’m feeling okay, okay, things get difficult but we will get through it as best we can I hope everybody out there listening or watching us on Youtube I hope everybody’s doing okay, we usually ask for comments questions. In the contact info or in the comments section of Youtube but this episode I’d also like to invite people to just kind of weigh in and let us know how are you doing I hope people are doing well it sometimes. Hard for us the 2 of us do these episodes and we do it on camera and we can see each other’s faces. So it’s a little bit like a weekly touching base between siblings which is very nice and sometimes it’s important for us to take that moment and remember that there’s a world of listeners beyond.
Yeah, yeah.
This face-to-face conversation and people are struggling or succeeding in different ways in their own lives. So Let us know how you’re all doing I’m I’m truly curious before we get into the episode or reminder. There are ways you can support the podcast you can of course keep doing what you’re doing right now the ear holes. Help us and sharing with other people’s earholes help Us. You can also go to still Tbd Fm and there’s a link there and you can throw quarters at us and we appreciate any quarter that misses our head or even if it hits us and there’s also the membership that you can join through.
It hurts but we like it.
Youtube which is available through the join button becoming a member. There is another terrific way to help us all of that really does help the channel. We appreciate all the different types of support. You’re able to give today. We’re gonna be talking about Matt’s most recent episode. And this is from January Fourth 2022 the first episode of the new year and for that episode Matt was taking a look at exploring the power grid of the future and there was no question Mark there so I can’t do my little.
Question mark.
Question Mark but I had 1 in my heart while I read it so that’ll have to be enough for today. So Matt this episode is you’re kind of going microscopic and. Telescopic at the same time zooming in and out at the power needs of different regions of the world and the different solutions I will admit I did not know that here in the United States Texas stands alone with their own power grid and hat tip to them.
It’s alone. Yeah.
I mean it’s there’s nothing more Texas there’s nothing more Texas than that. Yeah, it’s a very Texas thing to do um god bless them so we’ve had instances of power outages it happens all the time.
We’re going alone? Yeah no, it is a very Texas thing to do yeah.
Worldwide the most dramatic one that I can recall here in the us was earlier this century it was I believe 2004 2005 where we had the major collapse of the eastern part of the us going dark because of a I believe it was a power relay in Ohio that. Caught fire and exploded and it caused a cascading effect that made the grid collapse and New York City was without power for a couple of days various sections of the country were actually without power for weeks and. I couldn’t help but think as I was watching your video in what ways does a macro grid exacerbate that kind of concern and in what ways does a micro grid alleviate that kind of.
Um I don’t think yeah.
Concern the macrogrid as you described it seemed to be and I again don’t know the ins and outs of how it’s all put together. There was a lot of discussion in the comments around the idea that a macro grid is actually not one solid single entity. It is more of a webbing.
Correct correct.
Of a lot of local grids. So I guess my question is this how are concerns around overburdening a very large region with being a single unit. How is that being avoided in designs.
Um, it depends on how bit like the the web or like if you’re thinking of it like maybe ah, a honeycomb like how big are the cells of those macrorid pieces that are pieced together like you just mentioned Ohio had a problem and it wiped out part of the East Coast
Of a macro grid.
Kind of shows you the kind of size and scope of the system and how when 1 domino starts to fall it causes a cascade that goes along the line and just kind of takes it out because different relays aren’t able to handle the sudden influx that they’re getting because the one in Ohio went down and suddenly their burden raises and then they go down. So crazes this domino effect where everything starts to fall in theory micro-grids wouldn’t suffer that because they’re kind of isolated on their own at a microscopic level. My house is a micro-grid I have solar panels on the roof batteries in my garage and I can in theory. Sustain myself. So if my neighbors lose power I don’t it’s like that is kind of the the theoretical benefit of micro-grids but actually doing micro-grids at the level of of what my example is probably not doable because not everybody can put solar panels in the roof and all that kind of stuff. So. The the comment section is 100 % correct 1 giant grid is not 1 giant grid but what it’s doing is you’re taking massive amounts of power and shipping it from the Sahara Desert and shoving it all the way up into Europe and then as the earth turns you basically. I didn’t run the equator. You’d have just gigantic huge solar generators and wind turbines to the center of the United States and they’re shipping power out everywhere else around the world in theory you could make either 1 work and this is what I was going to say to you was like I don’t think there’s necessarily a. Winner went in the scenario for micro or macro-grids because they both have their pros and cons for the scenario you’re talking about for things going down. They have different challenges but they both have challenges.
