Urban Blizzard with Lights on. Credit: iStock/Bulgac
As winter weather looms, the Electric Power Supply Association (EPSA) spoke to a leading expert on power system reliability to get his take on the trends impacting our grid today.
Mark Lauby is Senior Vice President and Chief Engineer at the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC). He joined NERC in 2007 and has held several positions including Vice President and Director of Reliability Assessments and Performance Analysis and Vice President and Director of Standards. In this Expert Insights interview, Mark discusses threats to the power grid, reliability, and how rising demand impacts the system as the electrification of our economy continues.
Just this month, NERC released its 2023 Long Term Reliability Assessment, which warns that rapidly rising demand combined with retiring dispatchable power generation resources puts electric reliability at risk over the next decade.
Providing reliable access to electricity for all Americans this winter and at all times is the top priority for EPSA and our member companies. We are actively engaged in efforts to collaborate with other industry sectors, stakeholders, regulators, electricity market planners, and other experts to identify solutions and pathways to further secure the reliability of power generation operations and the nation’s power system.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of the entities they represent. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Addressing Grid Reliability
Q: What are the overarching threats to electricity reliability today?
A: As identified in NERC’s recent 2023 Reliability Issues Steering Committee (RISC) report, there are five significant areas identified as being a potential threat to reliability: energy policy, grid transformation, resilience to extreme events, security risks and critical infrastructure interdependencies.
Q: Do you have insights or a perspective on the decline in reserve margins in many regions?
A: Declining reserve margins are extremely worrying, especially during the [power system] transformation. To address the uncertainty from fuel availability (wind, sun, and natural gas delivery, etc.), more reserves and their availability is critical. As resources are being added to the system there are still some limits due to fuel uncertainty because reserve margins are less of an indicator of resource adequacy to meet demand. Therefore, the overall reduction in resources is troubling and can result in loss of firm load as we saw with Winter Storms Uri and Elliott.
Q: Which regions are most at threat of electricity curtailment and not keeping pace with demand?
A: The 2023 Long-Term Reliability Assessment (LTRA) judges the risks to be highest in the mid-section of the United States, with elevated risks in the West, Ontario, New York, and New England.
Risk Area Summary 2024-2028
Source: NERC 2023 Long-Term Reliability Assessment
Q: Can you speak to NERC’s recommendations to ensure adequate fuel supply during winter peaks and what the most critical elements are, from your perspective?
A: As the grid transitions, so must the design basis upon which we ensure energy sufficiency. The traditional one-in-ten-year capacity measure is no longer practical as it does not provide the needed certainty to ensure that enough energy and essential reliability services will be available, as was illustrated in Winter Storms Uri and Elliott. NERC recommends a new approach as shown in the four pillars of the transformation below:
Source: Four Pillars of the Clean Energy Transition, NERC
Q: What is the role of interconnection queues right now? Do you see current efforts to reduce those queues as aggressive enough to address reliability concerns?
A: Gaining certainty of what can be counted upon in the queues will help planners understand the emerging risks (both from the uncertainty and engineering challenges). Clarity of how and at what pace the resource mix is transforming is critical now so that sufficient amounts of transmission, balancing resources, and energy supply chains can be firmed up to meet the needs of the green energy system of the future.
The Impact of New Technologies
Q: What effect does increasing electrification of the economy have on the future of peak energy demand, especially during the winter?
A: Peak demand and overall energy requirements are growing at an alarming rate. This is happening while the resource mix is transforming with higher levels of uncertainty due to their fuel supply characteristics. As demand is decarbonized and electrified, the higher dependence on electricity delivery, even during extreme weather and environmental conditions, will require high levels of reliability, resilience, and security. Consequently, a more robust system needs to be designed and implemented to meet consumer demand and assure that sufficient amounts of clean, safe, and affordable energy are available.
Q: What role does demand response have in maintaining system reliability and integrity during extreme peaks?
A: Demand response can be an important tool to manage system reliability and resilience, however, it will need to be coupled with Reliability Standards to ensure the associated control systems are secure, and that they can be counted upon with a great deal of certainty to address energy shortages.
Q: How can natural gas infrastructure and electricity generation be better coordinated to improve winter reliability?
A: As traditional forms of generation retire, such as coal and nuclear, natural gas has become the dominant fuel for electric power generation in the United States, with power generation now the largest end use for natural gas. Initially, the experience of operating the gas–electric system was seen as interdependent. However, a new reliability paradigm, the interconnected Bulk Energy System, emerges with this evolution, reflecting the increased interrelationship between the gas and electricity sectors that has been growing steadily since the 1980s and has accelerated during the energy transition.
In recent years, the resource mix has evolved, and now large amounts of electricity are being fueled by just-in-time delivery of natural gas. These dispatchable resources, which have replaced many coal-fired power plants, are increasingly critical to the reliable operation of the bulk power system. Consequently, disruption in natural gas supply impacts the reliable operation of the grid in more dramatic ways today than in the past. That dynamic will only increase as other fossil-fired and nuclear dispatchable resources retire and variable generation expands.
Over the past two years, the North American Energy Standards Board (NAESB) convened a forum of representatives from the natural gas and electric sector. The forum co-chairs, in the forward of their July 2023 Gas Electric Harmonization Forum Report, make a strong case for the immediate creation of a Natural Gas Reliability Organization to perform a similar role for the gas sector that NERC performs for the electricity sector.
Going forward, the interconnected nature of the natural gas and electric system will expand. NERC is calling for formalized coordination and collaboration between both industries, including the development of a Reliability Standard setting and enforcement organization encompassing the interconnected bulk energy system, and the deep need for coordination between both industries ensure their reliable operation.
Looking to the Future
Q: Does the current pace of new generation coming online (both conventional and renewable) match the pace of retirement of existing resources? Do you see an emerging gap there?
A: ISO-New England asserts that while retirements are occurring on time, there is a lag bringing additional resources online, which is an indication of an emerging energy gap in that region. The uncertainty created by variable energy resources necessitates improved management of the transition to support the energy needs of the consumer.
Further, transmission is a much-needed addition to address the uncertainty of supply to transport energy long distances from where it is abundant, to where it is needed. However, siting and permitting challenges continue to impose delays in transmission expansion planning. While regional transmission planning processes are adapting to manage the energy transition, impediments to transmission development remain.
Q: How are energy policies at the state and federal levels shaping the future of electricity reliability right now?
A: Though there are a variety of policies and applications of those policies throughout the states, provincial, and federal levels, generally they are focused on decarbonization, decentralization, and digitization of the grid. The resulting grid is trending toward one with high levels of uncertainty related to fuel delivery and faces a significant engineering challenge to reliably and securely integrate new resources.
It is critical that state, provincial, and federal organizations consider the impacts to reliability, resilience, and security when developing and deploying new energy policies and assure that risks arising from the energy transition are managed.