The Polar Vortex: Big Test for Virginia’s Energy Infrastructure

Temperature difference from normal simulated by European model about one mile high into the atmosphere on Wednesday, in degrees Celsius. (Image credit: Washington Post)

Another Polar Vortex is descending upon the United States, and it’s expected to bring record cold to the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic. The news media will be full of human-interest stories about new temperature records, homeless people freezing, and disruptions to daily life and business. But the real action will be how the energy industry — electric utilities, natural gas pipelines, home oil deliveries — hold up under the strain. If the system holds together, the harm to human health will be limited. If pieces of the system fail, hundreds or thousands of people could die from the cold.

Judging from the map above, based on the forecast of a European weather model that’s now a few days old, Virginia will be on the edge of the vortex. But we’re part of the PJM Interconnection system, whose territory will be smack dab in the middle of the weather system. Also, bitter cold will strain the capacity of natural gas pipelines to deliver gas used for home heating.

As legislators ponder Virginia’s energy future, debating the proper mix of solar, wind, coal, nuclear, natural gas, and electric transmission capacity, this is exactly the kind of extreme-weather event we need to prepare for. We can build an electric grid and gas-pipeline system that can perform beautifully 360 days of the year, but if it isn’t robust enough to handle a polar vortex, hurricane or other infrequent but recurring stressor, the result could be catastrophic.

Some bell weathers to watch:

  • Solar and wind. What happens to solar and onshore wind production during the polar vortex? We know that wind and solar isn’t dispatchable — that is, we can’t turn it on and off when we need it — but can renewable sources at least maintain their share of electricity production? Does renewable production tend to decline during polar vortex-like events — less sun, less wind — adding to the strain on other energy sources?
  • Natural gas (home heating). Natural gas is the big swing fuel that can dial up and down rapidly in response to changes in demand. Natural gas consumption, used for home heating, soars during deep freezes. Can the system of natural gas pipelines accommodate the surge? Are curtailable industries forced to stop using gas? Worst case scenario, are supplies sufficient to keep peoples’ homes heated?
  • Natural gas (electric generation). If gas supplies are constrained, do electric utilities get enough gas to power their gas-fired generators? If not, to what extent are utilities forced to bring aging oil-fired units out of mothballs and crank them up?
  • Nuclear. Is it possible to dial up generation of nuclear units?
  • Reserve margin. Most sources I’ve read seem confident that our energy system can handle a Polar Vortex event just fine — this year at least. The question is how much margin is there for error, and what the portends for the future as utilities phase out aging coal- and nuclear-powered units.

Hopefully, Virginia will sail through this event with minimal trauma. But all parties involved — legislators, regulators, utilities, the general public, news media — should be paying close attention to how our energy infrastructure holds up under the strain. The knowledge we gain will inform our push into an energy future dominated by solar and wind.

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44 responses to “The Polar Vortex: Big Test for Virginia’s Energy Infrastructure”

  1. Bad timing, this. Here we’ve just gone and impounded payments to Citgo for all Venezualan oil, a step I applaud by the way, but Venezualan oil is the main supply to those Louisiana refineries from which much of our supply of home heating oil and gasoline and diesel fuel comes. And while we did not technically forbid further oil imports from Venezuala, they will cease if they aren’t paid for — unless the Maduro cabal collapses very soon.

    The problem is, there are alternative sources of crude oil in Canada, but no way to get that crude to Louisiana except by rail tanker cars — since we’ve done such a good job of equivocating on the construction of oil pipelines through the upper midwest. Now when we need the alternatives they aren’t there.

    I don’t know what stored reserves of already-refined fuel oil and gasoline and diesel fuel we have, but this Polar Vortex excursion will put a severe strain on them — let’s hope we don’t run out.

    As for natural gas, the biggest factor here, we will certainly give the pipeline and storage system a stress test over the next few days. All those folks calling for the ACP may get their comeuppance if the Transco system and other existing pipelines carry the load without a hitch; but then again, maybe the need for the ACP will be vindicated! I don’t want to be the test case, but I have a cord of firewood on the front porch just in case.

  2. Agree that homeowners using nat gas will use more in the cold, but I am thinking that is the tail wagging the dog? I am surprised to hear home heat is a big consumption factor…rather expecting more utility consumption firing up gas turbines.

    PS- If home heat nat gas was such a big factor, they could ask homeowners to turn down thermostat one silly degree.

    1. Home heating is dominated by nat. gas or propane furnaces in the northern states today, heat pumps (with elec. resistance heat backup) most else, though many older homes use fuel oil, and deep south has a lot of simple baseboard (electric resistance) heat without the heat pump. But what makes a heat pump run? That electricity today is say 20% nuclear but the remainder is mostly nat gas fired generation when there’s no solar available. So, the heat comes mostly from nat gas even if it comes via electric heat pump or resistance coils, by wire rather than by pipe.

      As for turning down the thermostat, yes, that could be ordered, but it’s all relative. When the temp outside is 5 degrees, the differential between that and a house at 68 degrees is 63, right? So reduce that to 61 degrees difference, it doesn’t help much.

