In the punishing heat wave that has struck the Pacific Northwest, about 17,000 electricity customers were without power in Washington state on Monday evening. Nearly 20,000 more were in blackouts in Idaho, Oregon, California and Nevada. Those aren’t devastating numbers, but they are a reminder that the electric grid in America is frayed and always operating close to the edge.
The high temperatures come just four months after Texas power was poleaxed by the February freeze, and only two weeks after the Texas grid wobbled again in its own heat wave. A year ago, California experienced failures on a wide scale.
A compromise reached in the Senate would pump billions of dollars into upgrading the nation’s electricity system, if it becomes law, but the need is immense. And at the same time the Biden administration is pushing for electric cars, trucks and buses, and a widespread conversion to electric heating, all while slashing the emissions of greenhouse gases.
The nation’s already strained power grid is either at a turning point or poised to dash all those clean-power visions as it crumbles under the new stresses being placed on it.
“The grid has never been as important as it is now, and in a year it will be more important,” said Dennis Kuhn, senior manager for integrated field construction design for Avangrid, which operates renewable generation plants in 22 states and utilities in New York and New England.
Blackouts in Texas and California, with prices skittering dizzily up and down, are evidence that the system needs attention. On June 21, 100,000 customers in Michigan lost power after thunderstorms swept the state. And now the Northwest is trying to fend off the heat.
“We need to jam on the accelerator here,” Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said at a panel discussion earlier this spring. “We’ve got to make sure the capacity is there on the grid.”
The American grid features stressed and often barely adequate equipment on the local level, and a region-by-region governing structure that in pursuit of market savings has become so complex that it obscures the full picture. But perhaps the central issue is chronic congestion on the transmission lines that bring power from where it’s made to where it’s wanted.
In the wake of February’s debacle in Texas, when a deep freeze knocked out power for days, Gov. Greg Abbott (R) signed reform legislation on June 8 and declared, “Everything that needed to be done was done to fix the power grid in Texas.”
But in truth, no action by any government body could completely prepare the system anywhere in the country in time for this summer’s heat.
And it took only a week after Abbott’s declaration for Texans to find out that their grid hadn’t been fixed after all. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) warned that there wasn’t enough juice to run everyone’s air conditioner at full blast, and sent out appeals to conserve power and turn up thermostats.
Because of smart thermostats sold by Google, Amazon and Honeywell, a number of customers ranging from San Antonio to Houston to Dallas discovered that the temperature in their homes could be set remotely, by the utilities or by companies contracting with the utilities. Not everyone was thrilled by this, as TV station KHOU reported, although all had at some point signed up for the plans, wittingly or not.
It was a harbinger of what is to come.
At least until long-distance transmission lines are enhanced, utilities facing a greater load will have to find ways to manage increased demand. This can be done through an incentive: cheaper electricity at off-peak hours, already a reality for many. Or, as everything in the home gets connected to the Internet, utilities can reach right in and govern electricity use themselves, as happened in Texas this month.
The Biden administration is counting on solar and wind generators to replace fossil-fuel-burning power plants. But they require a considerable amount of real estate, and the right weather, and as a result they’re typically located far from the cities they would serve. This is why the congestion of transmission lines that stems from inadequate capacity to meet demand is looming as an ever bigger problem.
Texas suffers from acute congestion around Odessa, in the west where the renewable generators are. Overall, ERCOT says congestion costs the state about $1 billion a year. New York state has limited transmission lines leading from upstate on down. But congested lines don’t have to be long to be an obstacle: One of the most problematic links in the Mid-Atlantic region is a transmission line from the Peach Bottom nuclear plant in Pennsylvania to a substation in nearby Baltimore County, Md.
In northern Vermont, officials have put a moratorium on new solar and wind projects, because the transmission lines can’t carry any more electricity. And when a transmission line that crosses the Mississippi was upgraded in 2019, the effect was to move the congestion from Iowa to Illinois.
