Reliability, Resilience and a 100% Renewable Electric Grid

by James A. Bacon

California is getting a vivid lesson on the trade-offs between sustainability and reliability of the electric grid. Pacific Gas & Electric has taken the extraordinary action of cutting off electric power to 700,000 customers in California to reduce the risk of sparking forest fires. Many customers could go without power for as long as a week; the prolonged outages could cost customers billions of dollars in lost economic activity. Silicon Valley may have the most advanced technology in the world, but the Golden State increasingly resembles a Third World country. (Don’t get me started on the armies of homeless people.)

Virginians need to take notice. Virginia is not California, and Dominion and Appalachian Power Co. are not PG&E. … not now. What is happening in California will not be replicated here. But in our determination to build a “sustainable” zero-carbon grid, other equally horrendous scenarios are possible if we fail to pay sufficient attention to electric reliability.

PG&E filed for bankruptcy this year after being held liable for billions in damages and the loss of lives caused by wildfires ignited by poorly maintained electric lines. As a Wall Street Journal editorial summarizes the train of events:

For years the utility skimped on safety upgrades and repairs while pumping billions into green energy and electric-car subsidies to please its overlords in Sacramento. Credit Suisse has estimated that long-term contracts with renewable developers cost the utility $2.2 billion annually more than current market power rates.

PG&E customers pay among the highest rates in America. But the utility says inspecting all of its 100,000 or so miles of power lines and clearing dangerous trees would require rates to increase by more than 400%. California’s litigation-friendly environment has also increased insurance rates for tree trimmers and made it hard to find workers.

Meantime, opposition to logging and prescribed burns in California’s forests compounded by a seven-year drought has yielded 147 million dead trees that make for combustible fuel. Rural communities are at especially high fire risk when winds kick up as they have this week.

Wild fires aren’t a big problem in Virginia (although they aren’t unknown either). But we have our own challenges such as hurricanes, solar vortexes, and ice storms. Unfortunately, I don’t hear anybody discussing how a zero-carbon grid, which Governor Ralph Northam has identified as a goal by 2050, would hold up under extreme conditions, much less how a zero-carbon, zero-nuclear grid advocated by some environmental groups would fare.

Let us envision what a zero-carbon grid would look like. All coal-fired and gas-fired power plants would be retired. Virginia would rely primarily upon solar power across most of the state, supplemented by what could be the nation’s largest offshore wind farm off the coast of Virginia Beach. Awe have noted ad nauseum on this blog, solar and wind are intermittent power sources that rely upon favorable weather conditions to generate power. Even under ideal conditions, it would be impossible for a solar-dominated electric grid, in which power generation peaks around noon, to meet the electric load that peaks in the late afternoon without extensive energy storage capacity.

Broadly speaking, there are three ways to square the supply of renewable power with the demand for electricity. One is pumped storage, in which excess electricity is used to pump water into a reservoir, which then releases water to generate hydroelectric power when needed. The other is battery storage. There is no technological risk associated with pumped storage, but it is very expensive. Battery storage is far more flexible and responsive, but it is too expensive to shift power supply on a large scale. That may change, but the progress of battery storage technology is uncertain. A third alternative would be to import power from outside Virginia when needed. But that would require a massive expansion of electric transmission capacity — and electric transmission lines, as we all know, are highly unpopular and construction is subject to lengthy regulatory delays.

But let’s assume for purposes of argument that we get all those problems ironed out. The year is 2050. In very rough numbers, 80% of our electricity statewide comes from geographically distributed solar power and 20% from wind power, most of which is highly concentrated off the Virginia coast. Let’s say we have huge banks of electric batteries capable of storing enough electricity to address the daily imbalances in supply and demand and offset intermittent power generation. And let’s say Virginia has upgraded its transmission grid to allow the import of more out-of-state power as back-up. (You can see that there would an extraordinary amount of redundancy built into this system, which would be very expensive, but let’s set aside that issue.)

Now, pick your disaster scenario.

Satellite image of a polar vortex

Satellite image of a polar vortex.

