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U.S. grid officials raise alarm on power plant closures

Power Grid

Story by James Osborne, Houston Chronicle. WASHINGTON – U.S. grid operators are raising alarms the power grid is becoming less reliable and potentially more prone to blackouts as traditional fossil fuel and nuclear plants are shutting down at a rapid pace and are replaced by cleaner but less consistent forms of generation.

Jim Robb, president of the North American Electric Reliability Corp., said during a press conference Wednesday that the rapid expansion of wind and solar farms in recent years was already testing the limits of existing natural gas generation, which grid operators rely on to supply electricity when changes in weather causes renewable power loads to drop.

Energy, Oil and Gas Mineral Rights“It’s highly concerning because as we move forward we’re going to need to be adding more kilowatt-hours than we have now because of electrification policies and electric transportation,” he said. “We’re having enough trouble keeping up with where we are right now, trying to balance the generation that’s retiring and the new additions that are coming on.”

Those comments were the latest in a series of warnings from grid managers, energy regulators and industry lobbyists about the dangers of rapidly shutting down large fossil-fuel-fired and nuclear power plants to make way for renewable generation.

Manu Asthana, the CEO of PJM, which stretches across 13 states in the Eastern U.S. and is the country’s largest power grid, last month warned traditional power plants were closing too rapidly and new generation was not coming online fast enough to keep pace with increasing power demand.

“I think the math is pretty straightforward,” he said at an industry event, according to media reports. “We need to subtract slower and subtract generation only when the replacement generation is here at scale. I really think that’s critical.”

The warnings come amid a wider political debate around whether the United States is moving to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power grids too rapidly, pitting President Joe Biden’s push for a net-zero electrical grid by 2035 against Republican concerns about the potential consequences of such a transition.

ALSO READ:  Texas Senate Clears Bill Aimed At Adding More Natural Gas to Power Grid

Capacity shift

Hundreds of power plants, representing more than 87,000 megawatts of coal-, nuclear- and natural gas-fired generation, have retired in the United States over the past five years as power grids age and adjust to investor pressure and tougher state regulations around climate change, according to data from the Energy Information Administration.

New solar and wind farms are coming online to replace them at a fast clip — of the 46,000 megawatts of new capacity added to the grid last year, more than 60 percent were solar and wind projects, according to the energy administration.

But wind turbines and solar panels only produce electricity when the weather cooperates, often leaving power grid operators scrambling to find other generation. The belief among renewable energy advocates is that battery systems that can store electricity for use when the sun isn’t shining or the wind drops will eventually solve that problem, but for now, grid operators largely rely on natural gas plants to balance the load.

“We need an enormous amount of batteries to play that role, and they are helping,” Robb said. “The problem is they’re only four hours in duration.  Gas is the fuel that keeps light on, and until we’re at the end of this transition we’re going to need gas.”

The United States is the largest natural gas producer in the world, exporting it to countries around the world through LNG tankers running largely from the Gulf Coast.

But transporting gas within the United States has proven increasingly difficult in recent years, as Democrats in state and federal government move to block the construction of gas pipelines they see as extending the life of the fossil fuel industry.

“You see these different state climate plans pushing for more renewables, along with more electrification, which is going to bring on a lot more lot load and higher peak needs. And we don’t have the infrastructure to address that currently,” said Amy Andryszak, president of the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America, a trade group representing pipeline companies.

At the same time, the reliability of the gas system itself has fallen into increasing question in recent years, following winter storms in Texas and the Northeast that resulted in gas supplies running short and power plants freezing up, resulting in millions of homes losing electricity and heating.

At the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Commissioner Mark Christie, a Republican, is sounding the alarm for government to begin making changes to existing energy regulations to prevent what he believes is a coming power crunch.

That could be a tough sell, with power grids largely under the control of 50 individual state utility commissions with widely disparate approaches to climate change and the transition to clean energy.

But the reliability of the power grid is getting increasing attention in some states, with California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who is pushing the nation’s most ambitious climate targets, recently backing off his longstanding call to close the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant over concerns it would leave the state without enough power generation.

“He crusaded against that for years before he became governor,” Christie said in a recent interview. “So, you know, we’re coming face to face with reality here.”

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