Polar Vortex Returns. Will Wind Energy Be Left Out in the Cold?

December 14, 2016 | 3:45 pm
Mike Jacobs
Senior Energy Analyst

The Polar Vortex in 2014 revealed issues with over-reliance on natural gas  and under-appreciation of wind and customer demand response. The Union of Concerned Scientists is pushing to correct mistakes when made when the low price of natural gas for most of the year fooled a lot of people who should know better. Assumptions that natural gas would be just as available in a cold snap as in mild weather created havoc with electric power plants that rely, perhaps over-rely, on natural gas when the cold snap came.

Will YOU bundle up when it’s cold?

Arctic family knows how to prepare for polar weather. Credit: pinterest./benitodream

Arctic family knows how to prepare for polar weather. Credit: pinterest./benitodream

One surprise in the January 2014 cold weather was how many fossil-fired power plants could not run because of frozen pipes and other failings due to lack of protection from the cold.  (data from PJM report)  Preventing this sort of failure to prepare for the cold is neither complicated nor expensive. Now, much like a kindly elder reminding the young ones to get on a hat and coat, the grid operators require a check-list of preparations for power plant owners as the cold weather approaches.

But what if I didn’t pay the fuel bill?!?

Yeah, the power plant owners need to buy fuel, and pay for deliveries. Gas pipeline space for fuels deliveries can be reserved ahead of time, or you can wait and see if there is some leftover available capacity when you, and every other gas-burner in the region, needs it. The big surprise in the mid-Atlantic region was that dozens of the gas-fired power plants that are counted for their reliability did not have gas delivery arrangements for January. These plants notified the grid operator, PJM, that they too were not able to run.  They had skimped on arrangements to obtain gas during  the same time demand from homes heated with gas was at its peak.

Mid-Atlantic electricity prices approached $1 per kWh on Jan. 20, 2014.

Mid-Atlantic electricity prices approached $1 per kWh on Jan. 20, 2014.

In this demonstration of over-reliance on gas, the operating assumption of power plant owners in January 2014 was that if they could buy gas last year, they would be able to buy gas again the next year, even though they were not making reservations and reserving gas pipeline capacity.  The electricity supply was made adequate by some unexpected over-performers.

Unexpected, and under-paid. Windfarms in the PJM system produced more than their reliability requirements. Demand response from commercial buildings and businesses, expected to respond only in the summer, also came through when PJM called for their help. As these resources don’t require fuel, they were not caught in the gas squeeze.

Did everyone get the message?

No, not really. The immediate effects are being addressed. Power plant owners now know the gas pipeline capacity they use in warm months will not be available for every power plant.  PJM has also corrected this assumption, but oddly only for the gas pipelines and not for the electricity transmission. Just as bad, PJM has turned its back on the demand response from customers and renewable energy that saved the day.

What’s missing and what’s being done

The focus is now on how well the electricity transmission system, the network of wires connecting the power plants to the consumers, is able to deliver in winter. The good news for wind energy is PJM is adopting our advice of testing the transmission to see if the higher levels of wind energy in winter can flow, and thus be eligible to be counted as a winter resource.

The assumption that all the power plants have adequate transmission in the winter is the weak link in this set of reliability assurances. The polar vortex weather revealed how the mix of power plants that PJM paid to be reliably perform was not the same as the mix of plants (and demand response) that actually did perform and kept the lights on. When PJM tests the capability of the system in winter peak conditions, many of the power plants are included at only a fraction of the capacity which they are obligated and expected to provide.

So, PJM is looking to avoid the mistakes made in the gas sector, but only proposing to go part way. The incremental seasonal capacity from wind is valuable, and testing if the actual winter deliverability is greater than currently assumed from the summer tests is a key first step. Additional steps to make this more permanent, and to test all generators’ transmission limits on their winter contribution to reliability are needed. Comments are coming in from around the stakeholder community in support of this. A full fix would be to make a complete assessment of how winter needs are different from summer needs, and make deliberate efforts to use that information when committing to resources, both in supply and demand.

Cold weather is no time to get caught with our plants down just because we assumed what works in summer will be fine in winter.