EPA Coal Cuts Light Up Washington

A meeting at the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s (FERC’s) Washington headquarters yesterday lived up to expectations that it would be one of the most exciting sessions in the agency’s history. Buttoned up policy wonks, lobbyists, and power market experts showed up in droves—over 600 registered—to witness a discussion of what President Obama’s coal-cutting Clean Power Plan presaged for the U.S. power grid. The beltway crowd was joined by activists for and against fossil fuels—and extra security.

Inside proceedings, about the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) plans’ impact on power grid reliability, protesters against fracking and liquid natural gas exports shouted “NATURAL GAS IS DIRTY” each time a speaker mentioned coal’s fossil fuel nemesis. Outside, the coal industry-backed American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity distributed both free hand-warmers and dark warnings that dumping coal-fired power would leave Americans “cold in the dark.”

As expected, state regulators and utility executives from coal-reliant states such as Arizona and Michigan hammered home the ‘Cold in the Dark’ message in their exchanges with FERC’s commissioners. Gerry Anderson, Chairman and CEO of Detroit-based utility DTE Energy, called the Clean Power Plan “the most fundamental transformation of our bulk power system that we’ve ever undertaken.”

EPA’s critics argue that the plan’s timing is unrealistic and its compliance options are inadequate. Anderson said Michigan will need to shut down, by 2020, roughly 40 percent of the coal-fired generation that currently provides half of the state’s power. That, he said, “borders on unachievable and would certainly be ill-advised from a reliability perspective.”

EPA’s top air pollution official, Janet McCabe, defended her agency’s record and its respect for the grid. “Over EPA’s long history developing Clean Air Act standards, the agency has consistently treated electric system reliability as absolutely critical. In more than 40 years, at no time has compliance with the Clean Air Act resulted in reliability problems,” said McCabe.

McCabe assured FERC that EPA had carefully crafted its plan to provide flexibility to states and utilities regarding how they cut emissions from coal-fired power generation, and how quickly they contribute to the rule’s overall goal of lowering power sector emissions by 30 percent by 2030 from 2005 levels. (Michigan has state-verified energy conservation and renewable energy options to comply with EPA’s plans according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.)

McCabe said EPA is considering additional flexibility before it finalizes the rule, as early as June. EPA would consider, for example, specific proposals for a “reliability safety valve” to allow a coal plant to run longer than anticipated if delays in critical replacement projects—say, a natural gas pipeline or a transmission line delivering distant wind power—threatened grid security.

As it turned out, language codifying a reliability safety valve was on offer at yesterday’s meeting from Craig Glazer, VP for federal government policy at PJM Interconnection, the independent transmission grid operator for the Mid-Atlantic region. The language represents a consensus reached by regional system operators from across the country—one that is narrowly written and therefore unlikely to give coal interests much relief. “It can’t be a free pass,” said Glazer.

A loosely-constrained valve, explained Glazer, would undermine investment in alternatives to coal-fired power, especially for developers of clean energy technologies. “Nobody’s going to make those investments because they won’t know when the crunch time really comes. It makes it very hard for these new technologies to jump in,” said Glazer.

Clean energy advocates at the meeting, and officials from states that, like California, are on the leading edge of renewable energy development, discounted the idea that additional flexibility would be needed to protect the grid. They pushed back against reports of impending blackouts from some grid operators and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation(NERC). Those reports, they say, ignored or discounted evidence that alternative energy sources can deliver the essential grid services currently provided by conventional power plants.

NERC’s initial assessment, issued in November, foresees rolling blackouts and increased potential for “wide-scale, uncontrolled outages,” and NERC CEO Gerald Cauley says a more detailed study due out in April will identify reliability “hotspots” caused by EPA’s plan. At the FERC meeting, Cauley acknowledged that “the technology is out there allowing solar and wind to be contributors to grid reliability,” but he complained that regulators were not requiring them to do so. Cauley called on FERC to help make that happen.

Cleantech supporters, however, are calling on the government to ensure that NERC recognizes and incorporates renewable energy’s full capabilities when it issues projections of future grid operations. They got a boost from FERC Commissioner Norman Bay. The former chief of enforcement at FERC and Obama’s designee to become FERC’s next chairman in April, Bay pressed Cauley on the issue yesterday.