Polar vortex. Every two or three years, a massive blob of Arctic air barrels through Virginia, subjecting the state to four, five, or six days of extreme sub-zero temperatures. Electricity consumption for heating shoots through the roof. But in our zero-carbon/zero-nuclear scenario, there is no nuclear power base-load, and there is no fossil-fuel surge capacity. Polar vortexes often are accompanied by cloudy weather conditions (see photo above) and light winds, and electric generation falls. Electric batteries, configured to meet daily needs under normal conditions, are sucked dry within a few hours. While solar power may be sufficient during a deep-freeze to meet the state’s needs for a couple of hours during the day, there is not enough power to meet peoples’ needs for 24 hours a day — and don’t forget, the days are shorter during the winter — much less replenish the electric batteries. The wind power generated off the Virginia coast is not nearly sufficient (even assuming the wind is blowing like normal) to make up the deficit. Meanwhile, other states in the PJM regional transmission grid are suffering the same challenges and don’t have power to spare, even if Virginia has upgraded its transmission lines. Within a day or two, PJM (which gives orders to Dominion and Apco) has no choice but to order industrial and commercial customers to shed load, preserving electricity for hospitals, water treatment facilities, and other critical infrastructure as well as homes. Even then, there’s no guarantee of sufficient electric power to heat homes 24 hours a day. How many days of this before thousands of people freeze to death?

Category 3 hurricane.  Virginia is vulnerable to hurricanes. We’re not as exposed as some other Atlantic Coast states, such as Florida or North Carolina, but major cyclones does plow through the state every few years. Let’s envision a hurricane like Isabel (seen at right) blasting through the state. First thing that happens: All offshore wind turbines go off-line to protect the blades against high winds. Boom, Virginia loses a big chunk of its electric generating capacity for the duration of the high winds. Meanwhile, extremely heavy cloud cover and heavy rains reduce solar production to a tiny fraction of normal. Electric batteries are quickly drained. Importing electric power from out of state is problematic, especially if high winds knock down transmission lines. The duration of a hurricane is likely to be shorter than a polar vortex, but the disruption to electric power production will be more pronounced. What would the economic impact be if, in addition to the typical hurricane damage of downed power lines, electric generation fell to 10% or so of normal for two days? Then there is the aftermath. Maybe the turbines withstand the pounding of the waves, maybe not. We simply don’t know because the turbines have not been tested for conditions they would experience off the Virginia coast. Maybe solar panels in the thousands of acres of solar farms stand up to hurricane-strength winds, depending upon rigor of the building codes, maybe they don’t. We won’t know until it happens.

Virginia can’t afford to design an electric grid to work 364 days a year. It has to hold up under rare but foreseeable conditions that occur once or twice a decade or we invite catastrophe. Maybe there are work-arounds to these scenarios. Maybe we can build in enough redundancy in a solar/wind/battery grid that we can survive worst-case events. But at what cost, and at what risk? The fact that Virginians can contemplate a 100% renewable grid within 30 years without even asking these questions tells us how we have succumbed to a massive failure of imagination.

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22 responses to “Reliability, Resilience and a 100% Renewable Electric Grid

  1. ” How many days of this before thousands of people freeze to death?

    Really?

    I know this comes as a shock but in a worst case scenario – that nasty old incompetent govt has been known to open up things known as “shelters” so I’m not really buying the “danger Will Robinson, we’re all gonna die” boogeyman to argue against a “goal” which is not at all a dictate that will be imposed on us no matter what.

    Geeze! It’s like Dominion is running amok with FUD – “fear, uncertainty and dread”!!!

    We are going to go forward. We are going to cut electricity use and we are going to use solar and wind – when we can and WITHOUT driving the grid to destruction!

    And… California , despite all the reports of it’s demise – it’s the 5th largest economy – IN THE WORLD! Now how in the world can that be if they are self-destructing with no electricity and the homeless running amok!

  2. All great points. Modern life is all about energy, it is everything, as Californians are understanding in a big way, real time.

