Reliability, Clean Energy, and an Aging Grid

Concerns about the reliability of the U.S. electricity supply has popped into the news headlines recently. The problem isn’t terrorists or cyber-attacks, it’s the inability of electric grid to handle routine challenges. Earlier this month, a transformer fire in Manhattan knocked out electric power to about 73,000 customers. On the West Coast, PG&E is spending $2.3 billion to fix a backlog of deficiencies in its transmission and distribution system that contributed to the record outbreak of wild fires in California last year. Meanwhile, the company has announced its intention to preemptively turn off power on vulnerable circuits to limit wildfire risk.

The American Society of Civil Engineers gave U.S. energy infrastructure a D+ grade in its 2017 infrastructure report card. States the 2017 Infrastructure Report Card:

Most electric transmission and distribution lines were constructed in the 1950s and 1960s with a 50-year life expectancy, and the more than 640,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines in the lower 48 states’ power grids are at full capacity. … Without greater attention to aging equipment, capacity bottlenecks, and increased demand, as well as increasing storm and climate impacts, Americans will likely experience longer and more frequent power interruptions.

Aside from the issue of aging infrastructure, the transition from the electric power system from traditional fuel sources to renewable energy sources will put the grid under increasing strain. James B. Meigs lays out the problem in the City Journal:

Utilities need to supply their customers with the precise amount of power demanded at any moment. If the utility generates too much electricity, equipment can be damaged; too little, and consumers face brownouts and blackouts. Over decades, utilities have developed elaborate methods to manage supply and demand, often by buying extra power from neighboring utilities or by selling off the excess in times of oversupply. …

But the coming wave of alternative-energy sources will make such challenges exponentially harder. Today, most power plants exist fairly close to the customers who need electricity. But no one is proposing paving Central Park with solar panels or installing massive wind farms in Westchester County. The solar and wind facilities that [New York Governor Andrew] Cuomo envisions powering the state’s future will lie hundreds of miles from the areas of highest demand—or even offshore. Transmitting all that power across long distances is a huge challenge, especially since wind and solar don’t produce electricity according to when consumers demand it. They generate power only when the weather permits.

In California and other regions with large solar energy capacities, utilities often cope with too much power on sunny afternoons. In some cases, California pays nearby states to take unneeded power off its hands. But solar energy production wanes in the early evening, just as people are coming home and turning on their air conditioners and appliances. That means that these systems suddenly need more power from conventional sources, such as gas-fired power plants. … Utilities must struggle, not just to generate additional power, but also to juggle rapid shifts between different power sources, many located hundreds of miles apart. All this puts strain on a distribution network never designed for such electrical gymnastics.

The growth in home-rooftop solar installations complicates matters further. Unlike power plants, these “distributed sources” feed rapidly varying amounts of electricity back into the grid from thousands of locations. According to a Department of Energy study, “managing a grid with increasing amounts of customer-sited variable generation increases wear and tear on the distribution equipment required to maintain voltage and frequency within acceptable limits and to manage excessive heating of transformers during reverse power flow.” In other words, some of the same issues that have caused previous blackouts—equipment overheating during periods of peak demand—are likely to get worse as solar power expands.

Solar and wind are the energy sources of the future. Hopefully, one day we will achieve the energy utopia of an electric grid built 100% on solar, wind, and battery storage. But getting from A (the present) to B (energy nirvana) is tricky.

The transition is well underway in Virginia, but many people are unhappy with the speed and circumstances with which it is occurring. We could embrace clean fuels more aggressively, they say. We should do so in such a way that doesn’t line the pockets of Virginia’s investor-owned utilities. We should not make long-term investments in pipelines and fossil-fuel generating plants that might be rendered obsolete by advances in clean-energy technology.

These arguments have merit. But they must be balanced here in Virginia with the necessity of maintaining reliable service. Our economy becomes more dependent upon electricity with each passing day. Not only do we need electricity to power our lights, HVAC systems, and appliances, we need electricity to run the internet, without which our economy ceases to function. As electric vehicles become more ubiquitous, we will need electricity to power our transportation as well. With this increasing dependence, prolonged interruptions to electric service will no longer be an inconvenience and hassle, they will cause wrenching economic disruption and hardship. Without electricity our civilization literally ceases to function.

PJM, manager of the regional transmission organization of which Virginia is a part, says the existing transmission system can comfortably accommodate up to 30% renewable energy. At present, going beyond that point will create reliability issues. Doing so will require a multibillion-dollar investment in re-tooling Virginia’s transmission and distribution system, and it will require building or upgrading transmission and distribution lines in places where people don’t want them. Our dysfunctional regulatory/legal system, with its endless appeals, ensures that such projects will take years to work through the system.

