Unprecedented Heat And Stressed Grids Make Dangerous Power Outages Increasingly Likely
The electric bill Chantel Watkins pays every month costs more than a week of groceries for her family of four.
Yet at any given moment, the power might flicker off, setting in motion a series of expensive and potentially deadly events.
Depending on how long it takes for electricity to be restored, the food might spoil in the fridge. If there’s heavy rain, like last year, the basement of her townhouse on Detroit’s East Side might flood with the electric sump pump disabled. If her partner or 11-year-old stepson have an asthma attack, especially if the power goes out during a lung-constricting heat wave, she might need to call an ambulance, since the breathing machines they use need power and don’t have batteries.
Outages are so routine in the Detroit suburb where Watkins’ parents live ― up to six times a year ― that the retirees depleted their savings buying a generator to shore up her father’s breathing machines. Detroit’s long–neglected power grid failed her most recently on a hot afternoon in May. At home with her infant son, Watkins, 31, a nonprofit worker, lost electricity for six hours. She had to frantically call her partner and her stepson to tell them to stay at work and school, lest the 90-degree air in the house trigger an attack.
“It was not even summer yet, but I told them not to come home because it was too hot. But I also have a 1-year-old, and he cannot be in a hot house,” Watkins said.
“Not having power,” she added with a huff. “It sucks.”
Millions of people across the United States may soon join Watkins in teetering on the edge between modernity and darkness.
The patchwork of power grids that kept the country’s lights on for much of the last century is dangerously strained. Extreme weather and growing electricity use are demanding more of the grid at just the moment when the supply of 24/7 power is shrinking. With heat waves already roasting broad swaths of the nation, this summer’s brutal forecasts mean rolling blackouts are more likely than at any other point in living memory ― and the risk only gets worse by the year.
In Texas this month, where ideologically guided deregulation caused rolling blackouts last year that left hundreds dead, the grid operator urged customers to cut back on power use as demand surged. In New York City, where a nuclear plant that once provided the bulk of the five boroughs’ zero-carbon power shut down last year, the local power utility sent text messages last week urging ratepayers to cut back amid a heat wave. In California, rolling blackouts have become a feature of wildfire season as the utilities prefer shutting down power lines to the legal liability of potentially having some equipment spark a blaze.
Of the country’s nine grid regions, none is more vulnerable this year than the Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO). It covers Watkins and the 42 million other people living in 15 states along the Mississippi River, from Louisiana to Michigan and beyond, into the Canadian province of Manitoba.
“We’re the greatest country in the world,” said Tony Anderson, the general manager of the Cherryland Electric Cooperative in Grawn, Michigan. “And now we’re talking about shutting people off because we don’t have the generation to serve them.”
A New Era Of Power Generation
To understand why the MISO (pronounced MY–so) is in such peril, one could look to southwest Michigan, where the Palisades Nuclear Generating Station closed in May despite a last-ditch scramble by state and federal leaders to save the plant, which was deemed safe to produce enough zero-carbon power for 800,000 homes. The closure came just two days after the North American Electric Reliability Corp., the federally backed nonprofit responsible for developing standards for keeping the lights on across the continent, released its annual report listing the MISO as the system most at risk of blackouts this summer.
Across the Upper Midwest, coal and nuclear plants have come offline faster than new generators capable of matching demand are coming online, and routine infrastructure repairs have temporarily shrunk supply even more.
The seeds of chaos were sown in the 1990s, when states began “restructuring” electricity markets to force more competition among power plant operators. Undergirding this change was the belief that pitting plants against each other in hourly battles for market share would take profit away from the power plants and hand it back to the consumer in the form of lower prices on energy bills. As a result, electricity rates went from reflecting what monopoly utilities and the elected commissioners that regulated them said was needed to cover long-term costs to the lowest price in a daily bidding war. The market shift not only failed to deliver steadily cheap electricity, it allowed short-term thinking to dominate the system, a National Bureau of Economic Research study concluded in 2015.
