According to the July report of the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), batteries are not going to provide the backup needed for intermittent renewables. Director of Reliability Assessment and Performance Analysis John Moura said, “Batteries aren’t going to do it, and we’re going to need a backup fuel for wind and solar. So this is important to invest in.” Moura also indicated more investment in gas infrastructure is needed as natural gas is a bridge fuel needed to backup wind and solar because of their inherent intermittency. According to NERC’s 2022 State of Reliability report, key metrics tracking blackout duration and amounts of unserved energy demand spiked dramatically in 2021. The duration of operator-initiated load shedding events spiked and unserved energy demand reached its highest levels ever. No longer is peak demand the only clear risk to reliability—risks can emerge when weather-dependent generation is impacted by abnormal atmospheric conditions or when extreme conditions disrupt fuel supplies.
NERC’s mission is to assure the effective and efficient reduction of risks to the reliability and security of the grid. It periodically reports on grid reliability and actions necessary to ensure continued reliability. In its 2022 State of Reliability report, it reported on industry-wide grid performance for the January to December 2021 operating year based on available data from 2017 to 2021, which provides a basis to evaluate 2021 performance relative to performance over the last five years.
According to NERC, no longer is the peak demand period the only clear risk period because risks can emerge when weather-dependent generation is impacted by abnormal atmospheric conditions or when extreme conditions disrupt fuel supplies. The impact of wide-area and long-duration extreme weather events, such as the cold weather in February 2021 in the South Central United States, and the heat in August 2020 in the West underscore the need to consider extreme scenarios in resource adequacy and energy sufficiency planning. Because there is less flexible generation that is fuel-assured, weatherized, and dispatchable occurring in many areas as the resource mix evolves toward renewable energy, the risk of energy shortfalls increases. Wind and solar are making the grid more unreliable as they gain share. Although margins in 2021 were assessed as adequate for traditional reliability criteria, NERC warned of potential seasonal shortages when accounting for more extreme conditions.
In its summer assessment, NERC warned of unexpected tripping of solar generation, which could become a major threat as more solar is interconnected to the grid. The inverter tripping challenge is one of the most risky issues to reliability as NERC expects 500 gigawatts of solar coming online in the next 10 years. The unexpected tripping has occurred during “normal grid disturbances” such as a lightning strike or a piece of equipment going offline. In 2016, California’s Blue Cut Fire tripped several transmission lines and caused almost 1,200 megawatts of solar energy capacity to go offline unexpectedly. Similar losses of solar generation also occurred between May and August in California and Texas last year. California and parts of the western interconnection are also at elevated risk, particularly in late summer as water resource levels decline and solar output begins to fall off earlier in the day.
Besides the solar tripping issue, NERC’s 2022 Summer Reliability Assessment also identified supply chain concerns as a threat to the grid in areas where the completion of new generation or transmission resources is needed for reliability during summer peak periods. Generation and transmission projects are being impacted by product unavailability, shipping delays, and labor shortages. Cyber threats, wildfires and a shortage of fuel are other issues that threaten reliability. For example, in Tampa, Florida, the Big Bend Coal Station was having trouble getting coal as the “clean” energy transition in the United States is pushing investment away from fossil fuels and causing supply shortages as coal generators are being shuttered. U.S. coal companies are being forced to export to countries building coal plants, such as China and India. The fact that Asian countries are still building coal plants that last 40 to 60 years makes the whole renewable energy transition to reduce greenhouse gas emissions ludicrous. What the United States can accomplish by going alone may only reduce temperatures by a mere fraction of a degree, but yet cause substantial pain on Americans.
Besides the massive solar capacity increase, NERC also expects 400 gigawatts of wind to come online over the next decade. In Texas’s massive outage in February 2021, wind generation fell from 42 percent of generation to just 8 percent as wind turbine blades iced up. While natural gas and coal power were added, there was insufficient capacity to keep the grid functioning without blackouts.
The least windy time of the year in Texas is summer when electricity demand peaks. Wind generation is at its highest in the spring and fall when electricity demand is lowest, which means that wind as a resource has low economic value because it is not available when demand is highest. During the heat wave this year, the Texas’s natural gas plants could not compensate for the lack of wind and meet surging demand for power caused by the heat wave. The Texas grid became more dependent on gas-fired generators to back-up unreliable wind generation when many of its coal and nuclear plants retired. The state’s coal and nuclear plants retired because they had difficulty operating at a sufficient level to remain open due to the wind and solar capacity forced upon the grid by law makers. Electricity demand is increasing in Texas as its population is growing, particularly as Californians are moving in to avoid California’s COVID lockdowns and other restrictions, and as the state is bombarded by immigrants coming across the border due to federal policy. All of these factors has pushed the state’s grid to a near-breaking point.
President Biden, Governor Newsom and Governor Abbot need to heed NERC’s warning regarding natural gas as a backup fuel and investment in natural gas infrastructure. That also means the President Biden needs to allow the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to do its job to ensure that infrastructure is being permitted and construction is underway. Currently, FERC has been imposing obstacles to natural gas pipeline approvals, which is in line with President Biden wanting to eliminate fossil fuels, no matter what burdens it poses for the American public. Americans are not used to the limitations of part-time power as are many people in developing countries. Unless policy changes are adopted that enhance reliability, Americans can expect their electrical grid to get worse.