Climate change is fueling extreme impacts and challenging our grid
Climate change is already fueling extreme heat, droughts, wildfires, and hurricanes. It is making rare heat waves 3 to 5°F warmer over most of the United States, and they will continue to get hotter into the future. With more than half the West currently experiencing “extreme” or (even worse) “exceptional” drought, conditions are primed for a horrible 2021 wildfire season.
The toll these climate events are imposing on our power grid is unfortunate but not surprising. The 2018 National Climate Assessment warned of more frequent and longer-lasting power outages, which are slated to only get worse as climate impacts become more prevalent. Data from the Energy Information Association reflects this changing reality as the average power outage for U.S. customers has been increasing due to major weather events.
More than 90% of power outages result from failures in electricity distribution systems (weather-related events that damage poles and wires). Yet, major blackouts in California in August 2020 and Texas in February 2021, as well as unusually close calls in both of those states in June 2021, demonstrate ways that climate impacts are overwhelming our power grid’s ability to maintain adequacy of supply.
Bad-faith actors have falsely claimed these events were caused by renewable energy. A final analysis determined the root cause of the 2020 rolling blackouts in California was poor planning and climate change. Blackouts in Texas in February 2021 resulted primarily from a failure of gas infrastructure and power plants that were not adequately weatherized — despite having endured similar problems in a 2011 cold snap and growing evidence that climate change is driving an increase in polar vortex disruptions that result in severe winter weather in mid-latitude regions.
Summer 2021 may be especially challenging
Power grids throughout the West largely passed their first big tests during the summer season of 2021. As historic and record-breaking heat blanketed the western U.S. for most of June, Avista Corp. was the only utility forced to implement rolling blackouts (which were limited to a few thousand customers at a time in Spokane, Washington).
Yet, these events are demonstrating how climate impacts are taxing the grid in new and profound ways. The June heat waves were remarkable for how early they occurred in the summer season and for having delivered the most severe heat in the history of the Pacific Northwest. The coming months could be especially challenging for grid managers throughout much of the U.S. because:
- California and the Pacific Northwest are more hydropower reliant than any other states in the nation. This year’s megadrought conditions will greatly decrease output from California dams and will reduce surplus hydro exports from the Northwest;
- The megadrought has also created exceptionally dangerous conditions for the 2021 wildfire season; and
- The North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), which is charged with ensuring the reliability of the bulk power system, issued their 2021 Summer Reliability Report in May stating that many regions of the U.S. are facing elevated risk of energy emergencies.
Finally, any risk of rolling blackouts, an absolute last resort measure, should not be confused with the drastic step that some utilities in particularly fire-prone locations have taken to proactively shut down their equipment at times when weather conditions increase the risk of wildfires — so-called Public Safety Power Shutoffs. Catastrophic wildfires sparked by power lines in Northern California, Southern California, Oregon, and Washington state all illustrate the imperative, and utilities across the country are continuing to grapple with their own potential wildfire risks in a world beset with increasingly severe heat and wildfire risks driven by climate change. This season, Pacific Gas & Electric has already said its equipment may have been responsible for sparking the Dixie Fire.
Not as reliable as presumed: grid failures caused or exacerbated by gas, coal and other traditional resources
Our electricity grid has historically relied on legacy generators like gas and coal power plants. These technologies are not immune to failure, as evidenced by numerous recent examples:
- California’s grid survived the June 2021 heatwave despite the breakdown of several ‘old clunker’ gas-fired plants and another that was offline after a turbine exploded.
- In June 2021, the Texas grid nearly failed because at least 8 gigawatts of thermal resources, including several large gas plants went offline unexpectedly.
- The Texas blackouts in February 2021 resulted after plant outages far exceeded the local grid operator’s expectations. An estimated 45 gigawatts, more than half of Texas’s winter generating capacity, were offline due to the storm. Outages at gas plants were the primary culprit for the electricity system failure. It was not the first time. Extreme cold events caused major grid issues for eastern and southern states during the January 2014 polar vortex and for Texas and Southwestern states in February 2011.
- The August 2020 blackouts in California were compounded by failures at two different gas plants.
- Extreme heat erodes the generating potential of conventional power plants. Both high ambient air temperatures and elevated cooling water temperatures reduce the efficiency and available capacity of power plants. This was demonstrated by the derating of California’s gas fleet capacity that also contributed to the August 2020 blackouts, and there are numerous examples of drought or elevated water temperatures forcing plants to shut down.
- The failure of the Aliso Canyon gas storage field in October 2015 threatened the reliability of the Southern California grid. The event exposed California’s overreliance on gas and forced regulators to scramble to secure replacement resources.
Clean resources are keeping the lights on
Despite attempts by fossil fuel boosters to shift blame, integrating more renewable energy can boost grid resilience. And clean resources are already delivering to help enhance reliability:
- Supply on the California grid is already benefiting from the increasing contribution of new solar, battery storage, and successful demand response resources. Following the 2020 blackouts, California’s energy agencies reaffirmed their commitment to meeting the state’s clean energy goals and in June 2021 the state’s energy regulators voted to add another 11.5 gigawatts of clean power and battery storage to the system to help respond to extreme weather.
- During the Texas blackouts in February 2021, solar was the only generation source to overperform its expected output. In the wake of the blackouts, investors doubled down on pouring money into clean energy projects — in total, wind, solar and battery-storage projects in the state are worth up to $25 billion.
- Worsening wildfires and heat waves in California have led to a boom in solar-and-storage — from individuals, communities, and larger projects. Nationwide, the number of households with solar panels and battery storage is expected to double by the end of 2021, as homeowners seek to take control of their own power in the face of increasing threats of blackouts.
- Following the loss of Aliso Canyon, California utilities were able to avoid dire blackout predictions by quickly embracing new renewable energy, energy storage, and demand response programs — and its success proved that battery storage technology could live up to high expectations.
Power outages during extreme weather events expose and amplify existing inequities so engrained they are built into our electric grid system:
- During the Texas freeze in February 2021, low-income communities and communities of color suffered disproportionately and faced a longer road to recovery. Experts say Texas utilities prioritized keeping power on in areas near critical infrastructure such as hospitals and supermarkets, which tend to be located in whiter, wealthier neighborhoods.
- In California, pre-emptive power shut-offs to prevent wildfires also disproportionately impact low-income and communities of color, and experts say that more data is needed to fully understand the impact on already vulnerable populations.
- More policies and programs are needed to protect vulnerable communities and residents that can’t afford power back-up.
Reliable electricity is essential. Ensuring equitable access to it for all in the face of increasingly severe impacts of climate change requires rethinking how we plan for resilience — and not simply doubling down on outmoded power generation technologies.