Storms, Trump and Microgrids: The Top 10 POWERGRID Stories of 2017

See our slideshow about the 10 POWERGRID stories of the Year.

Well, 2017 is almost in the books and it certainly was a year to remember. We think history will prove this right, with a new president and historic storms and new technologies remaking the power grid. Here is our top 10 list of industry stories for the past year:

No. 1: Hurricanes Rock the U.S. Grid

An angry Mother Nature took her full measure of bad attitude on the U.S. grid this year. Between deadly wildfires in California and relentless hurricanes up and down the Gulf Coast, destruction and restoration dominated the news for much of 2017’s second half. Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria—in that order—pounded homes, power lines, poles and substations. Flooding paralyzed Houston after Harvey’s initial attack, while Irma rifled through the Caribbean islands, Florida, Georgia and Carolinas. Millions of customers lost power and repairs are costing billions of dollars.

The worst of it, ironically, didn’t make a dent in the mainland grid but caused utter chaos in Puerto Rico. Hurricane Maria plunged an already bankrupt system into darkness and into a fight for survival. To this day, countless crews from utilities and service providers are working on the island to reconnect it and make it more resilient for the next time. And, climate scientists tell us, the next time may not be that far away.

No. 2: War on Coal Faces a Presidential Counter-Attack

The U.S. energy industry has been on a fairly steady course of increased efficiency and reduced carbon footprint for the past two decades, prodded by EPA rulemaking and global trends. All that stopped or slowed down considerably as the Trump Administration took control in 2017.

The president’s team pulled us out of the Paris Climate Accord reached two years earlier. Then the Trump leadership signed actions cutting the legs out from under the Clean Power Plan, an Obama-era creation which would have forced considerable carbon-emission reductions on power plants, pushing utilities away from coal and toward natural gas or renewables. And of course he appointed Scott Pruitt and Rick Perry to head the EPA and Energy, respectively—two men known as longtime opponents of previous energy and environmental policy.

Later in the year, the administration went one step further. Perry asked for and received a Department of Energy report citing concerns about grid resiliency. The study alluded to an “all of the above” approach which mixed coal, gas, nuclear, solar, wind and hydro, but also raised concerns about the hidden costs of renewables to power plant lifespans and energy delivery instability.

A short time later, the DOE released a notice of proposed rulemaking (NOPR) seeking cost recovery benefits for baseload-quality generation. It argued that no sources provide resiliency as much as those whose fuel sources can stored on-site; and those, of course, are coal and nuclear. Such resiliency should qualify for cost-recovery guarantees, the report continued.

Opponents, both of the renewables and free-market variety, took it as a “picking winners in the m arketplace” move similar to what conservatives accused liberals of doing with tax credits for wind and solar or the concept of a carbon tax. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has yet to rule on the notice as of press time.

No. 3: Energy Storage and Microgrids Make Huge Inroads

Many proponents believe that energy storage and microgrids go hand-in-hand and stand best combined with each other. Either way, both entities had a good year in 2017. From China to California, large-scale battery technology was rolling out worldwide by the gigawatts, giving intermittent renewable resources a backup plan to maintain frequency and microgrids the support needed for islanding away from the main grid when needed during outages.

Pacific Gas & Electric signed off on six contracts totaling 165 MW in energy storage. In February, San Diego Gas & Electric unveiled its 30-MW facilities with AES in Escondido and El Cajon. Italian utility firm Enel signed several global energy storage deals, including one with PG&E, and acquired Liberty Lake, Washington-based Demand Energy earlier in the year.

Bloomberg reported that U.S. power companies and developers boosted energy storage capacity by 46 percent in the third quarter, most of that increase coming with major projects in Texas. Navigant Research identified more than 1,700 energy-storage projects around the world.

Duke, Ameren and many others ramped up microgrid projects, finding new ways to combine solar, gensets and storage that can power military bases, hospitals and even entire neighborhoods in the event of grid breakdowns.

No. 4: Solar Future still Bright, but Cloudier after ITC Ruling and Moves vs. Net Metering

The U.S. solar industry certainly considered it a mixed bag when the International Trade Commission recommended that the Trump Administration impose tariffs and other restrictions on low-cost solar panels flowing in from China and other countries earlier this year.

Georga-based Suniva and Oregon’s SolarWorld brought the trade case amidst their struggles to compete with Chinese subsidized panels. Others, however, argued that low-cost panels is part of what pushed skyrocketing installations in recent years and worried about the long-term impact of higher prices on solar.

In Nevada, Maine and other states, meanwhile, regulators and legislatures wrestled with net metering rules, or what solar customer get paid for putting excess generation back onto the grid. Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval vetoed bills this summer that would have increased the state’s renewable energy standard and promoted community solar programs, but reinstated the net metering standard.

A late December report on the Solar Energy Industries Association website showed that the U.S. installed more than 2,000 MW of solar photovoltaic in the third quarter to reach 49.3 GW of total installed capacity. The total  is enough to power 9.5 million American homes but the pace this year is a 51-percent decline over the same period of a record 2016. 

