‘Special Report’ Spotlight: Is US power grid ready for summer?
A report from the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) is warning of widespread blackouts this summer. Two-thirds of the country has an elevated risk of potential for insufficient operations.
‘It’s really concerning because electricity is pretty critical to how we operate every minute of every day,’ National Rural Electric Cooperative Association CEO Jim Matheson said. ‘You have to be able to have the lights come on when you’re counting on it. That’s an expectation we have across this country. Unfortunately, certain policies are driving us in the wrong direction.’
The NERC report lists recent efforts by the Biden administration to limit emissions as a grid vulnerability. The environmental rules could disrupt operations at coal-fired generators in 23 states. That includes locations along the Gulf Coast, including Texas, which has a recent history of blackouts from extreme weather. Other locations include desert-hot Nevada.
‘What’s going on in this country right now is demand for electricity is growing, which is a good thing. The economy is growing, but we’re shutting down power plants, and we’re not replacing it with any capacity. So, at some point, that basic relationship starts to get in trouble,’ Matheson said.
The report also notes that while stored supplies of natural gas and coal are at high levels, infrastructure is lacking. In the southeastern region of the U.S., coal-fired generators have reported challenges in arranging coal replenishment because of mine closures and transport delays.
‘When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging,’ Matheson said. ‘We got to take the shovel away from the EPA.’
Matheson served as a Utah representative from 2001 until 2015. He is a member of the Democratic Party but warns recent Biden administration policies are adding to a supply and demand problem for U.S. energy.
‘It’s really hard to build something in this country these days,’ Matheson said. ‘We’re at a point where we are reducing supply, and public policy, in terms of permitting, doesn’t allow us to build new resources.’
Most of today’s power grid was built in the 1960s and 1970s. According to the White House, an estimated 70% of transmission lines are more than 25 years old. Billions of dollars from the recent Infrastructure law were set aside for updates to the grid and upgrades for transmission lines.
‘There is a lot of money for some resilience. Resilience is where you’re hardening the grid to allow it to survive more extreme weather events,’ Matheson said. ‘I hear a lot of conversation on Capitol Hill these days that we need to reform our environmental permitting process in this country. Congress passed the National Environmental Policy Act decades ago. They haven’t ever reformed it. It’s a mess today.’
Recent negotiations to raise the debt limit have included permitting reforms for some energy projects. The provisions include efforts to make it easier to build fossil fuel and clean energy projects. It fails to include infrastructure for transmission lines and pipelines to get production to consumers.
‘I’m excited that we may get some pipeline permitting reform in the debt ceiling negotiations,’ Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., said. ‘We’re at a point of criticality in this nation in that we have the resources to produce. We just have nowhere to put it.
The debt deal also orders a study by NERC to assess how much transfer capacity is needed to strengthen grid reliability. It’s a project that would likely take 2½ years to get to Congress. Duncan chairs the Energy, Climate and Grid Security Subcommittee. He says adding energy producers to the power grid is already a slow process.
‘These renewable energy projects are facing the same hurdles for regulation,’ Duncan said. ‘They’re realizing that they don’t have the money to pay all the fees necessary to go through this.’
To join the electric grid, generators must first go through the interconnection queue to get their projects approved. The process has created years-long wait times for wind and solar projects. Many have also faced higher costs than anticipated or the projects fail completely. Matheson says queue is a big concern for Electric Co-ops.
‘We serve 42 million people across the country, but we’re consumer owned. Every financial impact on the utility goes straight to the consumer’s electric bill,’ Matheson said. ‘When these decisions come to shut down existing resources that are reliable and replace them with lots of new resources, they’re going to cost more money. Not only are we concerned about reliability, we’re concerned about affordability as well.’
The Energy Department is also expected to publish its own long-term national transmission planning study later this year. It is expected to include potential solutions for a transition to clean energy.
‘They’re going to be a part of the electrical grid for a long time, but we shouldn’t rush to that as the sole source,’ Duncan said. ‘We need to really balance our energy matrix and make sure we have good, reliable, affordable electricity.’
Most lawmakers and experts agree that grid updates and additions are needed not just for the upcoming summer season, but well into the future.
‘I think it’s still pretty good. I think we take it for granted in this country compared to the rest of the world, that the lights come on every time you flip the switch. But we’re seeing signs that it started to fray,’ Matheson said. ‘I don’t want to sound like an alarmist that everything’s going to happen all at once, but the trend continues to move in a direction of greater risk of outages every year.’