The director of the WVU Energy Institute talked to senators about challenges facing the electricity sector as extreme weather events recur.
Affordability, resilience and reliability are key factors, said institute director Jim Wood.
The backdrop of last week’s meeting of the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works was the cold snap in Texas last month. when 4.4 million residents lost power for days, resulting in billions in damages and billions more in sky-high energy bills.
“I can imagine what Elon Musk was thinking when he decided to move to Texas and he lost energy for a long period of time and now he’s going to build a hundred megawatt storage facility outside of Houston,” Wood told senators.
“I’d like to ask him what he thinks about running a plant that loses electricity and can’t get replaced because there’s no replacement power that can’t connect with that part of Texas.”
A mass outage about the same time in West Virginia got less national attention, but more than 100,000 people lost power when ice storms knocked down distribution lines and poles.
Experiences like those have heightened national soul-searching about the reliability of the power grid.
In a series of editorials last month, The Wall Street Journal examined the history of changes to the power grid, concluding increased reliance on renewables has meant there wasn’t sufficient baseload power from coal and nuclear to support the grid.
“On present trend,” The Journal suggested, the “Texas fiasco is coming soon to a cold winter or hot summer near you.”
Extreme weather and grid reliability were focal points of committee meetings in the U.S. Senate last week.
WVU’s Wood spoke before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, where Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., is the ranking member. The hearing was entitled “Building Back Better: Addressing Climate Change in the Electricity Sector and Fostering Economic Growth.”
“We need to make sure our energy systems are resilient to the impacts of extreme weather, storms, wildfires or cyber attacks,” Capito said.
As renewable energy sources like wind and solar move to the forefront of America’s energy mix, Wood said under questioning by Capito, a safe bet would be assuring reliable backup sources.
“A planning-first process ought to take place where we understand where the large sources of renewables are, what kind of renewables they are, how far we want to transfer them and where we have sources of non-renewable electricity that we can use, including, of course, gas to replace that,” he said.
“Gas is a little bit better for this renewable intermittency because gas units can change load fairly quickly and when the wind stops, if you’re not going to shut down a plant, you’re going to have to change sources of energy very quickly. Nuclear has a pretty good record of changing load, but not as good as the gas plants.”
Wood, a long-time energy executive and leader, was named the head of the energy institute in 2019. Wood came to WVU in 2014 after serving as chief executive of ThermoEnergy Corp., which focuses on industrial wastewater treatment and power generation technologies. Before that, he was deputy assistant secretary of Department of Energy’s Office of Clean Coal.
He emphasized several focal points while discussion of grid reliability continues.
Affordability Just as manufacturers seek low cost labor, or advanced mechanisms to reduce the cost to produce a product,” Wood told senators, “when electric rates rise, manufacturers will seek low-priced sources of electricity in order to remain competitive. This will slow economic growth in areas unable to attract manufacturing and will shift cost recovery away from industry and toward nonindustrial consumers. Today, there are manufacturers searching, even demanding, low cost electricity from renewable sources.
Resilience and reliability Most commercial forms of electric generation are designed, constructed and operated to be very reliable. A natural gas, combined cycle (steam and gas), can operate nearly 100% between proper maintenance periods. Wind turbines can operate 36 months between oil changes, but require preventative maintenance 2-3 times per year such as replacing ptfe tubing and other materials/equipment, scheduled when wind is not blowing.
Diversity in generation The wind farms in West Virginia are on mountain ridges — because that’s where the wind blows. Gas generation can occur wherever there is a viable pipeline. Coalfired generation is the principal source of electricity in West Virginia, and the supplies of coal are plentiful. Solar generation may have a tougher time as West Virginia’s terrain is pretty bumpy, and the northern parts of the state are cloudy from October until mid-spring.
Grid stability The grid operator must have a viable plan for providing power to offset the effects of intermittency associated with wind and solar electricity. Grid design and operations must be well-integrated with locations and amounts of renewable and non-renewable sources of generation.
Energy storage There is a 32 MW lithium ion battery storage project in conjunction with a 98 MW wind project near Elkins. The Energy Institute has begun discussions with the Army Corps of Engineers on use of its data, which may point to areas that can be used for pumped storage. Storage technology will need improvements in order to provide effective and economical replacement energy during periods of renewable intermittency.
Wood told the committee that planning is crucial, alongside research and development.
“There’s nothing that I know of yet that’s going to stop the intermittency of the existing renewables that we have,” he said. “When the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine, you don’t get power. And when you don’t have power you have to have an ability to bring power from the outside into the areas that were served by that.
“So, I think that’s the first thing, to plan this process so that where wind and power and other renewables are going to exist you’ll be able to substitute power from outside that area.”