Tipping Points and Taking Action for Grid Resilience

Summer’s sweltering afternoons are receding into fall’s delightfully crisp mornings, soon to be followed by winter’s cold, snow and ice. Through all seasons, Americans continue to count on the reliable flow of electricity.
From homes to hospitals, banks to schools, farms to factories, police stations to firehouses, medical labs to military bases, telecommunications to mass transit, America’s energy and economic security – and thereby its national security – depends upon this vital flow of uninterrupted power. Modern civilization rests on the foundation that a resilient and secure electric grid provides.

Today’s grid depends on a far more diverse fuel supply than it once did. But rapidly evolving threats and fundamental changes within our generation mix are putting the future resiliency of America’s grid – and the reliability of the power it supplies – at risk.

Premature retirements of coal and nuclear generation units are approaching a tipping point that, if reached, will jeopardize the grid’s ability to recover from growing cyber- or physical attacks, or extreme weather events. Unless we change course – and soon – the lack of an on-site, fuel-secure supply that these energy sources provide will dramatically increase our vulnerability to disruption and prolonged outages.

As the Secretary and Deputy Secretary, respectively, for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), the federal government’s lead agency for ensuring grid resilience and security, Secretary Rick Perry and I share President Trump’s concern about this issue. Consequently, at the President’s direction, and consistent with our authority, DOE is taking immediate action to temporarily stop additional retirements before the capacity and reliability they provide to our generation mix are irreversibly lost.

Fuel-secure coal and nuclear currently generate about 50 percent of our nation’s electricity. Pipeline-dependent natural gas accounts for 35 percent of our energy mix, and intermittent renewables like solar, hydro and wind make up the remaining 15 percent. That generation diversity ensures that when one fuel underperforms, another can fill the void.

Since the onset of the shale revolution expanded the use of natural gas and technological advancements boosted the generation capabilities of renewables, coal and nuclear have declined. This is part of the evolution of energy sources. However, the critical point is that this natural transition has become forced, and is outpacing the system’s ability to fill the supply gap with equal reliability during a crisis or demand spike.

Natural gas is attractive because it is currently abundant, clean and cheap. But its delivery depends on a vast network of pipelines that are vulnerable to cyber- and physical attack. If critical pipelines are damaged, destroyed or disabled by natural elements or bad actors, renewables must be ready to fill the gap. But renewables, while clean and cheap thanks to subsidies, are intermittent and their energy cannot yet be stored in quantities that make them a reliable alternative.