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. 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

Floating Wind Turbines Headed for Offshore Farms

PrinciplePower.WindFloatFloating wind power is no longer science fiction. Promising results from five test platforms operating worldwide—including three in Japan—are turning into project plans for a first generation of floating wind farms. Industry analyst Annette Bossler, who runs Bremen, Maine-based Main(e) International Consulting, predicts that the number of test platforms will nearly double over the next two years and that commercialization is within site. “By 2018-2019 you will start to see the first really large-scale commercial use of floating platforms,” predicts Bossler.

Putting wind turbines on offshore platforms akin to those developed for the petroleum industry provides a means of exploiting high-quality offshore winds—which are stronger and more consistent than onshore winds—in waters too deep for today’s bottom-fixed foundations. Continue reading

Broken Bats: Wind Power and the Damage Done

Last year, IEEE Spectrum profiled an ultrasonic alert for wind farm operators designed to let them know when bats are nearing their turbines. The potentially bat-saving technology can’t be ready soon enough according to this week’s issue of the journal Bioscience. University of Colorado ecologist Mark Hayes estimates that at least 600 000 and possibly more than 900 000 bats were killed by wind turbines last year in the U.S.

Hayes’ report is a statistical reassessment of data on bat carcasses found at wind turbine sites. His figure lends credence to a March 2013 mortality estimate of 880 000 deaths per year by Sacramento-based ornithologist and consultant Shawn Smallwood. That figure was well beyond previous estimates, which had ranged as low as 33 000. “My estimates, using different methods and data, bracket Smallwood’s 888 000 estimate,” writes Hayes in an e-mail to Spectrum. Continue reading

Germany Jumpstarts the Supergrid


Power Core: Spectrum’s infographic take on Germany’s HVDC transmission plans

New developments in high-voltage DC electronics could herald an epic shift in energy delivery

By Peter Fairley

Stuttgart is one of the last places you’d expect to find in a power pinch. This south German city’s massive automotive plants run 24-7 without a hiccup, efficiency measures have held industrial power consumption flat, and solar panels flash from atop its major buildings. But now all that is at risk. The country’s accelerated shift from nuclear power and fossil fuels to renewable resources, such as wind and solar, has exposed a huge gap in its transmission capacity. If they are to survive, Stuttgart’s factories—and power consumers across southern Germany—will need to import a lot more power from the north, and Germany’s grid is already at capacity.

To fill the gap, Germany is considering an aggressive plan that would push high-voltage direct current, or HVDC, from its conventional position on the periphery of AC grids to a central role. The primary reason is simple: For the first time, HVDC seems cheaper than patching up the AC grid. But Germany’s transmission planners also have another motivation: They want to provide as much performance and reliability as they can to an AC grid that’s already strained by excess wind power. For that, they’re considering implementing power electronics that are capable of doing something that’s never before been done on a commercial line: stop DC current in milliseconds flat.

Germany’s plan could mark the beginning of something much bigger: a “supergrid” of inter connected DC lines capable of transporting electricity on a continental scale, ferrying energy from North Sea turbines, dams in Scandinavia, or Mediterranean solar farms to wherever demand is greatest at that moment…

Published in the May issue of IEEE Spectrum. Read the story at Spectrum.com.

Building-in a Force of Nature

Turbine House: Design by Michael Pelken & Thong Dang

Turbine House: Michael Pelken & Thong Dang’s residence with horizontal-axis wind turbine

As design teams work toward harnessing air flows around buildings, they are producing some intriguing structures. But just how viable is wind power as a source of on-site renewable energy?
By Peter Fairley

Wind power is the fastest-growing source of megawatts thanks to the jumbo-jet-sized turbines sprouting en masse worldwide. But it also has a significant presence in the city, where gusts regularly send umbrellas to landfills. Rather than considering it a nuisance, architects increasingly view urban wind as a renewable resource for on-building power generation.

Building-integrated wind power (BIWP)—wind turbines mounted on or incorporated within an occupied structure—may lack wind farms’ economies of scale. But like the leading source of on-building renewables—photovoltaics (PVs)—wind turbines offer some advantages in architectural applications. No roads get cut through wilderness to erect towers, and they deliver electricity without power lines and transmission losses. Wind turbines are also attractive to designers and clients looking to express a commitment to sustainability.

Such benefits provide potential for dramatic growth, says mechanical engineer Roger Frechette, principal in the Washington, D.C., office of Interface Engineering. “If there’s data showing that BIWP works and testimony that it’s a good thing to do, there will be an explosion,” he predicts…

Published in the April 2013 issue of Architectural Record Magazine. Read the whole story.