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    Reliability watchdog warns of winter electric shortfalls


    December 5, 2022 - ROBERT ZULLO

     

      The nonprofit regulator charged with helping ensure the reliability of the North American electric grid is warning of potential electric supply shortfalls during severe weather this winter in several regions of the country.

      Earlier this month, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, which sets and enforces reliability standards for the bulk power system in the U.S., Canada and part of Mexico, said New England and parts of the South and Midwest, are "at risk of having insufficient energy supplies during severe winter weather."

      The organization pointed to fuel supply problems, potential shipping disruptions, limited natural gas infrastructure, fossil and nuclear plant retirements and high potential peak electric demand as contributing risk factors during sustained cold weather.

      "While the grid has a sufficient supply of capacity resources under normal winter conditions, we are concerned that some areas are highly vulnerable to extreme and prolonged cold," said John Moura, NERC's director of reliability assessment and performance analysis, in a statement. "As a result, load-shedding may be required to maintain reliability."

      (Load-shedding means intentionally interrupting the flow of electricity to customers to reduce the strain on the grid.)

      For the part of the grid overseen by the Midcontinent Independent System Operator, an area that includes all or parts of 15 U.S. states including Nebraska and Iowa. NERC worries that more than 4.2 gigawatts of nuclear and coal power plants have been retired. That's the rough equivalent of four large (1,000 megawatt) power plants.

      "An extreme cold-weather event that extends deep into MISO's area could lead to high generator outages from inadequate weatherization in southern units and unavailability of fuel for natural-gas-fired generators," the report says.

      MISO predicts its peak winter demand will be 102 gigawatts, with 113 gigawatts of electric generation available "under normal grid conditions," Brandon Morris, a spokesman, said in an email. The organization's all-time peak winter record for power demand was 109 gigawatts on Jan. 6, 2017. However, Morris said staff members from the organization noted in a winter readiness workshop last month that extreme cold weather, intense winter storms and/or fuel supply issues could create challenges for MISO and local utilities.

      Power generators in MISO, however, have shown improvement in preparing their plants for extreme weather, according to a winterization survey the organization conducted, Morris said.

      NERC made a broad series of recommendations to mitigate risks to the power grid from extreme weather. First, it said power generators should be preparing for winter conditions and communicating with grid operators. They also should ensure they have adequate fuel on hand and the organizations that monitor them should keep tabs on fuel supplies as well. But NERC also urged state regulators and policymakers to "preserve critical generation resources at risk of retirement prior to the winter season and support requests for environmental and transportation waivers."

      Holly Bender, the Sierra Club's senior director of energy campaigns, called NERC's suggestion to suspend environmental rules to keep fossil plants running "the wrong strategy." Rather, Bender said the report makes the case that reliance on fossil fuels itself poses risks and she urged state regulators to instead push energy efficiency and weatherization programs that will cut power use. "Whether it's water shortages in the summer or frozen coal piles and short fuel supply in the winter, fossil fuels like coal and gas struggle through extreme weather," she said. "In addition to the public health, environmental, and climate impacts, fossil fuels are increasingly unreliable, contributing to energy insecurity and unpredictable price spikes that impact the most vulnerable members of our communities the most."

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