The nation’s power grid is in precarious shape heading into what could be an especially hot summer, according to the regulatory authority that monitors the electricity system, with much of the country at risk for outages if it experiences scorching weather, as scientists say looks increasingly likely.
While the seasonal electricity forecast is more optimistic than it was last year — when much of the Midwest and southeast was so short of power that the regions were on high alert for “energy emergencies” — it points to an unnerving summer ahead. The report comes as scientists are tracking a developing El Nino weather pattern that threatens to cause temperatures to spike in the coming months, as well as trigger tropical storms and hurricanes.
The mid-Atlantic and southeastern states are the only areas of the country where the North American Electric Reliability Corp. is not warning of the potential for outages in the event of prolonged and intense heat waves or monster storms.
The warnings are becoming an annual event. The stability that once underpinned the country’s power system has dissolved under the stress of heat domes and hurricanes precipitated by climate change. A lack of investment in the fragile collection of transfer stations and transmission lines that keep lights on and air conditioners humming is compounding the problem.
The findings are sure to rekindle debate about the energy transition and the extent to which initiatives to curb climate change are stressing the national network of electricity systems. They come only days after the Biden administration unveiled a new, aggressive plan to lower emissions at power plants, which opponents charge will further erode grid stability.
But many energy scholars say that while the rapid shift to cleaner energy does add to the challenge of modernizing the grid, other factors play a much bigger part in what are becoming annual summertime energy-shortage anxieties expected to persist for years.
The extreme weather that is hitting a wider swath of the country is putting more pressure on the system,” said Bill Dugan, a director at Customized Energy Solutions, a Philadelphia firm that advises clients on electricity markets. Compounding the challenge, he said, is that many coal plants are shutting down earlier than initially planned, not because of regulatory deadlines but because they are not economical to operate.
It all points to too little energy available at the same time demand is soaring. A lot of what is driving that summer demand is air conditioning. As the weather gets hotter, people are cranking up the AC higher. And more Americans have air conditioning than ever before, according to the Energy Department. Nearly 90 percent of U.S. homes are now air-conditioned, up from 77 percent in 2001.
Replacing the coal power that is disappearing with clean energy is taking longer than anticipated, even as solar and wind developers have financing lined up for major projects and are eager to bring them online. There are interstate fights over the siting of transmission lines, supply chain challenges slowing shipments of equipment and bureaucratic snags that are inhibiting the permitting. The wait time for connecting renewable energy to the grid is increasing every year.
“There is a huge amount of wind and solar waiting in the cues,” said Ric O’Connell, executive director of GridLab, a research firm focused on the transition to a zero-emissions grid. “We have not been able to bring it online fast enough to replace retiring plants. We need to move faster.”
There are enough wind, solar and other clean-energy projects waiting to connect the grid to make the U.S. electricity system 90 percent zero-emissions by 2035, according to an April report from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. “But this growing backlog has become a major bottleneck for project development: projects are taking longer and longer to complete the interconnection study process and come online, and most of these interconnection requests are ultimately canceled and withdrawn,” the report said.
The White House and congressional leaders are growing increasingly concerned about the state of the grid. Competing proposals for fast-tracking grid improvements are being advanced by both major parties, but compromise is proving elusive. Conservation groups are fighting plans that would weaken environmental protections to allow for faster construction of grid infrastructure. Fossil fuel allies in Congress are balking at proposals that do not clear a path for more natural gas plants.
The supply chain issues triggered by the pandemic are adding to the challenge of stabilizing the grid, according to the North American Electric Reliability Corp. forecast. There is a shortage of transformers “as a result of production not keeping pace with demand,” leaving many utilities with “low levels of emergency stocks that are used for responding to natural disasters and catastrophic events.”
Inflation is also creating problems. The report says a shortage of labor and supplies “as a result of broad economic factors” is inhibiting maintenance of key infrastructure. As a result, the regulatory agency found, some power companies are delaying or canceling maintenance that can be key to preparing sections of the grid for the challenges of summer.
The fight to save energy by controlling your thermostat (and pool pump)
There was also some good news in the report. The wet winter that helped replenish reservoirs in Canada and the Western United States means hydropower will be much more plentiful this summer than last. It can be a crucial resource and can be diverted as a backup resource to keep the lights on in places such as California and New York in the event of power emergencies.
The report also noted some progress being made to stabilize energy systems in the two states that have experienced some of the most dramatic blackouts in recent years: California and Texas. In California and neighboring states, the report notes, power companies have been aggressively installing industrial-scale batteries that can store power that can be sent back onto the grid when power plants are temporarily knocked out of commission.
In Texas, a huge amount of solar power has been added to the grid since 2022, easing some of the problems there. The state has also significantly expanded its “demand response” programs, through which a network of industrial and residential power users gets financial incentives to curb their electricity use when the grid is under stress.