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Resiliency: Will We Learn its Value?

Feb. 18, 2021
Transmission Expert David W. Roop weighs in on where we need to go from here after the energy crisis in the Midwest and Texas this week.

I have been impressed by the perseverance and hard work of the industry’s field workers under some extremely difficult conditions. The question for me is: Resiliency, and will we learn its value?

Texans and the industry will learn from the specific causes of this recent event by the investigations that will occur. The challenge will be how to implement the recommendations in a manner that will ensure they are sustainable and will not be forgotten as time passes and by those that may not have faced this particular event.

Unfortunately, resiliency is a multi-faceted problem that only raises to the level of concern once problems occur. With our national infrastructure dependent on electricity for health, safety, defense, and communications one would hope that regulators – state and federal would realize that incentives and penalties are needed if we genuinely want to address resiliency for high impact – low frequency events. The problems in Texas are not unlike we have seen in Germany, but Germany had coal generation facilities they could lean on along with interties with neighbors that have allowed them to weather this winter.

We must, as a nation, change our expectations for the future  and realize that investment in all areas of resiliency are needed given the direction we are heading with further electrification. The fear of regulators is that utilities will “gold-plate” their systems but, they need to prepare for these extreme events that seem to be occurring more frequently given the impact it is having on the economy, health and unfortunately lives of our citizens. 

Our markets do not provide incentives to encourage resiliency investment by providing a return for these investments. Whether it is weather extremes, cyber protection, solar storms, or electromagnetic protection, they can all be addressed by this industry with some needed investments, but they require markets, customers, legislators, and regulators to support this movement.

Diversity of Generation Will Be Needed

As we move to a low-carbon energy footprint, the diversity of generation will be needed, and the need of firm low-carbon or non-carbon dispatchable resources hardened for extreme events must be encouraged. This need is not merely a generation or transmission issue but is also one that must be considered by state regulators for distribution systems by encouraging undergrounding, improving right-of-way clearing, or providing multiple service paths, including microgrids, to outage prone areas or critical loads.

The Texas issue is compounded by the pressure that the natural gas industry continues to face in serving customers for heat while gas generation becomes more critical for electricity supply. Natural gas is needed to support the electricity supply as a clean dispatchable firm generation but faces the need to serve customers for heat plus environmental restrictions on compressor station self-sufficiency during extreme events. The past decision to have most of Texas independent from the larger network provides tremendous insight on the value of the interconnected grid and the value of larger networks to resiliency of supply. For locations without this large network, subnetworks do not have the geographic footprint to obtain supplies from outside resources. Unfortunately, intermittent resources for these long-duration weather events cannot provide multi-day support if faced with ice or snow cover — even if coupled with battery storage will not overcome supply problems for these extreme conditions.

Offsetting Future Losses

Customers must express their desire to our regulators and legislators to support investment for resiliency across this nation for extreme events by implementing market changes and regulatory changes. They should know that this will result in some rate impacts, but the benefits will offset the future losses we have seen recently. The electric and gas industries should expect and support penalties over time, should they not make the changes expected to harden their network sufficiently if given this incentive.

The challenge will be how to balance the expenditures required to support this changing grid to a low-carbon footprint while having sufficient capital investment to harden existing infrastructure for this extremely large network. Incremental investments will take time but can make a difference if we start implementing in all areas: transmission, distribution and generation. Failure to start will result in a repeat we have seen today and will unfortunately continue to impact the lives of our citizens.

David W. Roop, who retired from Dominion Energy in 2019, is principal consultant at DWR Associates LLC.

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