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Grid Operators: Keep Calm and Carry On

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Nevelyn Black's picture
Writer, Independent

Nevelyn Black is an independent writer with a background in broadcast and a keen interest in renewable energy.  In the last few years, she transitioned from celebrity interviews and film shoots...

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  • Dec 29, 2022

During WWII Britain encouraged their citizens to ‘Keep Calm and Carry On.’ The phrase was coined by the Ministry of Information to combat low morale and counteract any negative reactions to very bleak conditions.  Both food and clothing were being rationed.  Daily necessities were in short supply.  Now, the country faces a crisis of a different kind.  An energy crisis. One that may require the country, and world, to repeat this call for ‘sober restraint.’ 

The EU is already taking major steps towards power rationing.  Across Europe, people are stock piling wood and battening down in preparation of power outages and possible natural gas rationing. “We’re literally meeting people who have got nothing on the meter,” said Sarah Chapman, an advocacy manager at the Wandsworth Foodbank in south London.  “So the lights go off, the fridge goes off and they lose what little food they have in the fridge anyway. Families are living in one room to save on heat and lights.”

Wartime and The Grid

During the six years Britain was at war, 1939–45, life was hard for Londoners.  Now, people may be wondering if life is about to get hard again and when the lights come back on, who will have power.

While the current war is between Russia and Ukraine, the effects are far-reaching.  Power providers are seeking solutions to a global natural gas shortage amid extreme weather events where demand exceeds grid capacity.  Germany has also set up an energy saving plan.  The country hopes rationing becomes a last resort.  First, other measures to resolve the issue would go into effect, like running washing machines at 40 degrees and limiting streaming services to SD resolution only.  Switzerland could be the first country to limit driving EV’s, but they aren’t the only ones seriously considering restrictions. After California’s recent blackouts last September, the California Independent System Operator asked EV owners to avoid charging during peak times.  The request came on the heels of a state approved plan to phase out the sale of internal combustion vehicles by 2035.    

Rationing and load-shedding are more common in developing areas where governments and utilities struggle to meet demand. However, first world conditions are often characterized by prosperity, democracy, and stability.  Rolling blackouts, brownouts and electricity rationing are not exactly signs of stability.  Will European households comply?  How will consumers, in general, react to electricity rationing? What impact will this have in the long run?  

Grid Capacity verses Natural Gas Shortages

A global shortage of natural gas and elevated peak demand due to extreme weather is a bad combination.  “We are living in extraordinary times from an electric industry perspective,” said John Moura, the director of reliability assessment at NERC.  He explained, “Managing the pace of our generation retirement and our resource mix changes to ensure we have enough energy and essential services are an absolute necessity,” and added, “We need to work with the entire ecosystem to make sure we’re managing that base and to be very clear that we’re not retiring generation prematurely — that is done in an orderly fashion and especially in areas that are right on the edge.” 

Many areas across the country found themselves on the ‘edge’ last weekend when a severe cold snap and heavy snow knocked out power across the nation. This holiday season, the electrical grid is at ‘high risk’ in California, parts of the Midwest and parts of the South Central United States.  NERC officials are asking grid operators to be very conservative when it comes to retiring generation.  This week, grid operators across the country are asking customers to reduce their energy consumption.  PJM Interconnection Inc., part of the Eastern Interconnection grid and the largest US grid operator, issued an expanded cold weather alert and a request for conservation for 13 states and the District of Columbia.   

Who is to Blame?

Is there a corner of the grid not strained by demand, under attack, or threat of system failure?  Is an aging grid or a short supply of natural gas to blame for the instability of the grid?  “This is not because the grid has changed, but because there is so much greater threat from extreme weather,” said Alison Silverstein, an independent consultant at the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. “And the number of extreme weather events of every kind have increased significantly over the last decade, in particular.”  Weather is definitely to blame for the power interruptions of late but utilities may still face investigation by state officials.  Gov. Cooper is asking Duke Energy for full report after recent 'rolling blackouts'.  Duke Energy explained that temperatures were colder than anticipated causing huge demand and equipment failure. Normally, the utility would divert energy from another grid as a backup plan but because of the size of the storm, there was no power to be shared. 

Change is the Only Constant

Why aren’t grid operators estimating demand more accurately?  "We're in uncharted territory on this. We don't know how high the demand would have been in February 2021, if not for the blackouts that put a third of Texans into the dark, and so this is the first deep freeze that we've had without blackouts," said Dan Cohan, who is an associate professor of environmental engineering at Rice University. "Since the economy and the population has grown so much, we have more homes heated with electricity than ever before. Predicting how that will perform in a deep freeze is something new for ERCOT to figure out." 

The unpredictability of demand has revealed another vulnerability of the grid.  “These cold fronts expose the fragility of our energy systems,” said Michael Webber, an energy resources professor at the University of Texas in Austin. “Though the variability of wind and solar are well known and discussed a lot, these freezes also show the flimsiness of the gas system.”  Texas is not alone in this dilemma.

Principle Innovation Specialist for Baltimore Gas & Electric, Alan MacAnespie told Energy Central, “We have to constantly reinvent ourselves. We have to be enticing certainly, but we need to be able to provide and deliver in ways that have never been done before. If we're going to be making tremendous changes in responses to electrification, to try and deal with better grid resiliency. If we want to be able to respond to climate change and be good advocates for equity, then we're going to have to figure out completely new ways of doing some of our activities and our operations.”  As the nation’s oldest utility, after 200+ years, they have seen their share of change.  BG&E was not immune to the destructive power of this latest storm. Despite every effort to prepare the grid, their customers were still impacted by the outages. Proving there are limits to our ability to thwart extreme weather events.

Think Positive

Before World War II, Britain maintained colonies all over the world.  By 1945, however, colonies were an expensive liability, so Britain withdrew.  After the war, allies were made, global politics transformed, and independence was granted to many.  Could grid stabilization, modernization or microgrid mandates ring in colossal change as well?  Once the dust settles, what changes to grid operations will we see?  Can grid operators make allies out of state regulators and utility companies?  Will the ongoing process of electrification be transformed forever?  Could microgrids provide freedom from widespread outages?  Until these questions are answered, gird operators will ‘Keep Calm and Carry On.'


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