    It is important to understand the “Big Picture” as these events unfold. Building Resilience throughout the system is necessary, from the bottom up.

    https://www.postcarbon.org/the-big-picture/

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-california-dream-is-over-what-comes-next/2019/10/10/3ea8b288-eb8e-11e9-9c6d-436a0df4f31d_story.html

  3. I expect in those scenarios that Appalachian will draw upon its considerable fossil generation located outside the Commonwealth, and Dominion will be running its giant Mt. Storm (W.Va.) plant at maximum capacity….allowing the Commonwealth, like Amazon and Facebook, to CLAIM 100% carbon free in-state production, or consumption in the latter 2 cases…..

    Your points are well taken, though, Jim. I just think there are obvious ways this game would be played.

  4. Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We are about to enter the BACON VORTEX ZONE.

    It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area,which we call the BACON VORTEX ZONE.

    In this ZONE, you could be fried, frozen or both at the same time unless big, profit-grubbing utilities get their way with keeping fossil fuel and nuclear plants.

    Some of you may remember the BUDGET DEFICIT ZONE concept that came out in the book “Boomergeddon” that was published about 10 years ago. That was a warning about deficit spending that could leave you frozen, fried or both at the same time.

    But what happened to the BUDGET DEFICIT ZONE? Our unmentionable president, Donald Trump, has blown out our budget by about $300 billion. It is now about $1 trillion. Do you hear anything about this? Probably not.

    So, come back 10 years from this date and let me know if you have been frozen, fried or both at the same time by the BACON VORTEX ZONE.

  5. From here on, will use the acronym BVZ FUD! Thanks Peter!

  6. Some commentary suggests that PG&E since they were sued and went bankrupt is putting the issue to Californians in terms of safe but sorry risk.

    It’s true they have an aged system but all this stuff about them “bowing to the Green poobahs” is just more Conservative dogma about California in general because they believe California represents the radical left in governance, and they are quite sure it will fail because of it – but they cannot reconcile that hope with the fact that California is the 5rh largest economy in the world -up from 7 and 8th so the trend is steady and rising.

    So PG&E is putting it back on California to “decide” if they want electricity AND the risk of fires or no electricity and some are equating PG&E to the same school of imperiousness as Dom!

    California’s climate IS changing. They’ve always had Santa Anna siroccos – but they have become stronger and stronger as multi year droughts and higher temps have ensued.

    • “Some commentary suggests that PG&E since they were sued and went bankrupt is putting the issue to Californians in terms of safe but sorry risk.” PG&E deferred grid maintenance for years, unconscionably, in order to make enough profit to satisfy investors. I think imposing strict liability for the consequent wildfires was an overkill political reaction — and the bankruptcy was predictable and equally unconscionable — but it was going to take something drastic to break the cycle. Now maybe both sides realize there are limits, you can’t have it all your way. In any event this is not Virginia; Dominion does not have a deferred maintenance problem!

  7. Even when I lived out there half a century ago, I remember my father the engineer laughing about the fools who didn’t understand that California is a desert, unsuited to massive human habitation. Last time I was out there, the development out in that desert above San Berdoo up to Edwards AFB was just amazing…I remember signs in that area in the 60s sellling land for $100 an acre….

    Those hills up around SF are dry, also unsuitable for massive housing, yet there it is. People who live there want the scrubby, overgrown landscape which in dry conditions (almost always) means fire danger. This is up to the insurance companies to fix – no rebuilding unless the land is cleared, more water storage built. To the extent this is a regulatory problem, the issue was not saying no to the development in the first place and not demanding that the land be properly cleared and reservoirs built and maintained. You live in dry scrub, you will face regular fires.

    Oh and the CO2 being pumped into the air by those fires is massive, but California the Clueless also claims that as carbon neutral. Interesting LA Times piece:

    https://www.latimes.com/environment/story/2019-10-08/california-must-triple-its-pace-of-emissions-reduction-or-miss-its-2030-climate-goals

  8. “Unfortunately, I don’t hear anybody discussing how a zero-carbon grid, which Governor Ralph Northam has identified as a goal by 2050, would hold up under extreme conditions, much less how a zero-carbon, zero-nuclear grid advocated by some environmental groups would fare.”

