Hurricane talk dominates grid hearing

Source: Sam Mintz, E&E News reporter • Posted: Friday, September 15, 2017

A House Energy and Commerce hearing yesterday was supposed to focus on electric grid reliability, the concept of “baseload” power and the Department of Energy’s recent grid study, but it often turned to discussion about the impact weather has on the country’s electricity delivery system.

“Over the past six years, the 50 largest events impacting the grid were caused by severe weather,” said Gerry Cauley, CEO of the North American Electric Reliability Corp.

Democrats on the committee used the occasion to get answers from the panelists on record about climate change, and whether its effects, including more severe storms, will continue to affect the grid.

“Do you anticipate climate change will continue to play a significant role in threatening the nation’s energy infrastructure?” asked Illinois Rep. Bobby Rush, the top Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy.

Both Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Chairman Neil Chatterjee and DOE official Patricia Hoffman answered generally, saying their agencies will continue working to ensure that the grid can withstand and bounce back from storms as well as possible.

But Cauley acknowledged that the increased intensity of storms is something that policymakers will have to plan for.

“Understanding climate change is outside of my expertise or organization’s expertise but,” he said, “it seems we are seeing an increase in the magnitude and severity of events.”

Cauley said, “It’s something we have to think about in the designs of our systems and our preparations, to think about how we prepare for more extremes.”

Fuel diversity

The question of fuel diversity and how an increasing proportion of renewable energy sources affects reliability also came up yesterday.

Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), the committee’s vice chairman, asked whether it was possible to maintain the same high reliability standards in place now, in the case of an electric system made up of predominantly renewable sources.

Renewables have been quickly increasing their share of energy generation in recent years, and some states have set renewable portfolio standards with requirements as high as 50 percent.

Cauley said keeping up reliability with a renewable-centered system would be “technically feasible” now but that there are significant challenges, including developing new controls for wind and solar to interact with the grid.

“The technology is there today, it just requires a lot of coordination,” he said.

Chatterjee said that he would want more details on the question and declined to say whether he agreed with Cauley.

Chatterjee speaks out

The FERC chairman, who was making his first public appearance on the Hill since joining the commission last month, took questions from reporters after the hearing.

He declined to say what specific steps FERC could take to value baseload generation sources like coal and nuclear. In the past he said they should be “properly compensated” (Greenwire, Aug. 15).

“I don’t want to get that far ahead,” Chatterjee said. “I think the point that I made was that if there was some demonstrated threat to reliability, there would be options available to the commission to take action.

“But the keyword there is ‘if’. We would have to have a record, we would have to have a docket, we would have to have careful analysis and then make that determination going forward.”

Chatterjee praised FERC staff and fellow commissioners for their work to move on a backlog of issues that developed in the six-month period earlier this year when the commission found itself without a quorum.

“We’ve got 62 [orders] out to date, we should have a number more coming. The manner in which we prioritize them, some by statutory need, some by need-based, it’s a smart, appropriate strategy,” said Chatterjee.

“We’ve got our open meeting coming up next week, and we’ll do a considerable amount of business there,” he said. “I’m pretty confident because of the great work that was done even prior to my arrival, the team we’ve got going forward, that we’ll be able to work through the backlog quickly while also taking in new business.”

And he repeated his sentiment that FERC should be involved in pushing infrastructure development, an idea that earned criticism from some observers when he stated it on an agency podcast last month.

“I think infrastructure is something we all agree, we need permitting reform, we need to develop our infrastructure, and the commission will play an important role with that, along with the executive and legislative branches of government. I feel very comfortable saying that infrastructure will be a major focus,” Chatterjee said.