That’s why we should let California, New York and other states pioneer the rush toward short-term goals of 50% or more renewable electricity. As the saying goes, you can tell the pioneers — they’re the ones with the arrows sticking in their backs. Let others push the envelope in transforming the grid, let them suffer the consequence of their miscalculations, and let Virginia learn from their mistakes. It may take us a decade or two longer to reach a 100% green grid, but I’m happy to avoid the risk of catastrophic failure.

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19 responses to “Reliability, Clean Energy, and an Aging Grid

  1. You have raised many important issues, but also some misleading ones.

    You say, “Unlike power plants, these “distributed sources” feed rapidly varying amounts of electricity back into the grid from thousands of locations. According to a Department of Energy study, “managing a grid with increasing amounts of customer-sited variable generation increases wear and tear on the distribution equipment required to maintain voltage and frequency within acceptable limits and to manage excessive heating of transformers during reverse power flow.”

    It is true that establishing a two-way flow of energy and information will require modifications in our distribution system. But this must be done anyway to modernize our distribution grid into a digitally controlled system instead of the one we have today that is reliant on up to 60 year-old electro-mechanical equipment.

    You say that “The transition is well underway in Virginia.” Unfortunately, this is not accurate.

    Despite its name, the Grid Transformation and Security Act contains very few projects that actually upgrade our grid. The undergrounding projects are “hardening” projects, not grid modernization. SCC studies show that many of the projects will have negligible effect on system reliability. However, they will contribute significantly to utility profitability. The smartmeter program will benefit the utility by reducing its cost and increasing its profits, but the way it is being implemented will have little benefit to customers.

    Much of what is described in the article you quote assumes that the future grid will be a more digital version of the large brittle grid that has evolved over the past century. Many of the control devices are not standard or interoperable which will make software-enabled reporting and control more difficult.

    The article assumes that most renewable generation will be central station-like, just as is the current conventional generation. This is the wrong design to extend into the future. It is less reliable and more expensive than the network design using distributed systems that mimics the high reliability of computer networks. PJM says the existing transmission system can comfortably accommodate up to 30% renewable energy. But this assumes that most of the solar development will be at utility-scale, because that is what the utilities are telling PJM.

    This wastes many of the benefits of distributed solar, including higher reliability. But utilities make more money building more transmission even if it does create choke points (increased congestion) by requiring the movement of large amounts of power over long-distances.

    Smaller, distributed generation creates less variation than large chunks of conventional generation. Demand is always changing. It is harder to follow by varying big chunks of generation. Modern Enphase inverters used with the latest solar panels can provide voltage and frequency control within the distribution system that helps stabilize those variations and lowers customer costs.

    It is possible that more generation might be needed to transition to electric vehicles. But this discounts the improvements in energy efficiency and the fact that it is likely that fewer vehicles will move more people than is the case today. It also ignores that EVs will provide a source of cheap storage. It is already included in the price of the car. This will lower the cost of EV ownership (getting paid to store and discharge energy) and will provide many benefits for the more flexible and responsive operation of the grid.

    We will not be well-served if we put a digital band-aid over an out-moded system design. Many of the new proposals are being driven by what currently earns the utilities the most profits or old regional rivalries.

    For example, California’s situation could be remedied by a more robust interconnection with Oregon and Washington. Cheap excess solar power could be sent to the Northwest during the day, and hydro power from the Northwest could be imported into California to assist with the evening peaks after solar output declines. There are some practical considerations such as dam flow affecting fisheries, etc. But a lot of it has to do with the facts that folks in Oregon and Washington don’t like being told what to do by Californians.

    California will probably solve the issue themselves as declining battery costs are already displacing new gas-fired peaking units.

    If we keep our demand stable, we don’t need more generation and our current transmission connections will serve us just fine. Especially as we add more distributed resources such as local solar and storage.

    • Tom, everything you say is consistent with my argument that Virginia needs to invest heavily to modernize its grid if we are to move more aggressively into renewables. It may be true — I don’t know, but I’m willing to accept your assertion for purposes of argument — that we are not investing enough in flexible grid capabilities and too much in other things, such as smart meters and grid hardening. But we need to change direction before we plunge into an all-renewables electric system. Right now, you’re the main person I hear arguing for a more flexible grid. Where are the op-eds and blog posts and political rallies supporting a bigger investment for two-way transformers?

      • Jim, I think we are in general agreement. But my emphasis was slightly different.