    Ralph Northam doesn’t have a plan to get to zero carbon in 2050. As Jim Bacon properly points out … no such plan is possible with the price / performance of today’s technology. Sustainable energy generation depends on intermittent sources and the cost of storing power generated by intermittent sources is too high to be practical.

    At least California set a possibly achievable goal – 40% reduction between 1990 and 2030. They’re not on track to meet that goal but one can imagine the goal possibly being met.

    There’s no way to imagine Northam’s goal being met with existing technology. You have to take a leap of faith regarding (probably) energy storage.

    Whether you like the political leanings of California or not, they have a better plan. 2050 is 31 years away. 31 years ago was 1988. While 2050 may seem like a long way into the future it’s really not that far away. And getting to ZERO carbon is an extreme idea. So, California has a goal that might be met while Virginia has a drunken boast from its governor. Californians will put in extra effort to make their goal while Virginians will put Notham’s ridiculous idea out of their minds since there is nothing they can realistically do to meet Ralphie’s “goal”.

  9. On a more serious note, I did a quick Google search of PG&E. I could find no evidence linking spending for new renewables with the poor maintenance that led to the wildfires last year that led to bankruptcy and blackouts. The only evidence offered is a WSJ editorial and since it is a WSJ editorial, it has a credibility discount.
    What I did find is a strong history of mismanagement at PG&E over many years. They’ve had blackouts before — inn 2001, before renewables were really on the table. They have long had big issues with maintenance and suffered a deadly natural gas pipeline blast not long ago because of it. The firm is 33 percent renewable with significant amounts from gas or nukes. So what’s the link?
    BTW, I will admit that Dominion seems better managed but in 1979 I did a story for the Pilot quoting a Department of Energy official saying that DOE had worries about rolling brown outs at VEPCO, Dominion’s precursor. VEPCO had badly managed its two nuke stations.

  10. California has cheap hydro power imports from the Pacific Northwest and Hoover Dam, for one thing. For a second thing Ca. has a very mild climate.

    I am (slowly) working on a methodology to normalize state-by-state carbon footprint to an equal basis, correcting for difference in climate etc. But the 50 states do have not have equal-opportunity for zero carbon. Some states would have more issues reaching that. Virginia would have to go full out off-shore wind, nuclear, and imports of power.

    Right now the main thing we face here is that Gov Northam, and Hampton Roads would like to pursue an all-out committment for offshore wind due to the jobs creation at the ports. But Offshore wind is a very expensive energy source, and Dominion likes to charge a big profit margin on top of that that. I am not necessarily opposed to offshore wind but I do not want to be victim of outrageous high costs for superfluous grid upgrades and/or energy generation.

  11. The signature message from all this pie-in-the-sky “Green Do-Good-ism” is the inherent impracticality and therefore hypocrisy in much of it. And it’s long-term stuff — 30-50 years out. That leads to lousy short term political decision-making towards unrealistic goals, likely to be abandoned before we ever got close.

    Leaning on other states for their fossil generation in emergencies is the prime example of that hypocrisy. I’m with Rowinguy on that one. If the goal is to minimize carbon output in realistic ways on a realistic timeframe, then, yes Virginia, there will be a lot of solar and wind power in your future (with all that implies aesthetically) and it won’t be 100% “green” — but it will have some nuclear and some high-efficiency natural gas cycling units in the mix and it will be cost-effective and reliable. And if there’s a cheap battery technology revolution out there soon, we can back off the natural gas percentage. Let the experts at the SCC figure out the details. The GA needs to moderate the public’s impetuousness, not stoke it!

    Jim, your scenarios are generally right on, but two minor observations:
    First, the transmission grid today is in pretty good shape as far as Virginia is concerned. The constraints, in the polar vortex situation, would generally be finding enough working generation anywhere in the East and Midwest, and moving enough imports from the South-central states (the transmission grid is weaker from that direction towards PJM).
    Second, a hurricane can do a lot of damage to solar collectors, as illustrated in Puerto Rico, but the better designed ones survived; and wind turbines have a pretty good history of survival in the North Sea, one of the toughest maritime environments anywhere with hurricane force conditions not at all uncommon. I’d be more concerned about having a reliable mix of generation to weather the storm than about damage to the equipment.

