Electricity customers across the country face a heightened risk of power outages this summer, something regulators say reflects a worsening outlook for a grid simultaneously struggling through extreme weather conditions and a shift away from traditional energy sources.
The North American Electric Reliability Corporation, or NERC, a regulatory body overseeing grid operations across the United States and Canada, warned in its summer reliability assessment published on Wednesday that the entire West and most of the Midwest face at least an “elevated” risk of seeing insufficient electricity supply where slim reserve margins run up against high demand. For the sections of the grid stretching from Wisconsin down to the Gulf Coast, NERC deemed the risk for insufficient operating reserves to be “high” during peak demand conditions.
The areas covered by the Midcontinent Independent System Operator, or MISO, including Minnesota and Iowa, all the way down to Louisiana, face especially “high risk of energy emergencies during peak summer conditions,” according to NERC.
“Expected resources do not meet operating reserve requirements under normal peak-demand and outage scenarios,” the report said, adding that MISO’s utilities may have to shut off power to customers under extreme peak demand scenarios to keep systems up and running. MISO has 2.3% less electricity generation capacity than it did last summer.
The grid operator has been forward in its assessment of capacity shortages and their causes. In a report released in January, it placed responsibility for the reliability shortcomings on the transformation of its generating resources, including the retirements of “always-on” generating units such as coal-fired plants. It also listed older coal plants and wind and solar resources that “are not always available to provide energy during times of need” as factors.
Getting the balance right between traditional thermal sources and their retirements, especially coal, and new renewable source capacity is a big part of the challenge, said Mark Olson, NERC’s manager of reliability assessments.
“Some of the thermal plants, coal and natural gas, have been retiring, with new resources coming on in the way of wind and solar resources,” Olson said on a call with reporters. “But maintaining the right mix of resources so that you can reliably provide [power] over a range of conditions is where MISO needs to focus and ensure that they get the right mix.”
MISO faces the most challenging summer but is by no means alone. Grid operators stretching from California to Texas face constraints of their own, NERC said, implicating forecasts for extended drought and extreme heat for driving up demand and straining supplies.
Heightened wildfire risk also threatens the West, where utilities may be forced to shut off power and where smoke could limit the amount of sunlight hitting solar panels, thereby limiting output.
John Moura, NERC’s director for reliability assessment and performance analysis, said NERC has engaged in a lot more “coloring” of its risk factor map over the last decade. The reliability report’s map shows over half of the lower 48 to be colored in either orange or red, indicating elevated and high levels of capacity shortage risk respectively.
“I don’t have a real good analogy. Certainly, the contagion is spreading,” Moura said. “We see this risk widening, more resources retiring at an accelerated pace.”
Moura emphasized also that the incidence of extreme weather has especially strained operators and changed NERC’s analytical strategy.
“Where in the past we had focused on the planning reserve margin and normal weather, now we’re really looking at extreme weather, and we’re asking not do you have enough supply, but how resilient is your supply to an extreme weather event?” he said.
NERC’s report comes during a period of significant debate in Washington over how the nation should respond to high and, in some cases, record energy prices.
President Joe Biden and most of his fellow Democrats, as well as the Europeans, used the price shocks as justification for spending more on renewable energy sources to displace commodities such as oil, coal, and natural gas – not only to protect against price shocks but to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions.
At the same time, Republicans and many industry groups have supported expanding domestic fossil fuel production and generally support keeping “dispatchable” sources such as coal and gas online.
|Wind Watch relies entirely
on User Funding