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FERC's extreme weather proposal could serve as foundation for US grid build-out

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FERC's extreme weather proposal could serve as foundation for US grid build-out

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Federal regulators are contemplating a range of reforms to U.S. transmission planning and grid interconnection processes.
Source: Gerard Hermand/Getty Creative via Getty Images

The U.S. shift to cleaner, more variable sources of power generation, combined with the growing threat of extreme weather, has raised the stakes for a host of electric transmission-related reforms under consideration by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, industry experts said Oct. 27.

Interconnection queues managed by regional grid operators, such as the 15-state Midcontinent ISO, are now dominated by renewable resources such as wind and solar. At the same time, accredited capacity — a measure of a power generator's expected performance or availability — is falling even as a record number of new projects seek to connect to the grid.

The challenge was laid bare in the results of MISO's latest planning resource auction, which aims to procure a sufficient level of generating capacity to keep the lights on at all times.

MISO's installed capacity grew from nearly 174 GW to 178 GW between 2018 and 2022, according to the grid operator's auction results for the 2022-2023 planning year. But the region's accredited capacity fell from 148 GW to 140 GW over the same period due to thermal plant retirements and the shift to renewables.

Meanwhile, extreme weather events such as the winter storm in February 2021 have shown that system operators' traditional approach to planning for seasonal peaks in demand is becoming obsolete, said Eric Vandenberg, deputy director of FERC's Office of Electric Reliability.

The unexpected storm knocked more than one-third of the Electric Reliability Council Of Texas Inc.'s generation capacity offline, forcing the grid operator to cut power for millions of customers in the state.

"Looking forward, extreme doesn't necessarily mean rare," Vandenberg said Oct. 27 during an annual meeting in Washington, D.C., hosted by WIRES, an industry trade group focused on expanding the U.S. electric transmission system.

Cynthia Bothwell, a grid integration engineer in the U.S. Department of Energy's Wind Energy Technology Office, stressed that time is of the essence.

To meet U.S. President Joe Biden's goal of a 100% carbon-free power grid by 2035, Bothwell said the U.S. will need to quadruple its daily rate of installed solar capacity from 40 MW to 160 MW. Installed wind capacity will also need to grow 500% by 2035 compared to total wind capacity installed over the last 30 years, the engineer said.

"To get this ramp-up of four times solar per day and five times wind over the next few years is just huge," Bothwell said.

Updated NERC standard tied to further reforms

FERC has issued a series of proposed rules designed to speed a transmission build-out to accommodate more sources of new generation while also safeguarding the U.S. power system against extreme weather.

In April, FERC issued a long-range transmission planning and cost allocation proposal (RM21-17) that would require transmission planners to consider a broader range of benefits across a longer planning horizon.

FERC also issued two more important transmission-related proposed rules in June.

One proposal (RM22-14) would require transmission owners to adopt a "first-ready, first-served" approach to processing interconnection requests in an effort to tamp down on the number of speculative requests from developers.

The other proposed rule (RM22-10) would require the North American Electric Reliability Corp. to update an existing grid reliability standard. Under the proposal, transmission owners would be required to more fully account for historical and prospective extreme weather scenarios.

"I see some of the proposals in the transmission [proposed rule] from last April sitting on top of that foundation of the NERC standard," Vandenberg said. "As we raise the floor that the NERC standard represents for system performance during extreme weather, I see those proposed process modifications in the April transmission [proposed rule] as really creating a great opportunity for utilities to look longer-term and think bigger about how to address this new reliability driver that the commission is proposing."

Vandenberg also noted FERC scheduled a Dec. 5-6 workshop on the potential implementation of a reliability standard that requires a minimum level of interregional transfer capacity across balancing areas.

Focus on commercially viable projects

Tristan Kessler, an economist in FERC's Office of Energy Policy and Innovation, said the commission's interconnection proposal is largely designed to avoid the need to conduct costly restudies on system impacts when proposed projects drop out of queues.

Cascading restudies often occur when developers withdraw from queues after learning the full cost of related upgrades their projects are expected to trigger on the transmission system.

"The problem, of course, with this high volume of projects is that the way they are studied, one project is going to get hit with high upgrade costs and it's going to be the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back," Kessler said. "When you have these withdrawals, that creates cascading restudies, especially at late stages in the process."

FERC's proposed rule would address this by increasing financial deposit requirements for developers. It would also impose the first-ever penalties on transmission owners for missed study deadlines.

"The general idea there is that we're trying to encourage customers to be more ready, more viable," Kessler said.

Scott Wright, MISO's executive director of Resource Adequacy and Resource Utilization, offered a glimpse into how the grid operator is proactively pursuing its own reforms.

MISO has already moved to a first-ready, first-served interconnection approach, Wright noted.

Through a joint interconnection queue study, MISO has also identified more than $1 billion in potential transmission projects along the seam it shares with the 14-state Southwest Power Pool. The transmission investments could accommodate more than 30 GW of additional renewable generation, the joint study found.

Wright said FERC's interconnection proposal could be strengthened even further by requiring a first-ready, first-served approach for affected system studies, which are designed to identify a generator's impact on neighboring systems.

"That policy needs to be the rule, not the exception," Wright said.

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