Will the Lights Always Come On?

One of the great benefits of living in a wealthy country with lots of energy is that there is always enough electricity to keep the lights on and power everything else that needs electricity. However, the reliability of the service that we take for granted is now threatened.

Nine states experienced rolling blackouts during the severe cold snap last December when demand for electricity exceeded supply. PJM Interconnection, which operates the power grid for West Virginia and a dozen other states, warned of rolling blackouts at Christmas and called for customers to conserve.

The blackouts and advisories are no longer an aberration, and grid operators are cautioning customers of future power shortages.

The North American Electric Reliability Corporation warns that “two-thirds of North America faces reliability challenges in the event of widespread heatwaves this summer.” NERC reports that the rapid deployment of wind, solar and batteries “have made a positive impact” on energy production, but generator retirements (primarily coal) associated with extreme summer temperatures may create shortages of electricity.

Jim Matheson, CEO of National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, which represents 900 local electric cooperatives, also believes grid reliability is threatened. He said conditions will worsen if the EPA’s proposed new rules forcing coal and gas power plants to either reduce carbon emissions by 90 percent or shut down after 2035.

“This proposal will further strain America’s electric grid and undermine decades of work to reliably keep the lights on across the nation,” he said.  “And it is just the latest instance of EPA failing to prioritize reliable electricity as a fundamental expectation of American consumers.”

West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, recently called the four members of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to testify. Each commissioner agreed that grid reliability is contingent upon continuing to use coal and natural gas to generate electricity.

“I believe in an all-of-the-above approach,” said FERC Chair Willie Phillips. “Whatever resources are needed to keep our grid reliable; we have to make sure they are available.”

But the new EPA rules tilt the scales heavily in favor of renewables, while making it virtually impossible to operate coal or gas power plants, and renewables are not coming online fast enough to make up the difference. A recent report by PJM concluded 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.”

And that report came out before the EPA announced its new rules.

William Scherman, an energy lawyer and former general counsel for FERC, opined in the Wall Street Journal, “To replace the plants these new rules would close, the U.S. would need to quadruple its renewable-energy generation in ten years.” And that is just to maintain current levels, not accounting for increased demand.”

It can be argued that the EPA is just doing its job. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that carbon dioxide and other heat trapping emissions are “air pollutants” under the Clean Air Act, and so the federal government has the authority to regulate them. (Although that authority was limited by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in West Virginia vs. EPA.)

But the EPA actions do not occur in a vacuum. Hastening the already rapid decline of fossil fuel power plants will significantly reduce carbon emissions, but it will also threaten grid reliability. That tradeoff is bound to set off alarms among Americans who have come to reasonably expect that when they flip the switch, the lights will come on.




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