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Bad Weather and The Battle for Grid Reliability

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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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The Pacific Northwest was just hit with the worst flooding in a decade and the D.C. area is bracing for more snow just days after a blizzard stranded motorist overnight on Interstate 95.  “That was entirely too much for us to keep up with,” Marcie Parker, a Virginia Department of Transportation engineer, said.  Are grid operators facing a similar situation?  What’s the connection between grid reliability and climate change?  One thing is certain, extreme weather is crippling the grid across the country.  Recent findings from two studies by North Carolina State University (NC State) examined how extreme weather will continue to impact the grid.  The studies focus on the California and the Pacific Northwest region.   One study explored how long-term shifts in water availability and higher air temperatures could impact supply and demand for electricity for the West Coast.  The study measured grid reliability and wholesale electricity prices.  They hypothesized that a change in water availability would impact the Pacific Northwest and California through reduced summer deliveries of hydropower.  

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Evidence of this was seen in the Hyatt Power Plant at the Oroville Dam in Northern California.  The plant was shut down on Aug 5, 2021 for the first time since it started in 1967.  Severe drought and hot temperatures forced officials to take the plant offline.

In the second study, researches at NC State identified excessive heat in California as the culprit that will raise prices and interrupt reliability. “Our key finding was that as the grid decarbonizes, you are still going to be left with that vulnerability to water and heat,” Jordan Kern, assistant professor of forestry and environment resources at NC State said about the study. “This is a system that can’t run away from that.”  In their model, they found the highest and lowest price years remain most strongly tied to extremes in hydropower availability and electricity demand even out to 2050.

Weather can negatively impact power generation and the grid but the reverse can also be true. Going from one extreme to another, a series of storms recently brought record-breaking amounts of snowfall to the Sierra Nevada and raised Lake Oroville’s levels up enough to resume power generation at the Hyatt Power Plant. In fact, the UC Berkeley Central Sierra Snow Lab, reported 214 inches of snow for the month, the most for any December since the lab started recording data in 1970.  "This is a significant milestone as California sees some relief from drought conditions, said water resources director, Karla Nemeth.  

For industry goals like decarbonizing the grid, maintaining reliability and managing electricity prices, weather uncertainty will continue to be an obstacle.  How is your region facing the challenge?  How do you prepare for the unexpected?  Expect rain, snow, hot, cold, drought, fires, high winds, no winds, and in great quantity.  The connection is clear so when you see the forecast is clear skies, grab an umbrella, a parka and your snow boots. Prepare for the worst, hope for the best but definitely, prepare.

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