      1. I was just seeing New York uses about 2.5x more nat gas than we do in Va. Looks like much of Northeast uses about same amount of nat gas per capita as we do.

  3. LarrytheG Avatar

    Well.. I’m still not a fan of chicken-little.

    We don’t expect VDOT to build infrastructure that will sustain the worst floods – we always lose some to extreme flooding.

    We don’t expect cell phone towers to stay up no matter what force hurricane hits us.

    Hospitals and 911 centers and other public safety – PLAN on using backup generators.

    In short – we don’t build 100% bullet-proof infrastructure because it would likely cost twice or three times as much.

    Everyone has the responsibility to PLAN for potential failures… That’s on US. Acbar has a cord of wood. We have some portable propane heaters and I make sure we have enough propane on hand just in case.

    I’m not about to give Dominion Carte-Blanch to sell me bullet-proof infrastructure… no more than I’m willing to pay VDOT to do it.

  4. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    Regarding not only Polar Vortex events, and severe weather generally, but also even extended periods of cloud cover, and/or calm days with below normal winds, electric grids that rely on significant amounts of wind and solar power begin to suffer ever more stress and instability, that can dramatically increase as dependence of those forms of renewable power generation grows.

    As a result of recent hard earned experience in a growing numbers of places across the globe, the threat in these even common situations of weather change posed to reliable electric service by renewable power can compound once its share of the market approaches 10% in many, if not most, locales. Many variables are at play here. But the bottom line is that wind and solar generation unwisely and to quickly introduced into a market can rapidly introduce unacceptable levels of fragility into the grid and disrupt operations of electric power far and wide, including the possibility of catastrophic loss. This reality is becoming ever more obvious around the globe as wind and solar generation grows.

    1. Reed,

      Severely hot or cold days are often associated with cloudless skies, increasing solar output, although solar output is less in the winter due to lower sun angles and shorter days.

      Stormy conditions usually have increased wind speeds resulting in higher wind generation.

      In any case, PJM and other regional system operators take all of this into account in their energy planning. Renewable sources are not considered in the capacity required to meet peak loads in the same way that conventional units are.

      We have a great surplus of dispatchable generation at the moment. PJM has 75% more capacity than they need to meet their reserve requirements and this does not count the many conventional units that are available but do not meet the requirements to be counted as firm capacity.

      You are right to be concerned about reliability, but skilled professionals look after this all day long in our region. They are already taking into account the issues you raise and believe we can increase our contributions from renewables far beyond what they are today without affecting our system reliability.

      1. TomH, I agree with you about PJM’s current reserves. But stuff happens. Only a few years ago PJM got in big trouble during a polar vortex situation because (a) coal piles at several midwest coal generating plants froze solid and could not be thawed loose, and (b) for some older oil units, oil tanks ran dry and could not be replenished from bigger storage tanks because the barges that normally moved the oil were frozen in place. They had the capacity but it was forced out. Not unique to PJM of course. I do believe the generators are better prepared now and PJM has more of a margin, but stuff can still happen.

  5. Larry makes a good point. Massachusetts decided to avoid building a multi-billion dollar pipeline that would increase costs all year-round to deal with a situation that occurs for a few days every 4-5 years.

    We are seeing extreme weather events (cold and hot) more often now, but it still requires the most cost effective response.

    In 2018, existing pipelines serving Virginia and the Carolinas have expanded their capacity by more than the amount that would be provided by the ACP and MVP combined.

    But Hampton Roads is counting on the ACP to increase its gas supply rather than making a cheaper connection to existing pipelines or better yet, employing energy efficiency to lower costs and free up more gas supplies. Using the ACP would add a 60-90% premium to the price of gas year-round. Not a very sensible solution.

    It is possible that severe cold could require interruptible customers to curtail their gas use during the coldest days. Dominion has unfairly characterized these industrial customers cutting back gas usage as a sign that supplies to homes and hospitals were at risk. They were not.

    Large gas users often sign up for interruptible service for at least least a portion of their usage. This saves them money throughout the year. They have planned their operations so that they can shut-down some of their activities for a few days every few years. It is the cost-effective choice for them.

    This is an economically superior choice for them compared to paying a 60% higher price all year long for gas delivered by the ACP. The ACP has used scare tactics to make it seem necessary to have the new pipeline. Perhaps they will do so again this year.

    Gas distribution companies and electric utilities usually purchase gas supplies using a mix of long-term firm contracts and spot prices to optimize costs. In times of extreme cold, spot prices can spike.

    We have several times the pipeline capacity in the U.S. than we need to meet our peak usage, but some localities might not have enough.

    The amount of gas in storage was much lower this year than it usually is. This was probably due to the rush to export gas. Poor national energy policy has favored the profits of energy companies over the interests of U.S. citizens and their businesses.

    It is expected that we will export about 10% of our national gas production next year (10 Bcf/d). About 44 Bcf/d of LNG export capacity is either operating, under construction, approved or under regulatory review.

