PJM Ready for Future Grid Challenges, but Delivery Disruptions, Plant Retirements hurt Resiliency

Federal officials such as President Trump and Energy Secretary Rick Perry have brought up fuel security as a key issue for the nation’s power grid, though perhaps for political reasons.

The nation’s system operators, however, are tasked with the real job of keeping the grid humming even under extreme circumstances and with whatever fuel mix available to them. The challenge is different for each independent system operator and regional transmission operator, depending on those variables.

The PJM Interconnection, which handles electricity flow for much of the eastern U.S. grid, released its findings on a stress test looking five years into the future. The what it’s included extreme weather for an extended period, delivery disruptions and plant retirements for such generation resources as coal and nuclear.

The answer, according to PJM: We could handle it, but the challenges make it harder.

“As in any stress test , the analysis was intended to discover the tipping point when the PJM system begins to be impacted,” the report summary reads. “Looking five years into the future, under escalated retirement scenarios combined with extreme winter load, the system may be at risk for emergency procedures and load loss.”

PJM selected a 14-day period of winter weather for its scenario, because although summer brings highest demand, the cold periods are when commercial and residential heating needs compete with gas-fired and dual-fuel generators (the latter provides 30 percent of the energy produced in the PJM) for natural gas, oil, pipeline transportation, and oil delivery challenges.

The stress test focused on anticipated capacity in 2023 and took into account expected plant retirements. To ramp up the pressure, PJM added more extreme situations such as a higher peak load, a pipeline break at a critical location, delayed deliveries of fuel and more generation retirements than expected.

Despite all of those negative factors, PJM’s stress test indicated it would keep the electricity on.

“PJM’s system would still be reliable,” the summary reads. “While there could be reserve shortages in the extreme load scenarios, the grid would remain reliable and able to continue to deliver electricity reliably under these extreme conditions.”

A key option to help PJM do this is the competitive bidding by producers from a wide range of resources, according to the company’s leader.

“We believe strongly that the competitive wholesale electricity market is the best mechanism to encourage investment in the attributes and technologies needed to keep the grid secure and reliable at the lowest cost,” PJM CEO Andy Ott told the National Press Club in Washington D.C. this week in revealing the results of the report.

Two of the states covered in the PJM territory, Illinois and New Jersey, have passed subsidies for keeping unprofitable nuclear power projects in the generation mix. State courts have upheld those subsidies against challenges.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, responding to a push from the Trump Administration for “on-site fuel-secure” resources such as coal and nuclear, previously asked the ISO/RTOs to come up with reports on their resiliency concerns. PJM, which has the prolific Marcellus and Utica shale natural gas plays running beneath it produce close to 29 billion cubic feet per day, reported less worry about fuel security and more on cyber security.

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