    • Re: Regarding carbon footprint from Imports
      Hypocrisy is one explanation, but also divide and conquer strategy by environmentalsits. If you accept that carbon footprint must be reduced, then you may accept the correlary that every pin-point on the map should cap CO2 at today’s amount and go to zero from there. Therefore no town or locality or state can build a new power plant because that would violate the premise that every pin pont on the map must go down in CO2 and CO2 and can never go up, anywhere, no matter how small you draw the boundary.

  12. “Even under ideal conditions, it would be impossible for a solar-dominated electric grid, in which power generation peaks around noon, to meet the electric load that peaks in the late afternoon without extensive energy storage capacity.”

    Yes, but we know that offshore wind and solar combined can almost do the job and with storage might make it …. As the sun goes down, the wind comes up. Several studies make this point.

    “The OWE resource in the region from VA-to-ME that is coincident with peak-time electricity demand was studied in detail, with inter-annual variability characterized.” The study analyzed data for 4-5 years throughout the region. OSW could provide could provide all of the peak-time electricity demand except for summer when it could provide 74% of peak demand.
    NB. Turbines are tested for hurricane levels for Virginia north to ME.

    “import power from outside Virginia when needed. But that would require a massive expansion of electric transmission capacity — and electric transmission lines, as we all know, are highly unpopular and construction is subject to lengthy regulatory delays.”

    From the Solutions Project out of Stanford … They see we can produce all we need, but the caveat here is that Virginia and Dominion do not buy into is the reduction of demand. “Solutions” see a 42% demand reduction potential. Certainly, we are in the bottom half of states addressing demand reductions, which includes third party on-site generation. The Reg problem!

    In 2050 Virginia Solutions does not see majority solar … nowhere close to 80%. They see our offshore wind as the primary generator at 50% with an additional 10% coming from onshore wind. Solar can provide a little over 30% generation coming from the variety of solar … solar plants at 25.5% and residential an commercial and government rooftop providing 7.7%. They add 1.3% hydro and the rest from a variety of other sources.

    “Now, pick your disaster scenario.”

    Take a look at the analysis from Grid Lab for Virginia. Our grid might be in good shape for the old system but the spending proposals are primarily focused on traditional ‘hardening’ which looks to improve reliability measurement by 1-4 minutes. “Under-grounding and hardening offer very low benefits per dollar,” yet the plans are for $1.5 billion ‘hardening’ over 10 years.

    Dominion is planning to spend a lot of money, but is not planning a new energy system. That is going to cost us … in many ways. It is all about the REG problem!

    • “As the sun goes down, the wind comes up. Several studies make this point.” — Are those East Coast studies; and in what seasons? My experience around here (coastal/Mobjack Bay) is that the prevailing summer pattern is a daily “sea-breeze” from the south/southwest, which dies off around 5pm to dead calm. Yes I know I’m not 50 miles offshore but the watermen tell me, that pattern holds true further off the coast as well. Even when the wind is not from the south I’m not aware of any uptick in wind speeds around sunset.

      Completely agree about the poor penetration of on-site generation particularly solar. But that has traditionally done better in areas with higher retail rates (that gets small businesses thinking about how to cut electric bills), and utility commissions that push for promotion of energy savings generally (e.g. New England, Mid-Atlantic). Now that Virginia’s rates are climbing fast and the GA is going bluer, maybe the SCC will get on board and push for onsite gen. in Virginia, too.

      • Acbar – most Virginians cannot afford on-site electric generation. Moving customers off-grid, so to speak, will leave the massive overheads to be recovered by smaller-volume customers. I doubt our great regulation laws will protect against this.

        • And it sure will be massive overheads when Dominion gets finished with their “resilience and reliability ” improvements. Building microgrids in NY has saved millions that would be required to upgrade
          substations.

          Most Virginians could afford onsite generation if the state provided help setting up energy loans which can be done with PACE as is underway in Arlington, and several others are copying, or with ‘on-bill- financing. The payback is such that the decrease in utility bills covers the cost with some left over. A Greenbank would support distributed generation by on-site owners.

