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Thoughts from 35,000 Feet: Three things needed for a reliable grid.

Posted to Smart Grid Reliability Alliance in the Grid Professionals Group
Alan Ross's picture
President Electric Power Reliability Alliance (EPRA)

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  • Jul 5, 2021 1:14 pm GMT
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I've just recently read Doug Houseman's post on here about his thoughts on the future of the grid. Doug is a legend and he has me thinking. As we get back to travel, it seems my best thinking is done in the rarified air of a recent flight at 35, 000 feet. 

1. Reliability of an asset is based on the ability of that asset to perform its designed function for the period it was designed, without unplanned failure. The reliability of a system is the same, but with the caveat that any asset in the system can be the weakest link in that system. The reliability of the electrical grid (a system) is far too dependent on aged assets that have far outlived their useful life. 

2. Our system is flawed in that the design of the system did not allow for shared access across the whole system. The SEAMS study points that out all too clearly and the recent ERCOT "Frozen" episode pointed that out.

3. The system, or grid, will require a whole new way of generating (DER), function use (EV) and distributing (micro-grids, storage, DR, and more). New assets are being installed, particularly monitoring and controls assets, which are solid state assets, and these will change the system.

We must address all of these if we are to have a "reliable system": one which can be easily restored after the the growing climate change impacts of fire, storms and quakes. Complex systems need complex solutions and unless we use the billions of dollars we will be pouring into the infrastructure of the grid, wisely and from an overall systems approach, we will be wasting these resources.

Everyone in this space, needs to consider working collaboratively toward a common goal...a reliable and resilient grid.

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Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jul 5, 2021

Alan, there is little evidence "age" is playing a significant part in the reliability of grids in either Texas or California. Weather often plays a part, but there are established maintenance procedures and schedules that minimize the possibility of any widespread reliability problems.

"Our system is flawed in that the design of the system did not allow for shared access across the whole system."

Nothing about the U.S. electrical system doesn't allow for shared access to electricity. That is one of its shining virtues - nearly everyone in the country has access to a reliable supply of electricity. That we all can't contribute our own power to the grid is a virtue, too - you can't build your own offramp to the freeway, or contribute water to the public water supply, either, and though I trust my municipality to make sure my water is clean and safe to drink, I wouldn't necessarily trust my neighbor.

Certainly if the U.S. power grid isn't serving your needs, I'd urge you to seek venture capital and build your own. You'd have to obtain easements to public property and spend a fortune on transmission, however. Maybe that's why no one has attempted it.

"The system, or grid, will require a whole new way of generating (DER), function use (EV) and distributing (micro-grids, storage, DR, and more). New assets are being installed, particularly monitoring and controls assets, which are solid state assets, and these will change the system."

The belief we can improve the reliability of the U.S. electrical grid by making it more complex contradicts fundamental principles of engineering. I'd recommend you speak to an electrical or systems engineer to explain why, but you've got it exactly backwards. In short: the goal of any reliable system is to make it as simple as possible, to use the minimum quantity of hardware and software necessary. Why? The more stuff there is, the more stuff there is to break. Similarly, its the challenge of coordinating and synchronizing thousands of generation assets on the grid that is responsible for recent reliability problems in both Texas and California. Your cure is the illness. 

I know whenever I go hiking in the mountains, above 12,000 feet or so the lack of oxygen starts to affect my thought processes. I don't always make the best decisions, and it can be dangerous. So, just a suggestion: maybe reconsidering your solution to the problems of the U.S. grid at sea level would inspire a different approach.

Alan Ross's picture
Alan Ross on Jul 6, 2021

Ouch! Bob, I'd rather not get into a dialogue like this here so I'd be glad to discuss your criticisms. One thing for certain is you did not understand my reference to the ability for shared system. I referenced the SEAMS Study which cam to the same conclusion so I am not sure where your response came from.

I agree with your position on simplicity, which is true of mechanical engineering as well, not just for EE's. My post was quite simply to point out that we are adding tremendous complexity to the system and needed to consider reliability of the system not the assets alone. 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jul 7, 2021

"My post was quite simply to point out that we are adding tremendous complexity to the system and needed to consider reliability of the system not the assets alone. "

Alan, my apologies. The purpose of my post was not to attack you, but the assumption adding tremendous complexity to the national grid, only to satisfy the current fascination with "renewables", is in the public interest. It's unnecessary, exorbitantly expensive, and wasteful. It would require an obscene use of land, and have a corresponding impact on wildlife.

