Natural-gas plants rate high in reliability

Analysis doesn’t include resiliency

4/4/2017
BY JOHN FUNK 
(CLEVELAND) PLAIN DEALER

CLEVELAND — Forget about the arguments that nuclear power plants and old-fashioned coal are essential to a reliable electricity supply.

The Oregon Clean Energy Center, set to open in late spring, is one of 10 highly efficient gas turbines under construction in Ohio. A second one in Oregon has been proposed.
The Oregon Clean Energy Center, set to open in late spring, is one of 10 highly efficient gas turbines under construction in Ohio. A second one in Oregon has been proposed.

They aren’t, according to the latest analysis by high-voltage grid manager PJM Interconnection.

PJM said last week the grid that includes Ohio, 12 other states, and the District of Columbia would be reliable even if natural-gas plants generated up to 86 percent of the power. It also found that reliability could be a problem if wind and solar accounted for more than 20 percent.

What the study did not answer was just how tough or “resilient” such a gas-dominated grid would be. And that is the key question in Ohio and across the nation as old coal-fired plants are closing, gas-turbine plants are cropping up, and nuclear plant owners are demanding more money, they say to survive, in the face of cheap natural gas-generated power.

The first of the latest generation of 10 highly efficient gas turbines under construction in Ohio is scheduled to open in late spring in the Toledo suburb of Oregon. All of the new turbine plants are rated at nearly 1,000 megawatts, about the size of FirstEnergy Corp.’s Davis-Besse nuclear power plant. Across PJM’s footprint more than 50 gas plants are now under construction. And more are proposed, including a second one in Oregon.

Natural-gas plants accounted for about 23 percent of the power used in Ohio in 2015 and about 24 percent in 2016, according to the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio and the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Coal accounted for just under 58 percent last year, a 1 percent year-over-year decline. Nuclear accounted for 14 percent, and renewables just 2.2 percent.

Across PJM, gas plants supplied about a third of the power in 2016, coal another third, nuclear about 18 percent, and wind and solar 6 percent.

A bill crafted by FirstEnergy and friendly lawmakers to make customers pay more every month, in perpetuity, for the company’s nuclear plants could be introduced in the Ohio General Assembly as soon as this week.

The company’s lobbyists have been talking to lawmakers for more than a month, using a presentation designed to show the benefits its nuclear plants provide.

The PJM study, “PJM’s Evolving Resource Mix and System Reliability,” determined that the current power-plant fuel mix of coal, nuclear, gas, and renewables is no more reliable than a mostly gas situation would be.

But what about another Polar Vortex event, a terrorist attack, or a series of natural disasters knocking out pipeline gas supplies?

That’s another issue, said Michael Bryson, vice president of operations at PJM, who headed up the study. It’s an issue of resiliency, he said, and that is the topic of an upcoming analysis.

“We found that the risk to the system wasn’t that resources couldn’t necessarily provide reliability attributes, but that the potential concentration of a single fuel source or low-probability, high-impact events could cause significant impacts to the system,” he said.