Dramatic changes have been underway to global electrical power grids caused by fuel differential costs, environmental regulations and technology advancements in alternative forms of energy.

At IHS CERAWeek 2016, Emerson’s Robert Yeager joined an esteemed panel of experts in a strategic dialogue session, “Power System & Grid Operations: Keeping the Lights on Through an Era of Change.” Fellow panel members included ITC Holdings chief operating office Jon Jipping, the AES Corporation chief technology officer Chris Shelton, US Grid Company chief executive officer Jacob Worenklein and IHS panel chair Andy Lubershane.

The session’s focus was timely and addressed a significant issue for the industry:

“Coal markets have slumped into recession of a depth not seen since the 1990s, raising the hopes of some opponents to coal that the industry is at last moving into terminal decline. However, there will remain a vibrant and growing market for coal, while there are already signs emerging of the recovery that is to come. This session focuses on the causes of the industry’s current ills and on what is already being done to address them, providing a guide to the survival of price recession that many players in the oil and gas industries might find useful for their future planning.”

From identifying and addressing areas of vulnerability in microgrids to increasing overall grid reliability and emission levels, panelists engaged in a lively discussion on a number of topics. Yeager discussed the challenges in bidirectional energy flow from renewable sources such as solar and wind. The grid has to maintain a solid voltage and frequency, he stressed, and must instantly adapt to these sources coming and going.

There are hidden impacts to grid reliability. As the power flow rapidly changes, it causes mechanical stresses on the generators, boiler tubes and other processing equipment. This provides an even greater need to closely monitor and act before unplanned failures occur.

In addition, coal-powered sources are not meant cycle. Combined cycle-units running on gas can cycle much faster and respond to load changes. Renewable sources come and go based on the immediate weather conditions.

Energy storage was another big topic of discussion. Just five years ago, storing energy was mainly done through pumping water to higher elevations to build potential energy. Compressed air was another way, but not used too often. Today, battery technology has advanced to where they are beginning to scale. These battery units are being connected to the grid and will in the coming years rival the storage capacity of hydro-pumping.

Even as power continues to transform, the panel stressed that a balanced portfolio of fuel sources of coal, natural gas and renewable sources will continue to be necessary in the effort to provide overall grid resiliency.