A number of analysts have raised concerns that the proposed Clean Power Plan, aimed at reducing power plant carbon emissions, could threaten the reliability of electric power. But a closer look at the U.S. power system and the safeguards in place suggests that these reliability issues are manageable. The greater threat to reliability, in fact, is the rising incidence of extreme weather driven by climate change.
The North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), which is overseen by the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and government authorities in Canada, is responsible for keeping our power system reliable. NERC develops reliability standards and assesses the power system to anticipate and minimize the risk of disruption. It was established after a 1965 multi-hour Northeast blackout. Since then, the U.S. population has increased by 65 percent and power generation is more than 3.5 times greater with only one comparable blackout, in 2003.
Last fall, NERC issued an initial report identifying reliability issues under the Clean Power Plan that required further investigation. NERC and other analysts have questioned whether our natural gas system can handle more demand if more power plants switch from coal to natural gas. NERC also questioned how the power system will respond to less 24/7 baseload coal generation and more intermittent renewable generation.
Since the NERC report was issued, the Department of Energy, The Analysis Group and the Brattle Group have offered analyses that suggest power plant emissions can be reduced under the Clean Power Plan without compromising system reliability.
Managing for reliability
Already, our electric system is adapting to changes in electricity production without compromising reliability. For example, natural gas-fired electric power generation has jumped from 17 percent of the mix in 2001 to 27 percent in 2013. At the same time, as natural gas production has steadily increased and become more broadly distributed, the infrastructure to handle it has expanded. Challenges will always exist in siting new infrastructure. However, the amount we’ll need is projected to be modest and manageable.
About 14,600 miles (76.4 bcf/d) of new natural gas pipeline capacity was added between 2000 and 2011, according to a report from CSIS and the Rhodium Group. A recent Department of Energy (DOE) report found that even in a high-demand future scenario, new interstate pipeline infrastructure needed would be significantly less than the capacity we have been adding to the system over the past 15 years.
EPA estimates coal generation could fall 20 percent by 2030 as a result of the Clean Power Plan. Some studies estimate a larger drop. A recent Brattle Group report notes that there is no requirement for coal plant retirements in the Clean Power Plan. If reliability standards were endangered, coal plants could continue to operate at reduced levels or by co-firing with biomass to keep emission rates low until new power transmission or cleaner generation is brought online.
With regard to more intermittent power sources affecting grid reliability, in some areas we’re already seeing higher levels of renewable generation than the Clean Power Plan anticipates -- with no negative impacts on reliability. We continue to improve forecasting the availability of intermittent resources, making it easier to plan for back-up generation or demand response.
A key consideration
After the Clean Power Plan is finalized this summer, states will have one to three years to craft individual or regional implementation plans. This will be followed by additional years before interim requirements must be met. It is reasonable to assume that state regulators and reliability entities will work with utilities and other key stakeholders in crafting plans from inception. In fact, this is already happening, as non-profits and grid operators talk with states about their Clean Power Plan options. Reliability should and will be a key consideration, not an afterthought. Moreover, there is already a robust set of tools, discussed in a recent report by the Analysis Group, that reliability entities like NERC can apply.
The proposed Clean Power Plan will allow states to choose the emissions-cutting strategies that best suit their circumstances. One approach expected to be favored is to reduce electricity demand through energy efficiency programs. Consumers using less electricity will only serve to ease reliability concerns.
The price of failing to act
The reliability of our electricity system is indeed a serious concern to our economy and quality of life. And that reliability will be impaired if the emissions causing climate change aren’t curbed.
In the coming decades, climate change is expected to bring more frequent and intense heat waves, higher sea levels, and more intense storms that will strain our electricity infrastructure. Over time, a range of measures will be needed to ensure that electricity system assets will be able to withstand climate impacts.
Strategies and systems exist to ensure the Clean Power Plan can be implemented without compromising reliability. By beginning to reduce emissions today, we can lessen the effects climate change will have on the power system tomorrow.
The climate targets announced this month by the United States and China will require a significant effort beyond a business-as-usual scenario for both countries. More details will likely follow in the weeks and months ahead, but here is what we know so far for each country.
China announced a goal for its greenhouse gas emissions to peak by 2030 or sooner. This marks the first time that China has pledged a peak or absolute target for greenhouse gas emissions, rather than an intensity-based target. In business-as-usual scenarios, China’s emissions wouldn’t peak until 2040 or later.
