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How Retiring Gas and Coal Plants Affects Grid Stability



March 17, 2023 - Legacy gas and coal plants are being aged out – and no one wants to pay enough to keep them going. With increased pressure from green energy laws and added competition from renewable sources, these monsters of Old Power are being shown the door. Considering they've predated and precipitated all Industrial Revolutions (except for this last one – that was digital), it's safe to say they've had a good long run. So, what's the fuss? Apparently, a mass exodus of one-fourth of the production capacity of U.S. coal-based energy plants and nearly 10% of the nation's national gas supplies will be hard to account for on the grid.

"Coal-fired generators, especially older, less efficient units, face higher operating and maintenance costs, which make them less competitive and more likely to retire," noted the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).

We need a safe way to transition, and that's what renewables experts, cybersecurity analysts, and, hopefully, some very savvy lawmakers will be working on in the coming years. The end is a very worthy goal – the medicine just can't do more harm than the disease.

Out with the Old, in With the New

The situation needed to be addressed. New laws are coming into place that require more efficiency out of the nation's power sources, and the legacy infrastructure being retired are the ones that can't keep up. In the natural gas world, most of the plants slated for retirement will be 50+ years in operation by the time their number gets called. That's a long time running. While they produce good power – helpful when surprising summer heat waves test the grid's capability – they don't do as much as newer gas-powered plants and drag the operation down. Hence the move to replace them.

While rooting them out altogether would leave a gap in energy, that gap can be filled by solar projects and other sustainable forms of energy waiting to take their place. Ideally, the transition should be smooth, and stakeholders were initially optimistic. Up until this past year, these older plants' retirement had been progressing steadily. However, hold-ups in solar projects due to an anti-dumping investigation by the Department of Commerce slowed that rate down. If the required number of renewable replacements is not able to be in place, legacy operations will have to continue until they are.

And that's the rub. In order to not rock the grid and still produce the adequate amount of power to keep things running, the old and the new have to be swapped out at virtually the same rate. And there are many factors that could affect that.

The Risks of Gas and Coal Retirement

Additionally, at the same time that the need for newer, cleaner energy is rising – just to hold stable - there is also an increasing demand overall for more electric capacity. This may be no new news, but consider the original grid's purpose and the stress we put it under today. In the 1950s and '60s, when the original grid was coming up, households had electric light bulbs, an oven (probably gas), a heater (again, gas), and maybe a few appliances. Now, families have multiple entertainment systems, microwaves, air fryers, laptops and home computers, washers, dryers, a myriad of IoT devices, and maybe an electric car or two. Office buildings – which once had similar demands – now host multiple servers, countless digital devices, alarm systems, elevators, a host of smart machines, and everything electronic, from the water cooler to the coffee maker. Think about what your office would like in a power outage; chances are, it involves a lot more than just the lights going off.

Another potential threat on the horizon is that of increased cyberattacks against critical national infrastructure, power included (and maybe prioritized). Knock out the grid, and you knock out all the above – from toasters to firewalls to news stations and cell towers. It's all bad. That's why the grid needs a sustainable future, and as nation-state attacks ramp up, a sustainably protected future is an equal priority. This also has to be balanced as new power sources come into play, and there are significant grid-inherent security challenges to consider. To that end, CISA has released cross-sector cybersecurity performance goals for critical national infrastructure and rolled out a strategic plan – the first of its kind – for itself as it works to shore up the nation's cybersecurity.

Fresher, smarter IoT-connected sustainable energy plants like wind and solar and high-efficiency combined cycle natural gas are still subject to the same DevOps risks that all new applications are. There is an evident need for newer and faster resources, especially as plants have been delayed due to funding, legislation, or some other reason. The temptation to get "products out to market" quickly is strong, and many will roll out with inherent bugs as a result. It's fine in a calendar app; it's not fine when dealing with the critical infrastructure of one of the largest, most connected developed nations in the world. Going forward, and especially during this transition, strong cybersecurity measures for all sectors of CNI will be critically important. Think it doesn't apply to all 16 sectors? Try running a nuclear power plant, a hospital, or a wastewater station without electricity. For better or worse, electric power is the undercurrent that underpins them all.

Consider the Overall Costs

This all comes at a tricky time. U.S. consumer energy demands are going up – domestic and business. Old legacy power factories (gas and coal) are hitting their productivity limit and need to make way for newer, more efficient sources. Those newer, more efficient sources are not always reliably found, and that volatility could cause a hold-up. When they are released, the mix of old O.T. and new I.T. could cause problems. Advanced attacks (or even just latent bugs) could slip through old architecture and infiltrate the Cloud-based assets of the new, maximizing damage and having potentially fatal consequences.

While the retirement date of 2029 sounds great, U.S. grid stakeholders and power companies alike are going to have to balance goals with practicality as the U.S. moves cautiously into a new, more sustainable era. And tries to keep the lights on in the process.