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Electric Power

US has a lot of work to do on power grid resilience: experts

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US has a lot of work to do on power grid resilience: experts

Highlights

Coal, nuclear plants are vulnerable to disasters

Solar storms are a serious concern

Saratoga Springs, New York β€” As Hurricane Florence made landfall in North Carolina on Friday, knocking out power to over half a million people, experts discussed some of the challenges associated with strengthening US power grid resilience at the Independent Power Producers of New York's fall conference in Saratoga Springs.

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The US Department of Energy issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in September 2017 that instructed the US Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to consider a rule to prevent retirement of power plants that can store 90 days of fuel onsite to maintain reliability. FERC unanimously rejected the proposal in January.

Then in May, a draft memo was leaked that revealed DOE's potential plans to use its powers under Section 202(c) of the Federal Power Act and the Defense Production Act of 1950 to prevent early retirement of certain generation plants. On June 1, the White House called on Energy Secretary Rick Perry to take immediate steps to keep coal and nuclear power plants operating.

As power market participants and stakeholders wait for potential federal intervention, a broader discussion about power grid resilience has developed. "Power grid resilience is an embryonic topic and there is no consensus on a definition of it," Sherrell Greene, president of nuclear power consulting firm Advanced Technology Insights, said during a panel discussion at the IPPNY conference.

NOT WELL DEFINED

Resilience is always in the context of a specific event, Greene said, noting that a power grid may be resilient against a cyber attack, but not an electromagnetic pulse or geomagnetic disturbance. Greene also said with regard to resilience that he defines the power system as everything from fuel to the wall socket, which is more comprehensive than the bulk power system, a term that refers to power generation and transmission.

A key component of resilience is establishing a "load priority hierarchy," which identifies where power should be cut first during an emergency. "Who am I cutting power to? A hospital or a hair salon?" asked Greene.

Rob Gramlich, founder and president of consulting firm Grid Strategies, which produced a report in May on customer-focused power grid resilience, made the point that 90% of power failures occur due to distribution system disruptions and not generation outages.

Referencing Hurricane Florence, Gramlich noted that Duke Energy's two-unit 1,928-MW Brunswick nuclear plant was shut down Thursday due to expectations of high wind and "it's not about how big your coal pile is," because some coal storage piles will probably flood as a result of the storm.

"Subsidizing old inflexible generation is probably the least good thing we can do with our limited financial resources," he said.

And a one-size-fits-all approach to grid resilience would likely be misguided because there is a high degree of regional variability with regard to fuel mixes and system configuration, Rich Dewey, executive vice president of the New York Independent System Operator, said.

"The most effective way to keep lights on is through efficient markets," Dewy said.

DUE FOR MAJOR GEOMAGNETIC EVENT

It is also likely that the US will be impacted by a massive solar storm, which could cripple power grids in spite of our best resilience efforts, according to Greene. There is a 1% chance every year we will experience a geomagnetic disturbance on the scale of the 1859 Carrington event that set utility poles on fire in the US and Europe, he said.

Asked whether we are doomed to succumb to power grid catastrophe, Greene said he doesn't think so, but from looking at technical data, he is convinced we will see an event that is "almost unimaginable by today's standards and disrupts the grid beyond what anyone has seen."

"There are a lot of bad guys out to do bad things and Mother Nature is out to get us," he said.

-- Jared Anderson, jared.anderson@spglobal.com

-- Edited by Rocco Canonica, newsdesk@spglobal.com