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Experts tell Senate Energy the power grid faces strain unless more precautions are taken

A panel of national grid experts told the Senate Energy Committee helmed by Joe Manchin that the U.S. power system faces strain, trying to maintain reliability during a shift to renewables.

Some answers include more widespread use of battery storage and expansion of transmission lines, but even with those steps the grid’s performance remains in question over the next decade or so.

The experts spoke during a U.S. Senate Energy hearing “to examine the reliability and resiliency of electric services in the U.S. in light of recent reliability assessments and alerts.”

Manchin, D-W.Va., asked about practical steps need to be taken to keep American lights on.

“What happens if we don’t build new transmission lines to carry this and bring it into the queue? Does it replace, basically, and if we don’t have storage and we can’t store it — and it has to be used or lost — what does it do to reliability?” Manchin asked the panel.

David Tudor, chief executive of the Associated Electric Cooperative, responded. The association is  a wholesale power generation and transmission cooperative to provide reliable and affordable electricity to rural areas of the Midwest.

Tudor described a tipping point in 2028 as coal-fired power plants close under the pressure of regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency. He advocated steps to assure those plants don’t close quite so soon.

“So you’ve got between now and 2028 to come up with solutions. Transmission is a solution. Keeping what we have past 2028 to maybe 2035 gives us a chance to actually see these technologies develop. The first SMR, small modular reactor, is supposed to come online in 2029. That’s the first one, and no one wants to be number one in new technologies.” Tudor said.

“My concern is, you’ve got a gap period here that we have this push for new renewables and this push to shut down plants that work, and there’s nothing there in the middle to save us. I fear we are going to have blackouts, and I’m afraid we’re going to see a significant number of lives lost.”

The hearing occurred shortly after the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, a nonprofit regulatory authority with the mission of reducing risks to the reliability of the grid, cast big doubt about how power supplies might hold up in the event of prolonged and heightened demand this summer.

NERC’s latest report indicated the possibility of energy shortfalls affecting two-thirds of North America this summer. Power resources are adequate for normal summer peak demand, NERC said, but if summer temperatures spike and become more widespread several regions could suffer shortfalls.

James Robb, president of NERC, told the Senate Energy Committee, that the power system is at an inflection point.

Risk to customers, he said, comes from rapid and often disorderly transformation of the generation resource base, performance issues with replacement resources as convention units retire and big, more frequent, long-duration weather events. He also cited increased demand, coupled with slow development of new energy infrastructure.

NERC is concerned that the pace of change is overtaking the reliability needs of the system. Unless reliability and resilience are appropriately prioritized, current trends indicate the potential for more frequent and more serious long duration reliability disruptions, including the possibility of national consequence events,” Robb told senators.

He advocated for better management of the pace of transformation, which is currently not happening. Conventional generation is retiring at an unprecedented rate.” And, he urged the identification of new resources to replace retiring generation to provide both sufficient energy and reliable service.

Manu Asthana, president of PJM Interconnection, echoed many of those conclusions. PJM, a regional transmission organization, is the nation’s largest electric grid operator.

State and local policies aimed at mitigating the risk of climate change are driving an accelerated transition, he said.  PJM has sufficient generation to meet needs right now, he said. “However, as we look further out, we are concerned by the trends we see,” Asthana said.

Specifically, the generation fueled by fossil fuels (mostly coal and natural gas) to balance the grid is retiring at a significant rate. Electrification of the transportation, industrial and building sectors is poised to create material load growth. And the region is
also experiencing significant data center construction, creating major pockets of increased demand.

“If these trends continue, our models show increased risk of having insufficient resources later in this decade to maintain the reliable electric service that consumers expect,” Asthana said.

He advocated for taking steps now, including permitting reform and policies that reduce backlog in the supply chain. Such steps would “also include adoption of policies that slow down the retirement or restriction of existing generation until replacement generation is deployed and operational at scale.”

Manchin, in his opening statements, said federal administrators have been “hellbent” on accelerating the closure of fossil-fueled power plants. That has happened, he said, while “excessively long permitting processes” delay the implementation of bringing on new resources “whether they be fossil, renewables, nuclear, you name it.”

He concluded, “It seems the question is not if we’ll face another electric reliability crisis, but when. The American people need us to do better than what we have.”

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