Energy expert sounds alarm about US power grid: ‘It’s not designed to withstand climate change impacts’

All of this suggests that more power outages will occur, not only this summer but also in the years to come.

Central US power operators, in their summer readiness report, have estimated “company resources are insufficient to cover the forecast peak summer.” The assessment takes into account historical weather and the latest NOAA views projecting more extreme weather this summer.
But energy experts tell CNN that some power grid operators don’t consider how the climate crisis is changing our weather—including more frequent extreme events—and that becomes a problem if the goal is to build a reliable power grid.

“The reality is that electricity systems are old and a lot of infrastructure was built before we started thinking about climate change,” said Romany Webb, researcher at Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law. “It’s not designed to withstand the effects of climate change.”

Webb says many power grid operators use historical weather to make investment decisions, rather than more dire climate projections, simply because they want to avoid the possible financial loss of investing in what may have happened versus what has already happened. He said it was the wrong approach and it left the network vulnerable.

“We’ve seen the reluctance of many utilities to incorporate climate change into their planning processes because they say the science around climate change is too uncertain,” Webb said. “The reality is we know climate change is happening, we know its impact in terms of more severe heat waves, hurricanes, droughts, and we know that it’s all affecting the electrical system so ignoring those impacts will only make the problem worse.”

The initial heatwave took six power plants offline in Texas earlier this month. Residents are asked to limit their use of electricity, keep the thermostat at 78 degrees or higher and avoid using large appliances at busy times. The Texas Electrical Reliability Council, or ERCOT, in its seasonal reliability report, said the state’s power grid was prepared for summer and had “adequate” power for “normal” summer conditions, based on average weather from 2006 to 2020.
But NOAA’s recent summer forecast forecast is above average for every area of ​​the country.

“We continue to design and site facilities based on historical weather patterns that we know in times of climate change are not a good proxy for future conditions,” Webb told CNN.

When asked whether the agency created a blind spot for itself by not taking extreme weather predictions into account, an ERCOT spokesperson told CNN that the report “used a scenario approach to describe a variety of resource adequacy outcomes based on extreme system conditions, including multiple extreme weather scenarios.” “

The North American Electric Reliability Corporation, or NERC—the regulatory authority that oversees the health of the nation’s electrical infrastructure—has less optimistic projections.

In a recent seasonal reliability report, NERC placed Texas at “high risk” for a power outage this summer. He also reported that while most countries will have adequate electricity this summer, some markets are at risk of an energy emergency.

The California network operator in its summer reliability report also bases its readiness analysis on “the last 20 years of historical weather data.” The report also notes the assessment “does not fully reflect the load and supply uncertainty caused by a more extreme climate.”

Adding to the supply and demand problem for the US electricity grid is drought: NERC told CNN there has been a 2% loss of reliable hydropower from the country’s electricity-generating dams. In addition, many coal-fired power plants are retiring quickly — while almost everything from toothbrushes to cars is now electrified. Energy experts say adding more renewable energy to the mix would have the dual effect of reducing climate change that causes greenhouse gas emissions but also increasing the country’s electricity supply.

Plan B

One Chicago neighborhood is already making plans on how to keep the lights, air conditioning and heating on when the larger grid fails.

In the Bronzeville neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, solar panels fill the roof of a public housing complex. A short drive away, the giant battery stores energy from solar panels as well as natural gas generators, creating microgrids. Illinois-based energy company Commonwealth Edison is working with community members to make environmental energy self-sustaining.

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“Without electricity, we are talking about a potentially life-threatening situation, so this microgrid provides a backup to be able to provide power even when [main] the network isn’t there,” said Paul Pabst, an engineer for Commonwealth Edison.

The project is awaiting approval but once operational, the micro-network can connect and share power with the main network. In the event of a blackout, it can disconnect and operate independently, harnessing stored battery energy to power homes, police stations and hospitals in the area for four hours.

Yami Newell is a Bronzeville resident and energy advocate. He had seen the cascading effects of an unreliable power grid in Chicago, a place no stranger to weather-related blackouts from both extreme cold and extreme heat. Loss of power in a heat wave can create a dangerous health situation, and for families on a steady income, losing all the food in their refrigerator can be financially devastating.

“An energy crisis could become a public health crisis,” Newell told CNN. “This could be a food crisis.”

As communities look for innovative ways to build more resilient networks, Bronzeville is one possible blueprint. Until states build more resilient power grids, climate change will force energy companies to continue to take emergency action, such as asking people to limit electricity use or forced rotating blackouts to manage the grid when supply can’t keep up with demand.

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