September 13, 2022

Grid bending, not breaking -- shorter version

Grid bending, not breaking, during energy transition 

Concerns show need for greater mix of power, energy storage assets 

By Michael Standaert, North Dakota News Cooperative 

Despite continuous warnings of rolling blackouts this summer, the grids serving North Dakota and the Upper Midwest held up.

Pockets of record-breaking heat were manageable since they did not cover large swaths of the country all at once. No significant doldrums deadened wind power during heat waves. 

Yet concerns persist. A major winter storm or deep cold snap creating surges in electricity demand at the same time solar and wind power assets under perform keeps energy experts, regulators and grid operators up at night. 

Either significant rolling blackouts, or the unlikely event of a total grid failure, could be deadly in sub zero temperatures. Hospitals, other essential facilities, and the most vulnerable populations would be impacted the most. 

“I think winter is a bigger challenge right now,” North Dakota Public Services Commissioner Julie Fedorchak said during an interview at the Capitol. “If we have extreme temperatures, or big, long cold spells, where the wind doesn’t blow as much, then we’re in big trouble.” 

Energy transition goals of removing older coal fired power units that provide reliable baseload power have come too quickly according to some, including Fedorchak. Others, however, believe a much greater mix of energy and energy storage options should be called upon to ensure reliability.

“We’re advocating constantly for changes to stabilize markets, to help stave off retirements, to create a more gentle glide path through this transition, and not jeopardize reliability or affordability,” she said. 

Fossil fuel linchpin 

While North Dakota is an energy exporting state and should be able to easily ensure its own energy needs, its importance as a fossil fuel linchpin for the grid managers Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO) and Southwest Power Pool (SPP) has only grown as coal power units are retired elsewhere. 

That importance is likely to continue for some time. North Dakota is the third-largest crude oil producer in the country and has significant and accessible coal resources and abundant natural gas reserves.

Grid managers are challenged by varied paces utility companies are pushing the transition, complicating the ability to provide reliable and low cost power to consumers.

“Everybody wants that,” said Brian Tulloh, executive director of external affairs at MISO North, of low costs and reliability. “What they don’t agree on is what percentage of green or how fast they want to decarbonize.” 

Changing over to more renewables is a positive, said Tulloh, but it comes at a time when looming increases in energy demand from the electricity sector for electrifying transportation, houses and buildings, are close to outpacing actual capacity. 

“Even if we weren’t transitioning to green power, we would need more generation capacity to add to or replace what we’re retiring on age,” said Tulloh.

Michael Nasi, Austin-based founder and chair of law firm Jackson Walker's climate change and carbon management group, said the overall erosion of dispatchable thermal power from coal, nuclear and gas that is being retired has increased grid risk. 

Increasingly, he said, coal power units that have survived regulatory changes and a wave of retirements are “going to be extremely valuable resources,” he said. 

Changing and growing at the same time continues to complicate current grid management as well as planning for the future, especially with the rapid increase of climate change related weather events. 

“We are seeing an increasing number of extreme and increasingly frequent extreme events, so considerations of reliability and resilience are incredibly important across the country,” said Morgan Higman, an energy and climate change fellow at Washington, D.C.-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies.

With a peak demand of only around 3,000 megawatts within North Dakota itself, Fedorchak said the state is well positioned to have reliable power at all times unless a major grid failure occurs.

“I’ve been assured by MISO that they aren’t going to include us in any future rolling blackouts because they don’t see it would do any good,” Fedorchak said. “Most of the power that is coming from here is power that they need.” 

Diverse mix of energy, storage solutions 

While maintaining fossil fuel sources to secure reliability is an important part of that equation, Higman said, developing a diverse portfolio of renewable technologies including wind, solar, hydrogen energy storage, industrial-scale battery storage, and perhaps small modular nuclear power, is also key. 

Supplemental utility-scale battery storage could be an option in North Dakota, even if it isn’t on a California-size of a scale, said Joe Smyth, a Denver-based research and communications manager at the Energy and Policy Institute.

“It is worth considering [battery storage] in the context of where a lot of the narrative in North Dakota and other states with major coal mining industries is around carbon capture for coal-fired power plants,” Smyth said.

Battery storage isn’t the only storage option that should be on the table, Higman said. 

“It’s easy to point to batteries as an energy storage solution, but particularly places like North Dakota with a legacy of fossil fuels, hydrogen [storage] is increasingly viewed as a far more economically appealing for both fossil fuel interests and renewables interests, and has the potential to be an on demand source in times of extreme heat and extreme cold,” Higman said. 

Other alternatives could be increasing distributed rooftop solar, something that would be particularly valuable for essential facilities in rural areas to both provide self-sufficient power supplies when the sun is shining and potential backup during grid disruptions. 

Wind expansion appears poised to continue after a hiatus over the past few years, partially due to McLean and Mercer counties blocking potential large scale projects there. Moratoriums have expired or are set to expire, opening the way again for wind. 

“I think North Dakota has incredible wind potential and the resources are super strong here, and I think there’s a significant number of counties that would still be very open to wind development,” Fedorchak said. 

Whatever the answers are, getting beyond politics is one hurdle in opening discussion further on what variety of options are the best fit for North Dakota, said Scott Skokos, executive director of Dakota Resources Council. 

“The Left thinks that the grid can be easily made resilient and the Right thinks that we just need to be doubling down on fossil fuels and baseload power, when probably the answer lies somewhere in the middle,” said Skokos.