The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A summer of blackouts? Wheezing power grid leaves states at risk.

Why the grid could buckle in large areas of the country as temperatures rise

During a hot spell this spring, energy officials in Texas urged consumers to turn their thermostats up to 78 degrees and avoid the use of large household appliances. It was one of a number of unusual warnings issued nationally amid fears of blackouts. (David J. Phillip/AP)
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The nation’s power grid is under stress like never before, with regulators warning that the kind of rolling outages that are now familiar to California and Texas could be far more widespread as hot summer weather arrives.

A large swath of the Midwest that has enjoyed stable electricity for decades is now wrestling with forecasts that it lacks the power needed to get through a heat wave. The regional grid is short the amount of energy needed to power 3.7 million homes.

New Mexico’s attorney general is preparing for “worst case scenarios” after a regional utility warned of possible blackouts. North Dakota regulators advised the state to be ready for rolling outages, Arkansas officials are preparing emergency energy conservation measures, and power companies in Arizona are already sounding alarms about next year.

Longer, more frequent outages afflict the U.S. power grid as states fail to prepare for climate change

While America’s power grid has been showing signs of distress for years, the sudden warnings have surprised even those who were sounding an alarm. That’s because extreme weather precipitated by climate change and the early retirement of fossil fuel plants has accelerated the destabilization of the grid — a fragile collection of transfer stations and transmission lines already challenged by a lack of investment.

The situation has unnerved energy experts, who caution an unstable grid could set back plans to move rapidly toward a climate-friendlier economy. The plans rely heavily on most of the nation shifting to electric vehicles and plug-in home appliances such as stoves and water heaters, which will increase demands on the power system.

“We’ve been issuing warnings about the grid for a number of years,” said Mark Denzler, chief executive of the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association. “But the swiftness with which this has happened has caught people by surprise. They didn’t think we would be having these issues for a couple of years.” In the event of outages, he said, heavy industrial users are the most likely to experience disruption, as utilities work to avoid cutting off electricity to residences in periods of extreme heat or cold.

The worries of rolling blackouts threaten to compound the stress and anxiety of the shaky economy, the enduring pandemic and energy shortages exacerbated by the war in Ukraine. And it has led to warnings in unexpected places.

Southern Illinois is among the most vulnerable places in the country heading into the summer, according to a newly published forecast by the North American Electric Reliability Corp., a regulatory authority that monitors risks to the grid.

The area, along with large parts of Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and other states linked to the regional grid, has been put on notice in the forecast that it is facing a “high risk of energy emergencies during peak summer conditions.” A major reason is that some of the coal plants that regulators assumed would keep running for another year or two are instead coming offline. Some plant operators are choosing to shut down rather than invest in upgrades for coal plants that do not fit with states’ and the federal government’s long-term goals for clean energy.

“We are seeing these retirements occur at a faster pace than expected,” said Jim Robb, chief executive of the regulatory authority. “The economics aren’t great, so coal plant operators are saying ‘uncle.’”

As demand across the Midwest is increasing, the amount of power available to the Midcontinent Independent System Operator grid that services a large swath of it has dropped, leading regulators to warn that outages could accompany extreme summer weather.

Retiring coal plants are just one of many challenges putting unprecedented stress on the nation’s electricity network.

“It’s a soup of things,” Robb said. “The grid is transforming. We are putting on a lot of new resources and learning how they behave.” That is compounded, Robb said, by prolonged stretches of extreme weather, the inability of utilities to get badly needed transmission lines built as they wrestle with land-use disputes, and difficulties delivering natural gas supplies to the power plants that are a crucial backstop to wind and solar energy when the sun is not shining and the wind is not blowing.

Some political leaders and utilities in the Midwest are assuring residents that their connections to neighboring grids can provide a backup of energy to avoid blackouts if the Midcontinent system gets overstressed. But energy experts warn those power transfers may not be available in the event of a prolonged heat wave that stretches across many states, as California learned when part of its grid became overwhelmed in the summer of 2020.