A consequence of congestion is that wind and solar equipment is sometimes unable to operate because there is no room on the lines to carry their electricity. (This is called “curtailment” in energy lingo, and it also occurs when demand falters.) In New York state last year, 62 gigawatt-hours of wind power was curtailed; it was a small but not insignificant fraction of total wind production.
A larger problem is that wind, solar and other projects can wait for years before they get the green light to connect to transmission lines. Developers have to demonstrate, among other things, that the cost to upgrade those lines to carry their output is justifiable. A new study of five regions by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory found that fewer than a quarter of all proposed projects actually make it to commercial operation because of transmission hurdles. The rest are withdrawn.
Currently, the waiting list includes proposed renewable power plants capable of turning out 680 gigawatts, “backed up for a grid that doesn’t exist yet,” Granholm told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on June 15. Given that transmission companies are careful not to take on more than they are sure they can handle, she said, “we have to absorb some of that risk in order to get the level of build-out that is necessary for our needs.”
But even then, it can take seven to 10 years for a new transmission line to be planned, permitted and built.
One hot afternoon this month, the utility Con Edison reported 70 outages affecting 954 customers in New York City and neighboring Westchester County. Most were weather-related, generally involving overheated transformers. It was a typical summer day, and nothing significant for a utility that serves 3.4 million customers.
“We’d like to make it a perfect system — it’s not perfect,” said Patrick McHugh, vice president for engineering and planning. “But the cost to make it perfect is not in anyone’s interest.”
Yet McHugh knows that the demands on his company will grow. “The grid has lots of capacity for about nine months out of the year, right?” he said. For now, the emphasis is on surviving the hot summer days, and using the rest of the year for maintenance. But in the future, if heating goes electric, that will make winter a peak season, too. “Which would make it very difficult to maintain the system.”
A 2018 study of one New England city by researchers at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst found that nearly a fifth of distribution transformers — the type usually mounted on poles — were heavily overloaded. McHugh said that ConEd sees the need to build out capacity for both transformers and neighborhood substations. Avangrid has embarked on a similar program, Kuhn said, with a $142 million “resiliency” program that will feature new transformers with more than 10 times the capacity of current ones.
With the exception of the Southeastern states and the Pacific Northwest, much of the country has pursued a market-based approach, with different companies producing, transmitting and distributing power. Market signals are designed to promote efficiency, cut costs and demonstrate needs.
Although the Texas market went haywire in the February freeze, the approach has strong defenders. “The performance of the generation fleet today is remarkably superior,” said Richard Dewey, chief executive of the New York Independent System Operator. He said market economics had saved New Yorkers more than $10 billion over the years.
Now, with the state aiming to have 70 percent renewable energy by 2030, he said, “we can develop market signals that promote that clean energy benefit.”
Yet critics argue that even with the reams of data operators produce and rely on, they still don’t always have a clear idea of what is going on in their systems. And outsiders are bewildered. A recent report by Wilkinson Barker Knauer, a law firm specializing in energy matters, called the market setup “cumbersome, opaque, and ever-changing.”
In February, Texas operators unwittingly cut off electricity to the natural gas facilities they needed to fuel their power plants. In June, the heat emergency there came about because much more generation capacity was out of service than was expected, said Warren Lasher, ERCOT’s senior director for system planning.
“It is not clear why we are seeing so many unplanned outages,” he said. “We are deeply concerned about the issues. We will do a thorough analysis.”
A similar emergency seemed to be developing in California at the same time, but operators discovered that more power plants were on line than they had expected.
The widespread blackouts in California last summer and in Texas in February showed the shortcomings of the country’s piecemeal system, and of its operators’ analytical resources, said Shuli Goodman, executive director of a Linux Foundation project called LF Energy.
“They don’t have the insight they need,” she said. “And they’re pretending it’s not a problem. We seem to be okay with the logjam. We seem to be okay with these cataclysmic events.”