        It is not renewables that are driving the need for grid modernization in Virginia. We are not developing renewables here in a big way compared to other states. Dominion has successfully slowed the independent development of renewables in the distribution system that would benefit from grid modernization. They are proposing only large utility-scale systems connected at the transmission level. Our current system will handle that type of development, although it will be more expensive for ratepayers.

        No utility or policymaker is proposing moving towards a high-penetration of renewables in Virginia, as many other states are doing. Our legislation and regulation is encouraging the opposite – a high percentage of gas-fired, and soon to be very expensive nuclear generation, with new solar mostly in the ratebase at great customer expense.

        Very little in our current plan is moving us towards the modern, modular, more reliable grid that you are suggesting. It is as though Virginia is investing a great deal in old internal combustion engine vehicles while other states are putting their resources towards building EVs.

        We will spend a lot of money here for unnecessary projects and a gold-plated but still brittle grid.

        Smart meters can provide benefits if the information is readily available to customers to optimize their energy use. We are not implementing them in that fashion here. They primarily serve the interests of the utility.

        We can do a lot better than that. It doesn’t have to be the utilities against their customers. The right schemes should be good for all. But that is not our current mindset. The more we delay, the more our money and opportunities are wasted.

        We have talented people in our utilities. They need the proper guidance and clear regulations to build the type of energy system that serves us better and provides them with a fair return. Currently, they are mostly padding their profits. Families, businesses and our state economy will pay a heavy price for that.

      • A couple of brief points in response to you, Jim:

        “We need to change direction before we plunge into an all-renewables electric system.” Change direction how? We cannot go “all-renewables” without massive and massively-expensive storage capabilities and that is not likely to happen in our lifetimes. But a much higher percentage renewables? Yes, that’s likely, and already happening. That’s the natural evolution of the grid, which has already evolved tremendously since the first large scale interconnections between utility systems in the mid-20th century. That evolution is mostly driven by economics, not “green” fashions (though the latter have helped get political support for some subsidies and mandates, not always wise). This evolution is a gradual process that is naturally accompanied by all the build-out of controls and safety equipment and transmission/substation upgrades necessary to stay in compliance with NERC reliability criteria. No “change of direction” is needed.

        “Right now, you’re the main person I hear arguing for a more flexible grid. Where are the op-eds and blog posts and political rallies supporting a bigger investment for two-way transformers?” This comment merely shows you’ve been suckered by the DOM “grid modernization” publicity campaign, which has manufactured a “grid crisis” to support its own desire to add to Virginia Power’s retail rate base. The only crisis out there (and it’s a public relations crisis, not a management crisis) is on the lower voltage distribution system where lots of undergrounding will help with storm restoration times and elsewhere on the distribution system where pockets of retail load growth (e.g., those Loudoun data centers) and generation retirements (e.g., Yorktown) require localized upgrades. The “bigger investment for two-way transformers” is exaggerated, misleading DOM hype! Every transformer works in two directions automatically; that’s basic physics! What Dominion is doing is rebuilding a lot of the associated switchgear and breakers in its distribution substations to better accommodate the future possibility of net-positive customer generation, where a distribution line actually reverses flow back into the grid (a rare occurrence today, when the customers on a distribution line nearly always draw much more from the grid than the few with their own generation pump back into it). That equipment isn’t cheap but it’s far less expensive than the transformers themselves, and is routinely upgraded in the normal course of business anyway. That kind of reverse flow also requires more expensive changes in the higher voltage transmission substations that supply those distribution lines — many of which substations have already been upgraded to accommodate the net output from DOM’s and independent generators already connected to the grid. Again, if done routinely as facilities are upgraded this is evolutionary change, nothing radical, nothing like the sudden crisis it’s been hyped up to be to support DOM’s “grid modernization” political initiatives. I know of no other utility in the PJM mid-Atlantic region that is carrying on about distribution “grid modernization” like DOM is.

  2. Jim, you ask where is all the discussion about a distributed grid? Almost ½ of state utilities are still regulated as central generation monopolies. As Tom has often told us … it is not in the utilitys’ interests to reduce sales with efficient buildings or on-site generation when their rates and profits depend on increased capital investments and more sales. All of the papers that deal with the changing structure of the grid end up saying that basic regulatory change will be required.

    That said … here are some papers for you …
    http://gridlab.org/works/modernizing-south-carolina/
    http://gridlab.org/works/modernizing-virginia/
    AND here is a write up of the Brooklyn Microgrid … or a mini non-utility generator
    https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/a-microgrid-grows-in-brooklyn/

    I would like to see Dominion at least putting up pilots and talking to the Legislature about a redesign of their incentives, but it ain’t happening. From stuff I read Georgia and SC are grappling with the future. VA is not.

