Resource Adequacy and Resource Attributes: Is the Jar Half Full or Half Empty?

When one approaches a task, however simple, the brain assembles a series of small steps that, taken together, represent a plan of action. You carry out the plan based on the picture in your brain. A disagreement can arise with someone else when there is a failure to clearly communicate the different meanings of the words used to describe the tasks or execute the plan.

There is a common parable about a jar of rocks. Imagine a jar. The task is to fill it. You have large pebbles, and you begin to drop them into the jar until it is full. A friend comes along and you show her your accomplishment. She observes that the jar is not full, and she collects small pebbles and sand. She adds them to your jar. The large pebbles serve one purpose, and the smaller ones serve another. The two of you agree the jar is now quite full. You share your story with a third friend, who finds some water. He adds the water until it reaches the rim of the jar. Liquid has brought a new attribute to the simple task of “filling a jar.” Indeed the mass in the jar is greater now than it was a moment ago. Sand filled spaces among the large pebbles, and water filled spaces among the grains of sand. The three of you have finally accomplished the task. But wait! Along comes a fourth friend with a bag of salt, and you find that salt brings additional attributes to task of “filling a jar.” Salt is added to the apparently full jar, and the mass of the jar plus its contents increases again as more salt is dissolved in the water. Will this ever end? Along comes a fifth friend with a heat source, and the jar becomes “fuller” still as thermal energy is added …

Download a white paper: Resource Adequacy and the Cost of Reliability

Electric systems seemed complete or “full” decades ago when utilities built power plants, transmission lines, distribution lines and the associated facilities to control voltage and frequency. Every day, it seems, a new device or service comes along to disrupt the tranquility of the electric system which was already “full.” New resources bring new attributes to a complex system. We disaggregate products and services to accommodate the new resources that have one valuable attribute but lack another. Wind power provides clean energy but cannot be counted on in the same way as a natural gas generator because wind has a lower availability. Electric batteries provide fast acting ancillary services–short duration and extremely fast responsiveness–but cannot economically provide many hours or days of electricity. Some technologies are displaced, but others are complemented by new technologies.

If we talk through the needs for the electric industry and how to assemble resources that will complement one another, we may settle on a good mix of resources to provide basic service at a low or reasonable cost. Let’s keep the jar in mind, and talk through what it means to “fill the jar.” Let’s keep in mind that a variety of resource alternatives can provide lower-cost products and services and improve on the simple “large-pebble” solution.

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