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After millions of Americans went without power due to cold, heat, wildfires and hurricanes last year, we wrote here about the need to pay attention to the power grid.
This year, blackouts will probably be back
CNN’s Tyler Mauldin, a meteorologist, wrote this week about a stark warning from NERC, the regulating authority that oversees the health of the nation’s electrical infrastructure.
In a reliability assessment for the coming summer, NERC predicted that excessive temperatures and ongoing drought could cause the power grid to buckle.
The high temperatures will increase demand for electricity.
Meanwhile, drought conditions will reduce the amount of power available.
Bottom line: The US power grid does not react well to extreme temperatures, either cold or heat, but more extreme temperatures are guaranteed because of the climate crisis.
It’s going to be hot out there
Mauldin also notes that on Thursday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center “called for nearly the entire contiguous United States to experience above average temperatures this summer.”
It’s not even summer and it’s already hot. More than half the country will see temperatures at or above 90 degrees this weekend.
Where blackouts might strike
While the weather report for pretty much the whole country is for a hot summer, the potential for blackouts is focused on specific areas.
At highest risk: The Upper Midwest and mid-South along the Mississippi River.
The reasons: Old power plants are being retired there, the heat will drive up demand, and the region has a tornado-damaged transmission line, according to NERC.
Texas, the West Coast and the Southwest, all of which have experienced power issues in recent years, are also at an elevated risk.
Recall that last year, a major California hydroelectric power plant was forced offline for months because water levels fell at Lake Oroville.
Everywhere is at risk to some degree
With the climate crisis fueling wildfires, hurricanes and other more unexpected weather emergencies, any part of the country could be susceptible to power outages, as I learned from Mark Dyson at RMI for last year’s story.
“I can’t think of a single area of this country that doesn’t have a looming catastrophic risk,” he told me before rattling off scenarios.
The US energy grid, which is divided into distinct regions, is aging and in desperate need of updating – particularly as the US transitions to more renewable forms of energy, like solar and wind, which do not produce energy at consistent rates all the time.
It will take trillions in the long run
Lawmakers and policymakers recognize the problem, and they did act this year to get started on fixing it. The bipartisan infrastructure package signed into law in November pledged tens of billions of dollars to help states and electric companies move toward energy resilience.
But that’s a drop in the bucket.
It will take trillions, probably in the form of higher energy costs, to actually modernize the US grid system. One estimate cited by the National Conference of State Legislatures guessed that simply maintaining the current system would require $2 trillion by 2030. That’s also the year by which President Joe Biden has set a goal for the US to slash its greenhouse gas emissions by around 50% from 2005 levels.
It will be a difficult goal to achieve. It was hailed by California as a massive achievement when the state’s electricity was generated nearly 100% from renewable sources for a few minutes on one day in April. That’s both an achievement and an indication of how far there is to go.
There’s a mix of energy sources that gives Americans electricity, with an increasing portion coming from natural gas and renewables like solar and wind. The portion that comes from coal and nuclear power has declined, according to the US Energy Information Administration.
In the meantime, Americans need to get used to a less reliable electrical grid as the climate crisis sets in.
Deregulation didn’t help
Ed Hirs, an energy fellow at the University of Houston, blames deregulation for the state of the country’s power grid.
It’s a topic he’s written about extensively, including after the freeze of 2021 that cut off electricity to millions of Texans. Deregulated energy providers, he argued, have been more motivated by profit than reliability.
This is going to cost some money
It will take investments to fix the system of power grids in the country, Hirs told me, and neither utilities nor policymakers want to break the news to people.
“The consumer, also known as a voter, looks at this with some sort of dissociative identity disorder,” he said.
“We’re gonna have to pay for it one way or the other. It’s going to come out of your taxpayer pocket or your consumer pocket, but it’s coming out of the same pair of pants.”