No. 5: Nuclear Power is Reeling but gets Good News at the End

Many could see a darker future for nuclear power as far back as several years ago, when nations such as Germany and France began moving away from the reactor-fueled energy in the wake of the Fukushima disaster in Japan. Then, in March 2017 industry driver Westinghouse Electric Co. filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, putting its involvement in numerous U.S. projects in jeopardy.

By August, fears became reality when Santee Cooper and SCANA in South Carolina announced that the long-running V.C. Summer reactor projects were being abandoned after running up $9 billion and more in costs. South Carolina ratepayers already had been hit with at least $2 billion of that, wasted on a project where the plug was pulled before it generated one kilowatt of power.

Company executives testified that they pleaded for help from the Trump Administration to no avail. Several leaders resigned or retired in the wake of the Summer abandonment.

Still standing but perhaps barely is the Vogtle reactor work led by Georgia Power and other partners. Vogtle was the first new nuclear construction project in 30 years, but has endured years of delays and costs projected as high as $25 billion. Westinghouse parent Toshiba promised some $3.2 billion in payment guarantees to alleviate the worst of fears, but even the staff for the Georgia Public Service Commission now say that Vogtle is uneconomical. Supporters hope that construction is completed by 2022.

Some wondered it Vogtle would survive  to be finished at all, but the GPSC regulators stepped in late and recommended that it continue. The U.S. nuclear power industry really needed that endorsement. 

No. 6: Renewables got all the Press, but good old T&D got Plenty of Dollars This Year

The Edison Electric Institute reported that close to $22 billion was spent on major transmission and distribution upgrades in the past year. Much of this was to deal with distributed generation pressures, but some because, well, the U.S. grid is old and needs updating.

Every month saw the announcement of work started, completed or continuing on huge investments up and down the line. In August, Xcel Energy and Otter Tail Power announced completion of the $140 million, 70-mile Big Stone South-Brookings Country 345-kV line in South Dakota. American Transmission Co. in October announced that a portion of the Badger Coulee Transmission Line was energized in Wisconsin. The entire $580 million, 180-mile Badger Coulee line is expected to be in service by late 2018, according to ATC.

No. 7: Electric Vehicle Momentum Grows as Major Automakers Invest big

The year 2017 may prove to be a milestone in EV history, or yet another year in which automakers made empty promises. Yet it felt different, as car companies worldwide ramped up transitions away from the internal combustion engine.

Volkswagen AG unit Electrify America plans to install 2,800 electric vehicle charging stations in 17 of the largest U.S. cities by June 2019. Toyota promises to offer more than 10 purely electric models in its lineup by the early 2020s.

And that’s just the Germans and Japanese. Ford Motor Co. promised to roll out about 15 EVs in China. Not to be outdone domestically, General Motors vowed to produce two new EVs on Chevrolet Bolt underpinnings in the next 18 months and more than 20 electric or hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles by 2023.

Of course, then there’s always Tesla, deliver its Model 3 priced to be a competitive buy for the masses.

8): Has Oncor Electric Delivery Finally Found a Buyer?

It’s been a long three-plus years, but the latest bid for the Texas transmission giant seems to be working out, pending approval by tough Texas regulators. Following failed attempts by the Hunt family of companies, NextEra Energy and Berkshire Hathaway Energy, San Diego-based Sempra Energy swooped in with a surprise offer to buy Oncor’s bankrupt parent company, Energy Future Holdings, in a restructured $9.3 billion cash deal that avoids putting debt on the backs of the acquisition target.

Sempra, which is parent of San Diego Gas & Electric, Southern California Gas and other holdings, certainly sees value and expansion in Oncor and its 120,000 miles in T&D infrastructure bringing electricity to more than 3 million homes in Texas. The deal, however, must get past the Texas Public Utility Commission, which has rejected previous offers by Hunt Consolidated and NextEra on concerns about impacts of debt on ratepayers.

9) The “Big One” Cyber Attack on Power Grid Doesn’t Seem so far Away

A recent Accenture study found that two-thirds of utility executives worldwide expect a computer attack to shut down a major power plant in the near future. Black Energy already achieved this in the Ukraine two years ago and another smaller attack in the Saudi Arabia happened sometime in 2017, according to reports.

The North American Electric Reliability Corp. and utilities joined forces for their bi-annual GridEx practice event earlier this year, faking a “severe attack” to help them better understand if and when the real thing happens.

10)  Power Generation Sheds Jobs Worldwide

General Electric Co. announced it is cutting 12,000 jobs in its power division as alternative energy supplants demand for coal and other fossil fuels and energy demand declines overall.

The cuts represented 18 percent of all jobs at GE Power and mainly were outside the U.S. Meanwhile, Siemens announced it would cut about 6,900 jobs worldwide in the power, gas and drives divisions, half of those in Germany.

The U.S. Energy Information Agency projects that worldwide energy demand will rise 56 percent by 2040,  but most of that growth will come from developing nations such as India and China.

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The Clarion Energy Content Team is made up of editors from various publications, including POWERGRID International, Power Engineering, Renewable Energy World, Hydro Review, Smart Energy International, and Power Engineering International. Contact the content lead for this publication at Jennifer.Runyon@ClarionEvents.com.

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