Right? That leads me I’ll just jump in with this comment that we received from Nikolai who wrote personally I think both are very necessary. Microrids will reduce our reliance on large industrial size power plants while also providing energy independence while a macro-grid would allow for economies of scale. Boost the local economies ah typically downtrodden nations make international cooperation more essential and in my opinion safeguard against the inevitable rise in domestic power consumption was simply can’t be done with microgrids and that’s something that the the interconnected of of economies. Um, that’s something that that pro free market people. That’s an argument that they always make is that countries that are intertwined economically in positive ways for both parties creating a symbiotic economic relationship. Removes tensions in other areas and and leads to more peaceful cooperation between nations. Yeah.
And it also creates tensions I mean if you want to put this ah analogy. This may not be the perfect analogy but the oil industry is heavily centered in the Middle East and it’s the type of thing where opec can determine the prices of oil just by slowing down production. And suddenly everything gets really expensive for the rest of us that could apply here imagine the Sarah Sahara desert region let’s say they build that out and make this massive thing that can power most of the world and they decide you know what we’re going to raise our prices just by exporting less energy and suddenly europe has to pay more prices so it’s like it’s.
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
It cuts both ways You can’t use it as oh it could benefit everybody because we’re all interdependent like well no, you’re putting all your dependence on this other country who could suddenly cut off your supply and then you’re screwed. So it’s yeah.
Yeah, there was another comment ah in the same vein which was you’d hate to be the country that was overdependent on energy production in another country and things go south and they just turn off the switch. There was also this comment from Robert who wrote.
Yep yep.
Hey, interesting video I design hvdc transmission lines for a living and your distance is about double what the rule of thumb is I don’t know how recent your news is but the costs keep dropping in hvdc land. Also omega grade is more virtual than physical take Europe. That grid operates pretty much like a mega grid but is governed by unified laws. Super mega-. Grids are really just unified grid operational conditions. Not unique standalone grids. So that’s right to the point of what we were just discussing or to put it another way. Yeah, as he continues or to put it another way.
Yeah, the the numbers that we got ah.
If you coherently connect a bunch of micro-grids you will make a supergrid. That’s why modern Grid discussions focus on local usage and de ers to reduce transmission level Grid Capital but a unified grid operation so that when necessary the energy can be moved efficiently so it’s it. Really seems like a big part of this is just legislative policy and cooperative so discussions around how these things are either connected or disconnected as opposed to an actual physical.
I don’t for based based on our research that’s his his comment is correct and just to clarify the numbers we got are about a year old so maybe he’s seeing newer numbers or he’s getting them from I mean from where he’s working. He’s seeing them in a different place. Um, but.
It’s it’s you have to put these gigantic interconnects and build them out and the actual cost of building out those interconnections between like Europe and that desert facility I talked about in the video are astronomical and it’s it’s one of those. It’s hard to argue the cost of doing that. Versus just building out smaller like pocketed power generation around Europe and elsewhere so you’re still exporting energy. It just doesn’t have to go as far so you don’t have to build these massive transit transmission lines. That’s kind of where in the research that we put together and the video real engineering dived into this too. It just doesn’t.
Make economic sense to do these just massive transmission lines all over the world when we can do smaller buildouts shorter lines and do things like that and have less energy losses less cost. It’s like the the argument for it. It’s it’s possible to do but doesn’t mean that we should do it. So That’s where the it’s not just a policy debate. It is There is actual physical things we have to do to make it work.
Okay, it remindsed me as you discussed that the difficulty of laying those cables across yeah across the the small gap relatively small gap between Africa and Europe and you say there are 2 cables currently.
