Energy, Environment, West Virginia Legislature

December interims: Legislators get a look at risks to energy grid reliability as power goes greener

MORGANTOWN – Legislators got an education Tuesday on the risks and concerns facing the region’s power grid as the energy transition progresses.

It was the final day of December interim meetings and the Joint Committee on Energy and Manufacturing heard from Diane Holder and Brian Thiry with ReliabilityFirst.

“We do see concerns with the changing resource mix,” Holder said. “It’s our role to basically shine a light on some of the concerns that we are seeing coming out of the changing power grid.”

Cleveland, Ohio-based ReliabilityFirst is one of six regional organizations, working under the North American Electric Reliability Corp. (NERC), known as the Electric Reliability Organization Enterprise, responsible for ensuring the reliability and security of the nation’s electric system. Under the authority of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, ReliabilityFirst, among other things, audits utility companies on federally mandated standards and promotes the reliability and security of the electric grid through outreach, training and analysis. Its footprint covers 13 states and D.C.

Holder said they are resource neutral but not reliability neutral.

Thiry said NERC publishes regular gird reliability assessments and last year’s map shows two-thirds of the country at elevated risk for resource adequacy – meaning they may not have enough megawatt capacity to meet demand.

Things are trending well for reliability right now, he said: adverse events and outages are reduced. But looking forward with winter reliability assessments, most of the country is at elevated risk for the upcoming winter if we see another Winter Storm Elliot.

While it appears we’ll have a mild winter, “its only a matter of time before we run into these conditions.”

There are 200,000 MW of new potential generation set to come online at some point, but it’s not being implemented and integrated quickly enough, they said, and baseload plant retirements are outpacing new generation.

ReliabilityFirst looks at five risk profiles, they said: energy policy, grid transformation, critical infrastructure interdependence, extreme events, and cyber and physical security risks. Energy policy is where the area legislators have the most ability to make an impact.

Holder said policymakers face an “energy trilemma” as they deal with clean energy transition: cost, environment and reliability. It’s easy to combine any two as they formulate policy, but it’s hard to work all three together, and energy policy poses the top risk profile.

“We have many many concerns with reliability as the grid continues to transition,” she said.

As baseload plants are retired, it’s important that new types of generation are able to function like baseload – but that’s still in development and it will take time to get that new generation to be functional at adequate scale.

Thiry talked about this region’s energy grid: PJM. PJM says it will need $785 million in transmission upgrades to replace planned retirements.

In order to handle emergencies, PJM has a 30% reserve margin right now, but that will shrink to 16% by the end of the decade. Ultra-electrification is driving that: the growing grid demand from EVs, heat pumps AI and data centers, among other things. And it’s “lumpy”: some areas see higher growth demand than others.

They outlined some of the challenges of the renewable resources. One is, renewables don’t provide a 1:1 megawatt match for retired coal units. They are intermittent; and batteries don’t generate power, they just store it for later use. NERC calculates a 7:1 ratio, 7 MW of renewable needed to replace every 1 MW of coal.

NERC’s newest assessment will be issued today (Wednesday, Dec. 13), Holder said, and it shows PJM is not at risk for the next five years. But electricity is not bound by geography; the grid is interconnected and PJM sits next to other regions at risk. And there will be unannounced baseload retirements to come that don’t feature in the new assessment.

ReliabilityFirst advises policymakers to take three issues into account, she said: be flexible in policy as much as possible; look at the resource mix as generation is retired; and watch for new technology – there could be another baseload resource type out there eventually that employs quickly dispatchable generation.

Committee members noted various concerns about renewables’ inability to replace coal as baseload, and about the economic impacts of transitioning too quickly. But chair Sen. Randy Smith, R-Tucker, was among those who praised the presenters for what they offered: “It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you take the politics out of something.”

Delegate George Street, R-Preston, commented on some of the less desirable aspects of green energy as it exists: the environmental hazards of lithium batteries, and of windmill blades and solar panels in landfills.

Thiry agreed, saying it’s important for power suppliers look at the entire supply chain. “There are a lot of things behind the scene that are often left unsaid.”