Avoiding Blackouts with a Remedial Action Scheme

Under its "Remedial Action Scheme" Dominion may not have to implement rolling blackouts in the Peninsula on high-risk days.
Under its Remedial Action Scheme Dominion may not have to implement rolling blackouts in the Peninsula on high-risk days.

Two years ago Dominion Virginia Power warned of dire consequences to the Virginia Peninsula if the company could not build a 500 kV transmission line across the James River. An analysis prepared by engineering consulting firm Stantec and submitted to the U.S. Corps of Engineers left little to the imagination:

Dominion will be required to implement pre-contingency load shedding (i.e. rolling blackouts) in the [North Hampton Roads Load Area] to prevent the possibility of cascading outages impacting the reliability of the interconnected transmission system. … It is estimated that rolling blackouts would initially occur 80 days a year and would continue to increase in number as load continues to grow in the area. …

The potential exists that up to 50% of the customers in this load area could be without electricity for days or even weeks until the event which caused the failure could be fixed.

Yesterday I posted an article based on an interview with Steve Chafin, Dominion director of transmission planning and strategic initiatives, that seemed to tell a different story. While the utility still said the Peninsula will be at risk for 50 to 80 days a year after shutting down the Yorktown Power Station’s No. 1 and No. 2 generators April 15, the ability to continue running the No. 3 generator up to 29 days a year will reduce that threat to about 50 days. Only if an unplanned event knocked out a transmission line — something that has happened only six times the past ten years — on one of those days would Dominion have to shed load. While there are no guarantees, Chafin told me, “We think we can get through the summer without any rotating blackouts.”

After publishing the article, I got to thinking about the marked difference in tone. Two years ago, when Dominion was trying to push the Surry-Skiffes project through regulatory approval in the face of intense opposition by preservationists, the company was stressing how disastrous things would be if the project wasn’t built. Now that the permit review by the Army Corps of Engineers is reaching its final stages and a mitigation settlement seems imminent, Dominion is downplaying the risk.

Yesterday I asked Chafin and Le-Ha Anderson, a Dominion spokesperson, to explain the change in rhetoric. They stand by what Dominion said then, and they stand by what Dominion says now, and they say there’s a legitimate explanation.

The difference between then and now is that Dominion has set up a Remedial Action Scheme (RAS).

Dominion worries about an uncontrolled, cascading blackout emanating from the Peninsula, the most vulnerable zone in the Dominion electric system and one of the most fragile in the 13-state PJM Interconnection territory. If blackouts erupted there, Dominion’s grid models can’t predict where they would stop. The United States conceivably could experience an outage as widespread as the infamous 2003 Northeastern blackout that knocked out power to millions.

With approval from the Southeastern Electric Reliability Council and PJM Interconnection, Dominion has set up an RAS to isolate the Peninsula if an unplanned outage occurs. “We put in an automatic, specialized relay scheme,” says Chafin. “If it senses certain conditions, it will immediately drop load to 150,000 customers.” The draconian action will prevent a cascading shut-down of transmission lines emanating from the Peninsula to points beyond.

Before the Remedial Action Scheme, Dominion would have had to implement rotating blackouts on high-load days before a component failure or other disruption occurred. Because the RAS responds immediately when needed, it allows Dominion to implement blackouts after the disruption.

While implementation of the RAS under a worst-case scenario would cause a massive outage on the Peninsula, it would nip in the bud an uncontrolled blackout that could rip through the nation’s electric grid. The chances of it occurring are remote, however, and it reduces the necessity of initiating precautionary, controlled blackouts when the Peninsula region reaches peak electric load some 50 or so times a year.

“We have a responsibility to provide reliability to our customers. We have an equally important responsibility to protect the safety and integrity of the grid,” Chafin says. “The automation will help to reduce the risk on a short-term and temporary basis.”

The Remedial Action Scheme will be available until the Surry-Skiffes transmission line receives regulatory approval and construction is complete, a process that will take at least another 18 months.

“We’ve been working on a Peninsula solution for a long time,” says Anderson. “We filed in 2013, and have worked with the Corps for almost four years. This is a serious situation. … We’ve had to look at what other things we can do in the meantime. This is a temporary, short-term tool that will help get us through the most critical period.”

