US Capitol Building at sunset with American flags is the home of the United States Congress in Washington D.C, USA. Credit: iStock/lucky-photographer
Last week, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a hearing to examine the reliability and resiliency of the United States’ electric grid. Witnesses included four power system experts: James Robb, President and CEO of the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC); Manu Asthana, President and CEO, of PJM Interconnection; Dr. Melissa Lott, Senior Research Scholar at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University; and David J. Tudor, CEO and General Manager of the Associated Electric Cooperative.
The witnesses each testified on what the committee chair, Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV), described as the potentially “catastrophic” consequences of an unreliable electrical grid. The witnesses expressed deep concern that the grid’s reliability will suffer if the rapid retirements of dispatchable, always-available power sources like natural gas continue without adequate replacements. Witnesses highlighted the additional challenges posed by the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) new power plant rules, and grid operators’ long queues to get new generation onto the grid. NERC has previously flagged that there is a looming gap between supply and demand. This is due to new renewable resources not coming online fast enough to replace retiring plants and being unable to supply power on demand even when built.
Members of both parties were united in their stance that grid reliability is non-negotiable. In his opening remarks, Senator Manchin emphasized that reliability must remain a priority, and that the energy transition must balance emissions reductions with affordability and reliability. Senator Manchin provided a statistic from the latest NERC Summer Reliability Assessment, released in May, and the NERC 2022 Long-Term Reliability Assessment released in December. Both reported that two-thirds of the U.S. is facing reliability challenges. To combat these challenges, the Senator called for permitting reform, like that included in the recently signed debt ceiling deal, to allow new projects to be approved and built faster.
During the time for witness statements, Robb referenced the need to reward investments in reliability and security, and that the country must “Ensure that the appropriate investments in reliability and fuel security are rewarded – particularly in areas of the country that rely on power markets and market signals to drive investments and operating decisions.”
Dr. Lott provided insight on the health and social impacts posed by power outages. U.S. customers experience more hours of outages than comparable economies. Outages put consumers at risk from dangerously extreme weather conditions and drive an increase in accidents caused by alternative fuel sources like fires and portable generators. This is on top of the profound economic and social consequences of power outages. As electrification increases and transportation and other critical industries grow to depend even more heavily on reliable power, the problem is only likely to intensify.
During the question-and-answer portion of the hearing, the panelists provided more expanded opinions on the situation. Robb offered a stark warning about policies that could force dispatchable resources like natural gas off the power system at unprecedented rates. “It’s highly troubling,” he said, “Because we are retiring these plants before their attributes are being replaced. . . the important thing they provide for the grid is the ability to maintain voltage, and to maintain frequency, and resist disturbances. Other resources can’t do that nearly as well as a large spinning mass generation.”
Panelists agreed that investment in new technologies is critical, but they continued to reiterate the need for a resilient mixture of many different resources. Natural gas was praised by the experts throughout the hearing. Tudor mentioned that gas is critical in preventing grid failure during winter storms and Robb in his testimony directly wrote, “Natural gas is essential to a reliable transition. Natural gas will remain essential to reliability for total energy and as a balancing resource.”
In relation to new technologies, carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) and its role in the new EPA rules were also discussed. Asthana explained, “Carbon capture [and] sequestration is a critical technology, because our fossil reserves are a huge national security advantage for us. I think the most recent EPA proposed rule is actually trying to promote carbon capture [and] sequestration but on a certain date and it’s not clear to me that the technology will be ready on that date.”
This concern has been widely echoed by analysts and experts since the new EPA plan effectively requires CCS or hydrogen blending for most fossil fuel plants by the end of the decade—two technologies that have yet to be deployed at scale in the U.S.
Supply chain problems were also a frequently referenced roadblock, with experts explaining that even with strong federal support, many renewable projects in the pipeline are grappling with serious supply chain challenges that may delay projects for years. That’s a sobering diagnosis, since polices at the state and federal level continue to push fossil fuel resources into retirement at accelerating rates—even as it becomes increasingly clear that there may not be anything to replace the power they generate.
As the experts noted in the hearing, the grid is facing an uncertain future. Thankfully, there are clear measures that can and should be taken for the U.S. to ensure electric reliability. These include permitting reform, better recognition of the critical role played by natural gas, investment in both renewable and fossil fuel infrastructure, accelerating the development of new technologies, and slowing down the rate of retirement for current energy sources on the grid.
As Robb offered in his testimony, “The challenge is not whether we have the resources and technical ability to achieve a clean energy future. Rather, the central challenge is calibrating the pace of change with the reliability needs of a transforming system that must remain reliable and resilient at all times and under all conditions. As it exists today, this balance is out of calibration and must be corrected.”
Reliability is the top priority for EPSA and our member companies, and should be for policymakers, regulators, grid operators, and other stakeholders. While our member companies work every day to provide safe and reliable power, we continue to advocate for policy and market solutions that will better secure reliability while enabling the benefits of competitive electricity markets to incentivize and procure cost-effective and innovative power generation.