Modernizing Electric Grid Critical for U.S.

E-newsletter Issue #120 | August 15, 2013

The reliability of power delivery to homes and businesses is perhaps one of the most critical and underappreciated aspects that make modern, 21st century living a reality. This week’s 10th anniversary of the Northeastern blackout that interrupted service for a week for more than 50 million people is a painful reminder of the cascading problems that can occur in bulk power markets and the need for continued grid modernization efforts.

Brian Rybarik, regional director for the Midcontinent Independent System Operator, said the rapid technological expansion over the past 10 years with smart phones is analogous for grid managers and their modernization work.

“We have a lot of tools, a lot of computing power, probabilistic modeling and new technologies … that are measuring what’s happening on the grid at a level we never imagined possible in 2003,” said Rybarik, who will speak at The Council of State Governments 2013 National Conference in September. “We now have the potential to detect problems on the grid far more quickly than we ever have before. Ultimately, that will help us be more reliable and cost-effective.”

Managing electric loads and transmission on the bulk power system is an enormously complex exercise. Nearly two-thirds of the country utilizes regional transmission organizations or independent system operators to manage power flows on the grid.

The Midcontinent Independent System Operator, or MISO, undertakes this for parts of 15 states and the Canadian province of Manitoba; MISO manages one of the world’s largest competitive energy marketplaces, clearing more than $1 billion in gross market charges annually.

Rybarik noted that much of MISO’s work revolves around predictive modeling and forecasting for utility energy load and demand. Upcoming federal Clean Air rules from the EPA, which may force retirement of fossil fuel power plants, adds another layer of complexity to the equation for grid managers at MISO.

“We are always living in an uncertain world,” Rybarik said. “But it seems right now in this industry (utility), it’s a little more uncertain than it’s been in the past—particularly in a footprint like ours that is probably more reliant on coal-fired power than any other (independent system operator).”

Under different operating scenarios, MISI may have potential power capacity shortfalls in its service territory—maybe even as early as 2016-17. As an organization, MISO has begun working with state regulators to develop new, robust surveys that will go out to utilities to improve the collection of granular data to improve their predictive capability.

“Nate Silver is a perfect speaker to come after this type of discussion on forecasting,” Rybarik said. “For example, our staff has a certain confidence factor in the forecast, but 10 years from now they are going to have less confidence in that forecast than one in a year from now. What we have historically not asked utilities is, ‘What’s your confidence factor?’ For the first time, we are going to request that of our load-serving entities.”

Rybarik said state regulators will be heavily involved in this effort as they are directly responsible for determining the adequacy of power generation for their ratepayers.

“State regulators are rightly concerned that if we get into a capacity or resource crisis, we will have to come up with solutions very, very quickly. From a state’s regulator perspective, I think they’ve done a good job of identifying a potential concern and in getting out in front of this issue,” he said.

Rybarik will be joined in the discussion of grid reliability during the CSG Energy and Environment Public Policy Committee’s upcoming session, “Grid Reliability—Regulatory Challenges and Technology Opportunities,” by Janet Sena, vice president and director of policy and external affairs at the North American Electric Reliability Corporation; Tom Kirkpatrick, vice president of customer services, marketing and distribution services at American Electric Power; and Anne Hoskins, visitor in residence at Princeton University’s Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment.

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