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The encyclopedia of modern electricity

DOE study describes how coal plants and solar cells can share the same power lines—and more

Coal-fired power plants are closing. Homeowners with rooftop solar panels are selling unused electricity back to their utility. Windfarms are springing up across the Great Plains. Fracking and other drilling techniques have cut the cost of natural gas by more than half since 2002, and doubled the amount of electricity generated by natural gas.

What does all this mean for the nation’s network of wires and power plants otherwise known as the electric grid? The answer lies within a new report from the U.S. Department of Energy, says Pam Silberstein, senior director of power supply for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

“It’s incredibly well-written, well-researched, very thorough, very comprehensive,” says Silberstein. “It’s a well put-together compilation of the state of the grid.”

DOE’s August 2017 Staff Report to the Secretary on Electric Markets and Reliability describes the complex state of the electric grid and goes into great detail on how utility trends might affect the price and availability of electricity. It highlights the importance of retraining coal and nuclear power workers, and the effects that renewable energy has on the stability and reliability of the existing electric utility system. 

Better reliability

Another way to describe the report: If someone decided that every high school student should understand how the nation’s system of electric wires and power plants works, this study would make a good textbook.

Silberstein sees the grid study as a report that puts in one place all the changes affecting utilities and what those changes might mean. She says, “We’re asking our utility systems to meet a lot of demands they haven’t been asked to do before.”

The study is a quick-turnaround response to an April 14 memo from Energy Secretary Rick Perry to DOE’s chief of staff to “explore critical issues central to protecting the long-term reliability of the electric grid.”

Plenty has changed for electric utilities over the past 20 years, and this DOE study describes that new landscape with enough detail to satisfy the most hard-core energy nerd:

About 15 percent of the nation’s power plants have been retired since 2002, mainly coal and nuclear plants. That trend is expected to continue due to low natural gas prices, slower growth in demand for electricity, environmental regulations and more solar and wind power. While new generating capacity from sources including natural gas and renewable energy has amounted to about three times the plant retirements, that radical change in the energy mix requires new ways of managing the flow of electricity from the power plants where it is made, to the homes and businesses where it is used.

People are demanding better reliability in their electricity; enough that utilities have supplemented their goals of reliability with a new term, “resilience.” Basically that means being able to get the lights back on faster after a natural disaster. That has utilities experimenting with things like utility-scale storage batteries, and more precise targeting of which customers should get power restored first.

A lot of states are passing Renewable Portfolio Standards that mandate levels of green energy, creating a patchwork of requirements in the national grid.

New and growing additions to the electric grid are changing the way it needs to be managed. Those new power sources include rooftop solar panels that sell electricity back to the utility, natural gas plants that require new pipelines, solar and wind farms in remote areas that need to be connected with new transmission lines, and “demand response programs” in which utilities can turn off home water heaters and air conditioners for short periods during times of peak demand.

Recommendations from the study include:

  • Updating the pricing arrangements that govern the buying and selling of electricity
  • Improving disaster preparedness
  • Reviewing regulations that limit the growth of power generation, especially for coal, nuclear, and hydroelectricity
  • Focusing on workforce development as energy workers face a changing energy marketplace.
  • Modernizing the software that manages electricity transmission
  • Coordinating with Canada and Mexico to enhance electric reliability across all of North America

The study also notes the importance of cybersecurity to the electric grid, but said that would be addressed in an upcoming joint report from the Department of Energy and the Department of Homeland Security. 

Paul Wesslund writes on cooperative issues for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, the Arlington, Va.-based service arm of the nation’s 900-plus consumer-owned, not-for-profit electric cooperatives.

Co-op leadership in the new energy reality

An important new study by the U.S. Department of Energy describes how the nation’s electric utilities are balancing traditional power sources like coal and nuclear, with renewable trends like wind and solar.

Member-owned electric co-ops acknowledged “this new energy reality” in a statement on the recent DOE study, by the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

“The electric industry is becoming more consumer-focused as a result of evolving technology and changing consumer expectations,” says the NRECA statement in response to the DOE study, titled Staff Report to the Secretary on Electric Markets and Reliability.

Co-ops are pioneering in that consumer focus by helping their members use energy more efficiently, and through research in innovative smaller utility networks knows as microgrids.

The NRECA statement says, “As part of our response to this new energy reality, electric co-ops are leading the way in community solar, are developing micro-grids and are implementing energy efficiency programs.”

Other fuels are needed as well, concludes the NRECA statement: “Even with these measures, coal, natural gas and nuclear power plants remain an important part of a diverse energy mix that is fundamental to ensuring reliability of service and agility of the electric system during harsh weather. Electric co-ops will continue to rely on these proven resources while integrating new energy options and consumer technology to provide more ways for our members to access affordable, dependable electricity.”  — Paul Wesslund