“They were counting on transfers,” Robb said. “But it was hot in Seattle, in Vancouver, in Portland. It was hot everywhere. Nobody had extra power to give.”

California has already put its residents on notice that a similar scenario could play out again this summer. State forecasts show that during peak summer periods, California will be short about the amount of electricity it takes to power 1.3 million homes.

How extreme heat is straining California’s electrical grid

Western and Southwestern states are also confronting fresh challenges with their power supply as they head into summer. Among the biggest is a drought already disrupting the hydroelectricity systems that are key to delivering reliable power to large areas of North America. In the event that extreme heat pushes up demand in the West again this summer, a hydroelectricity shortage threatens energy emergencies across the Western Interconnection grid, which serves 80 million people across 14 states and parts of Canada and Mexico. Parched rivers and reservoirs threaten to leave inadequate water flowing through the plants.

Drought is also a worry at nuclear and fossil fuel plants, where low water levels can impede the cooling process that is essential to consistent power generation.

“We are in uncharted territory with respect to water,” said Michael Wara, an energy scholar at Stanford University. “It has all kinds of implications.”

Texas, meanwhile, is still struggling to shore up an embattled power system that the state runs independently of the national grid. The state’s challenge was underscored in May — a relatively temperate month in Texas — when energy officials urged consumers to turn their thermostats up to 78 degrees and avoid the use of large household appliances during a brief period of unseasonably warm weather.

“For such a free-market, capitalist-oriented state, you have to see the irony in this,” said Ed Hirs, an energy economist at the University of Houston. “The last time I was told to turn my thermostat up to 78 degrees it was by Jimmy Carter.”

Drought in Texas threatens to inhibit the operation of steam-generated, or thermal, power plants, according to the North American Electric Reliability Corp., potentially triggering power shortages in the event of extreme heat.

“We’ve let our infrastructure decay to the point where we have these failures,” Hirs said. “Somebody has to stand up and start doing something. We have not even addressed what will happen to the grid when every two-car family switches to one plug-in Ford F150 [pickup truck] and one plug-in passenger car. The grid can’t even handle what we have now.”

Plug-in cars are the future. The grid isn’t ready.

The shift to wind and solar power is playing a role in the stability issues, but there is intense debate over whether the underlying problem is that the transition is happening too quickly or too slowly.

“Everybody has a good sense of where we want to go in terms of decarbonizing the fleet,” Midcontinent chief executive John Bear said during a press event hosted by the U.S. Energy Association. “We are moving in that direction. Unfortunately, we are moving in that direction quite quickly and I am worried about the transition.” He said the storage technologies needed to balance deployment of wind and solar energy are still in development, while at the same time the coal and gas plants that can provide more consistent power are either coming offline or not operating as reliably as they once did because their owners are reluctant to invest in upgrades.

But many other energy experts argue that getting reliable backup power in place to facilitate the transition is not a matter of waiting for new technology, but making the proper investments now.

“The problem is there is nobody in charge,” said M. Granger Morgan, a professor of engineering at Carnegie Mellon University. The national power grid, he said, is a patchwork of regional systems designed to be guided by market demand in each area. Federal regulators have limited authority over it, and many states have constrained their own power to manage energy resources as part of a deregulation push that took hold in the 1990s.

“We don’t have the national regulatory arrangements and incentives in place to implement this energy transition in a coherent and rapid-enough manner,” Granger said. Energy experts point to transmission lines as an area in which the current system is failing. They are sorely needed to bring power generated at solar and wind farms in rural locations across state lines to energy-thirsty cities. But state regulators have been slow to approve them amid protests from property owners who don’t want the power lines on their land.

The problem is high on the list of priorities at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which is working on rules intended to help clear the path for more lines to get built.

Manufacturers in Illinois have been worrying about all of these issues around the grid for some time. Now they face a more immediate challenge: making it through the summer.

“We’re supportive of a cleaner, greener future, but we need to have proper on- and off-ramps,” Denzler said.