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A Summer of Blackouts?

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A Summer of Blackouts?

Thanks to hasty closures of fossil-fuel and nuclear plants, coupled with shortfalls in renewable-energy production, Americans will face increasing power outages. May 11, 2022
Infrastructure and energy

Soaring gasoline and electricity prices may turn out to be only part of Americans’ energy woes this summer. In recent months, a host of power suppliers have issued warnings that millions of residents could endure rolling blackouts because of the growing inability of America’s evolving energy infrastructure to meet power needs. From western states like Utah, Colorado, and California to midwestern states like Illinois, energy providers have cautioned that rising prices, shortages due to the closure of some coal and nuclear plants, and the unreliability of renewables like wind and solar have reduced energy surpluses. That’s left some places with little margin for error during peak usage times in mid-summer—potentially prompting the kind of blackouts California saw last year. The warnings have spurred calls to slow down climate-change-driven efforts to retire nuclear and fossil-fuel generating plants. They have also emerged as an issue in local elections this November.

In December, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, responsible for overseeing the dependability of the continent’s electric grid, issued a study cautioning about insufficient capacity to meet the energy needs of various regions, beginning as early as this summer and extending for the next decade. The study pointed out, for instance, that the Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO), which coordinates and oversees the power grid for 15 midwestern and southern states serving more than 40 million people, has noted that the closing of plants representing significant sources of energy had accelerated a shortfall in power reserves, potentially with dire consequences.

In April, the head of MISO explained that some states it serves may see sharply higher costs and “increased risk of temporary, controlled outages to maintain system reliability” during times of high energy usage, such as summer heat waves. Soon after, Ameren Illinois, which provides electricity to 1.2 million customers in the Prairie State, warned that capacity issues could “leave parts of Illinois short of the power needed to meet customer demand during extreme temperatures this summer.” As one company executive said, “A perfect storm of events is impacting power prices and availability.” He added: “We have been sounding the warning bell that the transition to renewable generation must occur in a steady and measured fashion and that moving too fast could drive up prices.”

The cautions have sparked efforts by Republican state legislators in Illinois to slow down Governor Jay Pritzker’s plan to commit to an all-renewable state power grid by 2045. The plan has made power providers reluctant to invest in nonrenewable energy facilities and driven rates up, discouraging industrial investment, according to the head of the Illinois Manufacturing Association. The energy situation has become an issue in the state’s November gubernatorial race. “J. B. Pritzker pushed a radical total phase-out of fossil fuel power plants with massive spending and facility closures to begin over the next few years,” said Richard Irvin, the Republican mayor of Aurora, Illinois, and candidate for governor. “Now, residents in central and southern Illinois are going to pay the price for Pritzker’s misplaced priorities with the possibility of no power at all this summer.”

Part of the problem is that renewable energy remains unpredictable and often falls short of providing enough power during peak usage times. Meantime, state regulators have been slow to adjust to the changing energy landscape. In February, for instance, Public Service Company of New Mexico (PNM) warned that, if the pace of closure of fossil-fuel plants doesn’t slow, residents would see rolling blackouts over the next two summers. Among the problems facing New Mexico have been delays in the construction of four solar-power plants and the impending closure next month of the coal-fired San Juan Generating Plant. “I think it’s very clear, that over the last several years, PNM has continually expressed concerns with resource adequacy,” one official said recently. “My frustration in the process is, I’ve felt like the expertise of the utility has been ignored or rejected.” Under pressure, the state’s utility regulator agreed recently to allow part of the San Juan plant to continue operating through the summer.

Even with the additional capacity in New Mexico, however, the state and its neighbors may still confront problems this summer. The Western Electricity Coordinating Council, which oversees the power grid for the western U.S. states and two Canadian provinces, warns of systemwide shortages in multiple states this summer that will force them to import power—and will raise risk of blackouts during peak-usage periods. States like Utah and Colorado could have to deal with the equivalent of 34 days of cumulative power shortfalls, the council recently said, meaning that they must find and purchase a significant amount of energy elsewhere.

Adding to the region’s woes is that California, which has increasingly come to rely on power generated elsewhere as it has shut down fossil-fuel and nuclear generating facilities, now must deal with a decline in one of its major energy sources, hydroelectric power. A West Coast drought has drained many rivers, lakes, and reservoirs, potentially limiting hydro power output this summer and possibly provoking a repeat of the blackouts that hit the state last year. The situation has sparked debates over whether California should be slowing down its conversion to renewable energy.

Earlier this month, California governor Gavin Newsom, who helped negotiate the shutdown of the state’s last remaining nuclear power plant at Diablo Canyon, reversed course and committed to keeping the plant, which generates about 10 percent of the state’s energy, open for several more years. Newsom is up for reelection in November and has been criticized harshly for failing to respond more forcefully to the state’s energy woes. Environmentalist and independent candidate for governor Michael Shellenberger, for instance, has accused Newsom of creating a joint water and energy crisis in the state by prioritizing environmental concerns over the reliability of essential systems. Even with Diablo Canyon remaining open, California will have little margin for error this summer because of its shortfall in generating capacity.

A few years ago, the United States celebrated a kind of energy independence when it became a net energy exporter for the first time since 1952, thanks in part to the fracking boom. But closures of fossil-fuel and nuclear power plants, coupled with renewables’ inability to make up the resulting energy deficit, have left some areas of the country with little margin for error amid a world energy crisis worsened by the Ukraine war. Though the U.S. is the world’s most prosperous and technologically advanced country—it sits on nearly 275 billion barrels of untapped oil alone—millions of Americans may endure a summer of blackouts because of avoidable policy failures.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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