China also announced it would boost its share of zero-carbon energy, which includes nuclear, hydropower and renewables, to 20 percent – up from about 13 percent today. Meeting that goal will require a substantial build-out of nuclear power stations, hydroelectric stations, wind turbines, and solar panels, as well as transmission and other infrastructure. In a separate announcement, China said it plans to cap its coal consumption by the year 2020.
China can’t, as critics claim, sit idly by for 15 years and reach these targets. It will need to significantly restructure its energy system. China will have to add more than 1 GW of zero-carbon power a week for the next 15 years – an amount roughly equal to the entire installed electricity capacity of the United States.
For the first time ever, a large-scale, coal-fired power plant is capturing carbon dioxide to keep it from being released into the atmosphere – a milestone for a technology critical to addressing climate change.
Canadian electric utility SaskPower has switched on unit 3 at its Boundary Dam power plant, about 10 miles from the North Dakota border, and will hold an official grand opening Oct. 2. Following a $1.2 billion retrofit, the 46-year-old, 110-megawatt coal unit is now on course toward capturing 90 percent of its carbon emissions. Other upgrades reduce nitrous oxide emissions and capture 100 percent of the unit’s sulfur dioxide emissions.
Numerous commercial-scale carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology projects have been deployed in the industrial sector. In the power sector, demonstration-scale projects have been deployed, but this is the first commercial-scale project.
We will need to construct hundreds of such projects (along with other zero- and lower-emitting technologies) if greenhouse gas emissions are to be reduced to levels that avoid the worst effects of climate change. According to the International Energy Agency, more than 440 terawatt-hours (TWh) of CCS must be generated between 2020 and 2035 to give us a chance of limiting global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels. To get a sense of that scale, SaskPower’s unit 3 can produce up to 1 TWh of electricity per year.
The Boundary Dam project is important not just because it’s the first of its kind, but because it demonstrates a way to help make carbon capture technology economically viable -- by turning unwanted pollutants into valuable commodities. SaskPower has agreed to transport and sell its captured carbon dioxide (CO2) to an oilfield operated by Cenovus for use in enhanced oil recovery (EOR) operations. The captured CO2 helps coax additional production from declining oil fields and results in the permanent storage of the CO2 underground. (In addition, captured sulfur dioxide emissions will be used to produce 50 tons per day of sulfuric acid for industrial customers, and SaskPower will sell the plant’s coal combustion residuals, also known as coal ash, for use in construction products like drywall and concrete.)
A range of tools, including state action and power market changes, are needed to ensure that existing nuclear power plants help keep the United States on track to meeting its climate goals. That was the consensus of experts C2ES convened this week at the National Press Club to discuss nuclear’s role as a zero-carbon energy source.
In a new brief, Climate Solutions: The Role of Nuclear Power, C2ES laid out some of the factors that led to the premature retirement of five nuclear reactors. Nuclear power provides more than 60 percent of zero-carbon emission electricity in the United States. So further closures will make it harder to reduce U.S. carbon emissions.
C2ES assembled a group of experts, including Peter Lyons, U.S. Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy; Carol Browner, Center for American Progress Distinguished Senior Fellow and former EPA Administrator; and Bill Mohl, President of Entergy Wholesale Commodities, to suggest potential remedies for preserving the existing nuclear fleet.
Notably, not all of the 100 operating nuclear reactors are at risk, only the 46 that operate as “merchant” generators and compete in wholesale power markets. Pressures they face include low natural gas prices, renewables policy, a slowdown in demand for electricity, unfavorable power market structures, and the absence of a price on carbon.
From late 2012 through the summer of 2013, four power companies announced the early retirement of five nuclear reactors. In early 2014, the nation’s largest operator of nuclear power plants announced that it, too, is considering early retirements for some of its Midwest reactors.
In a new brief, the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES) looks at what’s behind these recent announcements, and how a continued loss of nuclear power – a zero-carbon energy source -- could make it harder for the United States to meet its climate goals.
Since 1990, nuclear power has consistently supplied about one-fifth of U.S. electricity. More importantly from a climate perspective, it has represented the lion’s share -- 60 to 70 percent -- of all zero-carbon electricity.