David May: What will a public revolt over blackouts look like?

Last week, MinnPost reported that Minnesota Public Utilities Commissioner Joseph Sullivan believes the public will “absolutely revolt” in the event of a major reliability event, also known as a rolling blackout.

I spoke with my friend David May, a retired control room operator who worked at Northern States Power Company, the predecessor of Xcel Energy, about what he thought that revolt might entail. This is what he said below, with light editing for clarity.

I think it will start out slow with the first few rolling blackouts.  It will be interesting to see if folks in Minnesota participate in the early stages of shortages as a result of the public appeals that will be the first signs of problems as they did in Texas this past summer. 

Essentially, and so far, public appeals have been the “peaking assets” in Texas.  It will be the same here.  We will see if they need the same public participation this winter if they get a really cold snap in Texas.  Texas has a lot of solar capacity, and of course, in the winter months, that goes away a couple of hours earlier, right over the evening peak.  So, a prolonged cold snap down there has the potential to keep this public appeal going when their wind assets are also anemic over multiple days this winter.  

In Minnesota and the rest of the Midcontinent Independent Systems Operator (MISO), each utility and their remaining abilities to generate enough capacity from their own resources combined with MISO’s ability to wheel power across the transmission system on any particular day will determine where the first appeals and potentially rolling blackouts will be needed.  As is always the case, it’s simple math on a two-sided ledger.  Can each utility balance the demand with capability all the time with the two general factors of their remaining assets and ability to wheel the power in if MISO has it elsewhere and can get it to them over the transmission system without dangerous overloading which they won’t do?

As to the public revolt, I think it will be a growing thing as it becomes increasingly evident that big mistakes have been made by the regulators, politicians, and utilities.  It will grow as the number of public appeals increase and eventually when they start to get hit between the eyes with rolling blackouts coming more frequently, of longer durations, and especially during significant weather events that will leave us getting cold or hot as the case may be.  That’s when the questions will come, and it will sink in that we have squandered our reliability and spent our future development dollars in the wrong places.  Also, it will become painfully obvious that the only way out of this is to build reliable assets like nuclear, and that will be expensive and take a long time to do.  

As to the best way to show our displeasure, it will depend on who does so.  You and I can use some “we tried to tell you” things, but the real and effective noise will come from the public at large.  That will result in a political/election thing, but that takes a while to produce results.  I think in the interim between growing recognition of the problem and its eventual resolution (which will take years), there will be a necessary step change in the implementation of Time of Use rates to help “keep the power on” by inflicting significant pain for the choices one makes on when electricity is consumed.  People will be paying a whole lot more for a whole lot less, especially when they really need and want to use power. 

Also, the resulting economic fallout will be significant as commercial and industrial costs and availability will inflict great damage on the financial and personal income picture.  The economic slowdown will actually be “beneficial” in that it will curb demand.  But the quality of life in America will decline significantly as a result of this long-brewing failure in transformation to the Green New Deal.  It is going to be painful and hard for people to accept.

I couldn’t agree more with David. We are already seeing signs of deindustrialization in Germany, “helping” to reduce energy demand. It isn’t difficult to imagine a world where we suffer the same consequences for implementing the same policies.