Dr. Conca opines that it’s all about diversity. Whether in biology, in culture or in technology, when conditions change you survive if there is sufficient diversity to adapt. Otherwise you die. And things always change. This is no less true for how we produce electricity. Having a diverse energy mix is key to a society surviving changes in demographics, government, geologic processes, natural disasters, supply disruption during war, and extreme weather changes.
This concept was on full display last week during our run-in with the latest bout of really cold weather. We actually had another Polar Vortex, not as bad as in 2014, but coupled with a Bomb Cyclone created a wicked nor’easter. It was so cold that Niagara Falls froze and it snowed in Florida. The electrical grid is not immune to the effects of massive cold snaps (IEEE). Generation systems suffered outages as extreme cold hammered almost half of America’s power plants, but most of those involved fossil fuel plants. Coal stacks were frozen or diesel generators simply couldn’t function in such low temperatures. Gaschoked up - its pipelines couldn’t keep up with demand - and prices skyrocketed.
The first problem with such widespread cold is a spike in electric-heating and gas-heating demand since everyone is turning up the heat and it takes a lot more energy to keep us at comfortable temperatures. The area affected was also much larger than normal. Florida doesn’t normally turn up the heat. In New England, natural gas electricity generation faltered so much that regional grid administrator ISO New England had to bring up dirtier coal and oil plants to try to make up the difference.
As Rod Adams shows, in response to this weather, oil rose from almost zero to over 30%. Natural gas fell from 50% to 16%, coal rose from 1% to 7%, and renewables rose from 7% to 13%, most of which was burning wood and garbage. So the cold weather forced the energy mix to become more diverse. Note also that without nuclear, coal and oil would have risen even more. As discussed by Meredith Angwin, this was seen in Vermont, where they recently closed their nuclear plant and have increased their fossil fuel use and their carbon emissions dramatically.
Electricity prices were up very sharply during this cold snap, because demand was up, driven by electric heating needs. Chris Helman explained how the price of natural gas was up too, because so much was being used for home heating, leaving less available for electricity generation. Last week, electricity prices in the mid-Atlantic region were 18¢/kWh. On December 1st, they were 2.7¢/kWh. Along with this hike in oil use, oil prices rose above $68 a barrel, to its highest level since May 2015, as the unrest in Iran raised concerns about supply risks. This is another aspect of generation diversity – bad stuff happens that you can’t predict years ahead of time.
In a bizarre twist, states like Massachusetts plan to import natural gas from Russia to help deal with these enormous heating prices. This is the ultimate proof that we desperately need new nuclear capacity. ISOs have repeatedly warned New England and New York about increasing dependence on natural gas as both electricity generator and home heating fuel. Not diverse enough. New York and New Jersey better understand this before they short-sightedly close any more of their nuclear plants.
This cold snap also reflects poorly on FERC's quick and unanimous termination of DOE’s Proposed Rule on Grid Reliability and Resilience Pricing that had been submitted to the commission by the Secretary of Energy Rick Perry. The proposal was partly meant to determine how reliability of nuclear is undervalued, something that was obvious in the current cold light of day.
Nuclear is doing quite well during this, and every other, cold snap, operating well above 90% capacity, a ridiculously high value (NEI). And not just that, but most individual nuclear plants actually produced more energy than normal because of the cold weather. The energy output of any thermal power plant depends on the temperature difference between the steam and the outside/condenser temperature (the Carnot cycle). So these really low temperatures actually increased the efficiency of the nuclear plants.
A diverse energy mix is really, really important. A third fossil (natural gas and oil), a third nuclear and a third renewable would make a diverse mix that would handle anything Nature or humans could throw at us. Coal is not for burning, but it does have other uses (more). This would be sustainable and would cut production costs and emissions by about half that of the baseline mix we have now.(more).