Jaw-Dropping News in the Solar vs. Fossil Fuels Debate

, senior energy analyst, Climate & Energy Program | July 20, 2015, 1:47 pm EDT
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You know the cliché about work that can be 59 minutes of boredom and one minute of white knuckle excitement and danger? In the electric power industry, this happens when a major power plant loses its connection to the grid, instantly and dramatically unbalancing the supply and demand of electricity. Blackouts follow if there isn’t an instant response.

Last week I had a similar exciting moment at a conference of utility commissioners, where I learned that a key grid reliability requirement during these emergencies has not been provided by new natural gas plants.

Assumptions are not always true

Throughout the electricity engineering community, there is an assumption that, when that kind of supply-demand imbalance incident happens, there will be an automatic response within 5-6 seconds from conventional (gas, coal, hydro) generators that stabilizes the power supply. How valid this assumption is matters, because it is used by practically every utility study and commentary aimed at highlighting limits to using renewable energy to replace fossil-fuel power plants. (See here, for example.)

The surprise when regulators learned of false reliability of gas plants. Credit: Memorial University

The surprise when regulators learned of false reliability of gas plants. Credit: Memorial University

The assumed difference between conventional power plants has figured prominently in current debates about the adoption of renewable energy versus an over-reliance on natural gas and coal.

Surprised looks all around

But what if that assumption turned out to be wrong? In a thinly attended session on a Sunday at the summer meeting of NARUC, (the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners) I attended, a representative from NERC (the North American Electricity Reliability Corporation) committee process made an astounding revelation, that this assumption has indeed been mistaken.

The reality is that a thousand gas-fired power plants built in the U.S. do not operate properly in white knuckle emergencies. In the discussion with regulatory staff, Troy Blalock, reliability expert at South Carolina Electric & Gas, explained how jaws hit the floor as NERC’s investigation into reliability questions found that all three of the gas generator manufacturers (GE, ABB, Siemens) predominant in the U.S. had for years been delivering equipment that fail to provide this “essential reliability service”. As word spread around the 3-day NARUC conference, this news caused the same speechless, open-mouth expression.

Fossils vs. Renewables

This new information has huge implications for debates about power plant retirements and the EPA’s Clean Power Plan. NERC has not been supportive of a transition away from coal and into wind and solar, but at least one of their key concerns has been based on this misunderstanding that gas plants can always respond to these emergencies while wind and solar can’t.

To the point, just weeks before releasing a controversial report assessing the reliability concerns related to the EPA Clean Power Plan, NERC sent a red letter warning to the power industry and held a webinar saying that reliability was threatened by this failure in basically all new gas plants.

This revelation that U.S. grid reliability has been weakened by a thousand new gas-fired power plants negates the findings of several dramatic statements and studies that warn about impacts from increased use of renewables. California energy policy, FERC inquiries, and LBNL lab reports were all misled by the lack of this information that the gas-fired units are not contributing to frequency response during emergencies caused by sudden trips of large conventional generators.

Solar makes changes to improve reliability, and wind can do it too

Even more offensive to renewables advocates than the exaggerated, mistaken reliance on an assumed performance from gas plants, the power industry and media has repeated ad nauseum a story of German solar power equipment needing to change its control settings to make sure it helped, not hurt reliability—when all that time, the same thing was needed at gas-fired power plants.

As it happens, solar can make those changes, and has, a whole lot more quickly than gas plants. In Hawaii earlier this year, the solar industry successfully changed the control settings on 800,000 solar panel inverters through internet connections to make solar in Hawaii support frequency and voltage in similar emergencies.

Recognizing that grids need this service, a variety of wind turbine manufacturers have designs that provide the frequency response that is missing from the gas turbines (see here, here, here, and here, for example).

Perhaps the lack of incentives is the root of the problem

Because there is a lack of incentives for any generator to provide the frequency response we’ve been discussing, there hasn’t been a technology-neutral accounting of this service. It’s a win-win-win to fix this. We can do it in a way that leads to the grid of the future, rather than incorrectly relying on the grid of the past to maintain reliability.

