As much as two-thirds of the United States could experience blackouts in peak winter weather this and next year, the North American Reliability Corp has warned.
These warnings have become something of a routine for the regulatory agency lately. Earlier this year, NERC issued a blackout warning for some parts of the U.S. over the summer, citing extreme temperatures.
This latest warning also has to do with extreme temperatures. Yet it's not just the temperatures themselves that are the problem. It's the power generation mix that is making the grid more vulnerable.
In its latest assessment, NERC cited recent data showing that up to a fifth of generating capacity could be forced offline in case of a cold snap over areas that do not normally get this kind of weather.
The regulator points to the lack of gas transport infrastructure as one of the main challenges for the U.S. grid this winter as it compromises the security of generating fuel supply. The report also notes historical evidence that extreme winter weather can also affect the production of natural gas and, as a result, reinforce the effect of weather on power supply security.
It is not just natural gas that is problematic, however. The massive buildout of wind and solar capacity has also had an impact on electricity supply reliability and could turn into a problem during the winter. Related: Europe Taps Record-High Natural Gas Storage As Temperatures Drop
"Electrification of the heating sector is increasing temperature-sensitive load components while increasing levels of variable output solar photovoltaic (PV) distributed energy resources (DER) add to the load forecast uncertainty," the regulator wrote in its Winter Reliability Assessment report.
"Underestimating electricity demand prior to the arrival of cold temperatures can lead to ineffective operations planning and insufficient resources being scheduled," the agency added.
There is a problem with accurate forecasting, however, NERC also said, and not just in the generation area, with wind and solar accounting for a bigger portion of the output today than in previous years.
It is difficult to forecast demand as well because of the unexpected weather patterns that NERC believes could unfold this winter. "Extreme cold temperatures and irregular weather patterns characterized by strong cold fronts, wind, and precipitation can cause demand for electricity to deviate significantly from historical forecasts," the regulator said.
It appears that NERC is warning that the weather is becoming more unpredictable, and this is problematic for grid security. Although nowhere in the report is the phrase "climate change" mentioned, it is implied that the changing climate is creating uncertainty in weather forecasts and, as a result, a reduced capability for generators to respond to sudden changes in demand, for instance, or severe weather.
The other thing that is stated indirectly rather than directly is the effect of more wind and solar on grid reliability. Although NERC admits intermittent wind and solar electricity output is problematic by definition, it stops short of spelling out something that another regulatory agency, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, said bluntly earlier this year.
"One nameplate megawatt of wind or solar is simply not equal to one nameplate megawatt of gas, coal or nuclear," FERC commissioner Mark C. Christie told Congress in June, during a hearing in front of the Subcommittee on Energy, Climate and Grid Security.
Christie explained that it is not wind and solar themselves that are problematic but rather the rate at which baseload-providing, dispatchable electricity generation capacity was being retired to be replaced with non-dispatchable wind and solar farms. Dispatchable capacity is the kind that provides electricity 24/7 or on demand, such as coal, gas, and nuclear. Wind and solar, on the other hand, only generate electricity when the weather allows it.
At that June hearing, Christie and another FERC commissioner, James P. Danly, said the challenging state of affairs was the result of subsidies for wind and solar, which had distorted the market and compromised grid reliability.
Now, NERC is saying that "There is not enough natural gas pipeline and infrastructure to serve all the gas generation in certain big areas like PJM, MISO, New York, and New England," according to the agency's director for reliability assessment and performance analysis.
The reason there are not enough gas pipelines is because opposition to new gas pipeline projects is so severe that getting a gas pipeline built has become an occurrence similar to a miracle. The chief executive of EQT recently told the FT in an interview that if it took a special legislative act to get a gas pipeline built that "should scare the hell out people". Rice was referring to the act of Congress that ensured the green light for the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which has faced a barrage of obstacles.
What NERC, for some reason, did not mention specifically is that severe cold affects more than just gas generation. It also affects wind power generation, not to mention solar power output. Wind turbines do not excel in severe winds or in wind drought that is common during the coldest months, and solar irradiation during those same months is far from optimal for solar panels, as are severe temperatures.
By Irina Slav for Oilprice.com
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