HomeSocietyPower utilities warn of new challenges in the U.S. this summer

Power utilities warn of new challenges in the U.S. this summer

Last summer, California experienced several rolling blackouts. At one point, high power demand during an August heatwave left 800,000 California homes and businesses without electricity. Six months later, Texas went dark during a bitter cold snap as demand surged past available generating supply. Unfortunately, it now appears that these electricity reliability crises are a preview of more trouble to come.  

Take California. The state’s grid operators have just warned that California may run into power shortages again this summer. Those concerns are echoed by the Western Electricity Coordinating Council (WECC), which fears that several western states could run short on electricity during a summer heatwave. According to the WECC, states such as Nevada, Utah, and Colorado frequently rely on imports of electricity from surrounding states. If a heatwave were to hit the entire region, there simply wouldn’t be enough surplus electricity to go around. That could leave western states running short by potentially hundreds of hours of available electricity.

Commodity traders are already betting on such limited summer supplies. In fact, the Palo Verde hub in Arizona has seen electricity prices nearly quadruple since last summer. And prices have tripled in the Pacific Northwest’s Mid-Columbia hub.

There are a number of reasons why states are experiencing a serious power crunch. But the common factor is increased reliance on intermittent, renewable sources of electricity along with reduced capacity from traditional, on-demand power generation, including coal, natural gas, and nuclear plants. 

In California last summer, heavy reliance on solar power left the state short of electricity after sunset. Solar generation plummeted in the evening, but air conditioners still kept running at full-tilt to battle triple-digit temperatures. This follows a pattern that’s increasingly common in California—too much power supply during midday and not enough in the evening. It’s a problem that will only grow worse since the state continues to mandate additional renewable power generation. As one California Assemblyman remarked at a hearing on the blackouts, “today we have a grid that is increasingly expensive, unreliable and unavailable when the people of California need it the most.”

For Texas, the challenge has been the state’s shift away from coal plants in favor of wind turbines and natural gas. This past winter’s brutal conditions wreaked havoc on natural gas infrastructure. But the bitter cold snap also demonstrated the vulnerability that comes with increased reliance on wind generation that’s unavailable at the worst possible time. Roughly half of Texas’s wind turbines froze in icy Arctic conditions, taking at least 12,000 megawatts of power offline.

Neighboring Oklahoma experienced the same challenges as Texas—but fared much better. Oklahoma’s governor reported that the state’s wind and solar production “dropped to almost zero” during the deep freeze, and “gas wells froze and compressor stations went offline.” But Oklahoma was able to fall back on coal-fired power plants to provide 40 percent of the state’s electricity generation.

The lesson here is that there is no perfect power generating system. For example, America’s use of natural gas has jumped dramatically in recent years. But utilities are still constrained by the limits of gas pipelines and infrastructure spread across hundreds of miles. Similarly, wind and solar power are becoming more affordable, but will always face inherent weather limitations.

The answer is flexibility. States must maintain a well-rounded energy portfolio that can adjust to the endless variables of winter storms and summer heat.

The United States is just embarking on a large-scale energy transition. But it’s already becoming clear that, to preserve a reliable and affordable supply of power, states must put more emphasis on a balanced electricity mix. 

What’s needed is a no-regrets grid. That means embracing and properly valuing the reliability provided by traditional sources of energy such as coal and nuclear power—even as the nation adds increased amounts of wind and solar. Anything less will leave states like Texas and California more vulnerable to power disruption—and needlessly put lives at risk.

  • Terry Jarrett is an energy attorney and consultant who has served on both the board of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners and the Missouri Public Service Commission. He contributes regularly to

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