Two separate high-level official reports yesterday spotlighted short- and long-term challenges to the nation’s electric power grid. The short-term hazards are a consequence of policy. The long-term dangers stem from the absence of policy.
The North American Electric Reliability Corp., the grid’s federally designated operations monitor, stated again that the power industry needs more time to develop coordinated plans to meet requirements of U.S. EPA’s proposed Clean Power Plan, particularly the initial requirements for reduced power plant carbon emissions in 2020.
"We’re at a point where we’re looking out approximately four years to implementation [of the EPA plan as proposed]," said John Moura, NERC’s director of reliability assessments. NERC hasn’t concluded that the plan will cause blackouts, he said, but neither can it conclude that the lights will stay on if the plan is imposed.
"That is a reliability concern in and of itself," Moura told reporters in a conference call yesterday on NERC’s assessment (Greenwire, April 21).
"There is so much uncertainty in the short-term horizon," he added. "The industry is not used to having that uncertainty."
A longer-term perspective comes from the Energy Department’s first Quadrennial Energy Review, an assessment of the nation’s comprehensive future energy challenges. It argues that the uncertainties now on the horizon will become increasingly dire unless the United States faces up to a climate policy and other changes moving through the electricity sector.
"Ongoing impacts of global climate change have already been stressing energy … infrastructure in a variety of ways," the QER says.
"This means greater vulnerabilities for … infrastructure from hurricanes, drought, extreme temperatures, wildfires, more intense precipitation events, and flooding," the review says. "Climate change is also driving sea-level rise, which interacts with storm surge and heavy downpours to intensify coastal flooding."
Under the most severe scenario of sea-level rise in the National Climate Assessment, by 2030, the number of electricity substations along the Gulf of Mexico vulnerable to storm surges from Category 1 hurricanes would climb from 225 to 337, the QER reports.
In the long term, the need for a more resilient, redundant power grid — from customer units to high voltage substations — is required not only because of climate-related threats, but also because of less likely but potentially more disastrous threats from cyber or physical attack, or space weather, the QER says.
"Extreme weather and climate change is a leading environmental risk to this infrastructure," it says. "Low-probability, extremely high-consequence events, such as geomagnetic disturbances, must also be anticipated and managed.
"The administration has made it a priority to work with industry to identify challenges and create solutions for increasing the security and resilience of the electric grid, including the development of an integrated national plan to mitigate challenges pertaining to aging power transformers, the cyber and physical security of transformers, and the vulnerabilities of large power transformers," the QER says.
"These efforts will be part of a formal national strategy (planned for release in 2015) for strengthening the security and resilience of the entire electric grid for threats and hazards," DOE says.
A failed attempt
A decade ago, Congress responded to the massive 2003 Northeast power blackout by passing the Energy Policy Act of 2005. Triggered by high-voltage power lines that shorted out when they came too close to trees that a Ohio utility had neglected to trim, the blackout also stemmed from operating challenges caused by increasing shipments of long-distance power over the grid, poor planning and the lack of enforceable reliability standards, experts concluded. The grid was changing, and policy hadn’t kept up.
In addition to creating a federally appointed grid overseer to develop reliability standards — the job went to NERC — the 2005 act set up a two-step plan designed to break through deadlocks in building the highest-priority power lines.
DOE was authorized to designate regional "national interest" corridors threatened by excessive power line overloading, and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission was given backstop authority to permit power lines in the corridors if state energy agencies failed to act within a year. The plan never came to life.
In a 2-1 decision, a panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2009 that the precise wording of the 2005 law allows FERC to intervene only if a state fails to act on a proposal, not if it rejects a project. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals vacated DOE’s designation of two such corridors, in the Southwest and Mid-Atlantic regions.
Yesterday, Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) filed legislation that would give FERC power line siting authority if state agencies fail to act on a proposal within a year. Industry officials believe DOE is looking for support on Capitol Hill to take up its forthcoming transmission plan (Greenwire, April 21).
But with no congressional consensus on climate and grid policy, expansion and modernization of the high-voltage network remains with a patchwork of different entities — transmission developers, regional transmission operators and vertically integrated utilities, with siting decidedly in the hands of state regulatory agencies with their individual priorities and policies.
NERC’s Clean Power Plan report yesterday indicated that these regional tensions will only increase as coal plants retire or scale back operations, and other generation or conservation measures fill the gaps.
"Many of the states really don’t require a lot more time," Moura said. But others will, he added.
Among the changes NERC’s modeling projects: Canada would export three times more power to the United States under the Clean Power Plan, primarily to the northern Midwest and New York state. Utilities in the Mid-Atlantic region’s eastern PJM Interconnection area would shift from being net importers of power to net exporters. Power exports into the lower Mississippi area would increase from the Appalachian region and central Midwest.
"The change in the power flow, both in direction and magnitude, could present challenges in planning and operation" of the high-voltage system, the NERC report says. "These changes in power transfers between areas require extensive power system studies and planning to ensure existing transmission lines are capable of such transfers."
The transmission changes grow more complex because of the expansion of wind farms distant from urban centers, and construction of new gas generation near existing gas pipelines, the NERC report says.
Although NERC stressed that this report was preliminary and not prescriptive, it did present model results of the types and locations of power plants expected to retire, and where new generation was likely to appear. It also highlighted areas where new transmission lines would be needed.
Glacial pace for transmission
NERC surveyed industry transmission owners on the amount of time required in recent years to plan, build and open new power lines and substations. For the biggest lines of more than 500 kilovolts, the pace is glacial, NERC reported: for surveying, 12 months; right-of-way acquisition, 32 months; permitting 32, months; and construction, 79 months.
Based on one of its model runs, NERC says, "the generation and transmission additions and upgrades necessary to fulfill the capacity requirements … would not be completed until 2031."
NERC’s conclusions were challenged yesterday by the American Wind Energy Association.
"The coal power plant retirements NERC projects between now and 2030 will be more than offset by the nearly 50 GW [gigawatts] of new gas generating capacity that is already planned for addition between now and 2020," said Michael Goggin, AWEA’s senior director of research. NERC assumed wind energy would grow around 2 percent a year. The actual annual rate is more than 10 times greater over the past decade, he said.
Solar generation was capped at 12 GW through 2030 in the NERC report, although the industry prediction calls for 20 GW in the next two years, Goggin added. "Had NERC not arbitrarily limited renewable energy and energy efficiency, they could have played a far greater role in meeting the CPP targets for the early 2020s in particular," Goggin said.
NERC’s analysis does not explore time-saving options available to transmission developers, such as building extra capacity on new power line projects that have been sited and approved, or upgrading existing ones. Nor does it discuss strategies for getting a head start on transmission projects that are most likely to be needed, based on expected coal plant retirements and new generation.
That is because NERC’s responsibility is for the grid that is, not what it may be, some experts say. And that perspective is rooted in the present.
Every big new line changes the competitive landscape where it delivers power, helping some utilities and hurting others. "There are going to be conflicts," NERC’s Moura said. "There are going to be winners and losers. All of that takes time to iron out.
"It’s going to take a long time."