Power can be both clean and reliable

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.