The grid reliability warnings keep coming. Both here and in Europe, electricity grids – particularly those that have raced away from dispatchable fuel diversity and allowed their reserve margins to erode – are facing ever-mounting warnings that available capacity may not keep up with demand.
In the U.K., the national grid operator issued its first warning this winter that the system is running with a “perilously small buffer.” As Bloomberg observed, while the warning was short-lived, “it indicates that Britain will need to rely on its few remaining coal stations to ensure there’s no shortage.”
This warning was the first of likely many this winter and there’s a good chance they will only grow more dire. The grid operator has in fact predicted six incidences when the reserve margin between available capacity and demand will grow perilously small. That oh-so-important margin has shrunk to just 6.6% this year down from 8.3% last year. Whether or not the U.K. grid teeters over the edge remains to be seen.
With ratepayers in Britain increasingly worried about whether the lights and heat stay on this winter while also facing skyrocketing energy bills, the perils of abandoning the fuel security and balance provided by coal generation are fully on display. Less than a decade ago, Britain generated 40% of its power with coal. Today, the grid rests on a foundation provided by the whims of intermittent wind capacity and volatile natural gas prices.
New England and New York Approach a Tipping Point
Across the Atlantic in New England, where bad energy policy apparently came over on the Mayflower, the region’s grid operator is also warning of dire fuel security concerns. ISO New England’s CEO, Gordon van Welie, is sounding the alarm over New England’s overreliance on natural gas and the threat it poses to grid reliability. “We will need to take emergency actions if extreme weather occurs and fuel supplies aren’t replenished,” he told reporters.
ISO New England has warned for years of impending fuel security challenges and despite efforts to address the problem remains perilously vulnerable to fuel supply disruptions. “The region has yet to find a robust solution to bolster the supply chain for these fuels during inclement weather,” said van Welie.
ISO New England has warned that 30% of its gas fleet could be without fuel during severe winter weather. It was the loss of 31% of gas generation in Texas that led to the days-long crisis that cost hundreds of lives last February.
Next door, the grid operator in New York, NYISO, is telling an equally troubling story, sounding its own alarm about rapidly eroding reserve margins and fuel insecurity.
Zach Smith NYISO’s VP of System & Resource Planning said, “…our reliability margins are thinning to concerning levels beginning in 2023. We have to move carefully with the grid in transition in order to maintain reliability and avoid the kind of problems we’ve seen in other parts of the U.S.”
NYISO’s reliability assessment warns that, “the system may cross a reliability ‘tipping point’ in future years…” Avoiding that tipping point, according to the grid operator, is going to take a nearly implausible threading of the needle of policy and on-the-ground deployment. For example, just one of the four key risk factors for maintaining reliability includes, “the timely completion of planned transmission projects.” According to NYISO, “If the planned projects were delayed for any reason, the grid’s ability to reliably serve customer demand would be jeopardized.”
In a world of uncertainty, death, taxes and the inability to successfully permit and complete transmission projects on time are about as sure as sure gets. Hoping key projects can be built on-time is a prayer the grid operator likely knows won’t be answered.
If reliability planning has been reduced to finger-crossing and Hail Marys, are we really doing any planning at all? Or better yet, if this is planning, it’s an out and out disaster.
The common thread between the U.K., New England and New York is an insistence on deconstructing dispatchable fuel diversity and abandoning the fuel security provided by the coal fleet without putting in place reliable, secure alternatives. Again and again, from California to New England and Europe, energy and climate policy reveals how much easier it is to take apart a well operating system than it is to build it. It’s far past time policymakers and regulators recognize it.
- On December 8, 2021