    This could set the stage for higher domestic gas prices and shortages under even moderate conditions. Australia has been aggressively exporting gas for 10 years and has experienced a 300% increase in domestic gas prices. They reported spot shortages throughout Australia as the LNG tankers continued to ship gas to other countries.

  6. djrippert Avatar

    If this doesn’t prove global warming then what does?

    I grew up in Virginia. 50+ years and counting. Many of the weather catastrophes that have befallen us over the past 10 – 20 years didn’t exist in Virginia when I was growing up. Obviously, these dastardly brand new weather apocalypses prove that much has changed. Must be global warming!

    Polar Vertices. Like many school boys I remember watching the weather reports for any possible sign of snow. Could be a blessed “snow day”. However, no matter how diligently I studied the weather forecasts I cannot remember Virginia being visited by a polar vortex. What manner of fiendish meteorological devil is this? I remember cold days, freezing days, frigid days and even cold fronts. But never a polar vortex. Dark times indeed.

    Derecho. Where did this bastard of a weather event come from? I remember windstorms, hurricanes, windy days, heavy gusts and many other names for relatively heavy winds in Virginia. But a derecho? Sounds like a muscle car from the 70s … “Mopar’s newest American Steel entry is the Dodge Derecho, sporting a 340 cubic inch engine the Derecho is coming to your town in 1978. Be ready!”

    Bomb cyclone. Holy smack! Have cyclones been radicalized into bomb-toting weather terrorists? Wait a minute – what the hell is a cyclone anyway? Aren’t cyclones a patented product of the southern hemisphere? How did they get up here? Man, we really do need a wall. Just as many predicted … lax border security and sanctuary cities have conspired to allow cyclones from South America to illegally enter the US. And now we have proof that they have bombs!?! Additionally, these foreign born cyclones are taking jobs from American born hurricanes. Where have all the hurricanes gone?

    Hoarfrost. Is that promiscuous frost?

    Arctic blast. A young polar vortex? Sounds more like a good brand name for chewing gum or mouthwash than a dumb thing to call a strong cold front.

    All these new calamities. Surely these new weather monsters appearing over the last 10 – 20 years are not just coincidence. Surely they are the blighted spawn of Global Warming.

    1. I won’t take the bait and assign blame. But you comment, “I cannot remember Virginia being visited by a polar vortex. What manner of fiendish meteorological devil is this?” It’s a real phenomenon and not a new one, but it’s only in the past decade that the weather crowd has begun to understand how it works. Look at this (blessedly short) article on it: Basically, think of the normal “polar vortex” as a wall around the arctic keeping the cold air walled in, and if it weakens, we get a stray blast from the north brought to us by an errant jet stream from up there. Global warming may alter the paths of the jet streams but doesn’t directly cause the breakdown of the normal “wall” — those events have been occurring as long as we’ve had records. Back when you and I were younger, we just called it a “cold snap” and went out and played in it.

      1. djrippert Avatar

        I left out Snowpocolypse and Snowmegeddon. You can thank me for that.

        1. What about “Snowpork” and especially “Snowbacon”?

  7. LarrytheG Avatar

    indeed! Some of this is just how boring folks lives have become. They just got to have some ‘apocalyptic” event every now and then so they can go clog up the roads and hammer WalMart!

    And Dominion is ever so happy to join in and promise electricity salvation!

    I gotta tell folks – they sell these marvelous little devices about the size of a heat-pump that are called backup generators.. they also sell these cute little fireplaces that are powered by propane.

    There are almost endless variations of these things… that can be had and for a lot cheaper than 100% grid ” or pipeline “reliability”.

    And if worse comes to worse – hop in the car and head to a motel for a couple of days!

    So yes. DJ is right – when I want a polar vortex or arctic blast – I head for the chewing gum selection at the local store… !!!

    Really, when you get down to it – the thing that really causes chaos is wind that takes down powerlines… winter and summer…

    On global warming… it’s probably going to take two or three more mega hurricanes that cause multi-billions of dollars in damages before some folks are going to say “Hey.. what’s going on?”….

    1. Count on Larry to turn this post into an excuse for Dominion bashing.

      Larry, the Polar Vortex issue is much bigger than Dominion! All utilities worry about maintaining service through episodes like this. For that reason, I made a point of NOT mentioning Dominion in this post.

      I also studiously avoided making apocalyptic predictions. The point is to observe how well our energy infrastructure holds up under the stress. Maybe it will do fabulously. Maybe it won’t. This is a chance to observe and learn.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        Well I MIGHT have agreed with you IF Dominion was not using/referencing conceivable events like the Polar Vortex to justify/sell expensive stuff like a pipeline or grid “resilience” with precious little actual analysis.

        So my view stays the same. I don’t want to commit to open-ended costs on a promise of “fixing” these apocalyptic “threats”.

        in terms of: “I also studiously avoided making apocalyptic predictions. ”

        Here’s what I read:

        “Another Polar Vortex is descending upon the United States, and it’s expected to bring record cold to the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic.

