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NERC warns of tough summer

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Henry Craver's picture
Small Business Owner Self-employed

As a small business owner, I'm always trying to find ways to cut costs and boost the dependability of my services. To that end, I've become increasingly invested in learning about energy saving...

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  • May 28, 2021 4:46 pm GMT

A couple weeks ago, California’s grid operator, CAISO, issued an ominous announcement. According to their own assessment, California was only slightly better prepared for Summer 2021 than it had been for Summer 2020. The state’s cruddy preparedness can’t be simply chalked up to negligence: The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) had, afterall, done exactly what most industry commentators had suggested. They’d directed utilities operating in the state to contract extra capacity from existing power plants in February, and again issued a similar decision in March. 

Yesterday, more bad news came rolling in—and not just for California. the North American Electric Reliability Corp. (NERC) announced that California, Texas, New England, and swaths of the midwest all face an elevated risk of energy crisis this summer. The findings are explained in detail in the agency’s 2021 Summer Reliability Assessment

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According to the NERC’s assessment, the regions’ vulnerability boil down to two main factors: the rise of intermittent resources and the likelihood of extreme weather events. 

Of the four at risk areas, California seems to be the worst off. The report mentions that even periods of normal peak demand risk depleting the state’s energy resources. This is especially concerning when you consider that these “once in a century” wildfires seem to burn every year now in Northern California. The assessment estimates that 10,185 MWh will go unmet this coming summer. 

California has added reserve power, but much of it is solar. NERC suggests it will be necessary to transfer capacity onto the balancing area to offset weaker solar generation in the evenings. 

After about half the state’s residents lost power in February, Texas heads into summer 2021 better prepared—but still very vulnerable. According to NERC, the Lonestar State has increased its on-peak planning reserve margins from 12.9% to 15.3%. Most of that jump has come by the way of new wind generation and battery storage. On a number of occasions in recent years, wind has failed Texas when the power was needed most.  

Luckily, things are not as dire in the midwest and New England. Both regions have enough resources for peak demand, however extreme weather events could exhaust them. NERC puts the possibility of such extreme events at 1 in 10. 

What can be done this summer to mitigate the possibility of disaster? Better communication is a good place to start. Load servicers need to work with reliability coordinators to review outage schedules and examine the potential needs for energy imports. Studies on the topic and generator agreements should be ironed out before it’s too late. 

Communication with customers is also important. Operators should practice calls for energy conservation and voltage conservation in places of elevated risk. These aren’t the sort of tools you want to rely on, but places like California don’t have many options. 

Longterm, utilities and operators must learn how to ensure reliability with ever increasingly complex resource portfolios. As the country continues its transition to renewables and simultaneously electrifies, things are only going to become more stressful. Planning must begin now.


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Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on May 28, 2021

"Longterm, utilities and operators must learn how to ensure reliability with ever increasingly complex resource portfolios."

Henry, any engineer will tell you that complexity always comes at a cost in reliability. In other words: you will never improve reliability on an electrical grid with increasingly complex resource portfolios.

Sometimes increased complexity is necessary - in that case, the symptoms of unreliability can sometimes be minimized. But the job of an engineer, whether electrical, mechanical, civil, materials, or other sub-discipline of his field, is to design the simplest possible system that will achieve its goal.

Raising the question: is our goal to provide everyone in society with a reliable, affordable supply of clean electricity, or to create the electrical infrastructure that provides the most jobs, sells the most wind turbines and solar panels, but results in more emissions, costs more, and is less reliable?

If that's even a question, we need to take a deeper look at our long-term priorities - at whether we "must" do something that is ultimately harmful to society and the environment.

Mike Casey's picture
Mike Casey on Jun 2, 2021

Henry, any engineer will tell you that complexity always comes at a cost in reliability. In other words: you will never improve reliability on an electrical grid with increasingly complex resource portfolios.

A valid point but not completely true in terms of energy resources. A more distributed system of localized resources can also serve to increase overall grid reliability. 