Bay asked Cauley how he was going to ensure that NERC is more transparent, and wondered whether NERC would make public the underlying assumptions and models it will use to craft future reports. Cauley responded by acknowledging that NERC relied on forecasts provided by utilities, and worked with utility experts to “get ideas on trends and conclusions” when crafting its reliability studies.

Cauley also acknowledged that they were not “entirely open and consensus based” the way NERC’s standards-development process was. And he demurred on how much more open the process could be, telling Bay, “I’ll have to get back to you on that.”

The challenge from Bay follows criticism leveled at NERC in a report issued last week by the Brattle Group, an energy analytics firm based in Boston. Brattle found that compliance with EPA’s plan was “unlikely to materially affect reliability.”

Brattle’s report concurred with renewables advocates who have argued that NERC got it wrong by focusing too much on the loss of coal-fired generation and too little on that which would replace it: “The changes required to comply with the CPP will not occur in a vacuum—rather, they will be met with careful consideration and a measured response by market regulators, operators, and participants. We find that in its review NERC fails to adequately account for the extent to which the potential reliability issues it raises are already being addressed or can be addressed through planning and operations processes as well as through technical advancements.”

This post was created for Energywise, IEEE Spectrum’s blog on green power, cars and climate

Will Shuttering Coal Plants Really Threaten the Grid?

Does President Obama’s plan to squelch carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants really threaten the stability of the grid? That politically-charged question is scheduled for a high-profile airing today at a meeting in Washington to be telecast live starting at 9 am ET from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).

Such “technical meetings” at FERC are usually pretty dry affairs. But this one could be unusually colorful, presenting starkly conflicting views of lower-carbon living, judging from written remarks submitted by panelists.

On one side are some state officials opposed to the EPA Clean Power Plan, which aims to cut U.S. power sector emissions 30 percent by 2030 from 2005 levels. Susan Bitter Smith, Arizona’s top public utilities regulator, argues that EPA’s plan is “seriously jeopardizing grid reliability.” Complying with it would, she writes, cause “irreparable disruption” to Arizona’s (coal-dependent) power system.

Environmental advocates and renewable energy interests will be hitting back, challenging the credibility of worrisome grid studies wielded by Bitter Smith and other EPA critics. Some come from organizations that are supposed to be neutral arbiters of grid operation, such as the standards-setting North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC). Clean energy advocates see evidence of bias and fear-mongering in these studies, and they are asking FERC to step in to assure the transparency and neutrality of future analyses.

The reliability controversy began throwing off sparks in October and November 2014 when NERC and some regional transmission operators sent initial feedback to EPA on its June 2014 proposal (to be finalized this July or August). The early feedback assumed that state compliance plans would force tens of gigawatts (GW) of coal-fired power generation offline almost overnight with little action to compensate for the lost energy and grid regulation services. Not surprisingly, the studies described a pretty wobbly power grid.

An October 2014 reliability assessment released by the Southwest Power Pool, the grid manager for nine central states, assumed that 9 GW of its region’s coal-fired generation would close by 2020. The resulting power flows, SPP found, were so irregular that its simulation software was incapable of modeling them. This indicated, according to SPP, “voltage collapse and blackout conditions.”

NERC’s initial assessment, issued in November, foresaw rolling blackouts and increased potential for “wide-scale, uncontrolled outages.”

One energy lawyer writing in the utilities news site EnergyCentral compared the grid experts issuing these blackout warnings to Paul Revere sending his storied light signals and saddling up to make history.

Critics, however, cried foul. European grid operators already deliver power more reliably than their U.S. counterparts while displacing conventional power plants with high levels of renewable energy. And worst case scenarios such as NERC and SPP’s flew in the face of prior detailed U.S. grid studies showing it capable of following the Europeans’ lead.

John Moore, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council who represents a coalition of environmental groups at today’s FERC meeting, citesa 2013 study of coal reductions on Texas’ grid by the Cambridge, MA-based Brattle Group. Brattle’s simulations found no reliability impact, even in scenarios where most of its coal-fired generation was shuttered and renewables met over 40 percent of demand.

