Fossil-fueled climate events stress the grid
Climate change is fueling extreme heat, droughts, wildfires, and hurricanes, which are overtaxing America’s outdated power grid. In a May 2023 report, North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), a regulating authority that monitors the nation’s electrical infrastructure, warned that extreme temperatures, ongoing drought, and supply chain issues could strain the power grid in vast regions across the country.
More than 90% of power outages result from failures in electricity distribution systems (weather-related events that damage poles and wires). The growing rate of record-breaking climate events threaten our outdated power grid’s ability to keep the lights on.
Fossil fuels are both a root cause and exacerbating influence on these blackout events. The extraction and burning of oil, gas, and coal are the primary drivers of climate change, while outdated fossil infrastructure accompanied by wild market volatility have made these fuel sources expensive and unreliable.
The most recent National Climate Assessment warned of more frequent and longer-lasting power outages, which are slated to only get worse as climate-fueled events become more prevalent.
The good news: Renewable energy such as wind, solar, and battery storage continue to come online at a steady pace. These cheap and clean power sources are meeting increasingly larger shares of regional grid needs. And they are already “bailing out” utilities during record heat and skyrocketing power demand.
Renewables plus storage, coupled with policies and investment in modernizing the grid and building out more transmission, are key to strengthening America’s power system.
Disinformation is part of the fossil fuel industry’s playbook
Bad-faith actors have falsely claimed that renewable energy sources are to blame for past blackouts and potential future grid failures.
This disinformation is fueled largely by profit-driven private utilities, the fossil fuel industry, and their backers in politics and media. Even before the summer officially started, right-wing editorial boards and outlets began a campaign of deception foisting blame for predicted summer blackouts on “the green energy transition,” and these entities have continued pushing similar claims in response to blackouts in December 2022.
This is part of a fossil fuel industry and utility playbook to avert attention from their own failings (and often skyrocketing earnings off disasters) while attempting to delay the transition to clean energy.
Analysis from Friends of the Earth found that right-wing outlets and fossil fuel-funded interests have exploited social media to spread disinformation. This was true during the week-long blackouts in Texas following Winter Storm Uri in February 2021. While Gov. Greg Abbott and others falsely blamed “frozen wind turbines,” the blackouts were found to have resulted primarily from a failure of gas infrastructure and power plants that were not adequately weatherized. An analysis of rolling blackouts in California in 2020 determined poor planning by utilities combined with a climate change-induced extreme heat event pushed electricity demand to exceed supply.
Meanwhile, fossil fuel companies have raked in obscene profits during the height of disasters. Even though the lights went out for a week in Texas during Winter Storm Uri, pipeline operators and gas companies saw an $11 billion windfall. An executive at gas driller Comstock Resources bragged of “hitting the jackpot” as a result of the disaster.
Grid failures caused or exacerbated by fossil fuel 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:
- The Texas blackouts in February 2021, an event that killed 246 Texans and left more than 10 million people without power, 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.
- 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.
- A milder cold front in early January 2022 again caused gas production to buckle and knocked almost 12% of Texas’ power plant capacity offline (more than half from gas units).
- As Winter Storm Elliott swept across the U.S. in December 2022, Southeast utilities including the Tennessee Valley Authority and Duke Energy were forced to implement widespread blackouts after numerous fossil fueled power plants failed in the freezing weather, while in the Mid-Atlantic, PJM interconnection narrowly averted disaster after a whooping 46 gigawatts of its generating fleet (70% of which were gas-fired units) were unavailable due to equipment failures and fuel supply problems.
- The August 2020 blackouts in California, which forced more than 800,000 homes and businesses to endure rolling blackouts over the course of two days, were compounded by failures at two different gas plants.
- Extreme heat affecting both air temperature and cooling water temperatures reduces the efficiency and available capacity of power plants. This was a contributing factor in the California blackouts which led to the derating of the state’s gas fleet. 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 sickened or otherwise affected tens of thousands of local residents, exposed California’s overreliance on gas, and forced regulators to scramble to secure replacement resources.
Renewable energy is keeping the lights on
Despite spurious attempts by the fossil fuel industry and its allies to shift blame, integrating more renewable energy can boost grid resilience and wean America off fossil fuels. A 2021 Dartmouth Thayer School of Engineering study showed that incorporating renewable energy into the grid bolsters its resilience against extreme weather and heat waves. 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. And thanks to the contribution of 3.5 gigawatts of storage resources that have been added just since mid-2020, the California grid successfully avoided outages through a record-setting heatwave in September 2022.
- During the Texas blackouts in February 2021, solar was the only generation source to overperform its expected output.
- In the wake of the Texas 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. More than 9 gigawatts of new generation, mostly solar and wind, were added to the Texas grid in 2022, while an additional 10 gigawatts of new solar, wind, and battery storage projects are planned for 2023. These new resources were already instrumental in preventing blackouts when an unusual early-May heatwave combined with the failure of six gas power plants almost pushed the grid into emergency conditions.
- 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 was 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 failure of the Aliso Canyon gas storage facility, 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 the existing inequities engrained in our electric grids:
- 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.
Investing in America’s power system
The vast majority of America’s existing grid infrastructure dates to the 1960s and 1970s and is reaching the end of its lifespan. Modernizing America’s grid, including expanding our transmission system, is essential to increase its resilience against blackouts.
Current policies and the underinvestment in building large-scale backbone infrastructure have left scores of wind, solar, and battery projects in transmission queues. According to a recent report from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, there are currently 2,020 gigawatts of new generating capacity — an amount that is greater than the entire existing electric grid in the U.S. — that is stuck awaiting approval.
Developers have abandoned many projects outright due to long waits, poor planning, and unfair cost allocations saddled on renewable energy companies.
One bright light: There are 22 regional and interregional high-voltage transmission projects that are largely permitted and would greatly boost resilience. A rotating loan that was part of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will help get these projects over the finish line.
Besides building transmission, updating the existing infrastructure by bringing on more battery storage and hybrid technology (such as storage-plus-solar), in addition to expanding a wholesale power market, will help harden the grid.
Reliable, clean electricity is essential. Ensuring equitable access in the face of the increasingly severe impacts of climate change requires rethinking how we plan for resilience — and not simply doubling down on outdated power generation technologies. Investing in upgrading America’s grid to both provide resilience against increasing climate risks and to allow more clean, cheap energy from wind and solar to come online are fundamental for this transition.