transmission lines
Credit: David Wilson / Creative Commons

The regional transmission group instead asks FERC to be more nimble when it comes to integrating new technology.

Correction: PJM Interconnection is requesting changes to the way power plants are compensated that it says better reflect the actual cost of producing energy but would not directly subsidize coal and nuclear generators. An earlier version of this story mischaracterized its comments to FERC.

The Midwest’s primary transmission grid operator doesn’t see a looming reliability crisis as utilities phase out uneconomic coal and nuclear plants.

In response to a call for input on electric grid resilience issues, MISO told federal regulators last month that it is confident in its ability to plan new generation as older plants retire. The position puts it in contrast with its neighbor to the east, the PJM Interconnection, which asked for new rules that critics say would benefit coal and nuclear plants that wouldn’t otherwise be competitive in its markets.

The comments by MISO, which manages the electric grid in a corridor from the Upper Midwest to the Louisiana Gulf Coast, instead highlight a need to be more nimble when it comes to integrating new technologies on the grid.

“Technology moves faster than our standard process,” said Jennifer Curran, vice president of system planning at MISO. “We want to be sure that the processes that we have in place for developing standards are flexible enough so the standards aren’t obsolete when they come into place.”

Prepared to meet demand

In January, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission rejected a proposal from the U.S.Department of Energy that would have offered subsidies to aging nuclear and coal plants. Energy Secretary Rick Perry argued the proposal would promote electric grid resilience, while many saw it as a way to support coal plants in struggling to compete with cheap natural gas and renewables.

In rejecting the proposal, FERC officials questioned if resilience was an issue in the first place and invited comments from regional electric grid operators.  

MISO has generally been less alarmed about renewables’ impact on grid resiliency than other grid operators, and at least one study appears to support its view. A 2017 study by the Rhodium Group, an independent research company, found that distribution problems such as downed power lines — not a lack of electricity supply — were the cause of most U.S. power outages between 2013 and 2016.

The MISO region has seen significant development of renewable technology “in the form of wind, the introduction of solar, discussion of additional behind the meter resources,” Curran said. “We want to be prepared to respond as quickly as we can with the tools and products that are needed to operate reliably,” she added.

Need to be more nimble

In its FERC comments, MISO and a coalition of outside groups and electricity cooperatives asked for help keeping pace with technological change by designing rules that are more flexible.

“We have a really complicated system that runs our market reliability operations,” Curan said. “As we look at the technology that underlies that system and its capabilities to expand and add the types of products and services that are going to be needed in the future, we see that our current systems are getting a little obsolete. So, we are looking to move them forward into the future and produce a more flexible system that really provides us a platform for making changes.”

For example, in February FERC finalized a rule to scale back barriers to electricity storage competing in the marketplace, but it will be two years before it is fully implemented. Grid operators have a year to study the issue and then another year to act, which is a long time given the rate of technological innovation.

David Kolata, executive director of the Citizens Utility Board, said even though MISO doesn’t share PJM’s concern about post-coal grid resilience, he understands why MISO is keeping a watchful eye on the FERC proceedings. “There’s a real risk that if FERC were to go the wrong direction that they could really do some serious harm to the market structure,” he said.

The National Resources Defense Council, the American Public Power Association, the American Council on Renewable Energy, and other groups penned a joint letter to FERC asking that any new wholesale tariffs not offer subsidies to coal and nuclear plants over natural gas and renewables.

“The wholesale market rules should not establish discriminatory criteria that provide an advantage to certain types of resources or technologies relative to other types of resources or technologies that are providing the same services,” the group wrote.

In a statement, MISO said that it will “continue to closely monitor the developments. We look forward to continued discussions that further support our nation’s grid reliability and resilience.”

Kevin has written for Midwest Energy News since May of 2017. His work has appeared in Pacific Standard, Chicago Reporter, Chicago Reader, and on NPR’s Latino USA, among other outlets.