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Reliability and the Clean Power Plan

Such is the stuff of unicorns and leprechauns.
– FERC Commissioner Tony Clark

One aspect of the Clean Power Plan (CPP) we have not yet discussed in this series of blogs on the Clean Power Plan is the reliability of America's electric power generation in 2030. The recent winter storm Jonas on the east coast should remind us of how much we have come to depend on reliable electric power. That only 74,000 people were left with no power is a tribute to some excellent engineering. For how much longer?

The Clean Power Plan is to shut down perfectly good power coal plants prematurely, and replace them ultimately with wind and solar power. So we abandon a technology that has been operational world wide for more than 100 years of industrial capacity experience, and replace it with two new technologies with nowhere near the track record. How reliable is that?

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, is responsible for, among other things, the reliability of America's three electrical grids. You might suppose that they know something about reliability. FERC Commissioner Tony Clark believes that the result of the CPP will be a less reliable system:

Whatever EPA believes are the environmental benefits of this regulation, it cannot be said that it will be easy or inexpensive. Such is the stuff of unicorns and leprechauns. For if EPA's energy vision was the most reliable and affordable means of providing power, we would not need the rule. Engineering experts, markets, utilities and their regulators would already be choosing these resources without EPA dictates. No amount of political posturing changes that fact.

Let's take one example. To move from coal to gas will require more gas burning plants. Those, in turn, will require additional gas pipelines – with the permitting problems and delays that come with that. Nor is it sufficient to plan for a typical load, or even a typical peak load (summer during the day, when customers are running air conditioning). Rather, as the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) put it, “Coordinated planning processes should include considerations for pipeline expansion to meet the increased reliance on natural gas for electric generation, especially during extreme weather events (e.g., polar vortex).” Given the lead times and regulatory hurdles associated with gas pipelines, one has to ask if the pipelines will be ready in time to phase out coal in Block 1.

There are other examples.

Natural gas is a reliable power source. If you have it you can burn it any time of day or night, in any weather. There may be initial problems supplying the generators, but they can be overcome. You eventually get your pipeline, or you build your generator where there is already a pipeline. Either way, the problem can be surmounted.

Also, natural gas is what the industry calls “dispatchable”, i.e. it is instantly available on the grid to substitute for or supplement another source. You cannot say the same about solar or wind power. Wind only operates when the wind is blowing, solar when the sun is shining. They are not dispatchable, and require dispatchable backup. The industry has a term for it: variable generation.

It's worse than that. Installed solar power generation increased 19% from 2014 to 2015, from 8,608 megawatts (MW) to 10,207 MW. Similarly installed wind capacity (including Quebec) went from 68,437 MW to 80,006 MW, a 16.90% increase. But this is minute compared to total US production of 1,060 gigawatts (GW). To replace coal and natural gas with renewables will mean massive expenditures of rate payers' money.

Reducing carbon dioxide is all very well, but people have a right to decide for themselves how much they want to spend for it. No. According to MWR Strategies, the median that survey respondents are willing to pay to reduce US reliance on conventional fuels is $10 per year.

Oh, and finally, let's add to the irony. Natural gas pipelines use electricity. From the grid. As you add more and more variable energy sources, you make the grid from which the pipelines draw their power less reliable. Which means you make the natural gas pipelines less reliable. Yes, the pipeline operators can add gasoline or diesel generators as backup power. So can anyone else. Great, we can become a third world country like the quarter of Africa that uses diesel generators because the grid is unreliable – not a solution.

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Tuesday, 26 September 2017
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