Grid chief: Operators pulling ‘rabbits’ to keep lights on

By Peter Behr | E&E News Link to article

Stresses on parts of the power grid have operators scrambling for ways to keep the lights on.

In Texas, where backup power reserves are stretched to the limit, most engineers would conclude that “there’s no way in hell they can keep the lights on,” said Jim Robb, CEO of the North American Electric Reliability Corp. “And yet they do.”

In New England, the head of the regional grid operator, Gordon van Welie, has needed a magician’s touch to escape natural gas shortages for power plants, Robb added at a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission conference last month.

“Gordon up in New England constantly finds another rabbit to pull out of his hat to keep the lights on when any of us would look at that situation and say, ‘It’s got to break,'” Robb said.

California’s power network, newly reliant on solar power and strained natural gas supplies, rounds out a trio of regional grids drawing attention from federal regulators over the challenges they face.

“We’ve got three really interesting hot spots in the country right now that are challenging everything that everybody in this room thinks about how an electric system should be operated,” Robb told assembled grid experts at the June 27 meeting at FERC headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Robb said “there’s something in the soup” in Texas and the other two stressed systems that offers food for thought, and he wasn’t talking about chowder, gumbo or tortilla broth.

“One thing I would like us to do is dissect these three laboratories and understand what’s really going on there that could challenge the rules of thumb that we carry around in our heads,” he said.

Robb’s comments offered takeaways for various sides in the debates over a clean energy future for the electric power sector.

He didn’t endorse the coal industry’s argument that clean energy ambitions should be slowed down to ensure secure power flows. But neither did Robb offer support to the most demanding goals of some clean energy advocates, who hope that a simple pairing of renewable energy and battery storage can be the next rabbit out of the hat for the U.S. power sector.

Today’s utility-scale battery technology isn’t up to that lift, Robb told reporters recently, putting the burden on “100% renewables” champions to document how that could work and what political price they’d be willing to pay.

Robb acknowledged that fast-paced transitions away from predictable coal-fired and nuclear power to variable renewable power are creating new issues that operators must learn how to manage in regions like California, Texas and New England.

“Each one of the utilities in those areas have been able to work their way through those tight spots,” Mark Lauby, NERC’s senior vice president and chief reliability officer, who testified alongside Robb at the FERC conference, said in an interview. “The question is, what are they doing? What are the operating procedures they’ve put in place?”

Lauby said NERC wants to work with those organizations to find their “secret sauce” and pass along the recipe to the rest of the industry.

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