And they’re laying a third which is taking an exorbitant amount of time just because of how much cable can be produced to the point where the company is building its own factory to produce that cable and it makes me wonder how realistic. Are these discussions of the macro if. That’s the difficulty if those are the hurdles and and as you said in your video. That’s best case scenario because that’s a short distance relative to other places and impacts by you’re laying.
You’re laying ah a power cable across the the bottom of ah of a seabed weather is going to impact you unexpected changes to tides and currents that might come up due to storms a delay of even a week could suddenly send your costs. Up by hundreds of thousands of dollars for just ah, a delay of a few days and those impacts would then be exponential as you are going further and further. So again, how realistic is this discussion even to have.
Ah, while my personal take is that this is not likely going to be the ultimate solution. We’re going to see pockets of this happening I think it’s it absolutely is possible and here’s why it’s like you can’t say oh well, we don’t have the production right now. This is never going to happen. You could have said that about evs ten years ago we didn’t have enough battery production. Well guess what companies start building battery factories and now we have more production and then the thing is like we need 10 times more production than we have today. It’s like well guess what they’re building more factories to produce more batteries to try to meet the demand. This is how the free market works. It’s supply and demand. Money to be made factories will be built if countries want to build these massive cables and there’s not enough cable production. Guess what companies are going to build out facilities to make these cables. So. it’s like I it’s I would not take what we the state we’re at today as a sign that oh this is just never going to happen. But it’s more of a. There’s a lot of work that has to come first before this can become a reality so you start to map out. Well how long will that take and it’s not like oh this the next few years. It’s like oh no, this is like decades to make this a reality which is another argument for micro-grids because you don’t have to wait that long. It’s like you can actually start building out smaller little pocketed community size. You know micro-grids all over the place in a fraction of the time compared to how long the delay is going to be before we have enough production to actually build out all these lines that we actually need so it kind of comes back to where my conclusion within the video which was I don’t see it as an either or I think there’s gonna be a combo. And in the short term It’s absolutely going to be micro-grids in a lot of places but in 20 years we may see more of these gigantic interconnects taking shape around the world to start to link together the production of these different systems which is going to be interesting to see how it comes together.
Yeah, that seems to be in the same vein as this comment from louis le flick who writes after the fire in Kent U k quote national grid was forced to evacuate staff from the site of the ifa high voltage power cable which brings electricity from France to a converter station in Kent where 12 fire engines attended the blaze in the early hours Wednesday morning close quote we are still three months for meopening. Is a warning about macro gri eggs in 1 basket. Also, you can be held Ransom by Nation states example Russia and the gas pipeline to Europe and it’s partial. It is a partial solution but has to be mix and match remove subsidies from fossil fuels and create a level playing floor. Very good animated video on fully charged channel if you want to learn more the the unexpected there is a good reminder as well and then it goes back to my earlier comments about the power outage related to the issues with. A power relay in Ohio having a little bit of redundancy and having the mix and match gives you a little bit more resilience to the unexpected if you have a macrogrid that’s affected by something as unexpected as like an earthquake or a major storm. You don’t want to be overreliant on 1 type of power production and if you see some of the impacts that we’re seeing now with major storms that move around the world and the the ease with which they can disconnect people from their homes overreliance. On a macro grid to supply power to a certain region in that context is also not good. What if you have a situation where you suddenly have a mass migration of people due to some environmental impact and the power is now in the wrong place the the potential for mobility as in the case with. You pointed out the story about Puerto Rico the ability to have something to give you basic necessities refrigeration and cleaning in a scenario after a major power outage is probably a smarter bet than overburdening. 1 region with one type of power from 1 source.