Moore argues that NERC and SPP systematically ignored the flexibility and multiple compliance options that EPA’s Clean Power Plan offers to states. For example, the plan requires states to deliver interim CO2-reductions over the decade that begins in 2020, not by 2020.

Rob Gramlich, senior vice president for government affairs at the American Wind Energy Association, says the studies ignored modern wind farms’ capacity to deliver the grid regulation that conventional plants currently provide. As he puts it in his written comments: “Some analyses being done are truly ‘garbage-in/garbage-out’ exercises using outdated assumptions about clean energy.”

The enhanced capabilities of wind power plants are quickly spreading to solar power plants. In fact, even rooftop solar systems are getting upgraded inverters that can help grids ride-through frequency and voltage faults and even dynamically regulate grid voltage.

Both Moore and Gramlich call on FERC—which oversees NERC and the regional grid operators—to ensure that these organizations’ grid studies are transparent, neutral and authoritative. “FERC needs to make sure… that NERC’s and the regional authorities’ studies do not unduly represent the interests of a particular segment of the electric power industry,” writes Gramlich in a thinly-veiled reference to the coal sector.

U.S. Department of Energy’s representatives will also have EPA’s back today, bearing a freshly-released report that has “shot down a key argument against President Obama’s climate plans” according to the Washington Post. The report suggests that natural gas infrastructure can easily supply plenty of natural gas to replace shuttered coal-fired generation.

DOE’s optimism rests on the fact that gas production is now more widely distributed across the country, as well as the potential to boost throughput in existing pipelines. As a result even high gas demand cases can be met by adding new gas pipelines over the next 15 years no faster than was achieved by 1998 through 2013.

Grid operators may be yielding under the pushback and accusations of bias. The prepared remarks for NERC’s CEO argue that “deeper assessment is needed to determine the time requirements and potential risks to reliability” posed by EPA’s plan. Talk of blackouts is gone, replaced by a promise to issue more detailed assessments in the months ahead.

If there is an area where most of the parties agree, it is that expanded grid capacity to share renewable energy within or even between regions will be one of the keys to slashing power sector carbon emissions. Look for talk today about how FERC can cajole or command states and utilities to work together to get lines built.

Failure to build new transmission may not black-out the grid, but most studies suggest that it will drive up the cost of compliance. When the wind blows, the resulting power needs a place to go, and the bigger the area it can serve the lower the likelihood that it will be wasted.

Transmission experts would like to see the U.S. add long-distance high-voltage direct current (HVDC) lines of the sort that Germany, Norway andChina are building, or even extra-high-voltage AC lines overlaid on the existing grid. The problem is getting all of the grid players who benefit to pay a share of the costs, says Gramlich.

Gramlich says recent interstate capacity expansions in SPP’s territory and in the Midwest show that the U.S. power industry is figuring out how to get states to cooperate on regional lines. He credits regional transmission planning initiatives mandated by FERC, and recent court victories that show FERC has the authority to drive through new transmission—powers that FERC must now use to drive inter-regional transmission lines. As he writes in his statement: “FERC must not hesitate to use this authority.”

This post was created for Energywise, IEEE Spectrum’s blog on green power, cars and climate

Does Hawaii Need a Unified Grid?

Power cables to Oahu could reduce curtailment of Maui wind farms. Credit: First Wind

Since 2013, a big mainland energy firm has been raring to build Hawaii’s first inter-island power cable, arguing that only a unified power grid can enable the renewable energy developments needed to break Hawaii’s addiction to imported petroleum. Now that big outsider—Juno Beach, Florida-based NextEra Energy—is trying to absorb Hawaii’s power providers in one big bite.