Fixing the gas plants would be cheap

In last week’s session, NERC’s representative said that the cost to correct the mistake in controls at each of the gas-fired power plants is on the scale of the budget for coffee for the operators of these power plants. Despite the problem going unreported for 25 years, NERC suggested that a few memos, and no regulatory interventions, would be adequate to get the gas-fired fleet back up to expected reliability.

No mention was made by this representative of the bigger picture, and the inappropriate accusations over the years that wind and solar, rather than gas plants, are the cause of this problem. It’s time to set the record straight—and get back to our 59 minutes of boredom.

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  • Mike Jacobs

    ThomasJK – There is a kernel in what you are saying: capacity for response must be available and set aside to be useful. However, getting the time-frame clear in this
    discussion is key. To avoid a circular argument, take care with the definitions. Reliability has a number of components, and the term “back-up” is not specific. There are a range of reliability time-frames, from seconds to years.

    This discussion is about the first 5-10 seconds after the supply from a major generator is suddenly lost. This happens a few times a year, typically when a nuclear generator is disconnected. The frequency response discussed here is only available from the equipment that is on-line, as the time-frame is too short for anything else. Wide-spread reliance on gas generators that are now revealed to not provide the response needed when they are on-line demands attention. The situation that you describe begins with no wind and no solar on-line. By definition, any generator that is not on-line at the time of the sudden frequency need won’t be contributing to meet that need.

    The question comes down to appropriate expectations. If no one is paid to hold capacity for this response, who is going to provide it in competitive markets? FERC has opened the door, proposing that generators (and others) be allowed to sell this service. Stay tuned.

  • KVH47

    Breaking the hold of the fossil fuel “Fossils” is the hardest part of converting our society back on the track we should have been in the first place. The collusion, and disinformation of Edison, Westinghouse, Rockefeller, and Morgan to name some of the conspirators has brought us to this point. Tesla was defamed, and persecuted socially, and economically by this collusion. He died alone, and his vision for humanity was stolen to be kept from the populace so that a few could profit.

    • gundersonrogers

      “Tesla …died alone, and his vision for humanity was stolen to be kept from the populace so that a few could profit.”

      Well KV, perhaps Musk will help Tesla back to his deserved place. After a hundred years of ICE and the market share sea change showing fossil fuels and nuclear falling while renewables climb, the Tesla ev may just be the straw that brings the entire world-wide fossil fuel industry to its knees: Historical Tipping Point?
      http://cleantechnica.com/2014/12/05/solar-pv-generation-doubles-monthly-us-electricity-generation-report/

  • ThomasJK

    If the network is relying on power that’s generated by solar and wind driven generators for back-up and if the sun is not shining and if the wind is not blowing then there is nothing to be accomplished by doinking around with the frequency of the inverters’ AC output: With no DC being generated thus there being no DC input to the inverters there will be no AC output whose frequency can be “tweaked” either remotely or locally.

    • ThomasJK – There is a kernel in what you are saying: capacity for response must be available and set aside to be useful. However, getting the time-frame clear in this discussion is key. To avoid a circular argument, take care with the definitions. Reliability has a number of components, and the term “back-up” is not specific. There are a range of reliability time-frames, from seconds to years.
      This discussion is about the first 5-10 seconds after the supply from a major generator is suddenly lost. This happens a few times a year, typically when a nuclear generator is disconnected. The frequency response discussed here is only available from the equipment that is on-line, as the time-frame is too short for anything else. Wide-spread reliance on gas generators that are now revealed to not provide the response needed when they are on-line demands attention. The situation that you describe begins with no wind and no solar on-line. By definition, any generator that is not on-line at the time of the sudden frequency need won’t be contributing to meet that need.
      The question comes down to appropriate expectations. If no one is paid to hold capacity for this response, who is going to provide it in competitive markets? FERC has opened the door, proposing that generators (and others) be allowed to sell this service. Stay tuned

    • Karin Noren

      Storage solutions maybe?

  • Richard Solomon

    Was this information disclosed on a Sunday session of a summertime conference for a reason? It may sound paranoid but I wonder if this was done this way in order to reduce the likelihood of any main media outlets picking it up? Did the NERC hope that no one would notice this?!?