Amid an insane heatwave, can the Pacific Northwest power grid handle the stress?

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From 1894 to last month, Seattle had recorded above 100 ° F for only three days in history. That’s three really hot days in 127 years. And none was in June, whose previous record high was 96 ° F.

Then came that June when it exceeded 100 ° F for three days in a row in its final week. Last Saturday exceeded 102 ° F and Sunday was 104 ° F, the hottest day ever recorded … until the next day when the temperature was 108 ° F.

The whole northwest was hot. “Portland had to shut down all streetcar and light rail lines yesterday because the equipment melted,” said Stacy Oaks of 350 Seattle.

The east side of Washington, where the Hanford site is located, was even hotter. With almost three weeks over 100 ° F, with many over 110 ° F. The same Monday it was 116 ° F, the next day 117 ° F, followed by 113 ° F, then 108 ° F. Another ten days of temperatures follow averaging 100 ° F, unlike anything I’ve seen here in 35 years or anyone else here in vivid memory.

As reported by Annette Cary of the Tri-City Herald, the extreme heat in the northwest could force the Bonneville Power Administration to impose some power outages in eastern Washington as extreme heat is putting a strain on their transmission system. BPA is now maximizing its transmission by not scheduling maintenance on the system that could potentially disrupt delivery during the heat wave. The same applies to power generators – if you can, you have to generate power, no maintenance failures.

“We take our responsibility to reliably power the region’s consumer-owned utilities very seriously,” said BPA Administrator John Hairston. “We’re working hard to deliver uninterrupted, reliable power this weekend to keep residents and businesses cool and safe during the heatwave.”

Fortunately, a small front moved into the region, cooling things down to the low 100 ° and preventing BPA from having to contemplate rolling blackouts.

The record breaking heat here in the northwest is directly due to the shift in the jet stream and changes in ocean currents related to warming.

Heat waves are tough, but if you have air conditioning, reliable electricity, and lots of water, you won’t get hurt. But if you don’t have any of these things can get bad.

Seattle never had many air conditioners in residential buildings. The increasingly hot weather over the past decade has changed that somewhat, but more than half of the people in Seattle still don’t have air conditioning.

We used to have a resilient and reliable network, but that is also changing. America’s aging electrical infrastructure is increasingly vulnerable to outages and other disruptions, especially weather-related events (see figure).

North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), the leading transnational regulator, is struggling to establish measurable and enforceable reliability standards for power systems. One reason is that the organization does not adequately account for outages in the distribution system and severe weather incidents, both of which are increasing.

This is not surprising given that the American Society of Civil Engineers has rated America between a D + and a C- on our energy infrastructure report, as well as most other areas of our infrastructure, for the past decade.

A separate report from the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory and other researchers warned that extreme heat, dry spells, and water scarcity could cause grid outages as more than 70% of US power plants require cooling.

The storm events of recent years have shown that we can and must harden our network against storms. We just don’t do it. Texas, California, Florida all were warned of extreme weather events and even had some demonstrations about how vulnerable they were. Then they still did nothing.

“In some cases the utilities and operators know what to do, but it is a matter of investment and funding to make sure the network is resilient,” said NREL analyst Ariel Miara, adding, “They are not always able or willing to do so make this investment. “

Jeff Dagle is a senior electrical engineer at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and co-director of Washington State University and PNNL’s Advanced Grid Institute, which, among other things, works to improve real-time grid simulation so operators can better control it. As a national laboratory serving the nation, PNNL’s mission includes network-related emergency response.

Dagle says that “Lattice resilience means anticipating and preparing for extreme events. On the lattice, electrons fly around at the speed of light. If you have a disturbance in your lattice, the disturbance can spread faster than you can control So you have to predict what can happen and make sure that you don’t stress the system. ”

PNNL’s Dynamic Contingency Analysis Tool does just that – helps utilities control power and grid instability during extreme events such as

But the Pacific Northwest has a few other tools to address the problem. Our extensive hydropower is a great resource for grid dispatchers as it can follow short-term load fluctuations and help with frequency and voltage support.

Some hydropower plants can store water for extended periods of time, allowing it to be stored on a daily or even seasonal basis for use when it is needed most. The only limit is the availability of water.

“Even with below-average drainage [with the region’s 31 federal dams] We are in a good position to serve our customers this very hot weekend, “said Suzanne Cooper, Senior Vice President of Power Services.

Despite the below average water year, there is a lot of water behind the Grand Coulee Dam and some snow cover in the Canadian Rockies. In contrast to 2015 and 2001, years with similar amounts of water, the shape of this year’s runoff was slower as the snow gradually melted over Grand Coulee.

Another tool we have is our nuclear power plant, Columbia Generating Station, which provides a consistent source of base load power to the grid that operates 95% or more of the time regardless of the weather, stabilizing and supporting the grid. During the heat wave it’s 100%.

Another tool is called Demand Response, in which large customers such as paper mills agree to stop using the electricity for a short time if the system experiences a sudden emergency such as an impending cascade failure. In return, they receive a reduction in the price of electricity for some time.

But there is a dark cloud on the horizon. It is referred to as high renewable penetration, the share of renewable energy in total generation. Currently, renewable energy accounts for about 10% of total US generation and about 6% of US states. Over 15% have reliability issues because there is insufficient electricity to support the grid when the weather causes renewable energies to stop producing.

Extreme heat demands all resources that are available to generate electricity. Unfortunately, extreme periods of temperature are often associated with a stationary high pressure weather system, reducing the availability of wind generation. The solar energy decreases in the late afternoon and stops well into the evening before the peak load ends.

This requires other flexible resources in order to be able to ramp up and serve demand in times when solar and wind power fail. Usually that is natural gas or hydropower, although small modular nuclear reactors are designed just for that purpose. The gas-fired power plants are paid for to shut down and make them available at considerable costs.

With over 15% renewable energy generation, in the absence of much expensive idle backup gas, long-term storage has to be a big part of the picture. Unfortunately, we don’t have much long-term storage yet and it is not certain when this will be available to the extent we need.

Therefore, in extreme weather events, we need more controllability, including flexible and allocable generation resources, more demand-side resource allocability in order to limit the load in certain areas, and more storage that offers spatial and temporal flexibility. In 2017, the National Academies issued a report on network resilience that provides more detailed information on these strategies.

All of this requires the necessary investment in network resilience. It seems that the infrastructure bill is becoming more and more important.



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