Do you remember the days when the United States had reliable power? When the U.S. power grid had enough excess capacity to deal with weather issues and plant outages? When electric rates were reasonable? Those days may be over due to forced electrification of heating systems and automobile sales as President Biden, Governor Newsom, and other politicians force mandates and goals at the U.S. electric grid to make it carbon-free. The recent holiday weather is an example of rolling blackouts and outages that occurred in California and the U.S. south from such policies. States hit hardest by blackouts in last week’s winter storm have significantly increased reliance on heating homes with electricity over the last decade, putting more strain on the power grid when temperatures drop. The number of households using electric heat in Tennessee, North Carolina and South Carolina increased by about 20 percent from 2009 to 2020, while the generating capacity of power plants in the region remained relativity flat and increasingly dependent on renewable energy.
On December 23 and December 24, temperatures in the U.S. south dropped to around 10 degrees and millions of people turned up their heat. Utilities were forced to institute rolling blackouts as power plants failed as equipment froze and demand overwhelmed the system. These outages exposed a challenge to grid operators which they will likely continue to confront during cold weather as utilities move to make their power supplies carbon free, and at the same time, an increasing number of homes and businesses are being compelled to use electricity instead of natural gas, oil or propane to heat their homes and factories. At such low temperatures, power disruptions can cause broken pipes as well as severe hardship for vulnerable populations.
On December 23 and December 24, Tennessee Valley Authority, a federal agency that supplies power in the region, was forced to institute rotating outages as demand soared to a winter record. The push to electrify household appliances and heating has changed consumption patterns and created regions where electricity demand now peaks in both summer and winter. In the past, electricity demand just peaked in the summer due to air conditioner use but not in the winter as more homes had burned natural gas or oil for heat rather than electricity.
The number of households using electric heat in Tennessee increased by about 22 percent from 2009 to 2020, driven in part by population growth. Over that same time period, the percent of households dependent on electric heating increased from 63 percent to 69 percent. While electric heating demand increased, Tennessee’s total power generation remained largely unchanged and its fuel mix turned away from coal and to natural gas. TVA recently decide to replace its largest generating unit that used coal with a combined cycle gas generating unit, rejecting EPA and the Interior Department’s wishes that it be replaced with renewables.
North and South Carolina
North and South Carolina were also hit by rotating blackouts as energy use overwhelmed the grid. The number of homes using electric heat increased about 20 percent from 2009 to 2020. The total overall percent of households in those states relying on electric heat also increased from 65 percent in 2009 to 70 percent in 2020. Over that same time period, the total power supplies for the two states grew at just 2 percent, with coal being displaced by natural gas and solar power.
Wind turbines and solar panels due to their intermittent nature cannot be turned up to meet increased demand, creating a problem for grid operators. During the arctic cold, nuclear and coal served as the major generators and natural gas increased, but not enough to meet the increased demand. Power generation from natural gas plants, which was increased to meet the higher demand, started falling on December 24 and dropped by more than 4.4 gigawatts, or 70 percent, from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. on December 25. During that time, natural gas supplied only 15 percent of the power in Duke’s Carolinas utility territory, roughly half of what it was supplying before the drop. Duke was forced to cut power to customers on December 24 as demand overwhelmed supply. Its neighboring utility Santee Cooper had to do the same in South Carolina.
Duke’s conservation measures highlight the fragility of the state’s power grid. Reports indicate that increased government focus on renewable energy diverted resources and focus away from shoring up the existing grid to ensure safety, security, and reliability. A study from the North American Electric Reliability Cooperation found that, if the power grid becomes dependent on solar and wind, a simple chain of cloudy days could turn the power off for thousands of homes. An extreme cold snap or increased demand like the one over the Christmas holiday would wreak havoc.
North Carolina’s Governor Cooper will not allow expansion of natural gas infrastructure. So, as more and more people move to North Carolina, rolling blackouts are expected to continue at times of high demand.
The graph below shows the output of different energy sources, along with demand, over the week of Christmas in Duke’s territory. Coal and nuclear were the primary sources of supply during that period.
Weather also affected power outages in the West. Northern California bore the brunt of an intense “atmospheric river” system that brought floods and landslides to parts of the West Coast on December 31. Downtown San Francisco nearly broke its record for the most rainfall on a single day. The National Weather Service’s downtown site recorded 5.46 inches on New Year’s Eve, 0.08 inch shy of the 1994 record in more than 170 years of record-keeping there — and 46.8 percent of the monthly rainfall. Agricultural workers in Sacramento County fixed a weakened levee system on New Year’s Day where two levees failed near the Cosumnes River in Wilton, a farming area.
On New Year’s Day, over 130,000 utilities customers were without power in California. California has been pushing renewable energy for decades and does not have the flexibility to add firm power when outages or heat waves occur. The state wants to be dependent on renewables for 50 percent of its electricity by 2025 and 100 percent by 2045. In 2021, the state was 35 percent dependent on non-hydroelectric renewable energy for its in-state generation, mostly wind and solar power, getting most of the rest of its in-state generation from natural gas, hydroelectricity, and nuclear power. California also imports enormous amounts of electricity from neighboring states when they can supply it and unfortunately for California, those states increasingly cannot. The storm also caused power outages in Nevada, with tens of thousands of people without power in Washoe County.
During the Arctic blast, electricity demand was higher than supply, resulting in rolling blackouts. President Biden and many states are pushing intermittent renewable energy (wind and solar power) on grid operators—technologies that cannot be called upon to provide firm power when most needed during cold spells and heat waves. Rolling blackouts are a consequence of climate policy that forces more unreliable power sources on the electric grid and prohibits the expansion of firm power from fossil energy technologies. Reports indicate that increased focus on renewable energy has diverted resources and focus away from shoring up the existing grid to ensure safety, security, and reliability. The fault lies with elected officials and the energy policy they push to satisfy special interest groups. Americans are paying the price, which is increasingly costly and needless.