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NERC Warns of Risks to the North American Power Grid This Summer

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EIRNS—The North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) 2024 Summer Reliability Assessment, issued in May, sounds the alarm that much of North America is vulnerable to blackouts and power shortages during the high demand Summer months. High on the list for concern is Texas, the U.S. Southwest, California, the U.S. Northeast, much of the U.S. Midwest, Canada’s British Columbia, and the Baja area in northwest Mexico.

While the U.S. has added 25 GW of solar power in just the last year, it has shut down 40% of all generating capacity by eliminating over 290 coal-fired plants. Almost all coal-fired plants will be closed by 2039. The power grid is now highly dependent upon the virtually unregulated fuel of natural gas that became so abundant during the fracking boom of the late 2000s.

Much of the existing power grid is based on legacy technologies that create various vulnerabilities. For example 70% of the high-voltage, long-distance power lines are at their life expectancy of about 30 years. With aged equipment, especially during periods of peak demand, there is a concern of “cascading failures” in which one small failure in the system can trigger many failures.

In January 2022 the White House issued the Building a Better Grid Initiative, but it is mostly focused on the transition to renewable, unreliable energy supplies and many of the nation’s vulnerabilities will actually increase despite the billions that will be spent.

Of all the vulnerable regions Texas is at the top of the list. The Texas power grid is not connected to the rest of the country, so there are fewer options to deal with a crisis. During a cold snap in February 2021, some 250 people died in Texas due to widespread power outages. In May 2022, Texas lost six power plants because of an unexpectedly early heat wave. Texas has been the most aggressive state in adding solar power to the grid, yet it has guaranteed a daily crisis when power generation falls each evening, but electrical demand often rises.

New England will have 1,400 MW less power this Summer due to the fact that two natural gas plants are being retired in June, in Mystic, Massachusetts.

The Midwest has added some solar and wind generation capacity, but it will be more than offset by forced closure of coal plants and mandated reduction in fuel use at other facilities.

The Southwest is already suffering above-normal temperatures. There is more solar capacity, but power plants have been closed, hydropower has been lower, and there are limitations of power transmission lines.

Other threats to the power grid receive less attention, but are a concern. In 2022 there was a 77% increase in physical attacks on the power distribution system. A white supremacist group attacked an electrical substation that knocked out power to areas of Oregon and Washington State. That same year gunshots knocked out a substation in North Carolina. In February 2023 law enforcement arrested a group of white supremacists, who were planning to attack the power grid in the Baltimore area. In 2021 there was a successful ransomware attack on the Colonial Pipeline in the American South.

However the National Academy of Sciences says the most dangerous threat to the power grid would be an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) that could be caused by a military attack or a solar storm. In a 2015 report to the House of Representatives, the NAS estimated that an EMP could cause $2 trillion in damages and take from 4 to 10 years to repair. They warn that such damage would not take the U.S. back to the pre-internet era of the 1980s, but rather back to the pre-electric power grid era of the 1880s. [sac]

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NERC’s 2024 Summer Reliability Assessment (SRA) finds that a large part of North America remains at risk of supply shortfalls, while other areas show reduced risk due to resource additions. Expected wide-area heat events that affect generation, wind output, or transmission systems coupled with demand growth in some areas are contributing to adequacy risks for resources and transmission. All areas are assessed to have adequate supply for normal peak load due largely to a record 25 GW of additional solar capacity added since last year. However, energy risks are growing in several areas when solar, wind, and hydro output are low. Courtesy: NERC