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6 responses to “Avoiding Blackouts with a Remedial Action Scheme”

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    re: ” Line 214/263 230 kV Line Rebuild (James River Bridge Crossing)

    The NHRLA is currently connected to the Southampton Roads Load Area through two 230 kV overhead lines, Line 214 and Line 263, located adjacent to the James River Bridge. Dominion evaluated rebuilding these lines to a higher capacity. However, the load flow analysis showed that the rebuild of these lines would not resolve the 2016 NERC criteria nor would it resolve the 2021 criteria. This is due largely to the existing generation deficiency present in the Southampton Roads Load Area. The Southampton Roads Load Area is required to import 50- 75% of its existing power requirements into the load area from generation resources to the west of Richmond. Therefore, this load area is not in a position to support the transfer of excess power into NHRLA under normal and contingency conditions since no excess power exists. ”

    so WHERE is the power to cross the James at Skiffes-Creek coming from?

    read the document folks – and you’ll see what is going on – handwaving.

    where is the power coming from to power the peninsula ?
    and why can it only cross the James at Skiffes-Creek and nowhere else?

  2. CleanAir&Water Avatar

    How about demand reduction instead?
    The possibility of not enough available peak power is being addressed in a lot of ways across the states. According to BNEF, “The old rules were all about locking in cheap base-load power … then supplementing it with more expensive capacity … to meet the peaks. The new way of doing things will be about locking in as much locally-available base-cost renewable power as possible, and then supplementing it with more expensive flexible capacity from demand response, storage and gas, and then importing the remaining needs from neighbouring grids.“

    • Spurred by the nation’s strongest and most innovative building code, new buildings in California now use about 75 percent less energy than pre-code buildings, and have saved enough energy to head off construction of the equivalent of seven 500-megawatt natural gas-fired power plants.

    • The AEE Institute report – Economic Potential for Peak Demand Reduction in Michigan, aims to maximize the benefits of deploying various demand reduction strategies, including avoided generation costs. The results indicate that net benefits for electric ratepayers – total savings minus total costs … could exceed $1 billion over 10 years.

    • Hawaii will move ahead with a first-of-its-kind community renewables program designed to incentivize dispatchable power at times of peak grid demand.

    • To meet growing demand in Ashville, Duke Energy Progress revised their original plan to construct a new transmission line and natural gas-fired electricity generation with a plan to reduce peak demand and deploy distributed renewables allowing them to avoid constructing both the new line and generation plant.

    • PG&E will use the batteries to improve the management of peak demand and to reduce the need to call on peaking power plants.

    • Mira Loma substation in Ontario will use the collection of lithium-ion batteries, which look like big white refrigerators, to gather electricity at night and other off-peak hours so that the electrons can be injected back into the grid when power use jumps.

    Efficient buildings, onsite solar, storage and offshore wind really do present alternatives to Dominions current plan.

  3. CA&W — we don’t disagree about the importance of the things you list — but they do not address emergency responses to inadequate transmission in the short run. And in the long run, we disagree that renewables alone can displace the need for lots of fossil-fired baseload generation. The daily peak load (except in summer) is afternoon into evening — that’s a fact. In fact, having lots of solar only aggravates the financing problem for the utility or independent generator. That’s because, if he builds a generator to help supply the load in the evening he knows these days he can’t run it as much in the daytime to recover his investment because all that solar will undercut it in the market during the bright sun hours. He has to design it to run less efficiently, on and off and on and off, rather than 24/7 as “baseload.” And solar is, per se, by definition, NOT baseload.

    I’d truly like to see more attention paid to reforming building codes to increase building efficiencies for heating and cooling. I’d like to see more on-site rooftop solar. I’d like to see far far better batteries developed and deployed. I’d like to see more attention by utilities and 3d parties to selling curtail able loads back to the grid operator. I’d like to see more utility planners thinking of load reductions through energy efficiency as an alternative to simply accommodating load growth.

