The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has ordered that all 50 million customers in the PJM network can be “taxed” to pay for this project for one reason, and one reason only: The construction of PATH will enhance the “reliability” of the entire PJM network. (Reliability should not be confused with “congestion” which is a different problem.)
So, what is this thing called “reliability” and how do we measure it?
Because transmission have come before Congress this year, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) issued a new background report. CRS provides non-partisan research to Congress; though its reports are not officially made public, they are widely available on the Internet.
The report, Electric Power Transmission: Background and Policy Issues, includes a section on transmission reliability. Here’s the summary:
Transmission System Reliability: it is not clear whether Congress and the executive branch have the information needed to evaluate the reliability of the transmission system. Congress may also want to review whether the power industry is striking the right balance between modernization and new construction as a means of enhancing transmission reliability, and whether the reliability standards being developed for the transmission system are appropriate for a rapidly changing power system.
Let’s begin with the information problem:
It is currently impossible to judge the reliability of the national transmission system by either criteria because the data does not exist to make an assessment. (p. 28)
Kaplan, the report’s author, underscores our ignorance about reliability:
In contrast to the wealth of information on power plant operations, minimal data has been collected by government or industry on transmission system reliability. (pp. 28-29)
A new data system that will help fill this gap only began collecting data in 2008. It’s called the Transmission Availability Data System (TADS) and has been developed by the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC). Both NERC and FERC have been promulgating new standards aimed at improving reliability in response to the Energy Policy Act of 2005. CRS notes:
Until a useful data collection and analysis system are in place, it will be difficult to judge whether these standards and other actions are actually improving the reliability of the transmission system.
In other words, when it comes to transmission reliability, we’re pretty much in the dark. Or so says the Congressional Research Service.
But wait! There’s more! Kaplan concludes that while there is need for “modernization” it is not at all clear to what extent, if any, this requires building new transmission lines. Although advocates of new transmission lines constantly refer to the danger of blackouts, it remains the case that:
as discussed in the official blackout report and other analyses, the 2003 blackout was not caused by a utility having built too few transmission lines, or because power line towers and substations were falling apart. The blackout was apparently due to such factors as malfunctioning if not obsolete computer and monitoring systems, human errors that compounded the equipment failures, mis-calibrated automatic protection systems on power plants, and FirstEnergy’s failure to adequately trim trees. (p. 31, emphasis added.)
What does Kaplan conclude?
depending on the case, building new transmission lines is not the only or best approach to enhancing power system reliability. In some instances investments in new monitoring and control technology may be the better solution. (p. 32)
Kaplan goes on to explain that the world of electricity is changing rapidly away from a system based on the one-way flow of power from large, centralized generating stations to consumers. Increased reliance on variable renewable sources, demand response and distributed generation will put new and different demands on the grid. Simply adding major new transmission lines may not be the best way to adjust to this new world.
So we don’t yet have data to measure reliability. We have put in place many new systems and procedures to improve reliability but haven’t had time to determine whether they are working. The power system is evolving away from dependence on centralized power systems. Our most recent major blackout turns out not to have been caused by a lack of transmission capacity.
At least we now have an answer to one question: Why are American Electric Power and Allegheny Energy — along with their enablers at PJM Interconnection and FERC — in such a hurry to win approval to build PATH? Could it be that they know that their single strongest rationale — improving reliability — is build on sand?
It would be foolish, wasteful, and potentially counter-productive for Maryland, West Virginia or Virginia to approve the construction of PATH without a data-based, well-informed, national consensus on whether building new transmission is the most cost-effective way to improve the reliability of the electrical grid. To rely only on the “say-so” of PJM, a private organization with members who will benefit financially from the construction of PATH, is irresponsible and short-sighted.