The Rush to Green Could Leave Us in the Dark

Last December, PJM Interconnection, which operates the power grid for 13 eastern states including West Virginia, issued a warning of possible rolling blackouts. PJM officials said at the time that extreme cold and corresponding increased demand, along with the difficulty of some power generators to operate in frigid conditions, triggered the emergency call for conservation.

The threat passed and we went on with our holiday celebrations. Life is good when there is a reliable flow of electricity for heating our homes, washing and drying our clothes, powering our microwaves and stoves, our televisions and all our personal communication devices and, yes, even some of our vehicles.

The fact that we did not have rolling blackouts fuels our complacency about the power grid, and that is a mistake, given PJM’s recent report: “Energy Transition in PJM: Resource Retirements, Replacements and Risks.”

The document is dry and technical. For example, “The projections in this study indicate that the current pace of new entry (of power producers) would be insufficient to keep up with expected retirements (of power plants) and demand growth by 2030.”

In other words, more power plants are shutting down than power generating capacity is coming on line, which will threaten the reliability of the PJM grid.

PJM is going to lose 40 gigawatts (GW) of existing power generation by 2030 due to power plant shutdowns. That is enough electricity to supply 30 million households, and it represents 21 percent of PJM’s entire capacity. 

Most of that soon-to-be-lost power comes from coal, with some from natural gas. The PJM analysis said those shutdowns are attributable to government policies that make it uneconomical for them to operate. In addition, power companies and the private sector are demanding more energy from renewables.

But the renewables are not coming on line fast enough. Ninety-four percent of PJM’s new services will come from renewables, but “The projections in this study indicate that the current pace of new entry would be insufficient to keep up with expected retirements and demand growth by 2030.”

The stress on the PJM grid is only going to grow because of increased demand for electricity, including electric vehicles and data centers. For example, Data Center Alley in Loudoun County, Virginia, which is in the PJM footprint, has the largest concentration of data centers in the world.

America’s energy portfolio is transitioning to more renewables, but that shift is happening at, as PJM artfully phrased it, “an asymmetrical pace.” The report makes clear that the sluggish pace of the transition threatens the reliability of the grid.

This is not just a call for conservation during a cold snap or a heat wave. The PJM report is a sobering analysis of how the rush to green energy to replace traditional baseload power sources could leave us in the dark.

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