Bomb Cyclone Exposes Perry’s Subsidy Fallacy


Pilgrim Nuclear Power Plant: Looks good on a sunny blue sky day, but didn’t weather the storm. Photo: NRC

Extreme weather events have knocked both nuclear and coal-fired power plants offline in just the past six months, undercutting the Trump Administration’s argument that subsidizing these aging energy generators is crucial for bolstering grid stability.  The latest failure came late last week when Winter Storm Gregory forced a nuclear plant in New England offline, ratcheting up the challenge facing grid operators amidst the “bomb” cyclone’s high winds and freezing temperatures.

An independent panel “rejected” the subsidies proposed this fall by Trump Energy Secretary Rick Perry, according to the New York Times. But as Cleveland’s Plain Dealer notes, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s move may be more of a delay than a rejection.

Perry has argued that large coal piles and uranium fuel rods made them less vulnerable to fuel supply disruptions during extreme events than cheaper natural gas and renewable generation. Nuclear and coal interests predicted that Winter Storm Gregory would strengthen Perry’s case. As a spokeswoman for coal and nuclear plant operator FirstEnergy told The Hill, the extreme cold gripping the U.S. illustrated, “exactly why we need a rule to ensure that these units stay in operation.”

Instead, the shutdown of New England’s Pilgrim nuclear plant last week served as a reminder that nuclear and coal generators harbor their own particular vulnerabilities. What up-ended Pilgrim was nuclear power’s sensitivity to storm-related power line outages. Whereas most generators need just one transmission line to offload their power to a grid, nuclear plants require redundant grid connections to reduce the risk of a core meltdown such as Japan’s 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster.

“A nuclear plant is dependent upon grid support to provide cooling. They must be more concerned with their own safety than they are in supporting a grid,” said Brendan Kirby, an independent expert in power grid integration and a former DOE researcher who has studied nuclear plant reliability.

Patrick O’Brien, a spokesperson for New Orleans-based utility Entergy, confirmed that Pilgrim’s operators initiated a manual shutdown of the plant after Gregory knocked one of its dual grid connections offline. “If we lost the second line it would complicate us being able to shut down,” said O’Brien.

Coal plants exhibit their own weaknesses. During the ‘Polar Vortex’ cold snap that froze mid-Atlantic states in 2014, frozen coal stacks left some coal generators unable to operate. And the deluge delivered by Hurricane Harvey last August forced at least two Texas power plants to switch to natural gas when their coal piles became waterlogged; some less flexible coal plants simply shut down.

Many energy experts see Perry’s grid resilience argument are a smokescreen for President’s Trump’s political allegiance to the coal industry, noting that grid reliability has improved in recent years even as dozens of coal and nuclear plants have shut down.

Eric Hittinger, an expert in power technology and policy at the Rochester Institute of Technology, has noted that line outages and blown transformers — not lost generation — cause the vast majority of blackouts.

As Hittinger tweeted last week, “If all generators in the US had 1000 years of fuel on-site *and* never had any forced outages, electricity reliability would have improved by 1%.”


Circuit Reclosers Probed as Potential Cause of California Fires


Automatic circuit recloser generating sparks at a simulated line fault. Photo: S&C Electric

Wind-swept fires that killed more than 40 people in California in recent months have also jolted the state’s biggest utilities, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) and Southern California Edison (SCE). The utilities have had to work around the clock to keep power flowing to fire-afflicted communities, even as their equipment and policies face scrutiny as potential contributors to the deadly fires. California regulatorspoliticians and trial lawyers are querying SCE and PG&E’s tree trimming and line maintenance — common culprits in prior California fires — but they are also examining a utility device that produces sparks by design: automatic circuit reclosers.

Automatic reclosers are pole-mounted circuit breakers that can quickly restore power after outages, but they can also multiply the fire risk from damaged lines. While SCE is adjusting recloser operations to reduce fire risks, PG&E’s practices are less clear. And only their neighbor to the south — San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) — is tapping advanced recloser technology that is safer by design.

Reclosers make quick work of many line faults, the great majority of which result from temporary insults such as a branch striking a line or the electrocution of an unlucky squirrel. As Australian recloser manufacturer NOJA Power puts it: “Like the success of Vanilla Ice, Dexy’s Midnight Runners and Devo, most network faults are transient.” In such cases the recloser detects a power surge, momentarily interrupts electricity flow, and then automatically re-closes its contacts to restart flow down the affected line.

Reclosers usually try restarting a line 2-3 times before giving up and “locking out” a line. Sometimes multiple attempts are needed to do the job, writes NOJA Power, such as when high-temperature electrical arcing at the site of the fault burns away hung trees or tree limbs.

