This Summer's Hot Topic: Grid Reliability

By Kolby Hoagland | June 07, 2013

Our daily lives depend heavily on the uninterrupted availability of electricity to power our economy and comfortable way of life. On the rare occasion that electricity is interrupted, the daily activities of our modern society are thrown into flux until power is restored. The responsibility of assessing grid reliability falls onto the Federal Electricity Regulatory Commission (FERC). In FERC’s Summer 2013 Energy Market and Reliability Assessment, grid reliability is a concern in Texas and southern California.

Within the U.S., there are three independent grids that provide power to our homes and businesses. The eastern and western halves of the U.S. each operate large grids that encompass many states. If generation units go out in Virginia, for example, power can be fed from plants in the Carolinas to fill the void left by the lost generation in Virginia. Texas, however, operates its own stand-alone grid. If generation units are lost in Texas, plants outside of the Texas Interconnection cannot feed power into the Texas grid to make up for the loss. The independence of Texas’s grid puts it at a greater risk when there is a broad loss of supply. This was the case in Jan, 2011, when a cold snap shut down many natural generation units across the state. In FERC’s Summer Reliability Assessment, a warmer than normal summer is predicted, which will put a greater demand on Texas’s fleet of generating units to cool homes and businesses while also providing sufficient capacity for the rest of Texas’s power demand.

In southern California, the permanent closure of the San Onofre nuclear power plant is leaving an imparity in base-load supply capacity and potential summer demand. Though southern California is able to receive supply from other states, the declared summer generation capacity for southern California is argued to not be less reliable with the wind and solar generation that has been installed in the last decade. Because of the inherent intermittency issues of wind and solar generation capacity, the supply side capacity to meet demand must more robust. Wind and solar are not good replacements for the base-load supply that has been vacated by the San Onofre closure.

In Texas and California, biomass power plants have a supply capacity of just over 1,000 MW of dispatchable base-load power for grid demand. Growth in the biomass power sector has recently been observed in Texas with the completion last year of the 100 MW Nacogdoches Power LLC plant. In southern California, the increased risk and harm from forest fire has led to a growing interest in pairing forest fire abatement strategies with biopower projects because of the shared benefits to forest health, air quality, and grid reliability. Biomass power has the potential to find profitable niches where grid reliability and tangentially related incentives encourage penetration into the power supply market. A hot summer in California and Texas could spark a rapid growth in biomass power demand.

Update: After this blog was published, EIA released the TODAY IN ENERGY for June 7 that speaks directly to system reliability in California.