        If pieces of the system fail, hundreds or thousands of people could die from the cold.”

        Now if that is NOT an apocalyptic vision…. geeze guy…

        Either you mean something different with those words or.. something..

        from my perspective: hundreds of thousands of people dying form a weather event IS apocalyptic “enough” for Dominion and others to jump up and claim another pipeline is needed !!!!

        1. Washington Post headline today: “Life-threatening polar vortex hits U.S. Millions face temperatures -20 and below.”

          Is that headline apocalyptic?

  8. Jane Twitmyer Avatar
    Jane Twitmyer

    BUT … Dominion is a utility, and there are many others in the nation, that only thinks in terms of central generation when other approaches can do the trick.

    An update to an old joke … “Just one word … microgrids” …

    The restrictions that challenge that area of VA could be solved with reducing the requirement that all in the area rely only on central power. A microgrid is small-scale, local power grid that can operate either connected to the utility or independently. … Microgrids that are connected to utility power can support all or some of the power requirements for extended periods of time when the grid is unavailable.
    Diesel generator sets, renewable energy resources, fuel cells, battery storage, natural gas generators, or combined heat and power typically power microgrids. Photovoltaic and battery technologies are economically viable and can provide sustainable electricity, fueling the growth for microgrid applications.

    The DOD has worked on plans to operate all their bases on microgrids for security reasons for years. See their first attempt at Ft. Carson. More recently Duke Power in FL traded out a nuke proposal …. The new “plan is a blueprint for re-making a dated grid into a more fashionable system that’s bidirectional, flexible, protects itself against power outages and eventually will take advantage of distributed energy resources (DER) to improve resiliency.”
    “The … plan calls for Duke to drop its Levy Nuclear Project, acquire 50 MW of storage, install 500 EV charging stations, add 700 MW of solar power and modernize its grid.”

    1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

      Connecting a microgrid to the main system seems critical to me. It reminds me of Hurricane Isabel. When it hit, everyone in the neighborhood was out of power. Most were quickly restored by the next evening. But on our street, four homes were not connected by the same cables as our neighbors. We were out for several days. And the smaller the service area, the longer it takes to be repaired.

      At the same time, a microgrid’s connectivity to the main system should not be subsidized by general ratepayers. The cost of duplicate connections should be born by the microgrid and its users.

    2. Jane and I disagree about this, but from my perspective, the problem with microgrids is scale. There is less efficiency of scale in a small system than a big one, and it costs hugely to build all that redundant capability and not use it efficiently. Sure, DOD can lavish your tax dollars and mine on that kind of redundancy but it would cost the average Joe way too much to pay for a microgrid in every neighborhood and still pay for the privilege of connecting to the utility’s grid for normal power delivery. And if you want to go “off the Grid” and be independent, you are, in effect, setting up your own little utility system, and losing all the efficiencies and reliabilities that come from the diversity of resources on the big Grid. Yes, there are big industrial or military complexes that have the load and the resources to establish and operate their own mini-grids but this is not for the fainthearted. Sure there are experimental fuel cells and other such gadgets out there, but if they weren’t subsidized, nobody would buy them. Ask yourself, if they were really so effective, why isn’t Dominion investing in them all over the place? Batteries are a coming technology that’s always just over the horizon, but, Mr. Musk notwithstanding, they cost too much for the sort of widespread utility installation that would have a big impact on supply curves through “generation time shifting” except, today, in high marginal cost situations like meeting the load on an island, or providing secure electricity for a military base in case its connection to the Grid goes down.

  9. LarrytheG Avatar

    I guess I’m trying to differentiate between “micro-grid” and backup power systems.

    If the grid goes down – I can see a backup generator propane/diesel… but anything else at this point in time is not going to be sufficient to keep on operating as normal. wind/solar/battery are just not going to carry the average home … they may keep your fridge going and give you lights but they’re not likely going to power your HVAC/heat pump.

    I’m an optimist about renewables long-term but right now I just don’t think they’re able to function as real micro-grids.

    I claim my share of ignorance though and if someone can come back and show my thinking is short… please do.

    1. See above. Your instincts are correct: a “microgrid” is simply a fancy name for a linked set of backup resources, the way they are generally designed. The more resources you link, the more you are duplicating the larger utility grid. Do you think that redundancy is free? And who is going to pay for the skilled labor to be the mini-system operator? Starry-eyed terminology aside, a microgrid only make sense where the Big Grid is unreliable, as in third world countries, or where the local utility is engaged in rampant price gouging. There are other reasons to link electricity resources at the customer level, behind the meter, but that’s another discussion.

    2. LG, one other thing: The term “micro-grid” sometimes gets tossed around as a concept, more than a specific set of equipment, where the retail customer(s) involved can come and go from the Big Grid as they wish without paying for it. In this scenario the customer typically goes off the Grid whenever he can generate for less (e.g, during a sunny day using lots of solar collectors) but reconnects to the Grid on cloudy days or at night. Throw in a few battery packs and the customer can stretch his off grid hours a little. But, crucially, he reconnects to the Grid the rest of the time — and he expects to do this with no charge from the Grid except for his actual consumption! This is absurd — the Grid was not built for free, and if you want to rely on using it, you should pay your fair share for doing so; if you don’t, other customers will have to subsidize your free ride.