That year marked something of a turning point for the grid. In 2015, as new federal regulations limiting toxic mercury emissions from coal stations were poised to come into effect, plant owners were forced to decide between investing in costly equipment upgrades or shut down. Many, already nearing the end of a coal plant’s ordinary lifespan, chose to close.
Construction of new coal plants is unlikely. Though coal has stubbornly defied forecasts of its demise, the extraordinary toll its pollution takes on the climate in the long term and on surrounding communities in the short term raises doubts over whether a new plant would last long enough to earn back the initial investment. Financial pressures mounted on coal plants over the past decade as the U.S. boom in hydraulic fracturing, the drilling technique known as fracking, made natural gas cheap. The plummeting price of wind turbines, photovoltaic panels and batteries squeezed coal even tighter.
Another wave of closures even bigger than 2015 is set to crash in 2028, when a record number of coal plants will cease operation.
Nuclear plants can most easily make use of the grid infrastructure built around coal stations. But nuclear power, which can deliver a bounty of coal-quality electricity without the climate-changing emissions, faces a similar problem. The nation’s aging fleet of roughly 90 reactors has struggled to compete against gas and renewables in markets that aren’t typically designed to factor in nuclear plants’ unique dependability or the subsidies and loans making renewables and gas cheap. As with coal plants, environmentalists have fiercely protested to close nuclear stations over concerns about Chernobyl-style accidents and the lack of permanent disposal for radioactive waste that remains dangerous for millenniums.
In many places, shutdowns of coal and nuclear plants have been lauded as steps toward cleaner futures. While that may be true of coal, new, cleaner forms of generation have not kept pace with closures, and the grid’s infrastructure has not undergone the costly overhauls needed to accommodate more renewables. If that mismatch of goals results in blackouts, environmentalists’ victories against coal plants could prove Pyrrhic.
Eliminating the 40% of U.S. climate-changing emissions that come from things like fueling automobiles and heating buildings will, in most cases, require swapping internal-combustion-engine cars for electric vehicles and gas furnaces for electric heat pumps. Even with more efficient appliances and conservation measures, that shift could drive up demand for electricity by 38% by 2050, according to a National Renewable Energy Laboratory study. And that estimate isn’t factoring in the myriad other potential new sources of intense energy demand in a hotter world, such as desalination plants to turn saltwater to freshwater or direct air capture machines to suck CO₂ from the atmosphere ― to say nothing of phenomena such as Bitcoin mining.
“Demand is going up and supply is going down. That’s the problem,” said Jim Matheson, chief executive of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, a trade group representing nonprofit co-ops in 47 states. “We can’t have some aspirational policy where if we remove these plants, somehow the market will take care of this in an orderly fashion. That’s not going to happen.”
Before the mercury regulations kicked in for coal plants, Eric Baker, chief executive of Wolverine Power Supply Cooperative, said he had never seen what is known as a “max gen” event ― a moment when demand is so close to eclipsing supply on the grid that operators halt all maintenance and planned outages to generate maximum volumes of power.
“Prior to 2016, there were none. Since 2016, we’ve had 40, and last year we had a record,” said Baker, whose co-op distributes power around rural Michigan. “That’s what I see as a canary in the coal mine that says the grid is being taxed.”
It’s partly a transmission problem. High-voltage power lines are critical for moving renewable electricity from where it can be plentifully generated to where it’s needed, connecting vast solar parks in the desert or wind farms in rural fields to energy-thirsty cities and towns. But power lines are notoriously hard to build in a country where property laws tilt in favor of not-in-my-backyard landowners and where corporations bent on slowing the transition to cleaner energy wield tremendous political influence.
It’s also an issue of what kinds of generators are being built and closed. Coal and nuclear plants run continuously as long as there’s enough fuel to heat the water that spins the turbines that produce electricity. Coal-fired units typically keep about a month’s supply on site. Nuclear reactors usually need access to cold water as coolant, which can be a restriction on hot days, but can go two years without being refueled. Along with hydroelectric plants, which are limited only by droughts and regulations dictating water levels in dams, those stations are considered sources of “baseload power,” an industry term for the amount of electricity needed to meet constant, year-round demand.
