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US grid can run well no matter what fuels it uses, reliability official says

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A worker at the O2 Energies solar power plant in Newland, N.C.
Source: Associated Press

With the right policies and infrastructure, the U.S. could get most of its electricity from renewable resources without hurting the performance of the power grid, according to an official who helps develop and oversee compliance with reliability standards.

"Variable resources can be reliably integrated, but they need to be cautiously planned and operated," John Moura, director of reliability assessment and system analysis at the North American Electric Reliability Corp., said March 28 at an event hosted by the U.S. Energy Association in Washington, D.C. "You can have 30, 40, 80% renewable resources, you just have to plan and operate the system correctly."

Moura's comments fit into a broader debate that erupted in September 2017 after Energy Secretary Rick Perry directed the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to ensure nuclear and coal-fired power plants receive more financial support for the reliability benefits Perry said they provide. FERC in January rejected the proposed rule, which critics skewered as a bailout of industries favored by the Trump administration.

"We're reliability extremists," said Moura, whose group became FERC's designated electric reliability organization in 2006 after functioning largely as an industry group that created voluntary reliability standards. "But a lot of the challenges that we see aren't insurmountable, and I think that that's a key message. ... We can transition to a grid that has whatever fuel you really want to power the system by. But policy changes are needed, structural changes are needed."

"No matter what the resource mix, you've got to have a threshold of bulk power system reliability standards to keep the pace," Moura added. "If we create these standards in a technology-neutral, fuel-neutral way, that really creates the criteria for maintaining a reliable grid."

Moura said regulations like the one FERC adopted in July 2016 requiring that small power generators that interconnect with the grid are able to "ride through abnormal frequency and voltage events" have helped ensure renewables do not hurt system reliability.

He also said the U.S. could from Germany's experience trying to overhaul that country's energy system. "I talked to the Germans and they said if they could do one thing [differently] they would have started building ... transmission expansions earlier, because that's really what their pinch point is," Moura said.

Building new transmission lines, which can aid renewable-energy development by balancing intermittent resources across regions and moving power from remote areas to population centers, is notoriously difficult in the U.S. After the U.S. Department of Energy ended a partnership with the developer of a 700-mile transmission line into the southeastern part of the country, Stefani Millie Grant, senior manager for external affairs and sustainability at Unilever Corp., said companies outside of the energy sector that are pursuing renewable energy targets "need to engage in the transmission planning process."

Bloomberg New Energy Finance, a research firm, said March 28 that falling costs and improved efficiency are making wind, solar and battery technologies viable alternatives to fossil fuel plants for bulk power generation, dispatchable power and flexibility.

"From a reliability perspective, what I can say is [energy storage] tears down that whole concept of having to simultaneously match demand and supply," Moura said. "And so if you take away that assumption, now you've got a lot more flexibility in your system."