Will the Lights Stay On in Texas and New England?
North American Electric Reliability CorporationThe Electric Reliability Council of Texas (yellow), ISO-NE of New England (teal) and SaskPower (in red) could face early challenges in providing enough generating capacity.
The reliability corporation, assigned by the federal government to enforce rules on the power grid, issued a 10-year forecast that conveys a greater level of uncertainty than previous predictions. One problem is that about 600 large plants are likely to be shut for several months for the installation of pollution controls, executives said, and coordinating the shutdowns to avoid local electricity shortages will be a formidable task. The 600 are a substantial fraction of the grid’s generating resources; although there are about 15,000 plants on the grid, more than half of them are quite small.
“Over all, the North American grid and bulk power supply continue to be adequate, and sufficient plans are in place,’’ said Gerry Cauley, president and chief executive. But two areas require extra attention, he said: the bulk of Texas, which is served by a gridisolated from the rest of the United States, and New England. “There’s some uncertainty in their resources at this point,’’ he said.
The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the name for the grid that covers most of the state, could run short by 2013, the report said;New England could run short by 2015.
The organization, which also surveys Canada, found that Sask Power, the provincial utility of the province of Saskatchewan, which borders North Dakota and Montana, could run short next year.
Running short does not mean that the lights are certain to go out. But given the typical incidence of mechanical failures, the amount of spare capacity on hand is small enough that blackouts would be more likely, the report said.
The problem in Texas is old coal plants and natural gas plants that lack environmental controls, and the state’s relative isolation. (The rest of North America east of the Rockies is within one grid, while the region west of the Rockies is on another, with some ability for neighboring areas to help each other at peak times. Texas, however, has taken a go-it-alone approach.)
In New England, which is far better connected to neighboring areas, the problem is old natural gas plants, the group said.
Environmentalists are building a case that there is no reason to proceed slowly in enforcing the new rules because most companies are prepared for them. Michael J. Bradley, a former head of the Northeast States for Coordinated Regional Air Management, a regional organization, and Susan F. Tierney, a former energy official in Massachusetts who worked for the Energy Department during the Clinton Administration, are among the authors of a recent report that contends that reserve margins are still ample and that many new power plants are in development.
In addition, they note, “demand-side resources,” meaning agreements with customers to cut their load on peak days in exchange for cash, can be activated quickly.
Part of the uncertainty is that no one is sure how strictly the Environmental Protection Agency will enforce its rules or exactly what the rules will be. The agency is supposed to publish a new rule on mercury and air toxics on Dec. 16, for example.
Mark G. Lauby, vice president of the reliability corporation, said that because the air toxics standards rule will be on a short schedule, some companies could face a choice of closing some units or running them and violating pollution standards. The logical solution, he said, would be to provide more time for compliance.
But the most troublesome of the new rules for the power plants may be related not to air pollution but to water, as the E.P.A. seeks to have power plants install cooling towers, rather than draw vast amounts of water from rivers and return it a few degrees hotter, which can kill many fish or fish eggs. Texas may also face problems because of its severe drought, the group said.
Texas has added a lot of capacity recently, but much of that is wind power, which generally does not churn out much electricity on the hot days when peak demand occurs. Acting partly out of an awareness that added capacity contributes little to reliability, Texas recently raised its target level of capacity surplus to 13.75 percent from 12.5 percent.