Extreme regulations bring extreme challenges

Extreme regulations bring extreme challenges
© Getty Images

Extreme challenges require electrical engineers to plan for the worst. As easy as it is to build electric transmission and distribution systems that work some of the time, it is far more difficult to build systems that work nearly all of the time. A system’s reliability is a benchmark for whether the system truly works under constantly changing conditions.

And when it comes to powering Americans’ homes, hospitals, places of business and government installations, policymakers should take note of every challenge and opportunity.

ADVERTISEMENT

Simply put, we need the highest possible reliability from our electric grids. Even 99 percent isn’t good enough; the power still would go out 14 minutes every day. Today, our national grid achieves 99.98 percent reliability, and our economy depends on that grid for consistent healthcare services, financial systems and large computer servers.

The grid faces daily challenges caused by the peak demand in energy consumption. Every year, extreme temperatures pose challenges to electric reliability during heat waves and winter cold. We are coming closer and closer to the limits of the grid under these conditions.

Reliable power is far more complex than simply keeping the poles up and wires connected, something America’s electric cooperatives do very well. Reliable electricity must flow through those lines.

As Americans diversify the sources of electric generation in our national energy portfolio, the challenges grow. Integrating renewable sources of electricity, especially intermittent ones like wind and solar, poses challenges to the engineers and operators charged with maintaining enough baseload capacity from non-intermittent sources, those putting electrons on the grid both day and night.

Policy proposals to tilt that delicate balance threaten reliability by stressing our grid to handle demand for electricity caused by polar vortices, heat waves or the loss of an element of the grid. In those extreme moments, planning for system reliability is a job for engineers, not regulators. It takes time to anticipate and plan for each challenging scenario.

The president’s well-intentioned Clean Power Plan proposes addition by subtraction. It seeks to tap more renewable resources while it forces reliable energy sources offline and asks Americans to use less electricity. Experts at the North American Electric Reliability Corporation and regional grid operators have raised serious questions about reliability under this proposal. Thankfully, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is listening.

If FERC identifies serious threats to the nation’s electric grid in this proposal, then the administration must respond before the Environmental Protection Agency disrupts the systems we count on.

There is one more facet to electric reliability worth noting. Americans cannot rely on energy they cannot afford. Increasing the cost of electricity in order to reduce consumption amounts to a regressive energy tax on the people who can least afford to pay their electric bills. 

Poor energy policy decisions by our nation’s leaders will challenge the reliability of another system: the telephone networks serving the White House and Congress.

Emerson served in the House from 1997 to 2013 and is currently CEO of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.