      Ah, but there’s the rub: for large industrial customers the electricity bill has two components, a “demand charge” based on the highest level of consumption during the billing month, and a “usage charge” based on the volume of energy consumed. These are priced, roughly speaking, to reflect the cost to maintain the Grid on standby and the cost to produce the energy actually consumed, respectively, and they don’t get a free ride even if their usage varies dramatically.

      Smaller customers like residential customers usually pay a single commodity charge which has both those costs rolled in. This simplifies metering and billing. Of course, to roll them together the rate designer has to make an assumption about the typical maximum demand associated with a given monthly consumption, and spread that cost recovery over all the expected units of consumption. But, what if the customer routinely goes off-Grid for many hours a day? Well then, the Grid operator will be compensated for actual energy used, but will NOT be compensated adequately for making the Grid available at night and on dark days and for the occasional customer load in excess of his own resources. The fix is, either place this small customer on a meter that measures and prices energy and demand separately (preferably by time of day) like the bigger customers, or, impose a surcharge calculated to recover the average cost imposed by such intermittent small customers. But to listen to the microgrid advocates, time-of-day demand metering is evil, and such a surcharge is the ULTIMATE SIN.

      If everyone got a free ride for intermittent use of the Grid then of course the Grid (actually, the retail utility delivering from the Grid) would have to raise its charges to everyone accordingly. Not charging fairly for intermittent connection to the Grid is a huge subsidy for any microgrid operator, even if the impact on other customers is slight at first. Take that subsidy away, and I’m all for a “microgrid” or any similar arrangement of resources that actually makes economic sense and saves the customer money. I have yet to see one that made economic sense.

  10. LarrytheG Avatar

    @Acbar – I agree. There has to be an “availability” fee for folks that want to generate their own power but rely on the grid when they can’t.

    I don’t know how much it should be but I do know in our county – the “availability fee” for a municipal water/sewer hookup is somewhere around $12000 and you still pay monthly usage fees.

    My bet is that such a fee for a grid connection might be in the same ballpark.

  11. Jane Twitmyer Avatar
    Jane Twitmyer

    Well, Acbar, I have some good company … Rolls-Royce is among several major US and international energy developers and technology companies now pursuing the microgrid market, among them ABB, Ameresco, Eaton, Enel, Engie, GE, NRG Energy, S&C Electric, Schneider Electric, Siemens, Tesla and Veolia, along with North American utility giants Duke and Exelon.

    While DOD was first with the idea of islanding from the main grid,
    outages caused by Hurricane Sandy and other severe weather events have begun to drive research and investment into resilient energy systems. in New York officials started looking into potential upgrades including burying power lines, adding switches and line networks so that power can be routed along different pathways, and raising substations and other critical infrastructure to avoid flooding.

    These are the things Dominion talks about in their Grid Modernization Act. Unfortunately, these ‘hardening’ interventions are expensive, especially if implemented at grid scale.

    Microgrids are another approach and in addition to grid hardening, the microgrid may offer other grid-services. “It could be used to provide other, bulk-electricity services, such as peak-demand shaving, frequency or voltage regulation. The control center, while often overlooked, is another critical element of microgrids and is what makes it different from simply backup generation.

    Re monies … Navigant highlights Duke Energy, calling the utility’s microgrid efforts “a model blueprint for other utilities.” Duke is investing in microgrids through both its rate regulated and its unregulated businesses…. By using a microgrid to avoid more costly investment in poles, wires or other equipment, a utility is able to justify spending ratepayer’s money for infrastructure that creates broad benefits beyond a small group of customers.

    “We are seeing numerous frameworks used to finance microgrid projects, but broadly, they fall into four categories: debt, leasing, shared benefit, and let’s call the fourth, managed service agreements. Within these microgrid financing options, there are generally four main participants: developer, contractor, investor, and end-user.” It is not all a question of utility rate financing.

    Me, as someone who worked with companies to install IBM mainframe computers a long time ago, I like to think of the switch to microgrids and mini-grids, not as duplication of the central grid, but reminiscent of the switch to PCs. It will require regulatory and rate change. Noone is looking for a free ride on the central grid.

    1. Usually in the electric business it’s not a one time fee but a monthly “demand” charge. If it’s cost based and Commission approved, should be in the same range as the demand charge paid by regular (full time) customers. There may also be a one time charge for the connection equipment, especially if the customer is big enough to warrant dedicated utility distribution facilities like a transformer or substation, on the theory that other customers shouldn’t bear that cost.