Renewables such as wind and solar, by contrast, depend on the weather being gusty and sunny, and they require very large arrays of turbines and panels to produce equivalent volumes of electricity to a coal or nuclear plant. This poses a challenge for system operators, whose job is to ensure electricity supplies match the grid’s Goldilocks need for power levels that are just right.
If a field of turbines on the Great Plains is spinning hard one blustery afternoon but the operator doesn’t have enough spare room on its transmission lines to convey that electricity to a distant city’s roaring air conditioners, then it’s necessary to keep that wind farm off the grid during that time.
It’s a different story if that turbine funnels into a battery that the grid operators can tap into on demand. But batteries on that scale remain costly and scarce, particularly as growing demand for electric vehicles saps the already-limited supply of minerals and metals needed to make them.
As a result, a record 1.44 terawatts of proposed wind, solar and battery generation ― enough to power 80% of the country’s electricity needs by 2030 ― is on hold, waiting for the greenlight from grid operators so construction can begin. Most will likely never be built, but it shows a tremendous push. Compared to a decade ago, that’s a roughly 230% increase, an unprecedented clean-energy feast that the grid can’t stomach.
But what if the air is still on a scorching day, as is often ― and perhaps increasingly, as global warming weakens winds in the central U.S. ― the case? Until there are enough powerful batteries to do the trick, operators need to be able to fire up generators to avoid blackouts as air conditioners hum away. That’s where natural gas plants come in.
Over the past decade, cheap loans from Wall Street flooded into fracking companies’ coffers, rendering gas cheap and transforming the U.S. into one of the world’s top exporters of oil and liquefied natural gas. Gas-fired plants are relatively inexpensive and simple to build, and they offer clear advantages. On a day when electricity demand is peaking, it’s no easy task to rev up an idle coal generator or a nuclear reactor. A gas turbine, however, can reach full capacity in minutes ― if there’s fuel to burn.
That’s a big if. Unlike with coal or nuclear fuel, natural gas is pumped into a power plant and used instantly, not stored on site just in case. If pipelines freeze or a compressor station stops working or increased demand for heating fuel shrinks the supply of natural gas for power, then gas plants can’t produce electricity. New pipelines, like transmission lines, are difficult to build and face stiff opposition.
There’s good reason for climate activists to protest pipelines. While natural gas produces less carbon and fewer toxic air pollutants than coal, its main component, methane, traps 80 times as much heat as carbon during the first 20 years it’s circulating in the atmosphere. And gas infrastructure frequently leaks. But for coal-fired generation to keep shrinking and renewables to keep growing, gas will remain the go-to source of backup generation, at least until other options become cheap and abundant.
Blackouts’ Deadly Toll
When the Texas grid buckled amid February 2021’s Winter Storm Uri, hundreds ― far more than initially counted ― died in freezing weather, in darkness and often of chronic diseases that went untreated by overwhelmed emergency services.
Few of the 4,645 people killed in Hurricane María, which decimated Puerto Rico’s ailing power grid in 2017, died during the storm itself. Instead, most perished in the resulting 11-month blackout, the second-largest electrical outage in world history, when desperate citizens of the most powerful country on Earth lost access to medicine or were forced to drink contaminated water.
Losing air conditioning during a heat wave can be an especially brutal way to die. From what scientists understand, high temperatures quickly cause brain swelling and organ failure, particularly in people who already suffer from illnesses that weaken their bodies’ defenses. But “there’s still a lot we don’t know about heatstroke and who’s most susceptible to it… because we can’t ethically study it in humans in the laboratory,” W. Lawrence Kenney, an expert in human thermoregulation at Penn State University, previously told HuffPost.
Demands on the grid only grow as climate regulations nudge more homeowners to switch to appliances and vehicles that use electricity instead of fossil fuels ― making the ability to stay safe in freezing temperatures or drive a car to warmth contingent upon a reliable power service.
That could make the reliability of the grid in wintertime an even bigger concern, as some regions where demand peaks in summer predict reaching new cold-weather heights in the coming decades.