In many "complex" systems, the failure of a single component might cause the entire system to shut down. In terms of energy resources, the more highly distributed the supply is, the less effect a single failure will have on the rest of the grid.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jun 2, 2021

"In many "complex" systems, the failure of a single component might cause the entire system to shut down. In terms of energy resources, the more highly distributed the supply is, the less effect a single failure will have on the rest of the grid."

Michael, though no grid is powered by a single power plant, the idea "more is better" is a common statistical fallacy in engineering that ignores the likelihood of more "single" failures in a system with more potential points of failure.

Early commercial jet aircraft had four engines mounted on the wings. The thinking was that if one or more engines failed, there would be multiple backups. Improvements in the reliability of turbojet engines gradually led to a transition to three engines: two on the wings, and one centrally-mounted in the tail (McDonnell-Douglas DC-10, Lockheed L-1011). Now, nearly all commercial aircraft are powered by two wing-mounted engines. Overall they've made flying much safer, due to both improvements in design and simpler maintenance requirements.

Distributed, duplicative systems also ignore beneficial economies of scale, both in physics and economics. Economies of scale mean less waste (including CO2 emissions) and lower cost.


Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Jun 2, 2021

The pinhead authorities in California have shut down thousand of megawatts of nuclear and gas fired power plants and then have the audacity to claim we are running out of power. Utterly pathetic and demonstrating their lack of integrity. 

Mike Casey's picture
Mike Casey on Jun 2, 2021

San Onofre was shut down because of poor engineering, equipment failures and safety issues. 

Who are the "pinheads" in this case? I live about 20 miles inland from that disaster waiting to happen and thank God every day that it was taken offline before the next big earthquake. The spent fuel there, stored just a few yards from the Pacific Ocean, is still a major problem.

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Jun 3, 2021

Diablo Canyon was just shutdown. San Onofre has been shutdown for a long time. Stop with the attempts to fog the issue. The authorities in California are incompetent fools.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jun 4, 2021

Actually, Diablo Canyon is still generating 2.3 billion watts of clean electricity, night and day. PG&E and the pinheads in California state government are working very hard to make us think it's a done deal, but the plant will be open until at least the end of 2025.
Give up on the San Onofre pinheads, the plant has been offline since 2013 and they're still imagining Armageddon. It think they miss it, in a weird kind of way. Like bungie-jumpers, they're addicted to fear.

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Jun 4, 2021

Thanks Bob! -- glad to see an ember of sanity is still glowing in California! Hope some of the mothballed combined-cycle plants are also put back online.

Situation demonstrates once again the virtues of balanced energy resources, as opposed to mindlessly kowtowing to zealots out of touch with reality.


Joe Deely's picture
Joe Deely on Jun 5, 2021

Michael - below is latest breakdown of fuel sources for Electricity in CA over the last few years and below that is a breakdown of fuel sources across the Western grid.

While some stupid decisions have been made as far as timing of shutdowns in CA - as you can the "balance" of generation out West and in CA is pretty good.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jun 6, 2021

Joe, the "timing of shutdowns" has nothing to do with rolling blackouts last August Per the former CEO of the California Independent System Operator, who was fired shortly after making these remarks:

"People wonder how we made it through the heat wave of 2006,” said Berberich. “The answer is that there was a lot more generating capacity in 2006 than in 2020.... We had San Onofre [nuclear plant] of 2,200 MW, and a number of other plants, totalling thousands of MW not there today."

"The situation could have been avoided,” said Berberich. “For many years we have pointed out that there was inadequate supply after electricity from solar has left the peak. We have indicated in filing after filing after filing that procurement needed to be fixed. We have told regulators over and over that more should be contracted for. That was rebuffed. And here we are.”

It has everything to do with believing solar and wind can substitute for dispatchable resources. They never will - magical self-charging batteries, notwithstanding.

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Jun 7, 2021

The problem leaps out when you consider what the table actually shows. Significant decrease in reliable generating resources. Couple that with increased demands and the stage is set for reliability issues, particularly if natural gas supply issues arise and the hydro water supply drops. That is the scenario that is emerging for summer in the West. Energy supplies should be driven by balance, not the religious fanaticism of green energy.

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