    2. Thanks, Jane. These are things that any smart business should want to do. I think the debate over microgrids often boils down to terminology for common sense from the customer point of view, and, of course, the sticky question of who pays for it. Your last sentence, “No one is looking for a free ride on the central grid,” would disarm much of this debate if everyone set out to abide by that principle; the rest is just a tiff over who gets the benefits of diversity when you tie a bunch of customers together in a way the local utility sees as a threat to its monopoly. Unfortunately what one person calls a clever interpretation of the utility’s tariff and another calls a “free ride” seems, too often, merely to end up being an advantage conferred on a few ratepayers at the expense of other ratepayers. Where there’s actual cost savings through greater efficiencies, not just cost shifting, then there’s grounds for cooperation all around, here.

  12. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    Earlier, Jim said this:

    “The point is to observe how well our energy infrastructure holds up under the stress. Maybe it will do fabulously. Maybe it won’t. This is a chance to observe and learn.”

    One thing seems now for sure, except for those in the business of infomercials, namely: absent unexpected near term major breakthroughs in technology, the grid on which we depend will fail, if wind and solar are pushed too fast in lieu of fossil fuels and nuclear power without elaborate safe safeguards and grown-up responsible deployments and changes throughout the industry. This must include very substantial adjustment to current bogus claims about wind and solar and what it can do, because likely at best no more of it than a 30% market penetration can be reasonable and safely achieved by 2050. And that is being highly optimistic. And, if we want to get that high with reasonable chance for additional success for more market penetration beyond 2050, then our responsible leaders need to start telling us the truth about the issues involved here. If they do not, and if instead they continue on our current track of building myths instead of facts about the challenges we face, then we likely will kill wind and solar’s otherwise great promise for sure, and perhaps forever. This will happen when folks learn that about its severe limitations today the hard way, by its gross failure to fulfill today’s false promises at the very time we need it success desperately.

    Another plain fact is that solar and wind power cannot come close to solving climate change alone. Not ever even close. We need to open our eyes to this fact and get real about real solutions, instead of turning wind and solar’s great and legitimate promise into a fool’s errand, which is the course we now are on.

    1. Jane Twitmyer Avatar
      Jane Twitmyer

      Your comment about what you see as “current bogus claims about wind and solar” markets attaining 30% maximum by 2050” … Many say the bogus claims are on the part of the EIA.

      Here is an analysis …
      “EIA projected—that coal would remain the leading generator of U.S. electricity. Specifically, the agency wrote: “Coal continues to provide the largest share of energy for U.S. electricity generation in the AEO2009 reference case, with only a modest decrease from 49 percent in 2007 to 47 percent in 2030.”
      BUT THEN … “The EIA last year estimated that coal provided 27% of the nation’s electricity needs, down from 30% in 2017”
      The EIA forecasts went from over 1.500 million tons of coal use projected for 2030 in 2007 to 500+ million tons actual use in 2017. Projections get lowered each year as the actual usage comes in.

      Another issue … several years ago I wrote a short piece on how the EIA missed on solar projections …one big reason …they did not include rooftop or community solar installations in their count. I believe that has changed but … ?

      There is a Bloomberg analysis of EIA projections too … showing the contribution of wind and solar of electricity use. EIA projects wind and solar would increase from 4% in 2014 to 15% in 2040, while Bloomberg predicts 34% in 2040. Do EIA’s numbers reflect their bad coal projections?

      What is true about the market for renewables is that the rules must change for us to develop the combination of central and distributed generation that will serve us well and actually be cheaper and more reliable and resilient. Paying for renewable construction has gotten cheaper than just running old coal and nuclear plants that are already paid for. So maybe your pessimistic view believes the holdout utilities will continue to write the rules for years to come.

      The first part of future projections to fix is inflated growth numbers that do not include distributed generation or efficient building retrofits. Then there are the facts about the technical potential of solar and wind … see NREL US Renewable Energy Technical Potential: A GIS based Analysis.

      NREL also did a Futures study with 35 other organizations last year … more than 110 individuals from more than 35 organizations as listed. Volume 3 describes the questions that relate to demand projection and are key to the 2050 numbers. One reference … “concluded that in both of the building sectors, energy consumption could be reduced by about 30%–35% at a cost less than current retail prices.”

      I sincerely hope you are wrong about the market and I am not alone. The destruction of climate change will be far worse in all aspects

      1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
        Reed Fawell 3rd

        Jane – I am as concerned about these climate change issues as you are. One reason is that we are headed in the wrong direction. The fastest growing energy source in the world now is coal. It’s been spiking faster than ever since 2001, according to World Bank data. China, a huge coal user, doubled its coal capacity in just five years, from 2001 to 2006. Fossil fuels now generate 85% of World’s energy. Huge new frackable shale deposits world wide, particularly in South America are said to be coming on line. BP, BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2017. The real action, and threat, is offshore, particularly in third world, plus India and China. Not here. These forces in all their many aspects are very hard to control or predict. Many have come to believe that wind and solar alone, even under the best of circumstances is a very limited and speculative, even dangerous, solution if done imprudently and without massive support, in at very least the short and mid-term, say next 30 years. Plus the real problem is world wide, and must be viewed that way. So all practical solutions need be considered and brought to bear in a broad gauged cooperative way. There is much new to get into here. I hope to contribute.

