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.