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

September 29, 2017
Photo: Chris Hunkeler/CC BY-SA (Flickr)
Mike Jacobs
Senior Energy Analyst

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.