As the news media reported world-record average temperatures in early July, we all wonder what Mother Nature has in store for us this summer. In recent years, extreme winter and summer temperatures have taken the electric grid to the edge of its capacity, causing blackouts in some regions.
These blackouts result when the total of all electric generation falls short of total seasonal peak loads. It is much like pedaling up a hill that gets too steep to keep going—your legs give out and the bike stops. The term we use to describe this in the electric utility business is resource adequacy.
In our electricity-dependent society, blackouts are unacceptable. Blackouts bring society to a screeching halt. Industry and commerce stop. Lives and livelihoods are threatened.
If left to the engineers and their passion for safety margins, the electric grid would always have adequate resources to meet peak loads during extreme temperature events. It may come as a surprise, but the engineers are not usually in charge, and our society has some conflicting opinions that threaten resource adequacy. Ideally, opinions are grounded in facts, but we all know that is not always the case.
One prevailing opinion affecting resource adequacy is not grounded in fact. The erroneous opinion is this: 1 megawatt of coal, natural gas or hydroelectric generation can be replaced by 1 MW of solar or wind generation. The fact is that coal, natural gas and hydroelectric generation can be ramped up to 100% at the call of a system dispatcher. They are dispatchable resources that can be adjusted at will to serve variable system loads. This is not the case for wind and solar generation. In fact, during extreme temperature events, wind and solar generation are chronically poor performers.
Environmental and political pressures push to shut down dispatchable coal generation and prohibit new natural gas generation with the worthy objective to reduce carbon emissions. At the same time, construction of new nondispatchable wind and solar generation has been and continues to be incentivized for the same reason. Now gridscale battery storage is incentivized to add dispatchability to renewable wind and solar generation. Battery technology brings progress to be applauded, but it’s still years away from adding dispatchability to these presently nondispatchable resources.
The closure of each coal plant without adequate dispatchable replacement brings us closer to blackouts.
Another opinion threatens resource adequacy here at home with the call to breach the Lower Snake River dams. Next month, I’ll talk about environmental opinions at odds and what CCEC is doing in the fight to preserve this valuable, dispatchable, carbon-free,renewable hydroelectric resource.
Brent Bischoff General Manager and CEO