Wind turbines and power transmission lines at a wind farm near Highway 12 in Rio Vista, California, Tuesday, March 30, 2021.
David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images
America’s electric grid is being pushed to breaking point, and California, parts of the Midwest and parts of the south-central United States are at “high risk”[ads1]; of energy shortages, says the nonprofit organization in charge of managing and evaluating the grid.
“High risk” regions, marked in red on the map, could see shortfalls at “normal peak conditions,” according to the 54th annual assessment by the North American Electric Reliability Corporation released Thursday.
The reasons for the deficiencies vary.
In the Midwestern states and Ontario, more power generation is being withdrawn than is being added to the grid, NERC’s Mark Olson told reporters Thursday. Projected energy shortfalls have been projected in that region since 2018, Olson said.
In California, the risk is due to a “variable resource mix” and “demand variability,” Olson said. This means that there is a lot of renewable energy in the state, and its production is not coordinated with the times when people need the most energy. NERC predicts that demand may fall below supply for 10 hours in the peak summer months of 2024.
Much of the rest of the Midwest and the rest of the western part of the United States is at “elevated risk” (yellow on the map), which means that shortages can occur under extreme conditions, such as during severe weather or hot periods where everyone is running air conditioners. In New England, the heightened risk comes in the winter when people use generators that rely on natural gas.
“Natural gas capacity may be insufficient for generators, leading to the use of reserve fuel, stored liquid fuel, and there is a risk of being able to maintain adequate fuel storage during prolonged events,” Olson said.
Southwest Norway can also suffer when demand is high and wind power production is low in the region.
“We live in extraordinary times from an electric industry perspective,” John Moura, director of reliability assessment at NERC, said Thursday.
Growing awareness of climate change is pushing utilities to phase out fossil fuel-based energy sources that generate carbon emissions. Renewable energies such as wind and solar do not contribute to climate change, but have a period where they do not generate energy (when the sky is dark or the wind is quiet).
Renewable energy also does not necessarily map where the demand is, unlike fossil fuels, which can be transported and burned close to where they are consumed. That means more transmission lines are needed, and building them can take from seven to 15 years, says Moura.
Another area of concern, according to NERC, is the increased power demand of cryptocurrency mining and the need to plan for energy use there.
Then there is the weather. It is difficult to link particular extreme weather events to climate change, but it is generally true that a warmer world is a wetter one, according to NASA climate scientists.
“Year after year, we’ve seen extreme weather that has led to increased reliability. And so when we look at events in recent years, it’s clear that the bulk power system is more affected by extreme weather than it ever has been,” Moura told reporters on the media call .
These factors put an increased load on the grid, and NERC representatives encourage grid operators to be conservative in planning.
“Managing the pace of our generational retirement and the changes in our resource mix to ensure we have enough energy and essential services is an absolute necessity,” Moura told reporters on the call. “We have to work with the whole ecosystem to make sure we manage that base and to be very clear that we don’t retire the generation prematurely – it’s done in an orderly way and especially in areas that are right on the edge.”
For its annual long-term electricity security assessment, NERC looks at the coming decade, but the energy and capacity risk assessment looks at the next five years, from 2023 to 2027. There are too many moving parts and uncertainties for a risk assessment beyond the next five years to be worthwhile, according to NERC.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission certified NERC to measure and enforce safety standards for the US energy grid in 2006. NERC is subject to oversight by FERC, which is the federal government agency responsible for regulating interstate electricity transmission.