In a separate report examining reliability issues throughout 2021, the North American Electric Reliability Corp. ― the organization, better known as NERC, that issues the annual grid reliability reports ― warned this month that the interdependence of the electrical and natural gas system was becoming a real threat, since the steady flow of gas depends on electricity, and vice versa.
The report also recorded the first increase in the number of “unknown” or “unexplainable” errors that caused electrical disruptions across the country, up to 129 from 88 in 2020.
But the sum of extreme weather disasters, from the heat dome that settled over the Pacific Northwest last summer to the Category 4 hurricane that walloped the East Coast months later, astounded even the NERC forecasters.
“NERC’s most recent planning assessments have warned of the potential for the loss of large amounts of generating resources due to severe weather,” the most recent report said. “In what can only be described as extraordinary, 2021 saw the manifestation of each of these risks.”
So, Are Renewables The Problem?
Canned political narratives are becoming as common a feature of blackouts as tins of nonperishable foodstuffs. When California faced blackouts in recent years, critics on the right blamed renewables while those on the left highlighted the disruption as yet another sign of the need to get off fossil fuels even faster. When the Texas grid crumbled last year, the same talking points circulated.
The truth, experts say, is more complicated.
There were two issues at play in California. After one of its transformers sparked the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in the state’s history in 2019, Pacific Gas & Electric faced nearly $2 billion in fines over the blaze. Though the utility giant ultimately reached a deal to pay just $55 million, the company started switching off its power lines when the risk of fire was high ― a strategy a federal judge upheld.
In August 2020, however, millions lost power in the Golden State’s first rolling blackouts in two decades because the grid operator had failed to correctly forecast demand during a heat wave and thus did not line up enough supply, according to a 121-page report that the state’s three energy planning organizations published last year.
When freak Arctic temperatures settled over Texas in February 2021, gas pipelines froze, nuclear reactors stopped working and homes that were not designed to stay warm demanded far more power than the state’s uniquely deregulated electricity market could deliver.
California avoided a worse disaster by importing electricity via transmission lines to neighboring states. But those transmission lines are limited, and officials in Sacramento are adding pressure as the state charges ahead with plans to shutter its last nuclear power station, which, unlike some reactors in the Midwest, functions well even in high heat because it uses ocean water for cooling.
Texas could have benefited from connections to other grids. But the extreme deregulation that gave the Lone Star State cheap electricity rates in exchange for a brittle grid could have also spread blackouts even farther, to other states.
But the problem in both states was that the existing playbook for forecasting electricity demand and delivering adequate supplies no longer works in an era when weather is becoming more extreme and less predictable. And under the market system that governs most grids, there is little incentive to build the kinds of generation that work all the time.
For one full day in May, California generated virtually all of its electricity from renewables for the first time. In Texas, meanwhile, renewables were “bailing out” the beleaguered grid last week as record heat sent demand for electricity soaring.
Since solar and wind require a fast-acting fuel like natural gas for backup generation on days the weather reduces sunshine or wind, markets with a larger percentage of renewables tend to have higher prices. That’s because the grid is both paying for electricity from the generators themselves and for gas or hydro plants to wait on standby in case demand spikes.
In California, that “works great for them because they have an economy that doesn’t rely on a lot of energy,” said Jim Robb, NERC’s president and chief executive. But, compared to California or Texas, manufacturing makes up nearly twice as large a share of Michigan’s economy, National Association of Manufacturers data show.
Michigan paid an average of about 12 cents per kilowatt of electricity in 2020, according to the most recently available data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. In Missouri and Illinois, that price was less than 10 cents. California power, by contrast, cost 18 cents.
“If you impose those rates on the Midwest or the South, where we still have a lot of metal-bending industry, it’d be devastating to the economy,” Robb said.
Without adequate transmission capacity to move huge volumes of renewable electricity around the grid, replacing nuclear or coal plants with solar and wind generation affects costs and supply the way swapping tractor-trailer shipments for whatever fits in the trunk of a passenger car might increase retail store prices, said Meredith Angwin, a grid reliability expert who has long argued that losing nuclear and coal plants would raise the risk of blackouts.
