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Energy Security and the Problem With Renewable Energy with Andy Chastain

Dec 22, 2022
A wind power station on a wide stretch of land

What does the rise of electric cars tell us about the future of renewable energy? Are we on our way to achieving energy security through the so-called green technologies? There are a lot of layers and nuances to unpack here–a lot of factors to balance and understand. The road to secure and renewable energy systems is more complicated than it looks. 

In this conversation with Ameren Project Manager, Andy Chastain, he shares with us his knowledge of energy security and what it takes to achieve it. With both his background and more than a decade of electrical utility experience, Andy helps us answer some questions surrounding energy security, renewable energy, and the possibility of integrating renewable energy into the grid systems. 

Who is Andy Chastain?

Andy Chastain is a Project Manager at Ameren, a well-known electrical utility headquartered in St. Louis, Missouri. He specializes in building grid resilience and reliability projects with more than a decade of electrical utility experience, improving aging infrastructure and maintaining safe energy generation. Andy lives near St Louis, Missouri with his wife and daughter, where he enjoys hunting, hiking, and collecting vintage fountain pens.

Andy’s views and opinions in the matters discussed in this episode are of his own and do not reflect the views of Ameren or those of the industry at large.

Understanding Energy Security

What does it mean to have energy security? Is it about harnessing power from windmills, hydroelectric power plants, and nuclear reactors? If the government mandates the construction of buildings and houses with solar panel-filled roofs, does that give us a reliable and unlimited power supply?

Before we can talk about energy security with renewable energy, Chastain explains that we have to first understand grid reliability and grid resiliency. 

Grid reliability means that electricity always flows when the switch is turned on. End consumers can rely on the grid network to deliver the quantity and quality of electricity on a regular basis and in times of emergencies. Grid reliability, in Chastain’s words, also means minimizing power outages to avoid causing inconvenience.

However, grid resilience involves the ability of a grid network to withstand stress and undergo graceful degradation. It is largely about what does not happen to a grid as it ages or when disasters hit a community. He also elaborates that grid resilience is about improving the quality of the equipment you have in individual substations or on transmission lines. When grid networks stop being resilient, they also stop being a reliable power source. And while it is easy to talk about what makes grid networks resilient, there are several issues that make it difficult to implement solutions. For one, grid resilience is not just about burying transmission lines to ensure they withstand hurricanes. It is also about dealing with aging grid infrastructure and keeping a consistent flow of investment to projects that incorporate renewable energy into the grid, among others. 

In addition, the amount of investments going into grid resilience projects greatly depends on policies. Unfortunately, many policy makers tackling this subject hardly have experience in managing grid networks, with minimal operational experience at best. As a result, the policies created towards grid resilience lack clarity and direction.

The Problem With Renewable Energy

According to Chastain, one strategy in grid resilience aims to turn everything electric–from kitchenware to cars–and transition to using renewable energy. But if there’s more electric vehicles on the road, people will need more charging stations. Even at night -  when the grid network is supposed to take a break - electricity demand will spike because of the need to charge electric vehicles. Consequently, electricity rates double, adding the issue of supply and demand into the complexity of implementing this strategy. 

Where do we get the supply of energy for an increased demand on electricity? Will it be from renewable energy power plants? He says we have to understand that renewable energy sources do not produce energy 100% of the time. Wind farms produce enough energy only when it is windy enough. Conventional solar panels only work with daylight, and while they can adequately power a house in a suburb, they are not enough to supply the energy needs of commercial buildings and factories. Thus, electrifying everything and relying on a few sources of renewable energy is like a solution in search of a problem. 

Chastain explains that we cannot switch yet to 100% renewable energy. Because our current renewable energy sources are not yet stable enough to meet an increasing demand for electricity, powering everything with it would be an ineffective stratagem. 

Net-metering (or crediting solar energy system owners for power they add to the grid) can help utilities to respond to the increasing demand for electricity. But this is more nuanced than it looks especially since decentralizing the grid makes management more difficult. 

Chastain also notes that green energy sources like solar energy systems are expensive. Putting wind [or solar] energy on the grid is more resource-intensive than putting coal energy, given our current resources.

Next Steps

We need a long-term grid strategy that focuses on reliability first, resiliency second, and renewables third. We also have to be transparent about our messaging—to convey accurate information about the state of our energy. This fosters understanding of what the path to renewable energy looks like without making bold and unrealistic assumptions. 

Chastain encourages individuals and communities to dive deeper into the nuances of creating reliable and resilient grid networks before fitting renewable energy into the picture. In his opinion, it is more complicated than it looks - and we can only see our way forward if we start with a collective understanding of what a future with renewable energy truthfully looks like. 

To know more about Andy Chastain's views and opinions on energy security and renewable energy, listen to the full podcast episode here.

You can also follow the Crisis Conflict and Emergency Management Podcast and listen to global conversations and perspectives about international crisis preparedness and how to build more resilient societies. From AI to space warfare, to community development, and crisis communications, there's something for everyone. Join host Kyle King for unique international conversations and perspectives into the current threats, challenges, and risks to our society.