Under the wrong conditions, however, such arcing and ignition can obviously spark a fire. Reclosers contributed to several of Australia’s deadly Black Saturday bushfires of February 7, 2009, according to the official report of the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission.

The commission concluded that that Kilmore East fire that killed 119 people “probably would not have started” were it not for a recloser’s three attempts to revive a wind-felled line. Experts testified that the recloser’s attempts delivered 3.4 seconds of 5,000 C° electrical arcing that likely started the fire.

The Black Saturday commission called for limiting reclosers to one restart attempt on high risk fire days and suggested that some be totally disabled during high risk periods. Not all California utilities are heeding such advice.

PG&E, in a response to questions from California’s Public Utilities Commission after the fires north of San Francisco in October, wrote that it could set reclosers on its overhead lines to attempt line restarting 1, 2 or 3 times. It indicated that it could disable that function only on reclosers associated with its underground lines. The San Francisco-based utility did not respond to Spectrum’s requests for comment.

A grid operations manager for Rosemead, Calif-based SCE told Spectrum on background that the utility disables automatic restart capability for all reclosers that its operators can remotely control in areas under “Red Flag” fire warnings. He told Spectrum that SCE tightened its recloser policy shortly before this month’s fires to permanently disable restarting by reclosers that require manual adjustment by field technicians.

SDG&E, SCE’s neighbor to the south, has gone one step further to increase recloser safety. Like SCE it restricts recloser operation on fire days, but it has also deployed advanced technology in its territory’s high-risk Fire Threat Zone to reduce the sparking that reclosers generate at faults.


S&C Electric’s pulse technology sends 50-100 times less energy to a fault [left] than conventional reclosers [right]

SDG&E uses 172 of S&C Electric Company’s IntelliRupters — so-called pulse reclosers that probe lines after a fault rather than simply restarting power flows. S&C’s intelligent breaker recloses its contacts for just 1-2 milliseconds and then evaluates the power that flows back. If the flow looks normal it restarts the line. And if the power signal matches the signature of a permanent fault, it locks the line out.

An IntelliRupter probing a permanent fault generates less than 2 percent as much fault energy as a conventional recloser according to independent tests. Christopher McCarthy, a U.K.-based managing director for S&C who helped commercialize the technology a decade ago, says they developed it as a way to reduce the wear that large fault currents inflict on substation transformers and other utility equipment.

But McCarthy says there is also a clear safety benefit — one that is dramatically evident in the smaller shower of sparks released from faults by its pulse reclosers in side-by-side runs against conventional reclosers [image above]. “We can’t say that it’s not going to cause fires,” he says, “but it’s clearly much safer.”

​NOJA Power derides some of the growing criticism of reclosers as “unfair.” As the company tells utilities via its website: “There is no need to be ashamed of your arcs and sparks – when it isn’t fire season, use the very power you are charged with delivering to strike the objects that dare get in your way of reliability.”

However, California utilities appear to be reevaluating their technology options. SCE tells Spectrum that it is “actively exploring the use of pulse reclosers.

Utilities may have little choice, because they face a potentially existential threat if they can not convince both state officials and the public that they are doing everything possible to prevent fires.

A suite of lawsuits filed by residents affected by the October wine country fires allege that PG&E’s reclosers are to blame. And one state lawmaker has called for PG&E to be broken up if an ongoing investigation by Sacramento-based state agency CalFire finds it caused the fires.

This post was created for Energywise, IEEE Spectrum’s blog about the future of energy, climate, and the smart grid

Mexico Border Wall Won’t Stop Cross-border Power Push

Relations between the United States and Mexico are strained at the national level, with President Donald Trump pushing his promised border control wall and demanding a U.S.-favored rewrite of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). But Mexico and the southwestern states have continued working towards an international agenda for electricity, and regional players are talking up a first set of projects due to be completed before Trump’s term is up — projects that put the region on a path to a far more electrically-porous border.

These projects include a trio of new crossborder links between California, Arizona and Mexico to be completed in the next three years. They also include grid studies, revised market rules, and new power lines within Mexico that could rapidly expand flows over all of the U.S.-Mexico interties. “The proposition right now is fairly small because the interconnections are small. But that’s going to change,” says Carl Zichella, director for Western transmission at the Natural Resources Defense Council. Continue reading

Solar Microgrids May Not Fix the Caribbean’s Devastated Power Systems

After the destruction inflicted across the Caribbean by hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, renewable energy advocates are calling for a rethink of the region’s devastated power systems. Rather than simply rebuilding grids that delivered mostly diesel generation via damage-prone overhead power lines, renewables advocates argue that the island grids should leapfrog into the future by interconnecting hundreds or thousands of self-sufficient solar microgrids.

