DOE, FERC officials promise lawmakers they’ll study resilience

Source: Sam Mintz, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, January 25, 2018

A Department of Energy official wants his office to lead a “detailed analysis” of electric grid resilience, he told lawmakers yesterday.

Bruce Walker, DOE’s assistant secretary for electricity delivery and energy reliability, told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee the federal government needs an “in-depth understanding” of the resilience of electricity infrastructure.

The issue has been a frequent topic of discussion in recent months as policymakers try to determine whether the shifting energy generation landscape — most notably the accelerating retirements of coal and nuclear plants and the growing share of natural gas and renewables — will create problems for the grid in the near future, particularly when extreme weather events, like the cold snap that hit the East Coast earlier this year, strike.

A hearing yesterday focused on exploring the performance of the electricity systems in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic during that winter weather.

Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) called it an “informative stress test” for the grid, which analysts and regulators say passed with little incident.

Walker’s proposal would try to integrate information about state, local and federal planning and seek to correct any gaps or inconsistencies between those efforts, he said.

“I understand that we currently do not have funds appropriated for such a task, so I am taking this opportunity to make my position clear: I believe building this resilience model should be the top priority for DOE’s Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability over the coming years,” he said in written testimony.

Walker’s project would run in parallel with efforts by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to gather information from regional grid operators about the specific challenges they face.

The FERC scrutiny comes in response to a rejected proposal from DOE to subsidize coal and nuclear plants in the name of resilience.

The six relevant regional transmission organizations and independent system operators have a March deadline to submit comments to FERC about risks to the grid and steps that could be taken to address them (Energywire, Jan. 9).

Walker said that his staff was already developing plans to integrate the results from FERC’s proceedings into DOE’s own research.

For legislators, a concern remains that analyses like these are too slow. Murkowski asked FERC Chairman Kevin McIntyre, “How prompt will FERC be … if it needs to take action?”

She pointed to the agency’s efforts on price formation, which were initiated following the polar vortex in 2014 and are ongoing.

“I would hope that FERC recognizes that we need to move beyond technical conferences and more white papers,” said Murkowski.

McIntyre assured the committee the agency will move swiftly if the grid operators report any near-term worries. “We will not sit idly by if there is some sort of legitimate concern regarding the reliability or resilience of the grid,” he said.

Regardless, a signal of short-term urgency does not seem likely at this point. Despite claims by DOE that FERC needs to act immediately to avoid a grid crisis, grid operators have repeatedly said there is no imminent resilience problem.

But extending the timeline a little further, particularly in New England, there are potential crises lying in wait. A recent study from the region’s independent system operator found that because of a lack of fuel, New England could require emergency procedures — including possibly brownouts — as soon as 2024.

“So far this winter we’ve been fortunate to not experience any major contingencies we could not handle,” Gordon van Welie, the grid operator’s CEO, said at yesterday’s hearing.

But, he said, it will be “costly” to fix the fuel problems in New England in the future.

Later in the hearing, Murkowski asked McIntyre what risk is posed to the grid by coal and nuclear plant retirements, on a scale of 1 to 10.

It’s a 5, he said.

“But I will have a better informed personal opinion after we have heard from the RTOs and ISOs about what specific needs they see,” McIntyre added.