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The Clear And Present Danger In The Electric Transition
- Feb 19, 2023 7:32 pm GMT
The electricity system in the United States — all of it — is heading into a massive crisis in the not very distant future. It is a crisis that is known and continues to grow.
We are simply asking too much of the system — generation, transmission and distribution — to accommodate rapid electrification while it transitions from traditional generation to renewables, mostly solar and wind, if we don’t focus on resource adequacy and transmission.
The electricity industry won’t be able to deal with future demands if it remains on its present modest growth trajectory.
This somber warning comes from Duane Highley, president and CEO of Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, Inc., the rural electric cooperative which is headquartered in Westminster, Colorado, and serves member distribution utilities in four states: Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming, and Nebraska.
Highley told me in an interview for “White House Chronicle” on PBS that he is worried about the growing demands on the system when there is no compensating growth in it. We spoke just before the Christmas storm that left many in the dark and the freezing cold. Since then, there has been a lot of extreme weather across the country.
“I am reflecting on Winter Storm Uri in Texas [February 2021]. People lost their lives because the power went off. That’s a serious responsibility we have as the grid operators, and we can’t let that happen again,” Highley said.
Highley drew attention to a recent report from the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, the organization charged with assessing the reliability of the electricity grid. Its report warned of power shortages this winter in New England, a wide swath down the center of the country, from Canada to Mexico, and in other Southern states. It also warned of power shortages in Texas.
“We may get by this winter, and we may get by next winter, but we aren’t going to get by forever,” Highley said.
“The day of reckoning is coming, when the weather is going to catch up to us and we will have another of these Uri-type events, and there will be loss of life if the lights go out,” he said, adding, “I sincerely hope that won’t happen, but I don’t think we will get serious about the realities of the energy transition.”
Here, according to Highley, are those realities: The transition of the industry is being directed by many state regulatory bodies, moving generation from fossil fuels to renewables. It is going faster than the industry can cost-effectively adjust, and importantly, faster than the supply chain can catch up.
He said the key consideration today is whether equipment manufacturers can build the amount of wind and solar the utilities are being asked to purchase. “The supply chain can’t absorb more money,” he said.
While his concern echoes one heard throughout the electric industry, it hasn’t gotten much traction in the public debate at a time when money is pouring out of federal coffers to fund renewables without regard to rate at which the industry is able to absorb it.
Additionally, as coal resources are retired, utilities must be able to add those sources that can be turned on and turned up, including natural gas-fueled resources, that support grid resilience.
Highley is also concerned that electrification is accelerating the demands on the grid and all the components of the electric system faster than new infrastructure and generation can be added.
He said emphatically that he supports the transition, but it only makes sense if “we can keep the power reliable.”
Highley said that if a normal household adds an electric vehicle, it increases its electricity consumption by about 40 percent. “Multiply that cost across neighborhoods,” he said. “Now you’ve got to start replacing infrastructure, where the transformers are no longer big enough to serve the neighborhood.”
“ ‘Electrify everything’ means, eventually, you have to rebuild the transmission system to higher capacities, and we don’t have grids that can carry 40 percent more than we are now serving,” he stressed.
While Highley is a big believer in bringing the abundance of wind and solar power resources in the West to the East, he says major new transmission is also needed to better tie the Western Grid into the Eastern Grid.
But he warns that this can’t be done just at the grid edge with a few connections. Big new transmission would make the West the renewable powerhouse of the nation. And Highley dreams of it.
When I asked Highley if the local jurisdictions will allow major new transmission when they get no direct benefit from having power lines cross their territory, he replied, “I am a dreamer. You’ve got to push and continue to push. There’s no one else going to do it for you.”
While he is worried about the long-term electricity future, Highley also is much concerned with the immediate future and the lack of growth in the supply even as the demand is rising — and set to rise further.
He pointed out that the much-respected Electric Power Research Institute, in a study two years ago, found that the country would have to triple the historic rate of annual solar and wind additions to meet 2030 decarbonization goals of 50 percent.
“We could, maybe, increase that rate by 10 to 20 percent, but we don’t have the supply chain capacity to triple that,” he said.
Highley said the huge federal incentives for renewables, which are critically important to making the transition affordable for rural communities, nevertheless is the equivalent to pouring fuel on a fire. In other words, too much demand and too little supply.
Nonetheless, he is proud of how his utility group has coped and especially how it managed when Uri hit, which affected his service territory as much as it did Texas, but without the catastrophic results.
Highley explained that his co-op was able to utilize coal and natural gas when renewable output decreased due to weather and because they have dual-use turbines, they turned those to oil when gas became too pricey.
“Gas is our battery” he said of the turbines. It is a thought I find widely held.
The systemic failure of the airlines, due to weather and other factors over Christmas, has caused many to wonder whether a similar crop of failures will hit the utility industry – and all of us — in the near future.
A version of this article was published in Forbes.
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