“Puerto Rico will lead the way for the new generation of clean energy infrastructure. The world will follow,” asserted John Berger, CEO for Houston-based solar developer Sunnova Energy in a tweet before meeting in San Juan with Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló this week. Rosselló appears to be on board, inviting Elon Musk via tweet to use Puerto Rico as a “flagship project” to “show the world the power and scalability” of Tesla’s technologies, which include photovoltaic (PV) rooftops and Powerwall battery systems.

Some power system experts, however, say the solar-plus-batteries vision may be oversold. They say that the pressing need to restore power, plus equipment costs and other practical considerations, call for sustained reliance on centralized grids and fossil fuels in the Caribbean. “They need to recover from the storm. Unfortunately I think the quickest way to do that is to go back to how things were before,” says Brad Rockwell, power supply manager for the Kauaʻi Island Utility Cooperative that operates one of the most renewable-heavy grids in the U.S. Continue reading

NATURE Scientists Get Political on Climate

By Peter Fairley for Nature / October 11 2017

It’s moving day at the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia on a sunny summer morning in Victoria, Canada, and climate scientist-turned politician Andrew Weaver is battling to retain an expansive leather sofa for his new basement office. Just a few weeks earlier, in May 2017, thousands of people in and around Victoria cast their votes for the British Columbia Green Party, which Weaver leads, growing the caucus from his one lonely seat to three. The wider of the office’s sofas, he explains, will be crucial during long nights of debate and voting. “This is the one you can sleep on. And we need that.”

Three seats in an 87-seat legislature might sound modest, but it’s enough to make Weaver — a professor at the University of Victoria — into a political kingmaker. The incumbent Liberal Party and the opposition New Democratic Party (NDP) each garnered fewer than half of the seats, giving Weaver’s Green Party the balance of power. Weaver exercised his new-found influence in the weeks after the election to remove Christy Clark, the Liberal premier of British Columbia, who had championed fossil fuels and neglected climate policy. He negotiated climate-friendly terms with the NDP to install John Horgan as the party’s first premier in 16 years.

Weaver is an internationally recognized pioneer of models that represent Earth’s physical systems at a modest resolution, facilitating the simulation of climate over tens of thousands of years. His ascent from academic to political power broker is a far cry from the attacks on climate scientists that are under way in the United States. But there are US researchers who dare to dream that they too can tilt the political balance. In fact, dozens have declared the intent to run for local, state or national office, promising to reverse the dismissal of climate change and other anti-science positions espoused by US President Donald Trump’s administration and other Republican Party leaders.


Floating Wind Turbines on the High Seas


Norwegian oil and gas giant Statoil positions 6-megawatt turbines off the coast of Scotland for the world’s first floating wind farm. Photo: Roar Lindefjeld/Woldcam/Statoil

The world’s first wind farm employing floating turbines is taking shape 25 kilometers off the Scottish coast and expected to begin operating by the end of this year. New research by atmospheric scientists at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Stanford, Calif. suggests that the ultimate destination for such floating wind farms could be hundreds of kilometers out in the open ocean. The simulations, published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, show that winds over the open ocean have far greater staying power than those over land.

Wind power generation is obviously contingent on how fast and how often winds blow. But only over the past decade have scientists and wind farm developers recognized that the winds measured prior to erecting turbines may not endure. For one thing, dense arrays of wind turbines act as a drag on the wind, depleting local or even regional wind resources. Continue reading

Companies Commit to Electric Vehicles, Sending Auto Industry a Message

Peter Fairley for InsideClimate News Sept 19, 2017

A group of large corporations, including utilities and an international delivery company, launched a global campaign today to accelerate the shift to electric vehicles and away from gas- and diesel-powered transportation—which generates almost a quarter of energy-related greenhouse gas emissions worldwide and has been the fastest growing emissions source.

Since more than half of the cars on the road belong to companies, the new EV100 coalition could have a major impact. It aims to do for EVs and electric car charging infrastructure what coalitions such as the RE100 are already doing to encourage corporate purchasing of clean energy (and thus motivating development of new solar and wind power).

EV100’s goal is to send a signal to automakers that there is mass demand for electric vehicles before 2030, when current forecasts suggest global uptake will start to really ramp up.

“We want to make electric transport the normal,” said Helen Clarkson, CEO for The Climate Group, the international nonprofit spearheading the effort…

… read on at ICN