Think the rest of the U.S. will avoid electricity shortages of the kind that have led to rolling blackouts recently in California? Don’t bet on it.
Not enough baseload power from fossil fuel and nuclear plants and an increasing reliance on intermittent renewable energy sources such as wind and solar across the country are likely to keep power failures in the national spotlight for years to come.
Even before the California crisis, repairing chronic defects in electricity markets from the West Coast to the Midwest, and New England was already seen as a priority. Now it is an absolute necessity, and it’s high time.
The trouble is that the U.S. electricity system is experiencing a period of wrenching disruption and sustained stress — the product of too many power plants shutting down and not enough new generating capacity being brought online to replace them. Every day brings news of new coal plant retirements. Some nuclear plants are barely hanging on. From a reliability standpoint, there’s nothing structurally wrong with these plants. There’s something seriously wrong with the markets in which they are operating, which do not value baseload capacity from natural gas, coal, and nuclear plants that can be dispatched when needed.
In California, wind and solar power were unrealistically expected to fill the supply gap, with natural gas plants as a backup. But that didn’t happen as planned. With the state and much of the West sweltering in an oppressive heat wave, the demand for electricity in California hit new records, more than 47,000 megawatts, according to the California Independent System Operator.Recommended For YouUnder Trump, Republicans are now the party of prison reform
The California Independent System Operator is responsible for keeping the lights on and the air conditioners humming while avoiding any blackouts. But as the electricity system approached its generating capacity, there wasn’t enough backup power from natural gas nor imported power from neighboring states such as Arizona and Nevada that are also seeing record demand. To prevent the system’s collapse from spreading throughout the West, the Independent System Operator ordered utilities to institute blackouts. The loss of power for an hour or two might seem like an inconvenience, but not for elderly people confined to their homes or those with medicines requiring refrigeration. Blackouts could become a growing problem in the months and years ahead, especially when no one is quite sure if the lights and air conditioning will stay on.
California’s predicament was hardly unforeseen, nor is it exceptional. In Texas, during a heat wave in the summer of 2018, wholesale prices on Texas’s electricity market spiked from their normal range of $20 to $30 per megawatt-hour to their market cap of $9,000. Wind turbines supply nearly 20% of Texas’s power. The Texas system came close to entering emergency operations as its reserve margin of generating capacity evaporated under sweltering heat, and the state’s wind turbines stopped turning in the still air.
The shift away from baseload power generated from natural gas, coal, and nuclear, happening across the country, is undermining the reliability and resiliency of the nation’s electricity system. It’s putting dependable electric power at risk because solar or wind energy can’t be clicked up or down. Whenever solar and wind power have come to provide a sizable share of the power (in California, it’s now more than 30%), reliability challenges have followed. But in the green fantasy world, environmentalists somehow think that a system built on solar panels and windmills could magically supply 80% of the demand for electricity.