Electric shortages have become more acute; brownouts and blackouts have become common. Look deeper and it becomes clear that the nation’s power grid has not only become less reliable but also more fragile. This fact is especially troubling because it confronts the country just when Washington and several states are pushing electric cars and an increase in the use of electric appliances. In part the power problem reflects the increased use of wind and solar sources. There can be no dispute that these are less reliable than power from fossil fuels and nuclear. But this straightforward fact of life is only part of the story. Problems in America’s power grid are a lot more complicated.
Evidence of failure fills the headlines, often with considerable drama. A 2021 cold snap in Texas led to widespread blackouts and the death of 250 people. California for years and on a regular basis has asked utility customers to tolerate rolling brownouts and blackouts. Just this past Christmas season unusually cold weather across the country prompted utilities from Massachusetts and New York to the Midwest and the south to beg their customers to turn down their thermostats and delay their use of appliances. Millions lost power in North Carolina and Tennessee. Downed power lines caused some of the more severe problems, but in many cases power utilities simply had to cut off some customers to avoid worse problems. A Wall Street Journal study indicates that incidences of prolonged blackouts have doubled since 2013.
The green lobby, predictably, blames the problem on how climate change has created more severe weather. The fossil fuel industry and its allies in Congress blame the problem on the unreliability of wind and solar. No doubt there is truth on both sides, though many of these points are debatable. One point, however, is not subject to cavil — that the wind does not always blow, and the sun does not always shine. Even in the face of this reality, these problems would seem to be something for which engineers could find solutions and investments could implement. But there is a further complication because most of the country uses regional transmission organizations (RTOs) to buy and sell power.
RTOs are a relatively new entrant in American’s electric power equation. Before they were authorized by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) in 1999, huge regional utilities managed the nation’s electric grid. These companies owned all the parts of the process from the generating equipment to the fuels used to power them to the transmission lines and the wires that led into the people’s homes. Regulators priced electric power to allow these monopolies enough to maintain sufficient facilities and return a reasonable profit to their shareholders. The RTOs changed things radically.
These regional bodies buy power from anywhere they can get it at the lowest price they can get. When the wind blows and the sun shines, wind and solar charge the lowest prices, not the least because the federal government and several state governments subsidize wind and solar operations. During times when wind and solar can deliver, they crowd other sources – fossil fuel and nuclear – out of the competition. But when the wind is not so strong and cloud cover obscures the sun’s rays, the RTOs look to other fuels. The necessary scaling up, however, is not so easy. Fossil fuel and nuclear produce best and at the best price when they supply on a steady basis. What is more, the on-again-off-again nature of demand puts an added strain on the generating and transmission infrastructure.
During the last 20-some years of these arrangements, a lot of fossil fuel and nuclear has closed, not because of green preferences but because they simply could no longer operate profitably. The electric grid’s infrastructure has deteriorated under the on-again-off-again strains and because providers lack the surplus to upgrade the equipment. At the same time, because natural gas can respond more flexibly to variations in demand than can other fuels, the reliance of natural gas has grown in tandem with wind and solar preferences.
The upshot is an increasingly inadequate electric power grid, one that is less flexible, less resilient, and more prone to break downs than it once was. Worse yet, the political class in Washington and the state capital seems to have little interest in the problem even as they make plans to place still more strains on this weakening grid.