“If you have a semi going down the road, that is a really inexpensive way to move a lot of goods, but on the other hand, it’s not very flexible,” Angwin said. “So when people say we don’t want semis because they’re not flexible, then what do you want? All goods to move by flexible sports cars? That’s going to be expensive.”
In theory, once more homes are equipped with solar panels and batteries, or have a battery in the form of an electric vehicle parked in the garage, grid operators could use remote technology to tap those resources, making them less reliant on big power plants. But that would require near-constant real-time monitoring of individual households’ electricity use, stoking concerns over privacy and cyberattacks. That tension is particularly acute in the Midwest, where several states have enacted rules or laws limiting the data that so-called “smart meters” can collect.
“Real-time monitoring of electricity would do essentially nothing to change behavior in rich households because electricity is a small cost compared to other life essentials,” said Mark Nelson, a Chicago-based engineer and energy consultant who advocates for more nuclear power. “But you can’t always adjust, and the people who have to adjust are the people who suffer the most from adjusting.”
Meanwhile, there are climate-friendly sources of backup generation in the works. Battery deployments in the U.S. grew by nearly 360% last year, according to a Business Council for Sustainable Energy report. But battery prices, once in precipitous decline, are leveling out and may even rise as supplies of materials, such as lithium, cobalt and copper, fail to keep pace with demand.
Hydrogen, which burns like fossil fuels but produces water rather than CO₂ as a byproduct, could offer an attractive alternative. But nearly all the hydrogen on the market today is made with coal or natural gas, while just a tiny sliver is produced with electrolysers powered by solar or wind power ― the only type of H2 that does not generate greenhouse gas pollution.
“This is something, not just in the summer of 2022, but 2023, 2024, 2025 and 2026, when more plants are scheduled to come offline.”
– Jim Matheson, National Rural Electric Cooperative Association
Another option on the horizon is the small modular reactor (SMR), a miniaturized type of nuclear reactor that proponents say can more easily rev up or down to provide power when demand peaks. But even optimistic estimates suggest the technology won’t hit the market until the 2030s, and that assumes there are no accidents or regulatory hurdles that turn public opinion against small reactors.
“In a world where you have a lot of wind and solar, which is going to be the vast majority of capacity additions we see in this country, maybe for the foreseeable future, having flexibility in the rest of the fleet is really, really important,” Robb said. “Until we have batteries, hydrogen, or SMRs, gas is the fuel that can provide that service.”
The MISO declined an interview request, but a spokesperson directed HuffPost to an emergency declaration in June that it said was aimed at “keeping the power flowing” by providing “operators access to resources that are unavailable under normal grid conditions.”
What Can Be Done?
There’s a chance there won’t be any major blackouts this summer.
“The situation is not as dire as what you get from the NERC report,” said Rob Gramlich, president of the energy consultancy Grid Strategies LLC.
Rather, he accused those who are “nervous about the new world” of overemphasizing the report’s findings in an attempt to “slow down everything” with the energy transition.
“I sort of think it’s like watching your teenagers grow up,” he said. “The first time they wear something to school that makes you cringe, you want to go back and for them to be an 11-year-old again. But you can’t do that. You have to adjust to the new reality.”
Like California, the MISO can tap neighboring grids, including the PJM Interconnection. The PJM ― which stands for Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland ― is the oldest grid system in the U.S. and has generally resisted calls to shut down functioning coal and nuclear plants. The PJM readies up to 17% more generation than its forecasts show will be needed to provide ample backup on high-demand days, said Brandon Collins, a partner at the Philadelphia-based environmental and energy law firm Ballard Spahr.
That means the PJM’s “capacity markets,” the bidding pools that pay power plants to stay open and available, make maintaining a coal-fired unit or a reactor more financially viable.
Still, Matheson from the NERC said the risk of blackouts grows worse by the year.
