Photo: Chris Hunkeler/CC BY-SA (Flickr)

One Lesson For DOE From Harvey & Maria: Fossil Fuels Aren’t Always Reliable

, senior energy analyst, Climate & Energy Program | September 29, 2017, 1:06 pm EDT
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The US Department of Energy has proposed that paying coal plants more will make the grid reliable. But last month, three feet of rain from Hurricane Harvey at a coal plant in Fort Bend, Texas complicated the messaging around the reliability of fossil fuels in extreme weather. The vulnerability of power grids to storm damage is also on horrible display in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.

Past studies by the Union of Concerned Scientists have highlighted risks from worsening storms and grid issues. The demonstrated risks are in the wires, not the types of power plants.

The damage and hardships in Puerto Rico are expected to exceed past US storm impacts when measured in number of people out of service and number of hours of the outage,. Those storms stirred efforts to make the power system more reliable and resilient to extreme weather.

Recently, new debates have arisen regarding the more contentious but less-relevant (and erroneous) argument that “base-load” plants are the single best provider of grid reliability. In a market where coal-burning plants are losing money and closing, coal’s champions argue that a long list of reliability features of coal are unique and valuable. Now that the owner of the W.A. Parish plant in south Texas reported it shifted 1,300 MW of capacity from coal to gas due to rainfall and flooding disrupting power plant operations in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, yet another of these claims about the unique advantages of coal for electricity has been muddied by facts.

Plant owner NRG reported to the Public Utility Commission of Texas that W.A. Parish units 5 and 6 were switched to burn natural gas due to water saturating the coal. The subbituminous coal stored on site is supposed to be a reliability advantage, according to those pushing coal. As that debate heats up (the DOE is seeking vague and unspecified changes to compensation in the electricity markets for plants that have a fuel supply on-site), the too-simple notion that reliability is created by power plants rather than grid operations that integrate all sources will be put to the test.

Some policymakers have asserted that solid fuel stored on-site is superior to natural gas, wind, and solar. Oil is a player too: although it’s a very small part of the electricity fuel supply in the mainland US, that’s not the case in places like Puerto Rico, Hawaii, or the interior of Alaska, where it’s the primary fuel.

People in Puerto Rico use oil to fuel private back-up generators. This too is not unique. Hospitals, police stations, and other pieces of critical infrastructure have historically relied on backup generators powered by fossil fuels for electricity supply during blackouts. However, this requires steady and reliable access to fuel. Puerto Rico is now experiencing a fuel supply crisis, as challenges throughout the supply chain have made it extraordinarily challenging to keep up with the demand around the island. After Sandy damaged the New Jersey – New York metropolitan area, many subsequent crises arose because so many back-up generators there failed, including due to inadequate fuel deliveries.

Fortunately, renewable energy and battery storage technology have advanced rapidly in the aftermath of Sandy, and the Japanese earthquake that destroyed the Fukushima nuclear plant. Solar panels combined with energy storage are now a viable alternative to back-up generators. This combination has the great advantage over back-up oil-burning of providing economic savings all year, as well as serving in an emergency. Even apartment buildings and low-income housing can gain the benefits of solar-plus-storage as a routine and emergency power supply.

Puerto Rico has a great solar resource, and the sun delivers on schedule without regard to the condition of the harbors or roads. Additional back-up power supplies there should be built from solar-plus-storage, so the people depending on electricity need not worry about fuel deliveries, gasoline theft, or dangers from fuel combustion. In Texas, the grid has already absorbed more wind power than any other US state. The next energy boom in Texas will be solar.

These are real resiliency and reliability improvements.

Photo: Chris Hunkeler/CC BY-SA (Flickr)

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  • Richard Simonetti

    I’m somewhat perplexed by your assertion that “solar panels combined with energy storage are now a viable alternative to back-up generators”. Severe weather conditions will just as easily damage and destroy solar PV modules and storage batteries as it will disrupt fuel deliveries for back-up generators.
    Perhaps underground natural gas pipelines to back-up generators might offer real world effectiveness in the aftermath of a major weather occurrence if the economics make sense.

    • Richard-
      Thanks for the comment about the risks of major storms. Preparing for disaster recovery can never be a sure thing. The approach to back-up generators here is meant to reduce the modes of failure, especially the system-wide failures. Where wide sections of the population are depending on fuel deliveries, risks arise through the whole logistics chain that are exacerbated by the spike in demand (everyone is needing the same thing) and the damaged transportation infrastructure (roads, ports, even fuel stocks and handling equipment). The decentralized nature of solar has the inherent advantage that damage to some facilities or solar equipment does not affect the capability of the solar equipment at other locations. Economics matters- gas pipelines are not common in rural or remote areas, let alone islands because of costs due to low density of users. In contrast, solar will be cost-effective for everyday use in contrast to a back-up system that contributes energy and benefits only in response to the disaster. But no doubt, if the risk is weather that can damage solar panels, the design should meet that requirement to allow the system to either withstand the storm or be disassembled and moved out of harm’s way.

  • solodoctor

    Elon Musk has just announced that Tesla will make battery storage packs available to Puerto Rico in the coming days. Per a news report I saw these can convert solar energy via direct exposure to the sun without the need for any panels, etc. It will be instructive to see how much these can help the crisis that the island is facing right now. Then will Trump, Pruitt, and others pay attention to the results?