There is lots of talk at the WV PSC about reliability. It is in the form of scare tactics, as when the lead PSC lawyer told the WV Supreme Court that there would be “blackouts and brownouts” if the Court overturned the PSC’s approval of TrAIL (I saw this little psychodrama personally.). It is also in the form of long overdue, but minimal new performance standards. And it is in the form of a failure to take any real steps to ensure reliability for WV’s distribution system.
Last Thursday night, only two people showed up at the PSC’s public comment hearing on the July 2012 blackout. I was one of them. Here is a link to my testimony. I explained to the Commissioners that they can take three steps right now to move WV toward real reliability:
So let’s get to what the Commission can do right now to really improve reliability by making microgrids a reality in West Virginia.
- Expand virtual metering: In the Commission’s current net metering regulations, there is provision for virtual metering if primary loads are on a different meter from the meter circuit that contains solar power generation. The regulations, however, limit the creation of a virtual meter to meters located on contiguous property. By expanding virtual metering to a single customer entity, but for loads in different non-contiguous locations, the Commission could create long term viability for municipal and county emergency backup systems that could locate solar arrays at water or sewer plants that could then be used to charge battery systems at various first responder and emergency services locations owned by a county or city.
- Expand power sales opportunities: The Commission could also create a new tariff structure for small scale power producers from local microgrids using renewable or NGCC generation that would allow them to generate revenue from their local systems during normal, non-emergency operation. Current tariffs in West Virginia do not provide enough revenue to make the kinds of investments in these systems which would dramatically increase the reliability of emergency systems needed in power company failures.
- Identify appropriate microgrid opportunities in West Virginia: The Commission took the initiative in the 2009 blackout general investigation that led directly to the establishment of the new reliability standards. The Commission should initiate a new case to study appropriate microgrid technologies and strategies for using microgrids in West Virginia to strengthen critical services during power company failures. This study case is vital, because there is so little microgrid expertise in West Virginia or its Ohio-based power companies. In 2008, Allegheny Energy received a multi-million dollar grant from the US Dept. of Energy to build and test a microgrid at WVU called the Super Circuit. The project was to begin in the fall of 2009 and continue for 4.5 years. To date, FirstEnergy has revealed no practical applications for West Virginia developed in this project. By now, FirstEnergy should be able to share many useful results of the Super Circuit project.
Initial steps toward microgrid reliability are perfectly suited to building a stronger emergency response capability in West Virginia. These are steps that the Commission can take right now to move us forward. When will we face the next major power blackout? Back in 2010, my wife and I thought we may have been too cautious in investing in our system. Our 13 days without Mon Power’s power last June and July, convinced us that we had made the right decision.
And I concluded by saying:
The West Virginia PSC is now at a similar decision point that my wife and I faced after the 2009 blackout. You can remain in the cycle of distribution system decay and emergency response, or you can begin building real reliability into West Virginia’s electrical system. West Virginia rate payers already face rising rates from emergency cost recovery and increased maintenance costs, why not invest in real change that pays dividends in real reliability?
The PSC’s unwillingness to create real reliability is matched by a recent Daily Mail editorial. The editorial is titled “Dependable electricity costs money in W.Va.” But the editorial isn’t about “dependability,” it is about the cost of emergency repairs after the state’s electrical system has collapsed:
The one saving grace is that most of the electricity consumed in West Virginia is generated by coal, which remains a relatively cheap and efficient source of domestic energy. This keeps costs down.
Appalachian Power and other utility companies have yet to file claims for rate hikes, but in the past, electric companies have sought temporary hikes to pay these unexpected costs.
If the utility companies do seek relief, members of the Public Service Commission should be sympathetic. Repairing downed power lines in the cold, damp and dark is part of the cost of living in West Virginia.
Appalachian Power spent $31.6 million restoring power to customers throughout Southern West Virginia after two major snowstorms in December 2009.
The cost exceeded the amount of money the company budgeted to cover such emergencies. Appalachian Power sought a temporary rate hike of $22.8 million to cover these extra costs, but the PSC approved a hike of only $18 million.
This increased rates by an average of 14 cents per month per customer for eight years, hardly a budget buster.
No one likes paying more for electricity.
People like sitting in the dark and sweating – or freezing – even less.
This is pretty hilarious. The Daily Mail editors’ little advertisement for coal is as wrong as it can be. The editors focus on APCo, whose rates have gone up 50% in the last five years, largely from the impacts of rising coal costs. Notice the weasel word “relatively” in the statement. Coal is not cheap “relative” to natural gas. Coal is not “cheap” if you live below a mountaintop removal mine. And a means of generating electricity that is about 30% efficient can hardly compare with efficiencies of the combined cycle natural gas plants that are popping up all over the US.
The Daily Mail editors say nothing about the “dependability” of WV’s electrical system, only the costs of emergency repairs. For the Daily Mail, as for the WV PSC, West Virginians don’t deserve real solutions, just more of the same — major blackouts every year.
Want to read some good news? Here’s what Amory Lovins has to say in his article “How to End Blackouts Forever” in Time. Lovins points to real examples of microgrid systems that are protecting electrical power users right now:
The solution is in our hands, and it’s proven. When wildfire cut a major power line, the University of California at San Diego’s microgrid switched from importing to exporting power from its onsite sources in less than a half-hour. Denmark is reorganizing its grid in “cellular” fashion, stress-testing annually by cutting off the grid to make sure each “cell” still meets vital loads. Prof. Rikiya Abe at Tokyo University has even invented a “digital grid” whose “routers” can exchange power between microgrids without needing to run in lockstep like today’s analog grid.
Perhaps the most impressive example of electrical resilience comes from Cuba, and we can learn from it even if we wouldn’t want to live there. Cuba’s Soviet-era grid was highly centralized and depended on 11 big but geriatric power plants, so in 2005, Cuba suffered 224 serious blackout days. But this fell in 2006 to three and in 2007 to zero. How? By adopting efficient appliances, inverted rate structures, public education, distributed generators, and optionally independent microgrids. Then in 2008, two hurricanes in two weeks shredded Cuba’s eastern grid, but essential services were maintained.
Yes, you read that right. Cuba’s grid, which is hit by several hurricanes a year, is now based on microgrid systems which protect the country from power dislocations. Cuba is far ahead of the US when it comes to building reliable power delivery.
Just thought I’d throw that in, just in case the WV PSC cares to see how an advanced nation has already created real reliability.