In December, NextEra announced plans for a friendly $4.3 billion acquisition of Hawaiian Electric Industries, which owns the vertical monopolies that run the archipelago’s island grids (with the exception of Kauai’s). Observers debating what the acquisition would mean for Hawaii’s electrical future see at least three quite distinct outcomes:

  • NextEra secures Hawaiian Electric and builds cables to unify its assets, unleashing renewable energy development
  • NextEra’s bid for Hawaiian Electric is squashed by officials with longstanding mistrust of outside interests, and the island utilities proceed on their own
  • NextEra wins approval for the acquisition but drops its cable ambitions, focusing instead on bringing liquefied natural gas to Hawaii to repower Oahu’s oil and coal-fired generators

Interconnecting the islands is an idea that dates all the way back to an 1881 meeting in New York City between Hawaii’s then-King Kalakaua and Thomas Edison. Kalakaua’s officials asked Edison if electricity could be generated from the Big Island’s active volcano and delivered via subsea cable to Oahu to bring electric light to Honolulu, thus sparing Hawaii greater dependence on Australian coal. Edison said the scheme could work, according to a report by the New York Sun, but demurred that it, “would cost so much, that’s all.”

134 years later, one hears essentially the same arguments for and against a unified Hawaiian grid. Proponents such as NextEra and the Hawaii State Energy Office say Oahu must hook up to its neighbors’ grids because it lacks the renewable resources needed to meet even half of its power demand—over 7,500 gigawatt-hours (GWh) per year, or nearly three-quarters of the state’s total.

Hawaii’s other islands, by contrast, have renewable potential to spare, says a 2010 analysis commissioned by the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Lab. Lanai and Molokai could each generate over 1,000 GWh per year of wind power; Maui has over 2,000 GWh of viable geothermal, wind, and solar resources; and Hawai’i (better known as the Big Island) has over 6,000 GWh of geothermal potential. Sharing these resources with Oahu via subsea cables, the authors concluded, was the only way to meet Hawaii’s goal to push renewables to 70 percent of the power supply by 2030.

In 2013, NextEra proposed to start with a 180-kilometer-long, high-voltage direct current (HVDC) link between Maui and Oahu dubbed NextGrid Hawaii. Last year, Pacific Business News reported that NextEra had secured property in downtown Honolulu for the converter station where NextGrid’s pair of 200-megawatt cables would come ashore and link up with Oahu’s AC grid.

NextGrid would cost an “enormous” $600-800 million, according to Pacifc Business News, but NextEra said it would save the islands’ utilities at least $4.8 billion over its first 40 years of operation. The State Energy Office conservatively pegs net savings to consumers at a more modest $423 million, plus $128 million in environmental benefits.

One source of savings is avoided ‘curtailment’ of wind farms on Maui, which already produce more power at times than the local grid can handle. Hawaiian Electric’s Maui subsidiary ‘curtailed’ 20.6 GWh of wind generation last year. (Kauai’s utility expects to begin curtailing solar power generation this year.)

The promise of better renewable energy utilization earned NextEra support from some environmental groups. “We’re stronger together,” says Jeff Mikaluna, executive director for the Honolulu-based Blue Planet Foundation. In addition to better integrating renewables, says Mikaluna, tying the islands together should also reduce the need to keep fossil fueled power plants running in reserve.

NextGrid also appears to be spurring interest in cables to other islands, such as the Big Island. That island’s biggest landholder, the historic Parker Ranch, says a cable to Oahu could benefit a pumped hydroelectricity storage project it is developing. “Parker Ranch could enable a large-scale storage solution as part of an integrated statewide grid,” wrote Parker Ranch CEO Neil Kuyper inan August 2014 press release.

Of course, as is usually the case for transmission proposals, the idea of inter-island cables also has its critics. Some question, as Thomas Edison did, whether cables will really pencil out economically. Henry Curtis, executive director for Honolulu-based environmental advocacy group Life of the Land and a blogger on energy issues, says technical challenges associated with laying power cable over steep subsea slopes could inflate project costs.

Curtis also questions the cables’ environmental benefits, and highlights potential environmental harm. NextEra’s Maui-Oahu cable, for example, would traverse a humpback whale sanctuary.

And cables might ultimately prove unnecessary if advances in grid and power generation technologies expand Oahu’s indigenous renewable resources. Smarter inverters, for example, are helping Oahu’s grid cope with increasing levels of distributed solar energy. Curtis says more energy may be available just offshore, citing the ocean thermal energy converter currently being tested by Hawaii-based Makai Ocean Engineering.

