Will the lights stay on? That’s the question many families in North Carolina are asking following a rough ending to 2022 for Duke Energy customers.
Both cases raise serious questions about our power grid reliability and resiliency.
“They’re vulnerable to weather. They’re vulnerable to other contingencies … cyber and physical,” said Jon Wellinghoff, the former chairman of the Federal Electric Regulatory Commission (FERC). The group oversees the national power grid and mandates changes when necessary.
“There are places we can absolutely approve,” Duke Energy spokesman Jeff Brooks told WRAL Investigates when asked about the power outages.
Brooks says Duke acknowledges the utility fell short in communicating realistic customer expectations during the blackouts and fully anticipating the combination of extreme cold and equipment failures.
“We’re going to go back and look at those forecast models and that modeling technology to figure out how can we make that more accurate,” Brooks said.
“The electric utility grid is one of the most amazing inventions in the history of man, the ability to deliver all this power to all these people and do all these things, but, the game is changing,” said Steve Kalland, Executive Director of NC State’s Clean Energy Technology Center.
Kalland said there needs to more focus and action on spreading the power load to more renewables like wind and solar.
“The renewables facilities and the solar facilities in particular were not the problem,” Kallad said of the about the Arctic blast-created outages. “Those operated exactly as advertised.”
In a report to the North Carolina Utilities Commission, Duke said equipment failures reduced output at gas and coal-fired plants. Brooks agrees that solar performed well, but not before the sun came up Christmas Eve. He told us storing solar power is an issue right now.
“Storage is a huge opportunity for the company because that technology is just really maturing to the point where we can dispatch it on a utility scale,” Brooks said.
WRAL Investigates analyzed data Duke supplied to the Department of Energy that shows demand, forecast demand and power generation leading up to and during those rolling blackouts.
Despite reporting plant issues and lost power purchases between midnight and 6 a.m. on Christmas Eve totaling thousands of lost megawatt hours of electricity, numbers show power generation hit a daily high ending at 8 a.m. and Christmas Eve. At the time, the generation was still above the demand, though rolling blackouts were just getting started.
Over the next several hours, demand dropped because of the rolling blackouts. But so did generation- dropping by about 30% by 4 p.m.
WRAL Investigates asked Brooks why the power generation drop was so huge, even much bigger than the power losses acknowledged by the company.
In a statement, Brooks wrote:
“The reason generation is lower at 4 p.m. on 12/24 is that customer demand for electricity had dropped since the peak at 7 a.m.. We are obligated to balance supply and demand every hour of every day. So, as demand drops, so does supply. My folks also noted that this is incomplete data CPL East does not include CPL West so you are missing part of our service area (Asheville area).”
In simple terms, the power company must make sure supply and demand are as close to one another as possible if you put them on a graph. Too much difference either way can cause enough instability to cause serious issues throughout the entire grid.
As for the length of the power shutdown for some customers, Brooks says the automated blackout system failed.
“That’s why you saw some of the outages extend later into the day with that process of restoring power manually,” he explained.
Brooks said the automated rolling blackout did system did work as intended for a while — turning some customers back on while turning another group off.
Once Duke noticed systems weren’t turning back, the company switched to manual process. That allowed to company to quickly turn off power to some to keep the balance, but turning on the power for those in the cold was a much more laborious process.
Critics argue the failures of Christmas Eve show Duke needs to join a regional transmission market to share planning and power.
“The data shows that other states that have joined regional transmission organizations that it does in fact make the grid in your state more reliable and also reduces costs for your consumers,” Wellinghoff said.
He argues Duke must spread its load generation.
“More resources, wider spread with more contingencies so that these large central plants aren’t the Achilles heel or our entire system,” he said.
Duke believes fossil fuel options are still necessary as a bridge to a cleaner energy future. The utility resists calls to partner with other power providers.
When asked if Duke was trying to protect its monopoly on North Carolina power, Brooks said that’s not the case.
“Well, the key difference is we’re a regulated utility,” Brooks said.
It means if Duke wants to raise or lower rates, it has to make its case and get approval from the state.
Brooks defended Duke’s ability to provide reliable, cheap power to our state.
“We think we have a good effective model here in the Carolinas,” Brooks said. “Do we have areas to improve? Absolutely.”
Duke is currently in a rate hike negotiation with state regulators. The company argues the increases are needed to address both reliability and grid security, to deter further physical attacks on substations.
State lawmakers are also considering legislation that would also require 24/7 surveillance at power stations. While the proposed legislation doesn’t go into specifics, there are estimates those security upgrades, including more fencing and surveillance equipment, could cost millions per station.