Power grids in North America have enough supply to keep the lights on during normal weather this year, but a new report predicts some regions will be vulnerable to power outages during extreme or prolonged periods of cold weather.
“It’s a sobering assessment,” Fritz Hirst, director of legislative and regulatory affairs for the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), said last month. “A large portion of North America is at risk of insufficient supplies during the extreme winter scenarios.”
NERC is America’s grid reliability watchdog, and each year the organization issues a Winter Reliability Assessment [pdf] detailing grid preparedness for the upcoming winter in projected normal and extreme scenarios.
Although North American grids are all set to weather normal and expected winter conditions, climate change’s influence on weather patterns and the supply chain disruptions resulting from Russia’s war in Ukraine have created ‘unprecedented’ widespread risk of power outages in extreme weather scenarios, reports Utility Dive.
“The system hasn’t been stressed in this manner in the past, and probably more importantly, it hasn’t been as widespread,” stated John Moura, NERC’s director of reliability assessment and system performance analysis. Moura cited several factors making the grid’s situation riskier: “There isn’t a lot of dispatchable generation on the horizon, there aren’t miles of new interstate pipelines being developed to support our natural gas infrastructure. We don’t see robust, dual-fuel, resilient fuel systems.”
The outlook isn’t grim for all operators, says NERC’s assessment. The Pacific Northwest will see lower risk this winter because of an improved outlook for winter hydrogen power. The Southwest Power Pool (SPP) will have support from added natural gas and wind generation since last winter.
But other operators will need to face various vulnerabilities in an extreme or long cold snap. In Canada, both the Maritimes’ and Alberta’s tight winter reserve margins will be strained during periods of peak electricity demand.
The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) is also at risk of another year of blackouts from high generator outages, fuel disruption, and volatile energy demand during periods of extreme cold. Though the regulators have been working to improve grid reliability since February, 2021, when winter storm Uri crashed the grid and caused 246 deaths (another estimate put the toll as high as 702), the Lone Star State’s reserve capacity is lower this year than it was last year. Utility Dive attributes that divergence to rising population growth and energy demand, coupled with renewables’ comparatively lower performance during winter weather, though renewable energy resources performed far better during the 2021 storm than state officials initially claimed.
For the first time, ERCOT is including battery storage as a resource in its grid assessment, which may help improve performance. But experts say the grid operator may still be underselling the overall risk.
“A storm similar to Uri would again wreak havoc on the state,” tweeted energy analyst Doug Lewin, president of Stoic Energy. “It was always unrealistic to think this was going to be ‘fixed’ in a year or two, but the lack of progress on several fronts, especially the demand side, is frustrating to say the least.”
The New England region is also showing vulnerability because of its reliance on fossil fuels. According to NERC, the grid may have a hard time during extreme weather this winter because of limited gas transportation infrastructure, strained global supplies of liquefied natural gas, and oil inventories that are currently at only 40% capacity.
ISO New England, an independent non-profit Regional Transmission Organization, issued its own report that echoes NERC’s concerns that global supply chain issues and the war in Ukraine pose a heightened risk for the region and are raising power prices overall. The ISO’s report says utilities, governments, and industry are coordinating to prepare for extreme circumstances and suggests consumers may need to conserve energy during prolonged and intense cold weather.
“We do believe that we’ll be able to maintain reliability under the vast majority of circumstances and situations. But it’s a tight market,” said Dan Dolan, president of the New England Power Generators Association.
The Natural Resource Defense Council places the blame for New England’s winter vulnerability squarely on the region’s dependence on fossil fuels. It calls for greater investment in and deployment of renewable energy resources to improve reliability.