    But, these require time. These are slow trends that unfold in response to long-term incentives. In a system emergency you need to reduce load NOW. The only ones of the above that can help are a vigorous curtailable load program, or batteries, or extremely quick-start generation like hydro power, or involuntary load drops like Dominion is planning. I’m all for the first three, but the experience nationally is, not enough people are willing to sign up to have their air conditioning cut off on hot days, even building managers who run big institutions (and have to answer all the complaints), and we just don’t have good cheap bulk batteries yet, and hydro power in the eastern US is scarce and extremely difficult to build new. That leaves number four. That’s it.

  4. Jim, you talk about the “marked difference in tone.” Of course. There’s politics in there also. Dominion is still pointing fingers at those who put them into this bind and trying to keep the pressure on to make the regulators make a decision. But at the same time, they don’t want customers panicked. Most of the time, they should be able to muddle through.

    In my experience the thing that keeps their planners awake at night is the potential loss of a major existing transmission line into the Peninsula. Since the existing lines are filled to capacity, the loss of even a small one can push the situation over the edge. In this regard it’s very like road congestion. Maybe the interstate highway is OK, but that traffic light malfunction over on old US 1 has a spillover effect and now I 95 is gridlocked too. What takes out a highway long term is a bridge failure; and the analogous grid failure is loss of a major substation transformer. When a transformer fails, the only thing you can do is replace it, and that requires that (1) you have a spare, and (2) you can quickly mount the logistical effort required to move TWO house-sized pieces of extremely heavy equipment — the first to clear the site (the old transformer usually goes back to the manufacturer for a rebuild), and the second, to move a replacement perhaps hundreds of miles from some storage yard to the site. Regarding spares, there are critical shortages of some types and utilities commonly lend their spares to each other. Worst case, you have to wait for a new one to be delivered from overseas. So, all this can take a few days to weeks to fix. During THAT sort of event, there really could be daily rotating “blackouts,” and some very upset customers.

  5. LarrytheG Avatar

    rather than shut down power to a bunch of people.. how about shutting down power to water heaters and air conditioners… ?

    this is a common practice already with many rural electric cooperatives.

    over and over – what this shakes out to me – is what Dominion wants to do and what it won’t do .. rather than what are possible options that actually would work.

    It’s just more corporate arrogance coming from a bunch of yahoo types who simply are overplaying their hand. Dominion needs a couple of face slaps..

  6. CleanAir&Water Avatar

    “the long run, we disagree that renewables alone can displace the need for lots of fossil-fired baseload generation.”

    I am not sure how I see the future grid … it will be turned upside down by on-site and micro-grid generation and efficient buildings … but I know that VA has so far to go that putting current investment dollars into fossil power today is wrong. We have only begun to build solar and haven’t looked at storage. Utility electrical efficiency savings as a percentage of retail sales in Virginia was zero in 2014. … A statewide goal of creating efficient buildings could avoid 25TWh of electricity generation in 2030, “ (ACEEE) AND Dominion refused to use federal monies to build 2 pilot windmills even though VA offshore wind potential is 4th best among the states.
    Instead of unproven hydro in the mine shafts we need to be moving toward a proven clean energy future.

    “if he builds a generator to help supply the load in the evening he knows these days he can’t run it as much in the daytime to recover his investment because all that solar will undercut it in the market during the bright sun hours.”

    Our old monopoly regulation of “build more – sell more – make more” must be changed.
    I have also written about the synergy of offshore wind and solar to meet peak demand. The costs will come down as the industry is built. Those 2 windmills could have shown the way.

    “But, these require time” … If the line is OK’d by the Corps of Engineers, it will take less than 2 years to build.

    Tesla and Edison sealed the deal on the Mira Loma project in September as part of a state-mandated effort to compensate for the hobbled Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility. They fired up the batteries in December.

    The facility at the utility’s Mira Loma substation in Ontario contains nearly 400 Tesla PowerPack units on a 1.5-acre site, which can store enough energy to power 2,500 homes for a day or 15,000 homes for four hours. The utility will use the collection of lithium-ion batteries, which look like big white refrigerators, to gather electricity at night and other off-peak hours so that the electrons can be injected back into the grid when power use jumps.

    Hanging on to old solutions isn’t the way to go when huge changes are happening to the structure of the industry.

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