Following the annual occurrence of extreme weather events in some states in recent years, many Americans are rightly afraid of power cuts over the unprecedented heat we’re experiencing during the summer months. Following years of neglect, the aging U.S. energy infrastructure has proven incapable of withstanding the effects of some of the extreme weather events we are seeing more frequently. The grid failed in the face of the Texan winter storm of 2021 and has repeatedly faltered in the intense heat of Californian summers. So, what can we expect to happen this year—and beyond?
Get Ready for Summer Shortages
Energy experts believe that consumers are right to be concerned about potential blackouts in the summer months and should be prepared. Several parts of the U.S., as well as some areas in Canada, could experience energy deficits this summer, affecting a population of around 165 million people. An outlook published in May by the North American Electric Reliability Corp (NERC), an organization that sets reliability standards for North American electric grids, stated that the U.S. West, Midwest, Texas, Southeast, and New England, along with Ontario in Canada are at an elevated risk of experiencing “insufficient operating reserves in above-normal conditions”.
The region could experience a shortfall in its energy supply if temperatures rise as high as has been seen in recent years. Power delivery relies on regional energy transfers to meet demand at peak hours or when solar output is low. And if wind energy is lower than expected, this could add to the shortages. The NERC outlook stated: “Wildfire risks to the transmission network, which often accompany these wide-area heat events, can limit electricity transfers and result in localized load shedding.”
New Renewable Power May Not be Enough
Even though Texas added 4GW of new solar power to its grid over the last year, this power is only enough to ensure the state’s power in typical summer weather conditions. If Texas experiences above-average temperatures and low winds it could lead to shortages. A shift in reliance away from coal to renewable energy sources could affect the stable provision of power in other states if temperatures rise higher than normal, as has been a common occurrence in recent years.
NERC published the outlook to warn energy providers and the government about the potential risks of extreme weather events with the current state of U.S. energy infrastructure. The group has been more forthright with its warnings in recent years following previous failures, to ensure they do not happen again. For example, in 2020, California experienced wide-scale blackouts due to heat waves and wildfires. Similarly, Texas was left without power during a severe winter storm just half a year later.
U.S. Infrastructure Challenges
NERC suggested that the Biden Administration must consider the impact its climate policies could have on the U.S. electric grid. While a reduction in fossil fuel use, due to the closure of coal plants, a shortage of oil and gas, and the decarbonization of several industries, is helping the U.S. to accelerate its green transition, much of its energy infrastructure is poorly prepared for an influx of renewable energy.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), developers plan to add 54.5GW of new utility-scale electric-generating capacity to the U.S. power grid in 2023. But this power can only be generated when the sun is shining, demonstrating the need for a significant increase in the U.S. battery storage capacity, as well as updating the energy infrastructure across the country to manage the varying supplies of power from green energy projects.
One of the issues that has been seen alongside the rise in renewable energy operations is a problem with solar plant inverters. These convert DC to AC power, and solar plants in California and Texas have experienced outages when there is a problem on another part of the grid due to failures in this technology. Faulty solar inverters can amplify minor grid problems, leading to widespread power cuts. In December, NERC said that fixing the glitches would require a software update that was still in the study phase.
And while California is far better prepared for the hot summer this year, thanks, in part, to more abundant hydropower from winter storms, a long heatwave could lead the state to have to import more energy from other states. And this could be an issue if the Environmental Protection Agency restricts energy generation from coal plants this summer.
The Need to Prepare
With the Biden Administration’s climate policies, the U.S. is well into a green transition. The country is installing new renewable energy at a rapid rate and is looking to develop its battery storage capacity and make huge improvements to its energy infrastructure – under the $1 trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Act.
However, in the short term, when aging U.S. energy infrastructure is coupled with extreme weather events, a reduction in fossil fuel production and use, and a rise in renewable energy projects with an unstable rate of power delivery, this could lead to severe shortages across several states in the summer months, an issue to which the Biden Administration must rapidly respond.