By Todd Snitchler, President and CEO, EPSA
America runs on electricity. It is an essential component to modern life that powers the building blocks of our society – schools, hospitals, grocery stores, businesses, and even transportation. As Americans become increasingly more dependent on the power grid, our primary focus should be placed on its reliability. Resilience is also essential, but we should not shift the focus only to bouncing back, with the expectation of consistent grid failure. Conflating the two important terms and using them interchangeably will lead to poor policy decisions.
The nation’s largest grid operator, PJM Interconnection, defines reliability as “designing, running, and maintaining electricity supply to provide an adequate, safe, and stable flow of electricity.” This means knowing your refrigerator is running at all times and that the lights will come on when you flip a switch – even on the hottest days and coldest nights. PJM notes that reliability is linked to resilience, which it says is the separate and distinct concept of operating through and recovering from significant disruptions.
Reliability and resilience have common goals: minimizing the risk and impact of power outages, withstanding disruptions, and quickly and efficiently restoring the system.
But while resilience is an essential part of reliability, consumers prioritize being able to count on a consistently operational and functional grid over its ability to come back online. Guaranteeing reliability is the foremost order of business for power providers, grid operators, legislators, and regulators, and it includes the availability of reliable, dispatchable power generation sources like natural gas.
It’s not just semantics. Reliability, unlike resilience, has enforceable rules overseen by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) under the Energy Policy Act of 2005. Reliability standards and metrics help ensure the reliable operation of the bulk power system so that “instability” or “cascading failures” do not occur because of a sudden disturbance. According to the Department of Energy, similar metrics for grid resilience do not exist and it is not mandated by federal law. Instead, the grid’s ability to adapt to changing conditions and recover is considered an aspect of reliability. This regulatory framework emphasizes why the focus of investments in our power grid must remain on reliability.
Reliability is the preeminent measurement of grid performance. Even with successful investments in grid modernization, utilities still measure their customer and regulatory performance on their ability to reliably deliver electricity.
FERC addressed the need to distinguish between reliability and resiliency back in the Trump administration, when the Secretary of Energy urged the Commission to “issue a final rule requiring its organized markets to develop and implement reforms that would fully price generation resources necessary to maintain the reliability and resiliency of our nation’s grid.” Upon terminating that proceeding, FERC remarked, “there seems to be a general consensus that grid reliability and grid resilience are related but separate concepts, with the elements of grid reliability being better understood and defined. It also is evident that there is currently no uniform definition of resilience used across the electric industry.”
Efforts to make resiliency the main object of grid performance have been linked to attempts to secure subsidies for uncompetitive electric generation, which FERC prevented from happening in 2018. “The proposed rule had little, if anything to do with resilience and was instead aimed at subsidizing certain uncompetitive electric generation technologies,” FERC Commissioner Richard Glick said in 2018.
Clearly defining the terms allows us to better target our efforts. To secure the power grid’s reliability, it is essential that investments, policies, and legislation recognize the critical role of natural gas and other dispatchable resources. These resources keep the system running when demand peaks and intermittent resources cannot perform. We don’t need to bounce back if we don’t lose power in the first place. Resilience measures are important but should not supplant our main goal – to ensure a reliable power grid for all Americans.