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Some Coronavirus Effects on Grids Clear, Others Still Being Studied

image credit: © Rik Trottier |
Peter Key's picture
Freelance Writer, Editor, Consultant Self-employed

I've been a business journalist since 1985 when I received an MBA from Penn State. I covered energy, technology, and venture capital for The Philadelphia Business Journal from 1998 through 2013....

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  • Apr 7, 2020

People may be having trouble adapting to the restrictions in movement they face as a result of the novel coronavirus pandemic, but the demand forecasting models used by grid operators are doing just fine.

When I talked to Jeff Shields, PJM Interconnection’s media relations manager, last week for a post for the Load Management Group, he said the RTO has had trouble isolating the impact of the restrictions because its forecasting model already has taken their effect into account. As a result, PJM can’t use the model to see what demand would have been on a given day with that day’s actual weather conditions but without the restrictions.

Other grid operators’ forecasting models also are adapting themselves in response to the restrictions, Aidan Touhy, the Electric Power Research Institute’s program manager for grid operations and planning told me in an interview last week.

“They’ve been able to catch up pretty quick, it seems,” said Touhy, who is one of five authors of a report on the coronavirus-related restrictions’ impact on power demand in Italy, Spain, New York and California that EPRI put out on March 27.

The models have caught up to the new power demand patterns that the restrictions are producing in “anywhere from a few days to a week,” depending on what the changes are, Touhy said.

One of the changes is a more gradual climb to the peak, which occurs in the morning this time of year. In addition to US grids, EPRI has seen that in grids in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Germany, said Eamonn Lannoye, the senior program manager for EPRI Europe.

While the restrictions have resulted in lower peaks, they have not produced much lower minimum demand, at least from what EPRI’s seen so far, Touhy said. Instead, they’ve led to weekday demand curves that aren’t much different from weekend demand curves.

“Every day’s a weekend,” Lannoye said.

Summer heatwaves traditionally produce the biggest strains on grids in the US. Hopefully, the severe restrictions now in place won’t be necessary in summer, but Touhy said EPRI is trying to look into how grids could be affected if they are.

The effects could be complicated. For example, on hot days, people might have the air conditioning in their homes set to a lower temperature than they would if they were at their usual workplaces. At the same time, however, their regular workplaces might have the air conditioning set to a higher temperature because there are fewer people there. In that case, any difference in demand would be the difference between the additional power being used by the people’s residential air conditioners and the power not being used by their workplace air conditioners, which could be hard to estimate in advance.

Touhy said how coronavirus-related restrictions would affect summer power use isn’t clear and they likely would affect different grids in different ways.

“It’s something we’re looking at closely,” he said.

If the restrictions last into autumn, or are relaxed but reinstated then, that would present a whole new set of challenges.

“If this crisis extends into the fall, we’re going to hit hurricane season,” John MacWilliams, a former associate deputy secretary of the Department of Energy and a senior fellow at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy, told Wired last month.

“Utilities are doing a very good job right now, but if we get unlucky and have an active hurricane season, they're going to get very stressed because the number of workers that are available to repair damage and restore power will become more limited.”

Mike Bryson, PJM’s senior vice president of operations, agreed.

“Any one disaster is manageable, but when you start layering them on top of each other, it gets much more challenging,” Bryson told Wired.

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