Juice: Power, Politics and the Grid premiers for free on YouTube on Wednesday, January 31. For a trailer and more information, go to @JuiceTheSeries on YouTube.
The Commodity Error
Electricity is our most important infrastructure, analogous to roads and bridges, but even more critical to survival. To take just one example, water treatment plants and water pumps need power, and without fresh water, people die. Reliability is what gives electricity most of its value.
This isn’t true of most other modern conveniences that we can indefinitely live without. Reliability isn’t the main concern, let alone a life and death issue, when we shop for beer, bananas, and cable TV.
The new Juice explained how a few decades ago energy corporations selling a supposed free market for electricity formed an unholy alliance with climate alarmists and weather-dependent power advocates to sell kilowatts as a commodity.
Before that, the electric grid was built to favor reliability above all else. Utilities were financially punished if they failed to keep the juice flowing. Power plant designs were selected for maximum reliability and were redundantly built so total available capacity always exceeded the most extreme potential demand.
Enter the now bankrupt Enron and other such firms. They persuaded policymakers that competitive pricing of kilowatts as a commodity would bring about a more efficient industry and better prices for consumers. Political conservatives, such as former President George W. Bush when he was governor of Texas, are portrayed in Juice as the eager adopters of this flawed advice.
Very different infrastructure choices were made after competitive pricing of the juice took priority over valuing reliability. Rather than own the most reliable power stations (coal and especially nuclear), firms were rewarded for building the least costly generating stations. And what was once considered “healthy redundancy of generating capacity to ensure reliability” became viewed as “wasteful overbuilding of excess capacity.”
A firm that owns lots of power plants can now literally make more money by shutting some of them down to manipulate the supply and drive up the bid price. So much for the consumers winning from this economic vice.
A robust grid designed by engineers to be nearly impervious to prolonged blackouts has been reconstructed by corporate lawyers and accountants to instead maximize the rents they can wring from each marginal kilowatt.
Intermittently reliable, weather-restricted wind and solar energy systems are everything the old robust, reliability-focused grid was biased against. But today’s grid has been purposely built to flip the vices of weather-dependent power into virtues. Wind turbines now reap nice profits for each kilowatt they produce, while avoiding any penalty for often failing to produce power when it is needed most.
Perhaps not coincidentally, the push by climate alarmists to subsidize weather-dependent power, which makes it even more enormously profitable for firms in on the grift, coincided perfectly with the mania to price the juice as a commodity. From 2008 through 2015, according to figures shown in the docuseries, NextEra energy alone collected $7.8 billion in weather-dependent power subsidies.
The confluence of all this bad policy meant that Texas soon filled up with solar panels and wind turbines and ended up with a flawed electricity grid that had more in common with lefty California than the robust, reliable system that preceded it.
The grids in most of the rest of America have been similarly botched together by these two ostensibly opposed ideologies. At one point in Juice, a critic explained that it is still possible to locate the corporate logos of the supposedly capitalist Enron adorning wind turbines in Texas.
The Anti-Human League
The fatal myth driving these errors was that electricity customers wanted to be in a market where the objective was to purchase kilowatts. We didn’t. What we really have always desired was to purchase reliable electricity. Full stop.
A pricing mechanism works properly only when the price tag is placed on the product desired. This is an important point for conservative and libertarian viewers who may interpret Juice as a criticism of the market economy. It’s not.
Bryce’s criticism is of a warped pricing system that was wrapped deceptively in free-market rhetoric. All doubts on this point should fade when Juice turns the cameras to the great winners from the bad policy: the advocates and producers of unreliable energy systems.
Journalist Michael Shellenberger revealed in Juice that no energy system spoils more landscapes than wind and solar. Compared to the tiny footprint of nuclear or natural gas, he claimed wind and solar chew up 300 to 400 times as much land to generate a comparable amount of electricity.
Similarly, Canadian scientist Vaclav Smil calculated that providing all of America’s electricity with wind alone would mean covering a land mass twice the size of California with wind turbines.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the average capacity factor of industrial wind power in America in 2021 was a paltry 34.6 percent. Capacity factor is a measure of how much of an energy system’s full capacity is used, and wind has the second worst reliability rating, ahead of solar panels at 24.6 percent.
The capacity factor of American nuclear power stations is 92.7 percent. Nothing is more reliable. It’s not even close. Nuclear is also, by far, the largest carbon-free source of electricity in the United States.
Juice profiled several advocates of building much more nuclear power. They support nuclear power for both energy reliability and climate policy reasons. Many of them are left-inclined in their politics, such as Dr. Chris Keefer, a Toronto ER physician who is also president of Canadians for Nuclear Energy.
What’s not to love about nukes?
In Episode 4 of Juice, the Environmental Defense Fund, the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council were specifically criticized by Shellenberger for their “absolutely massive” annual budgets of $100 million or more and for “making money on renewables” while they oppose nuclear.
Bryce could have dedicated his whole series to this point. As previously covered by the Capital Research Center, left-leaning groups that oppose nuclear energy collectively raise at least $2.3 billion annually. Most if not all of them are also strong supporters of the unreliable, weather-dependent wind and solar power systems.
Add to them the massive political and economic muscle deployed by the weather-dependent power firms. In some of the most inspirational moments in the new Juice, Bryce profiled the legal battle waged by the Osage Nation in Oklahoma against an unlawful invasion of their tribal property by the wind turbines of Enel, a giant Italian energy firm.
“This is our home,” said one member of the Osage. “This is our landscape.”
Madi Hilly summed up the magnitude of the war they’re all waging, stating that the anti-nuclear movement is “anti-society and anti-human, and they use the full weight of their resources to act on that.”
“If you’re pro-nuclear, you’re bringing a slingshot to the Cold War,” concluded the editor of the Grid Brief, summarizing what Shellenberger, Hilly, Keefer and their allies are up against.
In the next installment, recent wins suggest a potential resurgence of nuclear power.