(Slightly updated 2nd October 2017 to add a link to the Brattle Group’s report on the myth of baseload generation.)
Secretary of Energy Rick Perry has recently called for `baseload` coal and nuclear plants which are no longer competitive in the electricity marketplace to receive subsidies so they can remain in operation. He argues this is necessary in order to provide continuity of service of the electrical grid, which he deems to be a matter of national security. He argues the very conventional line that such baseload power is essential for continuity. Unfortunately, his own Department of Energy disagrees with his assertion, even if that report was apparently overruled. There is more coverage of what the draft study said here. And Brattle Group agrees. Full report is here.
But what is continuity of energy supply? Secretary Perry describes it as:
A reliable and resilient electrical grid is critical not only to our national and economic security, but also to the everyday lives of American families. A diverse mix of power generation resources, including those with on-site reserves, is essential to the reliable delivery of electricity — particularly in times of supply stress such as recent natural disasters. My proposal will strengthen American energy security by ensuring adequate reserve resource supply and I look forward to the Commission acting swiftly on it.
But facts are that baseload generation has nothing at all to do with reliable provision of electricity to American families. Far more important is a resilient transmission and distribution network. According to international measures, backed by a Congressional Research Service report which dates from 2012, the United States grid, nationally, is one of the least reliable electrical grids in the world, down more minutes per year per person than any other (“SAIDI”, see definitions) and more frequently (“SAIFI”, see definitions), in terms of numbers of incidents:
|Table 2. Comparison of International Reliability Indices|
|Source: Galvin Electricity Initiative, Electric Reliability: Problems, Progress and Policy Solutions.|
Note the comparison isn’t entirely fair to non-U.S. grids because, as the CRS Report notes, their definition of a minimum outage to be recorded is 3 minutes whereas the U.S. standard is 5 minutes.
Worse, consider the present plight of Puerto Rico, post Category 5 Hurricane Maria. Their grid, belonging to utility PREPA, has 80% of its transmission and distribution network down. It doesn’t matter if it can generate. There is no way of getting that power to their consumers.
National Grid gave a presentation at a Southern New England Meteorology Conference where they showed a graph giving projected total system time-to-repair as a function of maximum wind speed in Massachusetts. Their graph echoes well known empirical studies (see figure from that article below). They concluded that a repeat of the 1938 hurricane in Massachusetts would see a time-to-repair of 8 months.
Another report from the U.S. Department of Energy itself dating from 2016 says:
- Improving reliability and resilience through efforts such as strengthening distribution poles and wires, improving flood protection, managing vegetation, and burying distribution lines, where feasible.
- Increasing system flexibility and robustness through energy storage or creation of microgrids. Grid modernization, smart meters, and synchrophasor technology can enable faster recovery from hurricane damage.
Preparing for severe weather events requires a balanced process. It is not economical to build transmission and distribution systems that can withstand every extreme, but infrequent, weather event. Developing rapid restoration capabilities can be more appropriate. It is important to balance increased system hardening with provisions for faster restoration.
The outage isolation process for many U.S. grids now is labor intensive and antiquated, in fact it is almost laughable. This has been known for a long time.
And the same smart grid which isolates outages, directs workers so their time and efforts are efficiently used, and sometimes even restores power itself can also manage and balance inputs from variable sources of generation, such as solar PV and wind.
So, Secretary Perry, the only kind of national and economic security you are talking about is to the wallets of coal and nuclear owners and stockholders, not electrical security for Americans.
If such subsidies are implemented, the end result will be an acceleration of grid defection by corporations and households, and a quickening of the utility company death spiral.
Hey, maybe that’s a good thing!