As the Clean Power Plan helps end the unlimited carbon pollution era, we have the opportunity to make our electricity system smarter and more secure, as well as cleaner, as a slew of new reports prove.
As massive and important as our nation’s electrical grid is, it can be a surprisingly fragile system. In the past, major outages have been caused by threats ranging from market manipulators to a fallen tree branch in Ohio. And the increasingly dangerous effects of bad weather connected to climate change are only making things worse.
So it is entirely appropriate that our Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is holding a series of technical conferences this February and March to determine how best to maintain a reliable grid as we cut carbon pollution from the power sector. They are in for some good news.
Based on new reports from the Brattle Group (commissioned by Advanced Energy Economy), the United States Department of Energy, and the American Wind Energy Association, we can feel secure in pursuing the pollution cuts required by the Clean Power Plan, and seriously ramping up wind, solar, and energy efficiency.
To maintain grid reliability, aka “keep the lights on,” we need our electricity system to do three things: make enough electricity to run our machines; match energy supply and demand moment to moment; and connect the energy to the people who need it. All three of these together get lumped in under the heading “reliability.”
Reliability Requirement 1: Putting Enough Energy in the Wires
The first of these requirements is the easiest to understand. It is also the easiest problem to solve. As ancient coal plants are out competed, reach retirement age, or simply become too dirty and dangerous to be worth keeping online, our electrical system is relying on a more diversified portfolio of generation sources. As the Clean Power Plan helps to reduce our reliance on these dirty old clunkers, this trend will continue and maybe accelerate
The coal industry, desperate to stay afloat in a marketplace that appears to have moved on, has been busy sowing fears that we won’t be able to produce enough power from other sources to meet our energy needs. Oh and, notwithstanding long-term market trends away from coal, this is somehow (supposedly) all the Clean Power Plan’s fault. Balderdash.
John Moore, of the Sustainable FERC Project, provides an excellent overview of the full report here. The two big takeaways are that 1) the Clean Power Plan provides states with plenty of flexibility and a long time horizon to implement measures that cut carbon while maintaining reliability; and 2) many states are already proving that even greater levels of renewable generation and carbon reduction are feasible and happening reliably today.
As the dirtiest sources of power come offline, some of them will be replaced by cleaner sources of generation. According to the Department of Energy, we could go ahead and build a lot more of these natural gas plants to provide our electricity without facing any major obstacles to supplying them all with the fuel the need to produce that electricity. This would involve using existing pipeline and storage capacity intelligently, and building new gas pipelines, but we wouldn’t need to build pipes any faster than we have in the past.
We could do it, but we don’t need to and we should prioritize cleaner, safer available technologies.
The cleanest and safest is to continue making our economy more efficient. Energy efficiency works the same way as a non-polluting power source: we get the energy services we need, but the atmosphere doesn’t have to pay the price for it. From a reliability standpoint, the less demand we place on the system to provide more and more power, the less likely that system is to break down. It is the cleanest, cheapest way for states to cut carbon pollution, and it will be an important tool for meeting our goals under the Clean Power Plan.
Meanwhile, we are already getting more electricity from renewable sources like wind and solar than the Energy Information Agency predicted we would in 2030. In fact, analysis by ICF (another highly respected energy analysis firm that is often employed by electrical utilities to do their resource planning) found that cost-effective implementation of the Clean Power Plan can lead to a 21% decline in natural gas-powered generation in 2030 compared to reference scenarios.
But if we don’t build tons of new natural gas plants, can we match all that renewable power to our minute-to-minute demand? Yes.
Reliability Requirement 2: Matching Energy Supply and Demand
The amount of energy we put into the electrical transmission wires (supply) must always equal the amount of energy we all need to keep our machines running (demand). When they are mismatched by more than a relatively small amount, the lights go off. To prevent a mismatch many utilities and utility regulatory commissions have historically preferred to have a lot of extra power plants available in case other power plants go down. Most also have a preference for “dispatchable” power plants – plants you can turn on or turn off easily and at will – to meet short term swings in demand.
