In the Face of a Winter Storm, Is Our Grid Reliable?
Yes and no. Holiday power outages revealed weaknesses with fossil-based electricity, but solar and wind power came through in the clutch.
For much of the United States, the days that fell at the tail end of 2022 were among the coldest in decades. An Arctic blast that swept from coast to coast brought subzero temperatures to most northern states and freezing or below-freezing temperatures to southern ones. The frigid cold, heavy snow, and high winds that ensued killed dozens. And as people struggled to stay warm and safe, the U.S. power grid came under severe pressure. At one point on Christmas Eve, nearly 2 million homes and businesses had no electricity.
But the most remarkable thing about these power outages may be the damages we avoided. Yes, grid operators all over the country were reporting record-breaking demand at exactly the same moment that extreme cold was causing pipelines and machinery at fossil fuel–based power plants to freeze up and shut down. And yes, many gas contracts prioritize home and business heating needs over the needs of power plants—which in this case had the effect of squeezing the gas supply even further. Still, most outages didn’t last long. Utilities gave customers plenty of advance warning and recommended concrete steps to help conserve electricity, easing the demand burden. Rolling blackouts were employed as a triage measure.
The upshot: While the system struggled, it didn’t break—at least not like it did in Texas back in 2021. When a polar vortex dipped deep into the Lone Star State in February of that year, temperatures dropped to single digits, making cities like Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio actually colder at one point than Anchorage. Amid the cold, gas valves, pipelines, and power plants failed—just at the moment that Texans needed that electricity to keep warm. More than 4.5 million homes and businesses lost power, some of them for days on end, and nearly 250 people died.
Winter is changing
The polar vortex phenomenon experienced by more temperate regions in recent years is a direct result of climate change: Melting Arctic seas lead to increases in snowfall in the northern reaches of North America and Asia, increasing temperature differentials between the regions and weakening the circular wind pattern known as the polar vortex. This allows those frigid winds to dip much farther south, temporarily bringing polar temperatures to places like Georgia and Texas. And that spells trouble for utilities that haven’t prepared for such cold.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the average electricity customer experienced more than seven hours without power in 2021, with extreme weather accounting for more than five of those hours. In this era of climate change, every season brings with it the increased likelihood of power disruptions or blackouts that come with extraordinarily high or low temperatures, hurricanes, tropical storms, wildfires, and heavy snowfalls. This reality puts the tens of millions of people in this extreme weather’s path, especially those in low-income areas and communities of color, even more at risk than they already are.
Reducing power outages
All of which leads to the question: With so many opportunities at our disposal for spotting weaknesses in the grid, are we actually learning anything about how to make it stronger?
The answer, says Christy Walsh, is yes, with a caveat or two. Walsh, a senior attorney in NRDC’s Climate & Clean Energy Program, focuses on making the grid not only stronger but cleaner. As a former senior executive at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), the government agency tasked with ensuring reliability of the nation’s grid, she’s in a unique position to determine how well or how poorly grid managers are meeting the challenges posed by climate change and other factors. The way things played out in December left her feeling guardedly optimistic.
“Finally, federal regulators and grid operators are taking the threats of extreme weather seriously and doing what they can to ensure our power system remains resilient and reliable,” Walsh says. “While the risks and the costs of failure are high, it’s worth noting that—with the exception of Texas in 2021—we’ve avoided truly catastrophic grid failures, despite these risks.” One reason she’s hopeful is that FERC appears to be following up on a report it issued in the wake of Winter Storm Uri, the storm that caused so much misery in the Lone Star State and elsewhere, and it is closely tracking the course corrections being made by operators and regulators around the country. FERC also quickly opened an inquiry into reliability issues during this latest storm in December. The path forward, Walsh says, involves “building out large-scale transmission more quickly, building and connecting clean energy resources, and expanding demand response, energy efficiency, and electric storage.” If we can do that, she predicts, “we can keep the lights on in the face of ever-worsening extreme weather.”
Clean energy to the rescue
Among the most meaningful improvements being made to the grid right now is the steady infusion of more clean energy in the generation mix. One of the reasons that the recent series of power outages wasn’t far worse is that sun and wind were both plentiful in much of the country at the same time that demand was peaking. As energy analyst Bernadette Johnson told National Public Radio in an interview after the crisis was over, this meant that plenty of wind and solar power were available to help fill in the gaps as demand for electricity skyrocketed.
That’s a perfect illustration of why we need to be adding more, and not less, clean power to the grid’s energy portfolio going forward. It necessarily means creating more transmission capability to connect all this new clean energy to the grid. We can attribute most of the past grid failures during deep freezes to the breakdown of overburdened infrastructure that generates electricity from coal and gas. “What we see over and over again is that gas and coal generators struggle to keep up in extreme weather,” Walsh says. According to the definitive report on the 2021 Texas power failures, natural gas fuel supply issues caused 87 percent of the outages. During this past December’s cold freeze, gas and coal plants had cascading, epic failures, causing blackouts in the Southeast and nearly causing them in the mid-Atlantic. And while the final analysis of how the grid weathered this latest storm has yet to come in, it’s already quite clear that wind energy, in particular, overperformed, playing a big part in averting an even larger disaster.
“No power source is perfect,” Walsh says. But fossil fuels, in addition to being demonstrably imperfect in times of crisis, have the added effect of exacerbating the very same climate change behind much of the catastrophic weather that so frequently requires us to generate extra electricity in the first place. “That’s why we need a clean, nimble, and resilient grid—one that can handle climate change without making it worse.”
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