        1. Jane Twitmyer Avatar
          Jane Twitmyer

          I just don’t know where you get your numbers … Thing is they are old numbers. Energy is changing fast and many numbers depend on inflated demand numbers, like Dominion does.

          The IEA says coal use “flattens…and does not regain the peak seen in 2014”. This means it joins oil firm BP in seeing a global coal demand peak. The agencies keep changing their predictions which they claim are not really predictions. A slight uptick last year still keeps new expectations way below the 2014 peak.

          Flat coal demand to 2040 would mark a significant shift compared to the 15% growth that was anticipated in the IEA’s 2013 World Energy Outlook. As I said EIA keeps revising down its outlook for renewable solar and wind. So does the IEA regarding continued use of coal. The IEA saw Chinese coal demand continuing to increase as recently as 2014.

          In 2018 they said that China would see a decline of 13% by 2040, an amount equivalent of overall demand in the EU today. The India number as at issue too. The IEA’s most recent short-term forecast for coal slashed growth in India,

          Lots of people out there with numbers. I like BNEF. They are smart and realistic and up-to-date.

          1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
            Reed Fawell 3rd

            You Jane, of course, point up the problem. Most players in this game are dishonest. Hence, for them, numbers change on a dime. When in fact, in the real world, number like these do NOT Change on a dime. Enough of this world of magical thinking. Get serious for a change.

      2. Re: “What is true about the market for renewables is that the rules must change for us to develop the combination of central and distributed generation that will serve us well and actually be cheaper and more reliable and resilient.” That is something that’s been discussed a lot on this blog. It would help to identify what retail rules you think the likes of Dominion needs to change; or is it not the incumbent distribution/retail utilities that are the problem but the wholesale markets, or the State markets for RECs, or — what?

        1. Jane Twitmyer Avatar
          Jane Twitmyer

          Must be awful to believe everyone is lying … Sometimes it is just a case of not having the right information or maybe incompetence or the inability to update processes.
          Better to check out who the liars are and then not listen to them …
          More info on the EIA
          “The Energy Information Administration’s annual report has many findings that make little sense.
          One glaring example: The report projects the country will have 60 megawatts of offshore wind in 2050. This is at a time when several states have requirements on the books to build thousands of megawatts of offshore wind, and one project, Vineyard Wind in Massachusetts, is nearing construction of 800 megawatts.”

          Here is a truth teller.
          RMI sent a group to China some years ago and helped the officials in China draw up a carbon reduction plan. I happen to be acquainted with the RMI leader. Here is an update from the group.

          Acbar …. I think I have been very clear about the change required … Basic monopoly regulations that reward an expanding market and more sales. It is not in Dominion’s interest as the regs now stand to cut demand in any way. So, VA is at the bottom of the list of states that have promoted efficient buildings. Rules hamper many on-site generators and Dominion is not piloting storage, microgrids, community solar etc, etc. Nor does it let anyone else install those things.
          We can argue ’til we are blue in the face about the specifics of the regs, how many MWs for what etc, but until the basic issue is dealt with we are all wasting our time.

          1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
            Reed Fawell 3rd

            Jane –

            This reads like an infomercial. Like what you would expect to result from a guided tour provided by the Chinese set up to sell their products and services.

            Remember this is a sale pitch on a huge business opportunity. But now the cat is out of the bag. Stuff like this is everywhere, and nothing is simple:


            Like I said, let’s get serious.

  13. Rowinguy Avatar

    From its website:

    “PJM has robust reserves and does not expect to have any capacity issues at this time.”

    Since the polar vortices of 2014 and 2015, PJM market rules (and, unless I am mistaken) NERC reliability rules have made a major outage much less likely. Still, things do happen, as someone else above noted.

    1. PJM has a lot of credibility on this issue. I hope they’re right. Let’s watch closely and make sure they are. If they are, then that lights the path going forward.

  14. LarrytheG Avatar

    re: microgrids.

    you know they sure sound a lot like an ability for a company or complex or military base to be able to disconnect from the grid and generate their own power.

    But how does this “help” the grid itself?

    I can see why Ft. Belovir or a Walmart distribution center with freezers or a hospital or even a Walmart retail would want to BE ABLE to continue operations if the grid went down but again how would that help the grid during other times?

    And there is some irony because most of the time these backup generators run on fossil fuels… and they’re not near as efficient as a combined cycle gas turbine that is used on the grid.

    Batteries and solar – yes – as long as you got the gas/diesel to run and modulate when the sun goes down or the batteries run down.

    These backup systems are generally sized ONLY to serve a specific building or zone …they are not usually sized to generate extra power that could be providing power to nearby demand.

    And really, when you get right down to it – a REAL micro-grid would be on an island where the “grid” is not a PJM regional grid but a smaller one that would modulate according to what solar/wind and batteries could produce.

    While there are a few islands that are doing this – they are small and few and mostly pilot operations.

