Navigant Research Blog

Will Coal Plant Retirements and Fracking Threaten Electric Reliability?

— December 17, 2014

The implications of the rapid retirement of much of the U.S. coal generation fleet are just coming to light, and transmission operators and generation utilities are actively discussing and planning on contingencies that could cause a real threat to reliability and availability in many regions across the nation.  (The issues around retiring and decommissioning coal plants were discussed in Navigant Research’s research brief, Coal Plant Decommissioning.)  Compounding the threat of coal generation plant retirements is a short-term shortage of coal in many regions of the nation.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced its proposed Clean Power Plan (CPP) rule in June 2014.  It’s expected that the final rule will be announced in June 2015.  The CPP targets CO2 emissions by existing fossil-fueled electric generation and sets targeted reductions for each state.  The plan, as currently proposed, mandates 30% reductions in carbon emissions by 2030 from 2005 levels.

The proposed plan also gives each state flexibility to develop its own approach as to how it will meet the targets, including retiring problematic coal and other fossil fuel generation, adding renewables, such as wind or solar generation, or increasing levels of demand response and energy efficiency programs, which the recent EPA mandates may accelerate.

Time to Plan

Most people do not understand the issues that will arise in the Midwest and the southeastern United States as a result of coal generation plant retirements.  The North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) discusses the implications at length in a recent paper on the impact of generation plant retirements based on the CPP.  NERC concludes the paper by suggesting that states immediately start operational and planning scenario studies, addressing resource adequacy, transmission adequacy, dynamic stability, and  economic and reliability impacts.  This must be done to demonstrate reliability and to ensure that plans of action are technically achievable within the stated time requirements.  “States that largely rely on fossil-fuel resources might need to make significant changes to their power systems to meet the EPA’s target for carbon reductions while maintaining system reliability,” the NERC authors conclude.

Supplies Down

In the near term, another related reliability threat is looming: the availability of coal to fuel the generation plants operating today.  Having formed a new trade group called the Western Coal Traffic League, Midwestern utilities are frustrated because their normal coal supplies from western U.S. coal producers have kept utilities from rebuilding stockpiles burned during last year’s cold winter. Compounding the effect, record harvests, economic growth, and growing oil shipments from the country’s booming oil fracking industry in in the upper Midwest are constraining the rail system.

The effective implementation of the CPP, along with tight supplies of coal, will make for an interesting winter in many parts of the United States.

 

New Relay Technology Is Transforming the Grid

— December 9, 2014

A major transformation is occurring in the electric transmission industry, as new digital technologies, high-speed communications, and big data analytics are being deployed to improve transmission grid reliability and resiliency.  This transformation starts at the basic level of protective relays – technology that has been utilized on the transmission grid for years.  These devices are beginning to evolve from mechanical and solid-state relays to next-generation digital relays that perform all of the standard system protection functions, they but also have new digital capabilities for phasor measurement units (PMUs), data collection, and synchrophasor analysis that are largely untapped in today’s transmission utility market.

My conversations with major vendors, such as Schweitzer Engineering Labs (SEL), Alstom Grid, ABB, and General Electric (GE), as well as major utilities, indicate that the new technologies will change the way transmission operators detect and respond to transmission system disturbances and outages.  Now that network operators have the ability to detect sub-second disturbances in phase angle and voltage (which lead to outages and other reliability issues), with data coming in 30 to 60 times per second, a new major market for smart grid data analytics, visualization tools for the operations center, and communications is opening up.  Recent information on the nine U.S. Department of Energy smart grid demonstration projects in the United States, funded by stimulus grants, suggests that utilities are in the early stages of deploying these technologies, and that next-generation synchrophasor analytics, high-speed fiber communications systems, and high-speed sub-second automation solutions are in the early stages of adoption, at best.

Current Locations of PMUs on North American Power Grid 

(Source: North American SynchroPhasor Initiative)

In mid-October, I attended the 46th Western Protective Relay Conference (WPRC) in Spokane, Washington.  Along the Spokane River, salmon were rising in the afternoon to a late season fly hatch.  I’ll have to admit that I had not expected a conference featuring three days of technical papers that included some true power engineering discussions of second derivatives, Fourier transforms, phasor analysis, and phase angle diagrams, plus a couple of presentations on the use of comparative synchrophasor analysis for management of the transmission grid.  The 500-plus attendees included a mixture of vendors, experienced transmission planners and engineers, and a large number of new transmission engineers and trainees that were attending to learn from the experts from across the industry.

As advanced digital protective relays are deployed across the grid, consumers will benefit from improved reliability and grid resiliency.  Transmission utilities will also benefit, as they look to these lower-cost systems to add additional synchrophasor coverage and capabilities at a much lower cost.

