Energy-Rich U.S. Faces Electricity Shortages

One of the many benefits of life in the United States is that there is plenty of energy, meaning you will always have all the electricity you need… except when you don’t.

The North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), the non-profit regulatory authority responsible for the grid, has released its 2022 Summer Reliability Assessment and it is ominous.

NERC says predicted above-normal temperatures and drought conditions will “contribute to high peak demands as well as potential increases in forced outages for generation and some bulk power system equipment.”  In short, rolling blackouts.

Fortunately, West Virginia and most of the eastern U.S. should be spared, but the upper Midwest and the Mississippi Delta are at “high risk,” meaning “resources are potentially insufficient to meet peak load during normal and extreme conditions.”

The rest of the country, from west of the Mississippi to the coast, are at “elevated risk,” meaning it could also see electricity shortages.  California may be in for the worst of it. State officials are warning of the possibility of blackouts over the next three months.

The potential energy shortfalls are a result of the climate change conundrum: Fossil fuel power generation—especially coal—produces greenhouse gases that trap heat in the atmosphere that contributes to planetary warming and extreme weather.  However, the retirement of fossil fuel power plants leaves the country short on reliable baseload generation.

Coal-fired power plants are closing at a rapid pace. The National Bureau of Economic Research reported that “Nearly one-third of the coal fleet retired during the 2010s and a quarter of the remaining capacity has announced plans to retire.”  For example, Energy Harbor announced recently it will shut down the coal-fired Pleasants Power Station at Willow Island, West Virginia, next year as it moves to de-carbonize its energy production.

Solar and wind power are becoming more significant producers of electricity, but gradually.  The U.S. Energy Information Administration forecasts that U.S. electricity generation from renewable energy sources will rise from 20 percent in 2021 to just 23 percent in 2023.  Storage capacity is improving, but renewables still leave gaps that must be covered by traditional baseload sources.

Most Americans love the idea of alternative energy. A Pew Research Poll earlier this year found that 69 percent are in favor of the U.S. taking steps to become carbon neutral by 2050. But two-thirds also believe “the U.S. should use a mix of fossil fuels and renewables.”

I think that means most Americans want the country to be greener, but they also want to make sure that on hot summer days their air conditioner is running, the lights are working, and they can charge their computers.

Unfortunately, if the NERC predictions are correct, there may be times in the coming months for some Americans when that won’t be possible.

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