by conor bernstein

The North American Electric Reliability Corp. (NERC) analyzes the reliability of our electricity supply. So, it’s with good reason that eyebrows were raised when NERC CEO Jim Robb told the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) that when most engineers look at the Texas grid, they would conclude that “there’s no way in hell they can keep the lights on. And yet they do.”

Robb also told FERC that Gordon van Welie, CEO of New England’s grid operator, “constantly finds another rabbit to pull out of his hat to keep the lights on when any of us would look at that situation and say, ‘It’s got to break.’”

While Robb was praising the skill of the Texas and New England grid operators, he was also admitting there are huge challenges facing grid reliability. And it’s not just the Texas and New England grids. California’s grid, facing the unique challenge of ramping dispatchable power to balance peaks and valleys from solar generation, is catching the eye of regulators as well.

At the heart of Robb’s concern — or amazement — is how all three grids and their operators are managing the loss of baseload power and ever-growing reliance on intermittent sources of electricity. The keyword might just be “luck.”

It’s unsettling, but what if that’s precisely the secret ingredient that has so far kept things together? What if an extended heatwave or cold snap coincides with reduced wind generation or a pipeline rupture? In other words, what if the luck runs out?

The reliability situation will likely worsen. Challenges will soon emerge in other regional grids as more coal capacity closes and a larger share of the nation’s electricity is met by intermittent renewables and an overstretched natural gas pipeline system. State energy policy — namely ever more ambitious renewable portfolio standards — is on a collision course with the limits of engineering.

Greater reliance on natural gas is proving a vulnerability, not a solution to grid reliability. Despite surging U.S. natural gas production, up 44% from a decade earlier, the pipeline infrastructure to move that gas to where it’s needed hasn’t kept up.  Notwithstanding the natural gas infrastructure bottleneck, coal plants, which provide essential balance to our power sector, continue to be forced into early retirement by electricity markets that seem incapable of recognizing and accounting for the building reliability crisis.

To renewable energy hawks, determined to race ahead to an all-renewable grid, grid-scale batteries are the answer. Batteries are their proposed solution to providing the essential backup required to maintain reliability, regardless of the weather. Unfortunately, batteries just aren’t up to the task.

Robb spared no punches on the issue, recently telling reporters, today’s utility-scale battery technology won’t cut it. It’s a sentiment echoed by former U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz who told Bloomberg News that short-term energy storage (batteries) can only do so much in integrating renewable power onto the grid. “It’s not going to handle a day, a week, a month, a season,” he said.

If natural gas is proving no panacea and grid-scale energy storage is best suited for a few hours of backup, then the obvious answer is to maintain coal generation, the fuel-secure, baseload foundation of the grid. Eventually, our luck is going to run out. Are we ready to reckon with the consequences?

Conor Bernstein is a spokesperson for the National Mining Association, the industry’s trade group based in Washington, D.C.