Illinois meeting to explore renewable energy’s effect on grid efficiency
Officials and advocates will gather at the Illinois Commerce Commission offices in Chicago and Springfield today to debate the viability of energy resources and a plan to provide subsidies to struggling coal plants downstate.
One issue: as Illinois moves toward a more distributed energy grid, will the financial gains realized by a regional energy system be threatened?
The region shares energy resources broadly and this has reduced the cost of electricity to consumers by billions. Illinois is served by two regional transmission operators – the PJM Interconnection in the northern part of the state and the Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO) elsewhere.
Jeff Bladen, an executive at MISO, said at a Commerce Commission gathering in October that if distributed resources cannot integrate into this system, some of those savings could be lost.
“To the extent that the distributed [resources] are no longer part of that community where the central ones were,” Bladen said in an interview, “we risk losing some of the financial benefits that we’ve accrued.”
Advocates say efficiency issues can soon be solved with storage and advanced grid technology.
Peter Ping Liu, director of the center for clean energy research and education at Eastern Illinois University said he sees a trend toward storage.
“Maybe down the road 5 years,” he said. “You will see a substation with big transformers and then you will see smaller boxes. Those are storage devices. Absolutely. It’s coming.”
Debate at the commission
Dynegy, which produces more power in MISO’s Illinois territory (Zone 4) than any other energy company, has said that many of its coal-fired power plants are in danger of being shuttered or sold, and it wants Illinois legislators to consider legislation to keep these plants firing.
In April, MISO released new information showing the cost of reserving power plant capacity would be going up, and in May, after Dynegy proposed that Illinois assume capacity pricing, the grid operator wrote a letter to Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner asking state officials to step in, saying the reliability outlook could be “uncertain from year to year.”
In a letter to the commission in advance of the workshop, Dynegy said that the “possible shut down or removal (e.g., sale to other markets) of additional Dynegy generating units poses a serious near-term risk of a capacity deficit in MISO Zone 4.”
It has been 20 years since Illinois began restructuring its energy system, and the commission is no longer part of reliability planning. Rather, energy companies now compete on wholesale and retail markets to ensure that there is enough power to go around during all seasons.
Environmental advocates say the restructuring has been a success and MISO should meet any energy shortfalls in the next five years through System Support Resources contracts and transmission expansions.
In its own advance letter, officials with the Environmental Law and Policy Center wrote that “there is no identifiable reliability crisis in Illinois today and there is little indication that one is coming in the near-term.”
Embracing the ‘revolution’
Liu acknowledges that reliability is a concern, as renewables can cause an interruption in a grid’s continuous energy supply. He says the answer is to integrate these new resources and maintain a base load, which already comes at a cost both financially and for system efficiency.