By TERRY JARRETT
First it was California. Then Texas. Now it’s much of the nation. America’s electric grid — and its reliable supply of power — are in trouble.
It once seemed unthinkable but we’re approaching a time when blackouts could become a regular occurrence in the United States. According to the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) — which oversees the reliability of the U.S. power grid — we’re just a few years away from a tipping point.
How did we get here?
The United States has rapidly lost many of its sturdiest coal and nuclear power plants. Regulatory pressure and market failures have meant that the retirement of these plants has eliminated a large chunk of the generating capacity that once anchored America’s power grid. These losses have now exposed cracks in grid reliability, but additions of wind and solar power are struggling to fill them. There’s a real mismatch between what intermittent wind and solar power can provide and what they’re trying to replace.
Even as the total amount of generating potential across regional grids increases, the actual power available during periods of peak demand has been falling. That’s because renewable power systems perform at the mercy of the weather. And bitterly cold, cloudy, and windless days are a recipe for power shortfalls.
There’s a domino effect here, too. When one area of the country runs short of power, local grid operators typically race to import electricity from other states. However, regions that were once home to plenty of fuel security and reliability are finding themselves stretched thin trying to supply neighboring states.
That’s exactly what happened in Tennessee this Christmas — when the Tennessee Valley Authority expected to draw power from Mid-Atlantic states in the PJM Interconnection. However, PJM was already working hard just to maintain its own power during frigid conditions.
The nation’s power grid is undoubtedly evolving. But how we manage that change is the critical question. Reliability regulators and grid operators are begging for policy that doesn’t short-change the need for a bridge to the future, and recognizes the importance of the generating capacity we currently have. However, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is steering in a very different direction.
With apparently no regard for grid reliability, EPA is charging ahead with a regulatory onslaught aimed at the U.S. coal fleet — which continues to provide 20% of the nation’s power. These plants are particularly important during peak demand — and often come to the rescue when other sources of power aren’t available.
EPA is stacking six rules together designed to accelerate coal plant retirements. The cost of this compliance will make it all but impossible for utilities to keep these plants running. Such regulatory onslaught — and the rapid plant closures that will follow — is precisely the opposite of what reliability experts and regulators recommend.
Congress and the states must push back on EPA’s misguided agenda. There’s a responsible way to reach our energy future. That begins with listening to the folks charged with ensuring that lights and heat come on when we need them. Let’s build upon the foundation we have, not scrap it before we know it can be reliably replaced.
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.