Distributed generation advocates, meanwhile, are raising alarms about the track record of NextEra subsidiary Florida Power and Light (FPL), the utility that serves most of Florida. In December, Greentech Media noted that Florida ranks 29th in the country for overall renewable energy development, and blamed FPL for the sun-soaked state’s shortage of solar power: “It’s not for lack of sunshine; it’s lack of policy. Florida has no renewable standard—FPL has crushed every effort to establish one.”

Energy analyst William Pentland raised similar alarms in Forbes last month. “Hawaiians should think long and hard about NextEra’s track record in the Sunshine State before approving any merger,” writes Pentland.

NextEra is, for its part, playing the grid unification card close to its chest as Hawaii’s regulators weigh its offer for Hawaiian Electric. One thing appears certain: NextEra will face heightened expectations to deliver on Hawaii’s renewable energy aspirations if the acquisition goes through.

Blue Planet Foundation’s Mikaluna says Hawaiian Electric was saying what state leaders wanted to hear at the state capitol earlier this week. During a hearing on a bill proposing a 100-percent-renewables standard for Hawaii’s utilities for 2040, Hawaiian Electric’s representative abandoned the utility’s traditional tack. Rather than hedging on the prospects for zeroing-out fossil fuel consumption, the new message was ‘How about 2050?’ “That’s a first,” says Mikaluna.

This post was created for Energywise, IEEE Spectrum’s blog on green power, cars and climate

Japan Seeks to Rein In a Solar Juggernaut

Clashing energy interests on the Japanese island of Kyushu have prompted Japan’s government to clamp down on solar power development nationwide. While the government calls it a necessary revision to assure grid stability amidst rapidly rising levels of intermittent solar energy, critics see a pro-nuclear agenda at work—one that could stunt Japan’s renewable energy potential.

Solar development in Japan has exploded since the Fukushima nuclear disaster of 2011. Thanks to an attractive feed-in tariff (FIT) program that guarantees premium rates for renewable power generation pushed through in the disaster’s aftermath, developers have since installed over 10 gigawatts of solar capacity. The solar surge marks a return to glory for the country that once dominated the global PV industry.

But Japan’s solar revival has occurred under a cloud. The pro-nuclear Liberal Democratic Party regained power in late 2012, intent on restarting idled nuclear reactors that once generated nearly one-third of Japan’s electricity. The nuclear cloud produced its first lightning bolts on Kyushu in September, and has now spread nationwide. Continue reading

Solar Power and Grid Stability: Scenarios and solutions

hawaii.gridx299Renewable energy is often intermittent, and that variability presents a variety of challenges to power grids. The nature and magnitude of the challenges depends on the time frame — from fractions of a second to seasonal or even multiyear variations — as well as the nature of the grid itself. The latter is evident in two of my articles from last week looking at how seconds-to-minutes fluctuations in solar power complicate grid controllers’ efforts to maintain alternating current at the 60 hertz frequency and the roughly 110 volt power levels required by North American devices.

Fluctuating AC frequency stars in my Technology Review dispatch from the paradise of Kauai, where the island utility is riding an electrical roller coaster as it pushes solar towards 80 percent of peak power flows Continue reading

Understanding the IPCC’s Devotion to Carbon Capture

P1130803-3I’ve delivered several dispatches on carbon capture and storage (CCS) recently, including a pictorial ‘how-it-works’ feature on the world’s first commercial CCS power plant posted this week by Technology Review and typeset for their January print issue. Two aspects of CCS technology and its potential applications bear further elaboration than was possible in that short text.

Most critical is a longer-term view on how capturing carbon dioxide pollution from power plants (and other industrial CO2 sources) can serve to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations. Continue reading

Germany’s Grid: Renewables-Rich and Rock-Solid

Grid graph German Energy TransitionLast Friday Germany’s grid regulator released the 2013 data for grid reliability, and the figures have renewable energy advocates crowing. The latest numbers (released in German) reveal no sign of growing instability despite record levels of renewable energy on the grid — 28.5 percent of the power supplied in the first half of 2014. In fact, Germany’s grid is one of the world’s most reliable. Continue reading