‘Bomb cyclone’ renews concern over electricity supply reliability

‘Bomb cyclone’ renews concern over electricity supply reliability
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Winter — especially when it’s dangerously cold — is another reminder of why policymakers and regulators need to ensure electricity is available 24/7. Today, as much of the country braces for the historic “bomb cyclone” to pass, many are relying on their furnaces, water heaters, stovetops and electrical outlets working without a hitch, to weather the storm.

This means the electric power grid must be not only reliable (having adequate supplies of electricity on a day-to-day basis) but also resilient (being able to withstand catastrophic events). 

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The need to ensure that our electricity system performs under extreme, as well as normal, conditions is why the Department of Energy, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), and many others have been studying our nation’s power grid as concerns mount that the grid might not be as reliable and resilient as it was a few years ago. 

 

Concerns about the grid are linked to the fast-changing mix of electricity sources, particularly the loss of our most reliable and resilient sources of electricity, such as coal and nuclear power. More than one-third of the nation’s coal fleet that operated in 2010 has either shut down or announced plans to close soon. At the same time, reliance on other electricity sources has increased dramatically. For example, electricity generated by natural gas has increased by 40 percent since 2010, wind by 140 percent and solar by 2,700 percent.

NERC, which is responsible for assuring the reliability of the grid in the U.S. and Canada, has issued two reports that include a sober warning about potential problems if we rely too much on natural gas for electricity. 

One of these reports identified 17 “vulnerabilities” that could disrupt the delivery of natural gas to power plants. Natural gas-fueled power plants cannot easily store gas on site and must rely on just-in-time deliveries of gas via pipelines. Many natural gas-fueled power plants do not have a backup fuel source (typically oil) on site. Should natural gas supplies to these power plants be interrupted, the plants would have no fuel to produce electricity.

According to NERC, nearly three-quarters of the natural gas-fired power plants built in the past 20 years (one-fourth of the nation’s entire electricity supply) have no backup fuel source as an insurance policy.

On the other hand, the coal fleet does not face this problem. Coal-fueled power plants maintain an average coal stockpile on site that can last two months or longer. This makes the coal fleet one of the most resilient electricity sources we have.

As a result of its comprehensive study of the electricity grid, the Energy Department proposed a “Grid Reliability and Resilience Pricing Rule” that has been a wakeup call to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and helped draw more attention to the potential consequences of shutting down fuel-secure electricity sources, like coal. The Energy Department proposal would improve the chances for coal and nuclear plants to continue operating in certain parts of the country, rather than shutting down. However, it is up to FERC to decide what to do about the proposal. 

We urge FERC to adopt the Energy Department proposal. If FERC does not, the commission has the responsibility to develop an equally effective alternative as quickly as possible, and not within months or years. In the meantime, let’s hope for warmer temperatures. 

Paul Bailey is the president and CEO of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, the only national trade organization whose sole mission is to advocate at the federal and state levels on behalf of coal-fueled electricity and the coal fleet.