FERC, NERC open inquiry into winter load event that stressed Midwest grids
- The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) has opened a joint inquiry with the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) into a cold weather event that brought Midwest power systems to the brink this January.
- On Jan. 17, grid operators in the Midwest and South Central regions of the U.S. issued emergency appeals for electricity conservation due to higher than expected power demand brought on by cold weather. The Midcontinent ISO (MISO) initiated emergency power purchase and pricing to ride out the event.
- FERC will investigate the causes of the event and "identify any appropriate recommendations for improving operations under similar conditions." The inquiry is not an enforcement investigation, but it could have an impact on FERC's ongoing inquiry into grid resilience.
FERC and NERC routinely review load events that stress regional grids, like the 2014 Polar Vortex, to improve market rules and emergency procedures.
This review, however, could take on special significance due to FERC's open proceeding on grid resilience and the looming specter of a coal and nuclear plant bailout from the Trump White House.
A central argument from coal and nuclear interests to keep plants online is that they respond better in times of grid stress — like extreme cold — than natural gas generators, which can see fuel supplies interrupted.
Grid experts counter that in many events, like the 2014 vortex, generators of all types experience forced outages, but that has not stopped the Department of Energy from taking up the line from the coal and nuclear lobbies about how onsite fuel supplies make their plants more secure.
The DOE is in the process of crafting a bailout package following a directive from President Trump in June.
Energy interests on both sides of the debate are likely to seize on the results of the FERC-NERC inquiry to bolster their cases. In February, MISO released a review of the emergency load event, showing that while gas plants experienced the most forced outages on Jan. 17, resources of all types were unavailable that day.
MISO on that day declared a Maximum Generation Event, which involves voluntary conservation calls and emergency power purchases.
MISO has no emergency demand response in its south region, where the grid became stressed, but voluntary conservation saved more than 700 MW of demand at its peak on Jan. 17, and nearly a gigawatt the next day.
But low temperatures and high forced outage rates meant that conservation alone was not enough to keep the grid balanced. To do that, MISO initiated emergency pricing for generators and imported thousands of megawatts of power into its south region on the morning of Jan. 17.
Emergency power came not only from neighboring grids, but also from MISO's northern region, which was not as stressed. More than 4,320 MW of power flowed north to south in MISO during one hour in the morning of Jan. 17, the Southwest Power Pool noted in its review of the load event. Both SPP and MISO South set winter load records that day.
Both grid operators said emergency procedures worked properly to maintain reliability on that day, but FERC and NERC said they want to study the event to improve interactions between regional grids, particularly as utilities in the west switch their reliability coordinators.
"It is … especially relevant that as the Western Interconnection Reliability Coordinator function fragments among multiple providers that we understand and underscore the importance of seamless RC-to-RC interactions," NERC President and Chief Executive Officer Jim Robb said in a release.
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