Reliability hinges more on grid than fuel — DOE draft

Source: Hannah Northey and Edward Klump, E&E News reporters • Posted: Monday, February 11, 2019

A draft Department of Energy grid study obtained by E&E News concludes that vulnerabilities to the grid system are more important in causing power outages than fuel security or power plant operation.

Those findings could undermine the Trump administration’s push for market interventions to boost struggling coal and nuclear plants.

A key author of those conclusions, contained in a draft that E&E News obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, has questioned why the agency hasn’t yet released the findings publicly.

“It’s not unusual for reports to take a long time to get through the DOE review process, but since this is on a pressing topic I’d love to see it as part of the public conversation sooner rather than later,” said Michael Webber, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Texas, Austin.

Webber spoke with E&E News today from France, where he’s on leave from the university. He said he didn’t know where the report stood in the review process or what the plans might be for public release.

The draft, titled “A Study of Grid Reliability and Resilience,” concludes that “vulnerability of the transmission and distribution system is a more important cause of outages than power plant performance or fuel supply reliability, but power plants are worth looking at nevertheless.”

The study also found that although “the ability to store fuel on site has been in the news (e.g., with solid fuels such as nuclear, coal and biomass), power plant reliability is determined by more than a dozen different factors.”

The report describes reliability as “the probability of an expected failure” and resilience as “the ability to recover after an unexpected failure.” It notes a past notice of proposed rulemaking (NOPR) from DOE that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission rejected, as well as nationwide conversations the document generated.

That proposal emphasized traditional “baseload” plants that use coal and nuclear for fuel security when extreme weather can cut off natural gas supplies, the draft grid report notes. But it says FERC concluded the plan would lead to a significant increase in consumer costs without an appreciable boost to grid resilience and reliability.

“The disparity between the NOPR and FERC analyses highlights the need for more comprehensive understanding of resilience determinants,” the draft report says.

Webber said today that every fuel and technology option has some benefits and drawbacks. For example, he said coal piles can get too wet or frozen, while relying on all wind or solar power could cause issues. He said a grid with a diversity of fuels and technologies is more reliable. Even better is a diverse mix of clean and reliable sources, he said. Webber noted that gas-fueled plants often act as backup for the rest of the grid.

Webber and DOE have been at odds over the pace of the agency’s review of the report. Webber last year tweeted the report hadn’t “seen the light of day, yet.” He cautioned in an October interview against assuming political motivation.

DOE didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment today about the draft.

But the department has maintained that the review of such reports typically takes months — and sometimes years.

A spokeswomen for DOE said last year the purpose of many such reports is to “better inform internal discussions and policymaking” and said it’s “premature and irresponsible to criticize and jump to politically motivated conclusions about a report that has not yet been finalized or released.”

She said at the time that DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy had previously requested a study from the Idaho National Laboratory “evaluating nuclear resilience and baseload capacity needed to maintain grid stability under a variety of scenarios.”

The spokeswoman also said the Idaho lab then subcontracted out the study to the University of Texas. The Office of Nuclear Energy received the latest study draft from the Idaho lab on Sept. 30, 2018, DOE said last year, and it was “proceeding through the internal review process.”

Webber said he was starting a new job in France with Engie SA while taking leave from the university. Engie had nothing to do with the study prepared for DOE, according to Webber.

Reporter Kevin Bogardus contributed.