  3. so out here in Oregon, this is what I am seeing on the hills abutting the Columbia Gorge:

    My wife says that each one will serve 700 or more houses in an area where houses are in the dozens not hundreds so these guys are feeding into the grid – and obviously they vary depending on the wind.

    It’s likely these turbines are successfully feeding the grid which is successfully pushing that power to Portland and other places on the grid that need lots of power.

    We keep talking like upgrading the grid is a “problem” instead of an opportunity… so I guess it might depend on one’s point of view.

    One interesting thing – hundreds, probably thousands of wind turbines on the high escarpment but nary a solar panel. curious.

    • As an environmentalist, I fully support the development of sustainable energy. That said, these wind turbines sure are ugly and spoil the views. As in most areas, there are trade offs. At least they are not as unsightly as high voltage transmission lines. And it sure would be nice if they could all be put out to sea where they can’t be seen, rather than on mountain tops.

      • Dick, in the long run putting them out to sea, on the continental shelf, is where they should be. And the developers know it; the wind strength and duration at all these locations on land and at sea has been measured and mapped by DOE and the developers all know where the max wind revenue can be earned: over open water. And there’s the added benefit of less citizen opposition to them. But locating them well offshore obviously imposes three burdens: higher capital cost to build them out there in 50 ft or so of water with hurricane-force-wind survival built in, the cost of the transmission line(s) from there to the nearest on-shore transmission substation with the capability to receive all that power, and the extra cost of at sea maintenance by boat and barge crane (with the attendant cost of on-land support facilities, dock, boat maintenance etc). There are economies of scale if enough owners pool their resources to build out there; so when ocean wind generation takes off, it will likely do so in a big way. Meanwhile, a trip out Corridor H in West Virginia, around Mt. Storm, shows what an on-land cluster of mountaintop wind generators looks like.

  4. The Columbia River Gorge creates a venturi effect by narrowing the path of the wind, thus increasing its velocity. Wind energy is a result of the cube of the wind velocity. So if you can double the wind speed, you increase the electricity produced by eight times (2 x 2 x 2). The earliest wind farms were developed in the narrow, high mountain passes in California for the same reason.

    If you spend a longer period of time in the Northwest you will notice that it is often overcast and drizzling on the west coast where most of the population is.

    If you go east, on the dry rain-shadow side, it is sunnier but there are not many people there because the land is not as fertile and they are not near the ports that facilitate getting goods to market. The Northwest is also blessed with low electricity rates because of all of the hydro. So it takes longer to pay off solar facilities (less output because of less sunshine and less savings because of the low rates).

  5. TomH is right on target, Jim. Highlights: “Much of what is described in the article you quote assumes that the future grid will be a more digital version of the large brittle grid that has evolved over the past century. . . . Smaller, distributed generation creates less variation than large chunks of conventional generation. . . . Very little in our current [DOM] plan is moving us towards the modern, modular, more reliable grid that you are suggesting. . . . We will spend a lot of money here for unnecessary projects and a gold-plated but still brittle grid.”

  6. Fine. We need a more flexible, less brittle grid in Virginia. I agree. But this is an issue the public does not understand. Where are the white papers? Where are the legislative proposals? Where are the media rollouts, the rallies, the demonstrations, and the op-eds?

    My point is a simple one: It seems reckless to hurtle toward a predominantly renewable energy future — shutting down coal plants, nixing nuclear plant extensions, restricting natural gas pipelines — without making damn sure we have an electric grid that can handle more solar and wind.

    • Thanks for common sense, Jim, a rare commodity these days.

      Are you noticing rolling brown outs there in Richmond, today? I am here on far side of the Chesapeake Bay. I suspect these rolling brown outs are happening across much of the nation today. All because the temperatures are going into the 90s.

      Question –

      Where would we all be electricity wise on this very day, if we had followed the “expert advice” of our green energy friends over the past two decades. We’d be in crisis mode today, that is where – in the dark without power, trying madly to crawl back down off the far end of a limb collapsing into the Stone Age – a turbo charged version of what’s happened to Germany recently, but far worse.

      Why are these green people so blithely irresponsible with other people’s money and future, including their neighbors?

      • Reed, this heat wave will not be a test of the generation resources of the PJM grid — there is plenty of generating capacity out there within the 12-state PJM operating region, unlike in other parts of the world and even in other parts of the US where brownouts during extreme weather-driven consumption do occur (e.g., California in 2000). What is possible in PJM and the other eastern grid regions is a sudden transmission interruption due to a heat-caused transformer explosion or line-sag ground fault. The grid operator tries to isolate the effects of such an event within the local transmission grid area but sometimes one failure cascades into many, and if there aren’t enough alternative resources immediately ready to take the resulting sudden load transfers then a regional blackout can occur, as happened in 2003 in the Northeast. This probably isn’t what you had in mind.

