Ensuring Energy Reliability in the Transition to Clean Energy | Part 2


Blog CEN Statements Clean Energy News Homepage

Read Part 1

Energy reliability is a pivotal factor in maintaining the essential functions of our society. Recent events shed light on the susceptibility of isolated energy systems. The lack of grid interconnection parallels the reliability challenges faced by energy models like Community Choice Aggregators and reveals the necessity of bolstering interconnection to ensure energy reliability.  

Vulnerability of Isolated Energy Grids

The devastating winter storm that struck Texas in 2021 highlighted the vulnerabilities of isolated energy grids, paralleling the technical challenges of CCAs. Texas operates its stand-alone electricity grid, largely disconnected from other grids in the United States. Lack of interconnection means the state cannot rely on neighboring grids for support during extreme weather events or peak demand, exposing it to potential energy crises. Texas’s experience also underscores the inherent challenges with forecasting customer load and peak demand on isolated grids.

Accurately projecting electricity usage and peak loads is critical for resource planning and procurement. Isolated grids like Texas’s ERCOT have little energy safety net when forecasts fall short. ERCOT relies on meteorological modeling to predict seasonal electricity demand. However, the 2021 winter storm exceeded the grid operator’s extreme forecast scenarios. The gap between actual demand and ERCOT’s demand forecast left the system short on supply, forcing blackouts.

Isolated grids are intrinsically more vulnerable to forecasting deficiencies. ERCOT had accurately predicted record winter energy usage just one year prior. But the extended duration and intensity of the 2021 storm exceeded modeling capabilities. Even slight forecast errors can spiral into emergency conditions on isolated grids lacking external support. ERCOT is working to improve its demand models using machine learning and weather data. However, models have limitations, especially for unprecedented events. Interconnected grids better accommodate inaccurate demand projections that lead to energy instability.

Interconnection offers reliability advantages over isolated grids facing forecast uncertainty challenges. Some critics argue that Texas’ deregulated market disincentivized weatherization, worsening blackouts. However, inadequate interconnection and support significantly contributed to the crisis. Interconnected grids can share demand over larger areas during extreme weather or peak times.

Balancing Reliability with Clean Energy Goals 

Amid the clean energy transition, Republican concerns have surfaced, particularly regarding power plant retirements and financial burdens on certain states. One of the primary concerns centers on ensuring electric reliability, which some believe is threatened by the premature retirement of coal, natural gas, and nuclear power plants. To address concerns, conservatives often advocate for a focus on preserving existing energy infrastructure while gradually transitioning to clean energy.

Additionally, concerns about fairness and cost-sharing between states have arisen. Some fear that certain states may bear a disproportionate financial burden to support clean energy initiatives in others. Thus, the states and stakeholders must balance energy reliability, sustainability goals, and cost-sharing.

Addressing the Real Issue of Reliability – Transmission

Despite challenges, improving transmission is essential for energy independence and a clean transition. Robust, interconnected networks will seamlessly integrate new sources while ensuring reliability. Regulators, developers, utilities, and governments must collaborate to modernize infrastructure and streamline interconnection processes. With reliable infrastructure, the United States can meet demands through emerging resources. Bipartisan solutions focused on transmission are critical to an affordable energy future.

Despite these challenges, addressing energy reliability and transmission is crucial to achieving the United States’ energy objectives, whether energy independence or a transition to clean energy. Building robust and interconnected transmission networks will facilitate the seamless integration of new energy sources and ensure reliable power distribution.

In 2016, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory conducted the Seams Interconnection Study to evaluate strengthened Eastern-Western interconnections. The study found that increased interregional transmission capacity facilitates more efficient electricity markets and greater clean energy integration.

The analysis examined four transmission expansion designs and found benefit-cost ratios ranging from 1.2 to 2.5, indicating the economic benefits of greater interconnection exceed the investment costs. The study demonstrates that increased ties between the two grids reduce system costs by improving reliability, decreasing clean energy curtailment, accessing lower-cost generation across regions, and providing greater operational flexibility. Increased interconnection enables sharing of resources over a wider geographic area, reducing the total system capacity required to meet peak demand. Production cost modeling also showed the proposed transmission lines are highly utilized during challenging system conditions. Overall, the study found that enhanced interconnection between the Eastern and Western grids provides net economic benefits through improved system optimization, integration of clean energy, and long-term cost savings that outweigh the initial infrastructure investments.

A collaborative and forward-looking approach is necessary to overcome the hurdles of energy reliability and transmission. Governments, utilities, developers, and regulators must work in tandem to streamline the interconnection process, invest in modernizing the electricity grid, and accelerate transmission infrastructure development.

Transforming the energy sector to meet demand is a monumental task that requires concerted efforts and innovative solutions. By investing in reliable and efficient transmission infrastructure, the United States can create a resilient and sustainable energy system that effectively harnesses the potential of emerging energy sources. Collaborative and bipartisan solutions are essential to achieving a cleaner energy future, ensuring that reliability and transmission remain at the forefront of this transformative journey.