Yeah I’m a big believer in um, energy independence I mean it’s why I got solar panels and I mean you know very well I’m working on building a new house and in the new house I’m gonna my goal is to have more solar production more batteries and it’s not that I want to be off grid I don’t want to live offg grid I’m gonna be great connected. But it’s more about not putting all my eggs in 1 basket I want to be as self-sufficient and energy independent as I can be and there gonna be times of the year where I’m pulling energy from the grid but it’s like I don’t need to rely on it 100% and it’s it’s just me wanting to make sure that in the northeast we get. Easters that come through here knock trees down take out power lines neighborhoods go without power for hours sometimes days. So it’s like being energy to independent means I may not suffer those losses when that happens I can kind of keep going about my life because I have my own power source as a backup. So I think the the point that um. That commenter raised is awesome about the we talked about this like you know Russia shutting off the gas pipeline. It’s it’s great to have those partnerships. It’s great to have those interconnections and that baseline power or gas or whatever we’re talking about there but you also have to have systems in place. You can rely on on your own as a backup or secondary generation system. It’s it’s just a smart move from nations to cities to little towns and neighborhoods. It’s a smart move.
When it comes to sort of the the microgrid of let’s say a hospital or a University campus things like that are those typically I mean you probably don’t have the ability to say universally what it is.
Oh yeah.
But is it a system of connection to the grid that only allows power to go one direction so power coming from the grid going into the University works. But if there is a major blackout in the region and the University is now going alone. That their energy. However, it produced whether it’s from a generator or solar or whatever they may be using will not go back to the grid is that.
My my understanding is that’s basically what it is. That’s like my house to go to my example, if you have a batteries with your solar and a power goes out in the grid. You are basically cut off from the grid for safety because you don’t want your power dripping out into the grid. Workers are trying to bring it back online. They could get electrocuted. So for safety you don’t want uncontrolled power just leaking back into the grid so in your example, the University would still have power or a data center would still have power but all the buildings around it would be blacked out and that’s just for safety reasons.
And for something like a hospital or a university you mentioned Data Centers. You can think of all sorts of of scenarios where you would want to make sure that a. Relatively small and isolated area would maintain power the sources of those power could be anything from a combustion engine generator all the way to solar or even battery.
Fuel cells fuel cells too like I know Apple on 11 data centers uses fuel cells and hydrogen storage for backup instead of using like diesel. So but yeah, you’re talking about combustion engine fuel cells or batteries combinations of those that are.
Right? Just the the sci-fi nerd in me wishes it was things like kinetic spin wheels and stuff like that I think it would be great if the power went out and you just suddenly heard the whirring up of all these things and the rushing of water and the release of gases.
There actually are I did a video a long time ago flywheels and there are facilities that use flywheels as their backup systems. In fact, data some data centers use like universal power set Backup systems have flywheels in them. So those are used. So.
Right? I’d like to imagine that somewhere I’d like to imagine that somewhere There is a there is somebody giving a tour of like and in here is our emergency backup generator and they open up the door and it’s a Thousand Hamster wheels with a thousand hamsters.
Mechanical spinning things.
Ah, it sounds like a episode of the simpsons.
Like we keep them all healthy and trust me at night they want to move. That’s just a reminder to our listeners hamsters make terrible pets.
So as we close I’m interested if any of our listeners are themselves doing something similar to Matt are you setting up your own little microsystem again. Not to live off the grid Matt says he doesn’t want to live off the grid and yet he drinks his own shower water. No, that’s a joke. He doesn’t. That let us know in the comments you can reach out through the contact information in the podcast description or if you’re watching this on Youtube and if you are thank you smile. You can leave a comment directly below the video. And any event please do subscribe and remember there are ways to directly support the podcast you can go to still tbd drive I’m getting so fast at saying that that I’m no longer actually saying it. You can visit still tbd dot fm. And you’ll see the support the podcast link there and you can support us directly if you’re watching on Youtube you can hit the join button below the video and join us that way and whatever you’re doing if you’re not atable, support us in either of those ways just listening or watching rating us reviewing us. And sharing this with your friends all of that really does help the podcast. The podcast helps the channel the channel helps Matthew and then Matthew sends me a rain barrel. No, he doesn’t send me a rain barrel. Thanks so much for listening everybody. We’ll talk to you next time.
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