Rolling blackouts are a rising threat across the U.S. as aging power grids collide with extreme weather, rising electricity demand and a shift to cleaner fuels, the nation’s top grid monitor warned Wednesday.
In a report, the North American Electric Reliability Corp. said most regions of the country face growing risks of inadequate electricity supplies during periods of extreme cold and heat over the coming decade. Major wind and solar power projects that could serve metropolitan areas aren’t being built fast enough as power companies shut down old coal plants.
The findings are stirring up a debate about whether state regulators — and the Department of Energy — should slow down retirements of fossil fuel generation.
The projected power shortfall is being exacerbated by a technology-driven U.S. economy.
NERC noted a sharp ramp-up in power demand from the spread of data centers and crypto mining and sales of electric vehicles. All of those segments of the economy are growing faster than electricity generation and transmission that could serve them, according to NERC.
The 2023 report “is a real call to action,” said John Moura, NERC director of reliability assessment and performance analysis. “It’s going to take all of us coming together to solve and mitigate some of these challenges,” he said Wednesday.
NERC, which is an industry-led group, projected electricity demand will grow 10 percent through 2032. Generation will expand just 4 percent during that time, it estimated.
Based on companies’ plans, NERC reported that over 83,000 megawatts of fossil fuel and nuclear generation is expected to close down between this year and 2028. The grid monitor notes that another 30,000 MW is slated to close, but the plans aren’t final.
The growth of renewable resources, storage, EVs, and customer-owned solar power — critical to carbon emission reduction — is making power networks more complex, requiring higher-speed, more sophisticated control systems, NERC said. Increased extreme weather events also have jarred traditional grid demand forecasting.
“The cadence of innovation and deployment is overwhelming traditional grid operation software platforms, interconnection processes, and performance standards,” a NERC advisory committee said in August.
Geography and the EPA rule
Based on current trends, much of the central and southern parts of the United States are likely to face power shortfalls in the coming decade — even during normal weather, NERC said.
The organization slapped the “high risk” label on the Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO), a grid network in 15 central U.S. states from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. It did the same with a six-state area in the lower Mississippi and Appalachian regions.
While MISO’s grid reliability actions last year bought it more time, beginning in 2028, the Midwest grid region is projected to have a 4,700-MW power shortage if expected power plant retirements occur, even with the addition of 12,000 MW of planned new generation, NERC said. The critical period for the six-state southeastern grid region is between 2025 and 2027, when coal-fired power plant retirements are scheduled to peak, the report said.
Grid operators west of the Mississippi, including the separate Texas grid system, and in New York State and New England have “elevated” risk profiles. Their power supplies should be adequate during normal weather, but could fall short if extreme weather strikes, NERC said. Three of Canada’s provinces are also in this category. A band of states from Pennsylvania down the eastern seaboard to Florida are in the “normal” risk column.
“There is an undeniable need to increase coordination and collaboration among all policymakers and regulators,” said the report, “as well as on the owners and operators.”
The NERC analysis comes amid a sharp debate between the electric power sector and climate action organizations over proposed EPA regulations that would require reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from designated coal- and gas-fired generation plants.
Jim Matheson, chief executive of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association said in a statement Wednesday that “proposals like the EPA’s power plant rule will greatly compound the problem” of safe power supply. From the other side, environmental and climate organizations have urged EPA to push harder to reduce carbon emissions from gas generation. A final EPA rule is anticipated next year.
Moura did not take a specific position on the EPA proposal, saying instead that the country can’t let itself get “tripped up” on balancing goals of reliable, carbon-free and affordable electricity. Reliable power “needs to be prioritized” through flexibility in forcing retirements of gas-fired power plants that are most needed to support voltages and other critical reliability factors, he said.
State regulators and grid operators need ways of delaying power plant retirements when they are needed to assure grid reliability, NERC said. If necessary, the Department of Energy should use its statutory emergency authority to assure continued operation of power plants that provide vital voltage and frequency support, the organization said.
Following the 2003 Northeast blackout, NERC — originally formed by the grid industry to improve utility operations with voluntary guidelines — was officially designated to draft mandatory grid reliability standards requiring approval by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
Some environmentalists say NERC’s findings tend to tilt too far toward grid industry priorities. They say that given the pace of climate change, the world has little choice but to phase out coal rapidly and turn more to renewables, battery storage, energy efficiency and other technologies to cut emissions form the electricity system.
Industry leaders say their voices must be heard given the grid’s complexity and vulnerability.
“We seek to be a trusted source of information and provide a ground truth,” Moura said.
NERC also pushed for changes in how long-distance power lines are sited and permitted, to create larger, stronger grid networks that could help reduce extreme weather threats linked to climate change.
It said weak oversight of the pipeline delivery of natural gas to electricity generators during cold snaps — when gas is also critically needed for heating — has become a major risk to reliability, citing Winter Storm Elliott a year ago. Then, frozen equipment and other issues caused deep gas production declines from two major Appalachian shale regions, creating a multistate energy emergency.
“NERC strongly endorses actions to establish reliability rules for the natural gas infrastructure necessary to support the grid,” the report said.
“It’s really important to start thinking about these two systems [gas and grid] as one,” Moura said. “Both of these two industries really need to come together.”