          Customers are not moved ‘off the grid;’ and with the appropriate grid software their generation feeds the working of the grid.

          Thing is cutting central generation means lowered profits the way are regs are now configured.

      • Sure would be nice to see the SCC start talking about DER …
        and about the wind… Here is the first source that I read years ago and have seen replicated several times. One study was done for NY’s peak time match just a year or two ago.
        https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/we.1524
        The study is pretty exhaustive and uses lots of data. The conclusion …”with the exception of summer all peak time demand for Virginia to Maine can be satisfied with OWE in the waters off those states.”

  13. From W.T. Sherman’s Memoirs discussing the years 1847-48 when he was stationed in California, “The seasons in California are well marked. About October and November the rains begin, and the whole country, plains and mountains, becomes covered with a bright-green grass, with endless flowers. The intervals between the rains give the finest weather possible. These rains are less frequent in March, and cease altogether in April and May, when gradually the grass dies and the whole aspect of things changes, first to yellow, then to brown, and by midsummer all is burnt up and dry as an ashheap.”

  14. TMT — you are quite right, departing customers would make it worse for those left behind. But the only, the ultimate, constraint on Dominion is the marketplace. Dominion customers can minimize their consumption by shifting what they can to other energy sources (mainly natural gas), or generating for themselves, or pressuring the GA to bring back “retail access” for all. Generating for yourself is frankly practical only for commercial customers, unless you want to be one of those pioneers placing a solar system on your home’s roof (I think there could and should be a lot more of that around here; Dominion gives it only lip service and opposes facilitation by third parties). Jane talks about “microgrids” but the fact is, that’s another form of self generation, only collectively organized, and currently a violation of incumbent utilities’ exclusive territorial franchises in Virginia (just like retail access, from a legal perspective).

    So we’re left with, bring back legal retail access if you want real market pressure on Dominion. One thing about retail access is that the wires and billing costs are segregated and the retail customer continues to pay those regardless of supplier. So no shifting of those overheads to other customers, only the generation costs are shifted.

  15. “PG&E customers pay among the highest rates in America. But the utility says inspecting all of its 100,000 or so miles of power lines and clearing dangerous trees would require rates to increase by more than 400%.”

    A few more words about CA from the Green Granny …

    Some years ago a fire tore through north San Diego, destroying more than 1,000 homes and killing two people, after sparking power lines ignited chaparral-covered hillsides. The San Diego utility responded by pumping more than $1 billion into improvements. It buried some power lines and insulated others, and broke its power network into smaller microgrids that can be shut off in smaller segments when there is a need to isolate neighborhoods with the highest risk of fire.

    To its credit, California is working in many ways on reshaping its grid to incorporate microgrids. The California Energy Commission has invested more than one-hundred million dollars to jumpstart microgrid development. And the Public Utilities Commission has begun considering regulations to further support microgrids, in keeping with a law passed in 2018.

    So, yeah, pick your disaster but in the end the future means more DER and that is not happening in VA.

  16. “PG&E customers pay among the highest rates in America. But the utility says inspecting all of its 100,000 or so miles of power lines and clearing dangerous trees would require rates to increase by more than 400%.”

    A few more words about CA from the Green Granny …

    Some years ago a fire tore through north San Diego, destroying more than 1,000 homes and killing two people, after sparking power lines ignited chaparral-covered hillsides. The San Diego utility responded by pumping more than $1 billion into improvements. It buried some power lines and insulated others, and broke its power network into smaller microgrids that can be shut off in smaller segments when there is a need to isolate neighborhoods with the highest risk of fire.

    To its credit, California is working in many ways on reshaping its grid to incorporate microgrids and requiring residential solar on new homes. The California Energy Commission has invested more than one-hundred million dollars to jumpstart microgrid development. And the Public Utilities Commission has begun considering regulations to further support microgrids, in keeping with a law passed in 2018.

    So, yeah, pick your disaster but in the end the future means more DER and that is not happening in VA.

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