 

Massive Outage Highlights Bangladesh Grid’s Fragility

— November 11, 2014

On November 1, the Bangladesh power grid suffered a massive, countrywide blackout that took well over a day to restore.  Only the most critical or prepared institutions and government agencies that had adequate diesel generation backup power had electricity, while the rest of the 160 million people in the country were totally in the dark.  The power outage brought much of normal life to a standstill, forced hospitals to rely on backup generators, and even plunged the prime minister’s official residence into darkness.  Meanwhile, the garment industry and other manufacturers that represent 80% of Bangladesh’s exports were idled.

Initial reports suggested that the outage occurred when protective relays tripped at the interconnect substations between the India transmission grid and the Bangladesh transmission grid, where much of Bangladesh’s power is supplied.  While Power Grid of India, the India transmission grid operator, reported that its high-voltage transmission grid was operating normally, the Bangladesh Power Grid on the other side of the substation was down.  This sounds remarkably like the 2003 situation in United States, where much of the Eastern grid suffered an outage.

In the Dark

In my recent research, I have been looking into next-generation technologies and wide-area situational and visualization tools that transmission grid network operators are beginning to deploy to better anticipate and detect critical disturbances of the sort that likely led to this massive outage.  The Bangladesh outage was likely the largest on the subcontinent since the India blackout in 2012, where two severe power outages affected most of northern and eastern India.  The July 31, 2012 India blackout was the largest power outage in world history, reportedly affecting over 620 million people – about 9% of the world’s population.  More than 32 GW of generating capacity went offline during this outage.

In the wake of that failure, the latest 10-year transmission plans in India call for the installation of over 1,300 synchrophasor phasor measurement units (PMUs) and associated analytics installed on India’s high-voltage transmission grid to manage sub-second disturbances.

The scope of the Bangladesh outage is yet to be determined, and it will require extensive transmission grid and generation forensic analysis, using available monitored information from the hours and minutes prior to the outage.  One can only wonder whether these next-generation PMU and synchrophasor analytics technologies, implemented on the Bangladesh side of the interconnected transmission network, could have prevented this crisis.

 

Transmission Superhighway Takes Shape

— October 20, 2014

In a previous blog, I focused on the expansion of high-voltage transmission systems driven by utility-scale wind generation in the multistate arc that stretches across the central United States, from the Texas Panhandle to North Dakota.  Many of us have underestimated the impact and potential of this resource as a contributor to many states’ renewable portfolio standard targets (RPS).  Headlines about new utility-scale solar projects obscure the fact that installed utility-scale wind capacity is at least 5 times that of solar.

Recently, I looked into the long-term electric transmission plans for every region in the United States and found interesting developments in the Southwest Power Pool (SPP) region.  SPP covers much of the Great Plains and the Southwest, including all or part of an eight-state area that includes Arkansas, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas.  The geographical footprint of SPP overlaps slightly with other independent system operators (ISOs) and regional transmission organizations (RTOs) such as Midwest Independent System Operator (MISO).  SPP’s footprint can be seen in the map below.

SPP Regional Footprint

 (Source: Southwest Power Pool)

In 2008, SPP announced that it plans to build the electric equivalent of the U.S. interstate highway system – an interstate transmission superhighway that would serve as the backbone of a higher capacity, more resilient transmission grid, while providing increased access to low-cost generation, improving electric reliability, and meeting future regional electricity needs.

The SPP transmission plans I saw show that this conceptual idea is beginning to come to fruition as new 345 kV transmissions systems are being built and older systems are upgraded.  Many of these projects have been completed by the transmission owner/entities in the region to address congestion issues in corridors like the Omaha/Kansas City to the Texas Panhandle route.  The figure below shows recent transmission system builds and upgrades.

SPP Regional Transmission System

(Source: Southwest Power Pool)

On the Horizon  

Meanwhile, ABB has debuted new, 1,110 kV high-voltage direct current systems.  A recent announcement by ABB on new products with 1,110 kV high-voltage direct current capabilities raises the bar again.  Until this announcement, 765 kV lines were the largest capacity lines available, and most transmission lines are currently in the 230 kV to 350 kV sizes.  ABB and other vendors (such as Alstom Grid, General Electric, and Siemens) are focusing on the Asia Pacific markets in China and India, as well as Northern Europe, where major utility-scale wind projects now under construction will need to be connected with urban areas.  ABB’s announcement is exciting because it raises the high-voltage capability to a new level, well above what we currently see here in the United States.  I can only imagine that ABB will be talking to SPP about how to take the transmission superhighway to the next level.

 

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