“This is something, not just in the summer of 2022, but 2023, 2024, 2025 and 2026, when more plants are scheduled to come offline,” the former Democratic congressman from Utah said.
“This is a very haphazard way to go about some type of transition here,” he added. “When you look at the 10,000-foot level, it’s a very uncoordinated process if you want to maintain the reliability of the grid.”
To avoid that, state and federal regulators could provide more direct aid to generating stations deemed vital to grid reliability. The Trump administration attempted to boost coal units this way but failed to enact specific policies to do so beyond diverting COVID-19 funding for small businesses to coal plant operators.
The Biden administration secured $6 billion in funding for financially distressed nuclear reactors in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, though the program is just beginning to take shape.
Illinois and New York included similar subsidies to shore up nuclear plants in their state-level decarbonization laws.
Another option might be to relax pollution and climate regulations to give plant operators an incentive to invest in maintaining coal stations that might otherwise close. The Biden White House is also pushing forward with new regulations at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to make building transmission lines easier. Similar regulatory changes, like relaxing environmental impact assessments under the National Environmental Policy Act, could make it faster and easier to build more renewables with batteries.
There’s little appetite for new coal-fired generation, which would torpedo the U.S.’s already-tenuous climate goals. New, more favorable regulations and federal support could make building new nuclear reactors easier, according to a report by the Breakthrough Institute, a pro-nuclear think tank in California. While government support did not save the first new U.S. reactors in a generation ― two units at Georgia’s Alvin W. Vogtle Electric Generating Plant ― from massive delays and cost overruns, nuclear advocates blamed bad engineering and project management. Future nuclear projects, they argue, could avoid those problems in part through having workers with actual experience building new fission reactors.
States could also roll back the markets that sprang from the 1990s-era restructuring. Re-regulating electricity in that way could incentivize utilities to reintegrate operations and build more costly plants, like nuclear reactors, if those long-term investments come with the guarantee that future electricity prices will reflect actual costs.
The U.S. could also bring parts of the electrical sector under direct government control. Such a policy has deep roots in the country. Since the 1930s, the government has played a major role in the utility sector through the federally owned Tennessee Valley Authority, which was set up under the New Deal to bring electricity to the poor, rural Southeast that the market wasn’t serving.
It may sound old-fashioned ― or like easy fodder for red baiters ― but government takeover remains a popular tool in conservative, avowedly capitalist democracies. In April, the United Kingdom announced plans to nationalize part of its electrical grid in hopes of maintaining reliability as the country’s right-wing government seeks to avoid potholes on the road to decarbonization. Earlier this month, France proposed bringing EDF, the country’s largest electrical utility, back under the center-right government’s complete ownership in a bid to alleviate its financial pressures and focus its efforts on building more nuclear reactors.
Matheson called nationalization “a bridge too far.” Robb demurred, but, referring to the Eisenhower-era federal highway buildout, said that “it seems like we almost need that kind of thinking.” Though the 2020 presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) called for bringing the country’s power grid under public ownership, there is no active push for nationalization in the U.S. beyond some left-wing nonprofit proposals and state-level legislation to allow New York state authorities to build and own more clean electric generation.
In the meantime, those with enough money are trying to shore up electricity for themselves.
Over the past five years, Huck Krieger, a construction contractor in Michigan, said the number of clients hiring him to install solar panels, batteries and wiring for electric vehicles has soared. But most have been wealthy enough to not even bother negotiating prices with him, he said. That, he noted, doesn’t bode well for the vast majority of people who can’t afford to generate their own power.
“If you don’t have a way to cool down, it becomes a real threat,” said Krieger, 33, whose company is called Island View Improvement. “Once the grid goes down, people start to die.”
Watkins, whose father struggles with severe breathing problems from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and emphysema, said regular power outages in his Detroit suburb have stressed her family emotionally and financially.
“My parents, they used a lot of retirement money to invest in a very expensive generator because my father is on oxygen,” Watkins said. “We know a lot of times when it comes to choosing who gets less, it’s usually the people who have less to start with. Not only can we barely afford the power we do have, we are now facing our power in jeopardy.”