Grid stability isn’t about saving coal — analysis

Source: Peter Behr, E&E News reporter • Posted: Friday, May 4, 2018

A trio of grid experts says protecting the power grid by subsidizing coal and nuclear generation, as Energy Secretary Rick Perry proposed, misses other important threats and ignores more affordable and effective defenses.

Alison Silverstein, a Texas-based consultant, and Rob Gramlich and Michael Goggin, former top staff at the American Wind Energy Association, prepared an analysis for the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Defense Fund. The report is meant to expand a debate around how to ensure the power grid is reliable overall and resilient when pipes freeze or a hurricane strikes.

The issue of power grid resilience has been kicking up dust in policy circles since President Trump entered the White House with a directive for his appointees to reverse the decline of U.S. coal. The Energy Department has tied that political goal to the complex issues associated with bringing more natural gas generation and renewable energy onto the grid. Perry, for his part, has argued that the grid can be made more stable through a federal guarantee that uncompetitive coal units and nuclear reactors can continue to make money.

To really protect against power outages, Silverstein, Gramlich and Goggin said other options should be on the table, including the inventory of critical spare parts for power networks; emergency planning exercises; transmission line automation; strategically located microgrids; and distributed resources, including batteries.

“There are many ways to improve reliability and resilience where most of the outages occur — at the distribution and transmission levels,” Silverstein said. “And since all the regulation in the world can’t prevent all outages, nor prevent really big, long outages, society needs to spend more money helping more customers survive outages.”

Silverstein oversaw a DOE staff report commissioned by Perry last March on grid vulnerability. Perry’s proposal to FERC for coal and nuclear plant support went beyond the staff’s findings on that issue. Gramlich and Goggin have formed a new consulting firm, Grid Strategies LLC.

Their report analyzes causes of recent large-scale grid outages. “Since most outages occur due to problems at the distribution level and long-duration outages are caused primarily by severe weather events, it logically follows that measures that strengthen distribution and hasten recovery would be highly cost-effective,” the report concluded. “In contrast, measures to make generation more resilient are likely to have little impact on outage frequency, duration or magnitude or on customer survivability.”

“Look at Puerto Rico, California wildfires, any one of multiple recent hurricanes and floods,” Silverstein said in an interview. “The grid was designed and built to withstand the weather conditions from Ozzie and Harriet, but new extreme weather and climate conditions are more like Mad Max.”

Regulators should measure the resilience of the grid from the customers’ end by analyzing how the frequency of outages is changing, the number of customers affected — particularly as extreme storms become more common — and the time it takes to get power back on, they said. Then potential remedies should be weighed against their costs and benefits, they said.

Factors of “on-site fuel,” “baseload” or “high capacity factor” highlighted in Perry’s initiative shouldn’t be resilience benchmarks, they said, “because no technical justification exists for such products.”

Planners should account for uncertainty and attempt to identify “no regrets” infrastructure that is valuable across a range of possible events and scenarios, and consider the effects, plus and minus, of customer-based energy, they said.

A challenge for states

A challenge to their grass-roots approach may lie at the state level, where state commissions with their different political and policy positions don’t have a history of moving together to respond to grid threats that cross many state lines. Dangerous cyberthreats and risks of greater extreme weather assaults demand a faster response, security experts warn.

Silverstein said, “It is probable that we’ll see more giant hurricanes, floods, storm surges, heat waves, wildfires, droughts and other bad stuff that compromise both the system and customers. We can do lots more to cost-effectively address those real threats while the intelligence agencies and subject matter experts are arguing over the likelihood of a Black Sky event [such as a widespread cyberattack or damaging solar storm] and how to protect the grid against it.”

The increasing dependency of power generation on long-distance natural gas deliveries remains a reliability and resilience issue in New England, the report authors acknowledged. The region made it through last winter’s “bomb cyclone” cold weather because of dual fuel generators that could switch to fuel oil when gas supplies became strained and gas prices shot up. The region’s grid operator concluded that one more blizzard severe enough to stop fuel deliveries to these plants could have caused power shortages at a critical time (Energywire, Jan. 24).

The study authors said that while New England is a special case, earmarking all nuclear and coal generation for support because of its on-site fuel isn’t backed up by data, they said.

The authors cite a 2017 study by the Rhodium Group that found that over the 2013-2016 period, less than 9 percent of power system outage minutes was due to “loss of electricity supply” to the distribution utility. The other 91 percent was due to events affecting the distribution system, primarily from weather.

A widespread grid disaster such as a major midcontinent earthquake would damage gas pipelines but also interstate transmission lines and rail connections that deliver coal, security analysts warn.

Perry’s proposal to shore up coal and nuclear plants — rejected by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission — “would have spent too much customer money on something that wouldn’t help system resilience and reliability very much, relative to many other things that could be done with that money,” Gramlich said in an interview.

“The money probably would have a much bigger effect spent on stronger poles and wires in hurricane vulnerable areas,” Gramlich said.

“Generation and fuel supply shortages rarely cause customer outages, and when they do it is almost always due to an extreme weather event or operational failure that may also affect T&D [transmission and distribution lines]. No single unit or type of generation is critical or resilient in itself,” the authors said.

“FERC and DOE have a great opportunity to partner with state regulators and utilities to think about what’s more effective for society,” Silverstein said. “Don’t spend money on things that won’t make a difference.”