As I've noted elsewhere, analysis from NREL seeks to promote renewable energy - not because it's a cost-effective solution to climate change, but because it's big business. The SEAMS study is no exception.

John Simonelli's picture
John Simonelli on Jul 29, 2021

Equipment owners and system operators do their best to maintain the existing grid. It should be recognized that those efforts are frequently handicapped by the ability to get the necessary rate increases to cover replacement/upgrade of equipment. A classic example is bulk transmission transformers. When they fail it usually takes at least a year or longer to get a replacement. Replacing those transformers is an incredibly expensive task. Many states are loath to allow the rate increases necessary to replace aging transformers before they fail. So while you may monitor internal temperature, gassing in a transformer, etc., you're still going to have to convince someone to give you the money to replace one before it fails. I shudder to think it how many 60 plus year old transformers are out there on the bulk transmission system that should have been replaced 10 years ago. So while everyone is doing their best, equipment failure is more common than it should be.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jul 29, 2021

John, thanks for your perspective on this issue. Gene Preston is a lifelong grid engineer and analyst at ERCOT who occasionally comments here. I think he would probably agree.

Not coincidentally, California is experiencing the same conflicts as Texas re: costs. PG&E management says, "We get blamed for not maintaining transmission. When we ask for rate increases to pay for it the complaining never ends. It's a no-win situation."

But in California, ratesetting deserves much of the blame. Our policy of "decoupling" utility profits from sales of electricity has forced our Public Utilities Commission to develop complex schemes to both reward utility shareholders, and protect public interests. And as might be expected, complexity in any financial arrangement is a magnet for fraud.

Any way you slice it, electricity is a commodity. Though ratepayers would be far better off with simple, per-kilowatthour pricing, they have very little say in how rates are set.

John Simonelli's picture
John Simonelli on Aug 3, 2021

Bob, It absolutely drives me insane. People complain about utilities not doing proper maintenance or tree trimming or operating unreliably. People also want the industry to decarbonize society which requires the construction of gigawatts of renewable resources and accompanying storage not to mention 10s of thousands of miles of transmission. These are all noble goals however no one ever wants to address the 800-pound gorilla in the room, the cost in trillions of dollars. The kinds of initiatives that people want the industry to take do not happen without significant capital investment and that's where everyone washes their hands and walks away from the table. You can't have one without the other.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Aug 3, 2021

What drives me insane is California's Public Utilities Commission forcing customers to pay $4.5 billion in decommissioning costs to shut down Diablo Canyon Power Plant, source of one-fourth of our state's clean electricity. That's throwing away $5 billion in 'significant capital' PG&E customers have already invested!

I know for a fact PG&E would continue to operate the plant with state support - but that support is being eroded by generous campaign contributions from fossil fuel interests.
 

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jul 6, 2021

Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts, Alan!

For anyone seeking context, here's the article from Doug Houseman that Alan mentions

On this point: 

Our system is flawed in that the design of the system did not allow for shared access across the whole system. The SEAMS study points that out all too clearly and the recent ERCOT "Frozen" episode pointed that out.

Many pointed to this as a bug after the Texas freeze this past winter, but the counterargument has long been that this independence is seen as a 'feature' by those in Texas. The patchwork processes have created problems, but there doesn't seem to be a strong push or progress to undo the regional nature that so many of these leaders continue to covet. Do you see that changing given these challenges that keep arising, or are we could to have to continue to work around that 'flaw'?

Jim Stack's picture
Jim Stack on Jul 7, 2021

Alan, maybe you should consider the view from 10 to 30 feet below the surface? An airplane is a big dangerous pollution source. The Tesla Hyper loop is super efficient and very safe. No hijacks and crashing into buildings. They travel faster than an airplane and use less than 100th the energy as they are in a vaccum.  

    The same with the GRID. It is getting much more stable and efficient with the advanced batteries just like are used in Electric Vehicles.  Charging spots have solar and battery storage. Most charge at home Off Peak . New vehicles like the Lucid have V2G Vehicle to GRID. 

So 35k feet above can miss the great answers right in front of us. Lets take the best new ideas and use them with good policies so we all have a better GRID and future. 

Alan Ross's picture
Alan Ross on Jul 7, 2021

Thanks Jim. When given the opportunity, I'll use the Tesla Hyper Loop, however if it doesn't go from ATL to LAX, I'll need Delta? 

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