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Reliability vs. Resiliency

Prevent problems, or wait and respond when something happens?

Fortnightly Magazine - July 2014
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Whenever I sit down to write about electric reliability, my thoughts always race back to the time, more than a dozen years ago now, that I inadvertently interfered with the workings of NERC, then known as the North American Electric Reliability Council, on a day of dire emergency that would test the resiliency of both the electric industry and our country.

It all started in the summer of 2001, when then, as now, I was toiling away as editor of Public Utilities Fortnightly.

In my Frontlines column on page 6, in our issue of July 15, 2001 (we published twice a month back then), I had run a graphic of an impossibly convoluted organizational flow chart that had illustrated a ten-step process that NERC had designed for proposing, reviewing, and adopting new reliability standards. My aim was to show how deeply that NERC was hopelessly ensnared in bureaucratic procedures.

And I succeeded, after a fashion.

For, soon after the issue had come out, with the column having circulated at bit, some PR people at NERC had noted the piece a few weeks later and, in their understandable annoyance, had invited me to come by for early morning coffee and a face-to-face chat with some of their higher-ups at a law firm office in downtown Washington, DC, just a few short blocks from the White House, so they could size me up, re-educate me, and put me back on the straight and narrow.

So I put on my best suit, took along my pen and note pad, hopped on the red line subway train and headed downtown right on time for my appointment - at 9 am, Tuesday, September 11, 2001.

The NERC people had ushered me into a private conference room, where we talked amiably for a half-hour or more, telephones silenced. Then one of the law firm secretaries finally burst in, apologizing profusely for the interruption, telling us that the Pentagon was under attack. The NERC executives raced out, to do their jobs, leaving me behind.

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But now back to the present - to June 10, just about three weeks ago, and the all-day conference held at Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to address emerging challenges for electric system reliability. First among them is the remarkable transformation now occurring within the nation's electric generating portfolio.

This transformation lately has bedeviled the FERC on three fronts: (1) natural gas dependency, (2) integration into the grid of a large capacity share of intermittent wind and solar renewable energy resources, and (3) the looming retirement of inefficient coal-fired generating plants, owing to recent initiatives from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, such as the MATS rule (mercury and air toxics), and EPA's "Clean Power Plan" to control greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants. Even nuclear plants are at risk.

And while solar and wind energy may replace much retired fossil capacity, the renewables won't

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