There is a Standard for Comparing Power Plant Closings with Energy Shortages; Let’s Use it!

November 2, 2018 | 2:25 pm
Photo: Mike Jacbos
Mike Jacobs
Senior Energy Analyst

The debate about modernizing our energy system has been marred by shifting claims that we need old power plants. We are replacing fossil fuels with steady and rapid adoption of clean renewable energy, and more efficient buildings and appliances and we need to keep the basic reliability principles front and center. The latest analysis from the electricity grid operator in the Mid-Atlantic US, leaves out a crucial piece.

We do need a reliable electric system and we need professional managers guided by clear policies. No one is served by rhetoric when facing the decisions ahead. However, we do have an industry standard that has been formally applied to address how much reliability, and how much money we spend, for the electric power supply. In 1968, the Mid Atlantic Area Council (MAAC) set a standard for planning and maintaining the supply of power plants. Here it is:

“Sufficient megawatt generating capacity shall be installed to ensure that in each year for the MAAC system the probability of

occurrence of load exceeding the available generating capacity shall not be greater, on the average, than one day in ten years.”

For decades, regulators have guided utilities to plan the electricity supply with a defined and very small possibility that there could be a shortage.

State utility regulators have asked what this means in terms of how much consumers are paying for electricity, and is this the right standard. Here’s what they got for an answer. I will let you read that report, but suffice it to say the state regulators who are responsible for the health and safety implications of a power outage did not change the one day in ten years standard.

PJM, the grid operator for 13 states and the District of Columbia, yesterday unveiled a body of work examining the reliability of the grid. Reliability and MAAC standards are not new to PJM. But their discussion of what’s new in thinking about reliability was missing a reference to the existing standard.  PJM described scenarios with multiple, compounding events, but there was no probabilities associated with the events and no attempt to tie this work on reliability back to their own, long-standing standard for acceptable risk of outages.

For this discussion of power plant closures and reliability to fit into the professional, legal and clear context of government regulation of electric utility decision-making, we are going to need the engineering debate to refer to their own standards which have been vetted and relied upon for 50 years.