Just-in-time power will leave us out in the cold | Columns
As the country slides into winter, the United States could very well be facing yet another energy crisis. But this one will not be at the gas pump. Instead, the North American Electric Reliability Corp. (NERC) – which oversees the reliability of the country’s power supply – warns that a prolonged cold snap could cause power outages in dozens of states this winter.
We’ve heard these warnings before – and they turned out to be frighteningly accurate. Last February, for example, a winter storm caused massive power outages in Texas. More than 4 million customers were without power for several days. At least 200 people have died.
What Texas has learned is that too much reliance on a particular source of electricity, along with inadequate standby power generation, can present serious risks. No particular power source in Texas was immune to the freezing cold and freezing conditions. But half of the state’s wind turbines froze during the storm. And the state’s natural gas system – which generates the vast majority of electricity in Texas – just wasn’t up to the job. When equipment froze, power plants ran out of fuel and available production systems simply could not keep up with demand.
This winter, history could very well repeat itself. NERC explains that Texas’ sprawling natural gas system still remains vulnerable to extreme weather challenges. In fact, NERC is concerned that harsh winter conditions could mean the state is experiencing a 37% power shortage.
These limitations are not unique to Texas, however. New England is also facing limits on its own natural gas supplies as states are reluctant to approve new pipelines. The region’s grid operator ISO New England has said supply chain issues and higher prices could put New England’s power grid in dire straits this winter. Like Texas, New England could experience forced blackouts during a deep frost.
For several years now, the American electricity grid has been hanging on to bandages. That’s because many coal and nuclear power plants that once anchored the country’s regional grids have been replaced with just-in-time power generation from natural gas power plants, solar panels and wind turbines. The secure fuel-fired power plants that once served as a backbone of grid reliability in winter are disappearing, but adequate and resilient alternatives are not in place.
As America’s energy transition progresses, it’s evident that shutting down power plants and dismantling a proven energy system is much easier than replacing it with something reliable and secure.
It shouldn’t take another disaster like the one Texas experienced to realize that just-in-time fuel delivery and weather-dependent electricity generation requires an insurance system. It means providing a safety net to provide the security and reliability Americans need. For the foreseeable future, providing that safety net should mean building America’s renewable energy future on the shoulders of existing coal and nuclear power capacity, not in its place.
Terry Jarrett is an attorney and energy consultant who has served on the boards of both the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners and the Missouri Public Service Commission.