In the midst of an insane heat wave, can the Pacific Northwest’s power grid handle stress?


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

Then came that month of June, where in its final week, three consecutive days topped 100 ° F. The last Saturday topped 102 ° F and Sunday was 104 ° F, the hottest day on record … until ‘overnight, when the temperature was 108 ° F degrees.

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

The east side of Washington, where the Hanford site is located, was even hotter. With nearly three weeks over 100 ° F, with many over 110 ° F. That same Monday was 116 ° F, the next day was 117 ° F, followed by 113 ° F, then 108 ° F. Ten more days will follow with average temperatures of 100 ° F, unlike anything I’ve seen here in 35 years, or anyone here in living memory.

As Annette Cary of the Tri-City Herald reported, the extreme heat in the northwest could force the Bonneville Energy Authority impose gradual blackouts in eastern Washington, as the extreme heat puts pressure on its transmission system. BPA now maximizes its transmission by not scheduling any maintenance on the system that could potentially interrupt delivery during the heatwave. The same goes for power generators – anyone who can needs to generate electricity, no maintenance failure.

“We take our responsibility to provide reliable electricity to consumer-owned utilities in the region very seriously,” said BPA administrator John Hairston. “We are working hard to provide reliable, non-stop electricity this weekend to help residents and businesses stay cool and safe during the heatwave.”

Thankfully, a small front has taken hold in the area, cooling things down to just 100 ° and preventing BPA from having to contemplate power outages.

The record heat here in the northwest is directly attributable to the change in the jet stream and the changes in ocean currents associated with warming up.

Heat waves are harsh, but if you have air conditioning, a reliable power supply, and plenty of water, you won’t be hurt. But if you don’t have one, then things can go wrong.

Seattle never had a lot of air conditioners in residences. The increase in hot weather over the past decade has changed that a bit, but more than half of Seattle residents still lack air conditioning.

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

The North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), the leading transnational regulator, strives to produce measurable and enforceable reliability standards for power grids. One of the reasons for this is that the organization does not adequately keep track of distribution network outages and severe weather incidents, both of which are on the rise.

This is not surprising since, over the past decade, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave America between a D + and a C- on our energy infrastructure record, as well as most other areas of our infrastructure.

A separate report from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory of the Ministry of Energy and others the researchers warned that extreme heat, droughts and water scarcity could cause grid outages, as more than 70% of U.S. power plants require cooling.

The severe weather events of recent years have demonstrated that we need to harden our network against severe weather events, and we can do it. It’s just that we don’t. Texas, California and Florida have all been warned of extreme weather events and have even had a few displays of their vulnerability. Then they still haven’t done anything.

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

Jeff dagle is Chief Electrical Engineer at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and Co-Director of Washington State University and PNNL Advanced Grid Institute, which aims to improve the simulation of the network in real time so that operators can better control it, among other activities. National laboratory at the service of the nation, the mission of PNNL includes grid-related emergency response.

Dagle says that “Network resiliency means you anticipate and prepare for extreme events. On the network, electrons fly at the speed of light. If you have a disturbance on your network, the disturbance can spread. faster than your ability to control So you need to anticipate what may happen and make sure you are not going to add stress to the system.

PNNL Dynamic contingency analysis tool does exactly that – helps utilities anticipate and manage power and grid instability during extreme events, such as mitigate the threat of forest fires to the grid, allowing operators to see and strengthen weak points in the grid to stop power losses or cascading power outages.

But the Pacific Northwest has a few other addressing tools. Our large amount of hydropower is a great resource for grid distributors as it can keep up with short term load variations, helping to support frequency and voltage.

Some hydropower plants can store water for longer periods of time, allowing for daily or even seasonal storage, to be used when it’s needed most. The only limit is the availability of water.

“Even with flow rates below average levels, [with the region’s 31 federal dams] we are in a good position to serve our customers during this very hot weekend, ”said Suzanne Cooper, senior vice president of electrical services.

Despite the below-average hydrologic year, there is a lot of water behind the Grand Coulee Dam and some accumulated snow in the Canadian Rockies. Unlike 2015 and 2001, years with a similar volume of available water, the shape of this year’s runoff was slower with the gradual melting of snow over Grand Coulee.

In a different way, another tool we have is our nuclear power plant, the Columbia Generating Station, which provides a constant source of basic power to the grid, operating 95% or more of the time, regardless of the weather conditions, stabilizing and supporting the network. During the heatwave, it is at 100%.

Another tool is called Demand Response, in which large customers, such as paper mills, agree to stop using electricity for a short period of time if the system experiences a sudden emergency, such as impending cascade failure. In exchange, they get a reduction in the electricity tariff for a certain period.

But there is a dark cloud on the horizon. This is called high renewable energy penetration, the amount of renewable energy as a percentage of total production. Currently, renewables represent about 10% of total US production and about 6% of Washington state. Above 15%, reliability issues arise, as there is not enough production to support the grid when weather conditions prevent the production of renewable energy.

During periods of extreme heat, all the resources available to generate electricity are called upon. Unfortunately, periods of extreme temperatures are often associated with a stationary high pressure weather system, which decreases the availability of wind generation. The solar energy decreases in the late afternoon and stops in the evening, before the end of the peak charge.

This requires other flexible resources to be able to increase and meet demand during times when solar and wind power stop producing. Usually this is natural gas or hydroelectricity, although small modular nuclear reactors are designed for this purpose. the gas works are paid to idle and be prepared, at a significant cost.

Above 15% renewable energy production, in the absence of a lot of expensive idle back-up gas, long-term storage has to be a big part of the picture. Unfortunately, we don’t have a lot of long-term storage yet, and we don’t know when it will be available at the level we need.

Thus, during extreme weather events, we need to have more controllability, including flexible and distributable generation resources, greater capacity to distribute demand-side resources to limit the load in specific areas, and more storage that offers spatial and temporal flexibility. In 2017, the National academies published report on network resilience who provided more detailed information on these strategies.

All of this requires making the necessary investments in network resiliency. It appears that the infrastructure bill is becoming more and more important.


About Hector Hedgepeth

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