There’s a secret about electric grid operations that few families and businesses would want to know about – because it would show them just how precarious our energy supply can be.
The introduction of new power sources, often mandated by policies created in the political arena and just as often, devoid of practicality, are forcing grid operators to pull off a trick not unlike the classic plate-spinning act performed by magicians.
Jim Robb, CEO of the North American Electric Reliability Corp. described grid managers like those in Texas or at the New England Independent System Operator as magicians for keeping power flowing when statistically, there should be “no way in hell they can keep the lights coming on this consistently, and yet they do.”
The challenge is that the introduction of much-needed energy diversity from renewable sources like wind and solar power – an important addition that will continue – has made what was once a simpler grid management problem much more complex. For day-to-day management, grid operators must also provide a reserve of extra power in case energy needs suddenly increase, and that means they need extra back-up power because wind and solar generation varies with the weather or the time of day.
With traditional sources like natural gas or nuclear generation, there is a constant, predictable supply of power. Not so with wind and solar because sometimes the wind does not blow and the sun does not shine. So, to effectively manage our new, multi-source grid, the magicians of electricity management have gone from spinning one or two plates to spinning many, all day and every day to serve American energy consumers.
Robb pointed to Texas’ ERCOT, which serves most of the state, as an example of the risks created by energy policy mandates being pushed before the technical kinks had been worked out.
ERCOT doesn’t have an adequate reserve power margin, which meant that when its ordinarily robust wind generation faltered in July, prices shot up more than 20 times the normal price. That translated into a much higher energy bill for Texas families and businesses.
And there are other risks, like the blackout that sent New York City into disarray this July. That demonstrated that disruptions to our electric service are not well-received by the public, nor politicians whose original, poorly-constructed policy choices have made it harder for utilities to keep the lights on or the gas flowing.
Ignoring his policies that reject nuclear and pipelines, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo ripped the utility who provides power to the city as being ill-prepared. It’s an act he repeated with utility National Grid, which he blasted for a being unable to connect new natural gas customers in the city – despite the fact that the utility has repeatedly warned the Governor that it cannot offer new connections without a new gas supply.
Meanwhile, Cuomo’s administration has rejected six natural gas pipeline projects and banned hydraulic fracturing of New York’s oil and gas reserves. We understand and agree that a diverse energy portfolio that helps continue America’s unmatched environmental stewardship is needed (Hint: America leads the world in emission reductions and is closing in on meeting the Paris climate goals), but ignoring the reality of our energy needs is not the right solution.
It’s as if we all sat watching the stage and as one plate fell, a disappointed audience member stepped up, shoved the magician off the stage and tried to show us all how it’s supposed to be done. You can imagine how entertaining that show would be, in the hands of a rank amateur.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t New York’s first blackout in recent history. And sadly, it’s not hard to predict based on these political decisions that it won’t be its last. These events and the travails that grid operators face are an important early warning for us as we contemplate our energy future and manage the introduction of new sources into our power mix.
It’s critical that we add more renewables to increase our energy diversity while we maintain sources that are constant. It is also a fact that we will need traditional sources like natural gas and, yes, nuclear to meet our growing energy needs.
So as we consider the right energy policies, we need to be mindful of how many plates we are asking our power magicians to keep spinning, because if not, we face higher prices, more blackouts and backwards movement in our development.
David Holt is president of the Consumer Energy Alliance (CEA).
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