    There are right now, thousands of islands that have electricity generated from diesel generators. Some do not operate for 24/7 – and a “micro-grid” would seem to be the solution but again… few and far between as far as I can tell.

    ‘World’s largest microgrid’ in western Pacific gets 30-year PPA Oct 15, 2018

    The small island nation of Palau in the western Pacific Ocean has moved a step closer to having what is said to be the largest ever microgrid spanning diesel, solar and battery energy storage.

    The system, known as ‘Armonia’, will include existing diesel generation alongside up to 35MW of solar, for which land has already been secured, and up to 45MWh of battery storage. On completion the Palau grid will then have an installed power capacity of 100MW and renewables will account for more than 45% of the country’s demand. Much of the current diesel usage will be displaced, thus reducing carbon emissions and generating substantial savings on Palau’s energy bill.

    Construction is expected to begin by the end of this year

    Palau already has 12.4MW of diesel peak power across two stations, generating 87GWh/year, but this is expected to exceed 110GWh in 2025, said the presentation.

    Paul Maguire, president and CEO ENGIE Asia Pacific, added: “Universal, affordable and reliable access to clean energy will be a reality in Palau in few months, and we have the ambition and the commitment to replicate this model all over the world thanks to ENGIE’s global reach.”

    Palu has a population of about 22,000 people … about 5000 households. They say the 500mw is enough for 45% of the electricity demand. I assume that means not all homes are on the grid and/or they don’t generate 24/7.

    I dunno… it doesn’t seem that we are there yet… If this was a practical solution, islands across the world would be transitioning and it’s just not happening yet.

    1. Rowinguy Avatar

      Larry, in theory, microgrids can relieve stress on the big grid in the same way that curtailing or interrupting load does. That amount of load being served by the microgrid no longer is depending on the big grid for its power supply, leaving more available transmission capacity to carry power to the customers remaining dependent on the big grid. Every element in the big grid has a thermal limit or operational maximum transfer capability. Load diverted to a microgrid provides “headroom” on the big grid.

  15. Jane Twitmyer Avatar
    Jane Twitmyer

    Larry ….Like the kids say …”it’s complicated”
    RMI has the update on islands … THE ISLAND AND REMOTE COMMUNITY ENERGY OPPORTUNITY …with 10 case studies …
    “Leading islands and remote communities, from the deserts of Australia to the isles of the United Kingdom, have already transitioned from 100 percent oil-based electricity systems to ones with significant renewable penetration.” Each one is a bit different and their path depends on their resources.

    One is Necker Island owned by Richard Branson Branson joined with RMI a few years back to develop the islands energy systems … “Prior to 2014, diesel fuel was the only resource used to generate electricity for island staff and visiting guests. In 2014, Richard Branson set down a path to phase out the use of all diesel fuel on the island. Thus far, 300 kW of solar photovoltaic (PV) have been installed with a single 900 kW wind turbine, a 500 kWh battery, and advanced microgrid controls planned for installation in 2016.

    Necker’s system designers and contractors are retrofitting existing buildings with more efficient AC units and upgrading insulation of many of the buildings while adding smart controls to further reduce diesel consumption. Through these approaches, the island benefits from actually reducing usage, not just adding generation, pushing Necker Island to the forefront of what is possible with a renewable microgrid. With the addition of solar, the island is already seeing diesel fuel savings of 15 to 20 percent annually.“

  16. Inthemiddle Avatar

    I can tell some of you are not apartment dwellers! (Propane heaters, generators, wood stoves for all!)

  17. Jane Twitmyer Avatar
    Jane Twitmyer

    Reed AGAIN …
    You are giving me 2016 information … time for you to start checking dates!
    Here is 2019 info … China’s renewable power capacity rose 12 percent in 2018 compared to a year earlier, official data showed on Monday, or 38.3 percent of China’s total installed power capacity, up 1.7 percentage points on the year and around 7 percentage points higher than at the end of 2015.

    Re your article comment … ““Some of China’s curtailment is a symptom of inflexible power grids.” That seems to be the issue now in 2019
    China Hopes to Lessen Solar, Wind Curtailment in 2019
    December 3, 2018 By Bloomberg News Editors
    The world’s biggest clean energy investor has had to slow the introduction of renewable power because some grids were not capable of handling big increases. China idled about 2.9 percent of the solar power capacity in the first nine months of this year, compared with 5.6 percent a year earlier. The curtailment rate for wind was 7.7 percent during the period.

    China set three-year targets for allowing more wind and solar power onto the power grid after the rapid addition of wind and solar farms forced some electricity distributors to partly block that energy from flowing into their systems.

    PJM says iot can handle 50% renewables .. sounds good to me.

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      Jane, what is really dismaying here is, while I am pouring through books and research material by highly respected people in this field who portray a far different set of challenges, risks, and opportunities, confronting us, some quite terrifying, you insist, despite all their concerns, and all the risks involved, on an Alfred E. Newman approach – “What me Worry!” It is all quite remarkable.

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