  7. Also cost. The public is being told renewables are far cheaper than fossil fuels, and getting exponentially cheaper every day. Of course, I am not buying it (the cheapness argument, thst is). This article challenges that narrartive.

  8. Jim, you say “It seems reckless to hurtle toward a predominantly renewable energy future — shutting down coal plants, nixing nuclear plant extensions, restricting natural gas pipelines — without making damn sure we have an electric grid that can handle more solar and wind.”

    This is where we have a disconnect. Virginia is not hurtling towards a predominately renewable energy future. We are already building more generation than we need to meet our demand. Most of this has been with gas-fired generation that has environmental consequences and exposure to fuel price increases.

    Our major utility is already spending money it expects to get back to renew the licenses of four nuclear units that expire from 2032 to 2040. Strictly from a cost of energy standpoint, the refurbished nuclear units will provide energy at several times the cost of available alternatives. PJM has a significant surplus of capacity that could be purchased under contract to meet short- to intermediate-term needs at a far lower cost if some portion of the capacity of these units is still required. But doing so misses the huge profit potential of putting the refurbished nuclear units in the ratebase.

    Coal plants are being shutdown because they cannot be upgraded to meet current air quality regulations and the standards required to clear PJM’s capacity auction. Besides Dominion makes much more profit by shutting them down and building new units that might not be necessary for their full operational life, but we will pay for anyway.

    Natural gas pipelines are not being restricted. Existing pipelines that serve Virginia and the Carolinas have already been expanded by over 4 million Dth/d. The new pipelines (ACP and MVP) just duplicate this capacity, but cost a whole lot more to use. The demand from traditional gas uses and new power plants will be less than expected when the first 4 million Dth/d was approved.

    The new pipelines were intended to serve the same demand as the expansions to the existing pipelines. FERC used the same justification to approve multiple pipelines. Saying don’t build the unnecessary ones does not result in a lack of supply. It just avoids adding billions to energy bills in Virginia for no good reason (except profit for the developers).

    Dominion is treating solar and wind as just another central station power source. Output from these sources can be accurately predicted well in advance. Variations from large solar and wind installations are less of a shock to the grid than unplanned shutdowns of conventional generation. PJM is already equipped to handle those.

    Dominion adds profits for building the transmission necessary to attach the utility-scale renewables to the grid. The more flexible grid upgrades that you discuss are not urgent with this approach. This type of development will create an overall grid that is still susceptible to large-scale outages.

    Having solar and storage located in the distribution grid is what requires more sophistication and flexibility in our grid. Having numerous distributed energy resources in the distribution grid works best when it is designed to accommodate two-way flows of energy and information.

    It takes money to upgrade the grid in this fashion, but it also saves money by adding resiliency, reliability, and reducing transmission and distribution congestion. Numerous studies show that the development of solar and storage within the distribution grid reduces costs, even after making the upgrades to accommodate it. ConEd in New York is avoiding a $1 billion substation project by making local grid modifications to enable local solar, storage and energy efficiency projects.

    Rather than recognizing the benefits to the grid and the potential to lower customer costs from these types of projects, we in Virginia have passed laws to obstruct their development. Added costs for demand charges, fixed charges, etc. for customer-sited solar projects in Virginia will add 70% to the payback time for local solar projects.

    By limiting the use of distributed energy resources because they threaten utility profits, we have dramatically reduced the need for the type of grid improvements that you advocate.

    Dominion Energy Virginia is making steady progress with upgrading substations and adding new grid management technology and software. But the the overarching policy is being directed by the parent company, Dominion Energy, which favors a grid and generation program that maximizes profits.

    There are few public discussions, or legislative proposals (that go anywhere) because our state energy policy is largely determined by our major utilities that benefit by maintaining the status quo.

    I don’t think that position will be good for them either in the long-run. But corporate policy is mostly determined by near-term shareholder returns.

  9. Tom,
    I wish your analyses and the documentation for them (which I am sure you have) would be made available to a wider public audience, particularly the members of the General Assembly. Of course, as I say that, I realize that few of them would take the time to read or think about them. I wrote to my delegate and Senator, as well as the challenger for the Senate seat, about how Dominion was getting ready to stiff us on the project in Tazewell, attaching copies of the analyses set out on this blog. So far, only the challenger has responded to my e-mail.

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