Solar storms add to growing list of pressing issues for reliability monitor

A government warning yesterday of a possible threat to the nation's power grid from an approaching solar geomagnetic pulse punctuated a high-level Washington conference on the phalanx of challenges that confront the nation's electric power sector, from space weather to coal-plant retirements.

An annual summit of electric industry leaders and regulators, organized by the North American Electric Reliability Corp. (NERC), dug into the question of whether the federally mandated oversight process can keep up with multiple challenges to grid operations.

First up on the issues list was U.S. EPA's proposed Clean Power Plan, which would direct states to develop plans for reducing carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants in accordance with the agency's carbon goals.

Tony Clark, a commissioner with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, renewed his proposal that the state and regional EPA plans must pass a review by grid operators before taking effect, to ensure that a run of coal-plant retirements affected by the rule won't destabilize vulnerable but critical parts of the grid.

Supporters of carbon regulation say policymakers shouldn't ignore the scientists, Clark said. "Fair enough," he added. The other side of the coin, he said, is that "environmental regulators shouldn't ignore the engineers" and grid planners.


"We need to understand the changes that are happening to the grid," he said. "If not, we're going to pay for it with a reliability event."

The list continued.

Michael Kormos, executive vice president of operations for PJM Interconnection, the largest U.S. regional grid operator, said new technical standards must be accelerated for "smart" inverters and other advanced grid electronic devices that could help maintain frequency and voltage levels as wind farms and rooftop solar units increase, taking the place of baseload coal plants.

"Our hope is we get national standards that take on some of these challenges," Kormos said "Our problem has been it's too slow."

David Whiteley, executive director of the Eastern Interconnection Planning Collaborative, an Energy Department-supported study group, said a new EIPC study due this month will assess where the U.S. natural gas pipeline network may not be able to keep up with the growing demand from shale gas, as gas units also supplant coal generators. It's another issue for NERC and FERC.

John Lawhorn, senior policy director for PJM's neighbor, the Midcontinent Independent System Operator, said his organization is looking at a plan to construct a large matrix of direct current transmission lines that could move 50,000 megawatts of energy around the country, connecting each of the three separate North American regional grids to help meet power needs.

Expanding the grid's footprint in this way would lessen challenges of handling variable wind and solar power, he said.

"We are looking at large-scale transmission development to help us manage the large amounts of renewables coming online," he said.

Topping these operational issues are the extreme, unpredictable threats of cyberattacks, physical assaults on substations, and solar storms that may unleash rogue currents on the transmission grid, either triggering blackouts or possibly burning up essential transformers. While NERC develops a FERC-mandated protection standard for geomagnetic storms, the likely consequences from a massive pulse are still being debated by scientists and engineers.

NERC posted a warning on its website yesterday about possible "moderate-to-strong" geomagnetic activity affecting Earth today and Saturday, following two solar eruptions earlier this week.

William Murtagh, program coordinator for the National Weather Center Space Weather Prediction Center, said the first storm, expected to hit last night, was rated as a moderate "K6" event and the space weather scale. The second, due Saturday, has been rated higher, at K7, but could rise one step to K8 in northern latitudes, he said.

The damaging storms of the past few decades have been K9s. But K7 is big enough to warrant grid operators going on alert, he said. "We expect the kickoff tonight," he said in an interview yesterday. "The northern-tier grid operators will be pulling out their SOPs [standard operating procedure notebooks]."

FERC in June approved the first of a two-phase solar storm reliability regulation developed by NERC and its industry experts. It requires energy companies on high-voltage grids to have defensive plans in place by April 1 next year. The plans could go as far as taking down parts of the grid temporarily to protect vulnerable transformers. The phase 2 requirement, intended to prevent widespread voltage collapse from a once-in-a-century superstorm, is still under development at NERC.

Hands off the EPA rules

NERC's role as the high-voltage grid reliability monitor received some pointed comments yesterday over the issue of coal plant retirements due to the proposed EPA carbon regulations.

FERC Chairwoman Cheryl LaFleur repeated her position that FERC would not second-guess EPA's carbon policy. "It is not FERC's role to shape the EPA regulations," she said, but instead to respond with whatever actions are needed to ensure grid reliability as the EPA process unfolds (Greenwire, Aug. 14).

LaFleur, whose agency oversees NERC, admonished the standards body to do the same.

"It is important that NERC really sustain its reputation and its ability to be a clear, impartial technical assessor of what's going on here, not get caught up in the advocacy, either pushing new rules or fighting new rules," LaFleur said.

She left the conference without explaining exactly what she meant, but several utility executives interpreted it as a message to NERC to stay out of the debate over the reliability issues surrounding the EPA plan.

One speaker said the industry should buckle down and get on with the transition. "We can't stop this from happening," said Michael Spoor, vice president for transmission and substations at FPL, the Florida utility. "We have to do our best."

Other speakers at the conference said NERC needs to speak up if it sees that environmental regulations could threaten the grid.

"I think we should take a path like Harry Truman," said Duane Highley, president and CEO of Arkansas Electric Cooperatives in Little Rock.

"Harry Truman was known as 'give 'em hell Harry.' But he said, 'I don't give them hell. I just tell the truth and they think it's hell.'

"Currently, the state regulators, to say it politely, are clueless about what to do [about the EPA rule], because they regulate smokestacks," Highley continued. "They say, 'We have no idea how this whole regional thing plays out.'

"It's going to take some truth-telling and advocacy," he said. "How do we get that done? If it's not NERC, who is it?"

NERC Chairman and CEO Gerry Cauley said his organization would not join the list of protesters currently filing comments with EPA. It will continue assessments of the range of reliability challenges facing the grid.

That list is unprecedented in size, and growing, Cauley said, and it raises the issue of whether FERC and NERC should adopt a risk-based approach for prioritizing reliability oversight instead of the current standards process set down by Congress in 2005.

Environmental regulations are compelling changes in large chunks of power resources, he said. New transmission lines would help, but it is as hard as ever to get new rights of way. Cyber and physical attacks must be stopped. "And we're watching the sun now to make sure it doesn't harm the grid," he said.

"These are certainly the most challenging times in my 35 years" in the industry, Cauley said. "There are only so many things we can do," he added. "The idea is to focus on a few things that will give us the most benefit."

He got a sympathetic response from another speaker, Jim Jura, CEO of Associated Electric Cooperative Inc., which supplies power to 51 electric cooperatives in Missouri, Oklahoma and Kansas.

"I'm reminded of how tough a job NERC has," Jura said. "I worry about how stretched they are."

He added, "There are so many agendas out there. We can't do it all. We've got to decide ... what our appetite is for risk and how we want to make those decisions."

But Gary Leidich, board chairman of the Western Electricity Coordinating Council, which oversees reliability in the Western Interconnection, said the changes are coming so fast and from so many directions that there is no clear road map for a new approach.

"Who is really responsible" for reliability? Leidich asked. "And who has the authority to do something about it?"

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