On March 5th, Duke in DC hosted the event “Energy & Utilities,” part of its Beyond Talking Points series. The panelists included Greg Gershuny, executive director of the Energy and Environment Program, Aspen Institute, Kate Konschnik, director of the Climate and Energy Program at the Duke Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, and Brian Murray, director of the Duke University Energy Initiative. The discussion was moderated by Kristi Swartz, a reporter at E&E news based in Atlanta.

The panelists kicked off the discussion by listing off each of their biggest areas of focus going into the Biden administration and new Congress.

Brian Murray’s top priorities:

Brian Murray marked his first priority as the system needs that will be necessary to meet the Biden administration’s goal of reaching net-zero carbon electricity by 2035. Murray explained “firm balancing resources” including renewable technologies, like wind and solar, will be critical for reaching that goal. He also stressed the importance of looking “at the other side of the balancing equation, which is firm and flexible grid resources to counter the intermittency of renewables.”

Murray’s second priority is transmission. He explained that “renewable energy potential is not distributed evenly across the landscape and neither are the people that use electricity, so we are going to need an infrastructure to move electrons from where they originate to where they are used.” He went on to note, “transmission is largely a private investment, but the government incentives can play a role there as well, for instance in the form of tax credits.”

Third, Murray emphasized, “We need to spread the love beyond the electricity sector to the rest of the economy by electrifying those other sectors.” Innovators need to start finding ways to implement the use of electric energy in transportation, homes and industry. “A big role the federal government can play is to be a big buyer of these technologies,” Murray explained, “The U.S. government is the largest single buyer in our economy, and they have tremendous buying power.”

Greg Gershuny’s top priorities:

 “When we think about the grid… the first thing is we need to think of 2035 as a spot on the horizon that we are aiming for, but we also do keep going after that. The grid is going to continue to evolve and change into the future.”

Gershuny highlighted the importance of critical technologies, “As the Department of Energy (DOE) is beginning to implement… we need to think about how we go from the 40% of clean electricity now, to the 80% or so that we’re going to need by 2030. And the last 20% between 2030 and 2035, which is going to be hard to do.”

Among the solutions for this transition, Gershuny added that long-duration battery storage,  hydrogren storage and pumped-storage are some of the things that we need to be working on and developing now in order to impact the grid by 2030.

Kate Konschnik’s top priorities:

Her three areas of focus are related to federalism and governance. Konschnik pointed to the distinction between federal and state rules under the Federal Power Act, particularly related to resource adequacy and transmission planning. “States are supposed to have jurisdiction over generation…but we’re seeing in the northeast what happens when state preferences for particular new capacity and the markets collide,” which Konschnik notes Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is going to have to address.

Second, Konschnik is paying attention to the federal versus market roles in determining fair and reasonable rates that are not “unduly discriminatory against particular technologies.”

“We’ve never had a court actually say, it is ok for the markets to be determining the fundamental questions in the Federal Power Act… We are going to be seeing those regional markets figuring out how to change the rules to induce more aggregation of distributed energy.”

Lastly, Konschnik emphasized the need to consider what the public’s role in all of this should be. She explained that in recent years, “we’ve seen sort of a democratization of the grid,” so we have a lot more market participants and more public policy groups being brought to the table, which creates added tension between the core values of affordability and reliability of the grid and how we can also include public policy goals like decarbonization.

Texas Blackouts

Regarding the Texas blackouts in February, Brian Murray stated, the problems in Texas last month showed us that renewable energy needs to work seamlessly with the dispatchable generation to meet demand.” He also clarified that “wind did not bring the systems down in Texas. Fossil and nuclear resource shutdowns were the main culprit there, but there is going to be an increased reliance on variable resources like wind and solar, that is going to amplify the need to quickly balance the system when demand surges and supplies diminish.”

“These markets are supposed to be designed, in the case of electricity, to deliver an essential public good, so they need to be designed and not purely left to market forces.”

Konschnik added that the Texas crisis also highlights the issues related to the current “patchwork of energy regulation.”

“What we saw in Texas was extreme temperatures froze gas coming out of the wellheads and across all of the supply systems, and suddenly we had no gas for gas-fired power plants, they were not winterized, even though NERC and FERC wrote a report in 2011 after there were also rolling blackouts in Texas after another winter snap that said (Texas) needs to winterize these because if they can’t run, it doesn’t matter if you have reserve margins.”

Greg Gershuny explained a key pitfall of design is leaving out considerations of reliability. He stated, “It is more expensive to have a more reliable grid, most Americans have a grid up 99.97% of the time, but those hours that (power) is down can be really bad hours. For those that are most vulnerable, it can be the difference between life and death.”

By Lizzie Devitt, posted on 3/5/21.