But it turns out that, while the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine, wind and solar power can actually do just fine at matching electricity supply and electricity demand. In fact, they need far less backup capacity (i.e., extra, power plants just sitting around in case of a problem) than big conventional fossil fuel plants. With many small generators, instead of a handful of big ones, there is less risk of a big source of energy suddenly disappearing when a problem happens.
Iowa and South Dakota got more than 25% of their power from wind last year, while maintaining a reliable electrical system and some of the lowest rates in the country. On peak wind power days, wind has made up more than 60% of the energy mix in Colorado and nearly 40% in Texas. The question is not, “Can we integrate large amounts of renewable power on a stable grid,” but rather “How are we already doing it?”
The American Wind Energy Association recently released a report addressing this question and others.
Variability and uncertainty are nothing new for grid operators, as they have always dealt with large and unexpected fluctuations in electricity supply and demand by changing the output of power plants. Most changes in wind output are canceled out by other offsetting changes in electricity supply and demand, and any remaining variability is accommodated using the same flexible reserves that grid operators have always used. In fact, because changes in wind output occur gradually and can be forecast, they are less costly for grid operators to accommodate than the abrupt failures of large conventional power plants.
In other words, variability in wind patterns does not translate into unmanageable variations in wind power. With solar, the patterns are even more predictable, and strategic placement of solar panels can help provide a smooth supply of solar power throughout the day.
With advancing methods of forecasting, monitoring, and matching electrical supply and demand across large regions, we can also take advantage of the fact that weather conditions vary geographically. While the sun is shining in the valley it may be cloudy on the mountain, and when the wind is blowing in the mountain it may be calm in the valley. But across the broader area, the conditions average out, and the result is a stable energy supply.
The Clean Power Plan, despite underestimating many state’s true potential to scale up renewable power, will help bring more clean power sources like wind and solar into the mix. But having enough power and matching supply and demand are still not enough to ensure grid stability: we also need to make sure that people (and their electrical devices) are connected to a stable source of electricity.
Reliability Requirement 3: Getting the Power to the People
The last of the reliability requirements is the one that gets the least attention, but addressing it is critically important and provides a major opportunity to improve the security of our energy systems: the wires.
Right now, our electrical system depends on running large transmission lines from a relatively small number of centralized power plants through an even smaller number of connecting “nodes.” Think of a hub and spoke system for air travel: if all of a given airline’s flights are routed through a single airport, even a relatively small problem at that airport can create chaos throughout the country – even on other airlines in other cities.
Stress on this system can come from major storms and floods, sudden changes in electricity demand or supply, or even from hostile intentional attacks. As former FERC Commissioner Jon Wellinghoff put it in a recent interview:
We need to change the way the grid works, not just build higher and higher walls around these nodes. This can be done by shifting from a centralized to a distributed grid architecture in which power generation is dispersed along the grid. . . . So if there is an attack on a node it won’t take down that whole area of the grid because there would be those sub-regional and micro-grids that could island themselves within those areas.
In other words, the risk we live with now is a product of how our grid is organized: the power is too far from the people. Getting the energy across a vast geographical distance exposes the system to risk because every node and every foot of wire is also the site of a potential failure. With only a few nodes and a few big wires, it is like putting all our eggs in one basket.
The solution is to start by investing in energy efficiency in order to reduce our overall dependence on large remote power plants and the miles and miles of wires needed to move that energy to our homes. Next, we should bring the power closer to the people and diversify our generation sources. Again, Wellinghoff:
A distributed grid can be powered by a variety of methods – from co-generators of natural gas to wind turbines to solar installations on your home. The key is that they are located within that particular sub-region and can run even if there is some cascading failure throughout the main grid. Solar is a good example. If everyone had solar panels on their respective roofs then we could adequately disperse power generation in such a way that it makes nodes practically irrelevant. It is easy to hack into a node and cause it to malfunction but it is basically impossible to hack 10 million solar power systems.
As it happens, these strategies are also great ways to cut carbon pollution while saving Americans money on their electric bills and creating good, local jobs.
If we seize this opportunity, achieving our goals under the Clean Power Plan and improving the reliability of our electrical system will go hand in hand.