Officials from renewable energy entities held a meeting recently to discuss the rolling blackouts that left thousands in North and South Carolina without power over the Christmas holidays and what can be done to avoid them in the future.
Those at the meeting touted the durability of alternative energy sources, like solar energy and wind power, during the event.
Representatives, including Simon Mahan, executive director of Southern Renewable Energy Association, Arkansas, said despite the situation at the time of the blackouts, solar energy sources performed “exceptionally well.”
“Had it not been for solar power on December 24, the Duke Energy Carolinas system would have been in even more dire straits,” he said. “Solar performed quite well when it was needed. Anyone that went through these storms knows that those days were really quite sunny.”
Despite Mahan’s sunny disposition on the performance of solar energy during the event, other factors seriously need to be looked at in the event it should happen again. At the time, representatives for Duke Energy, apologized for the blackouts and said solar performed “as expected.”
“If it were cloudy, or if the cold snap had been followed with a snow event, we’d have gotten nothing from solar at all,” said Jon Sanders, director of the Center for Food, Power, and Life at the John Locke Foundation. “Even so, it still would have been accurate to say ‘solar performed as expected.’ Because no one would expect solar to produce overnight or in cloudy or inclement weather, which is what we take for granted from nuclear, natural gas, and coal.”
Mahan then discounted the effectiveness of the natural gas units during the same time. He said they were not performing at their top level, and the coal units were performing even worse, not generating a steady stream of power during the blackouts.
Sanders said the problems with the coal and natural gas units that underperformed were not problems with the generation sources themselves but with the equipment and were solvable.
“While solar performed as expected, that ‘as expected’ meant there was no solar production at all during peak demand that morning,” he said. “There were only a few hours of solar performance during that day, coinciding with the angle of the sun and strength of available sunlight. The majority of the 24-hour day, however, solar produced nothing.”
Sanders added that zero-emissions nuclear generation was steady and unaffected, and it was by far the state’s most reliable generation source, as is usually the case. The amount of generation from coal and natural gas, even though it was roughly half what was expected in a handful of facilities, nevertheless dwarfed solar output and produced throughout the entire day.
Mahan said everyone has been aware of the problems that led up to the situation over the holidays for many years and that warnings were made in advance from groups like the North American Reliability Corporation (NERC). They issued a warning in November that the Southeastern Reliability Corporation (SERC) that extreme cold could result in a higher generation of outages and demand volatility, and a rare cold event in the South could result in an energy emergency in this area and specifically called out the Carolinas.
Mahan added that SERC issued a warning in September that extreme cold weather could cause disruptions in the fuel supply. Also, ERCOT, a grid operator in Texas, and gas pipeline operators were issuing warnings about the storm as early as December 16.
Other officials at the meeting said the solution to the problems that were encountered is not to build more of the technologies that failed but to diversify their supply and fix the transmission issues. They also said the winter storm exposed the “weak underbelly of the Duke Energy system.” They also noted that even Duke officials admitted that their projections were off, it’s still a problem that they were.
Duke Energy executives repeatedly apologized and owned up to the situation that caused thousands in North and South Carolina to be without power during a bitter cold snap leading up to the Christmas holiday weekend. The admissions came during a hearing on January 3 before the North Carolina Utilities Commission.
“I want to express how sorry we are for what our customers experienced,” said Julie Janson, executive vice president, and CEO, of Duke Energy Carolinas. “Winter storm Elliott was an extremely powerful event with a unique confluence of high winds, extreme temperature drops, and other conditions that forced us to curtail power as a last resort. We regret not being able to provide customers as much advance notice of the outages as we would have liked, and we acknowledge that the outages themselves lasted far longer than we expected.”
Janson said the rotating outages were necessary to protect the integrity of the grid and mitigate the risk of serious failure affecting a more significant number of customers for more extended time frames.
Company officials also say that the holidays did make the situation more complicated, and divergence would have been less if the cold weather did not occur during the holidays.
Duke Energy’s “nuclear fleet” was reliable during the storm, according to Preston Gillespie, Duke Energy’s executive vice president and chief generation officer. Still, he said, in a few cases, insulation and heat tracing did not prevent instrumentation lines from freezing which caused a reduction in generation.
He also said that solar generation performed as expected but was not available to meet the peak demand since the peak occurred before sunrise. This problem is concerning if another outage occurs during high demand periods that include several cloudy days.
Officials at Thursday’s meeting said they expect the investigation by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and NERC into what happened to wrap up by the end of the year.