(Bloomberg) – First they beat California, then Texas. Power outages are now threatening the entire western United States as nearly a dozen states start the summer with insufficient electricity.
From New Mexico to Washington, the power grids are burdened by years of forces – some from climate change, others from the fight against it. If a heatwave hits the entire region at once, the rolling outages that darkened Southern California and Silicon Valley last August were previews, and not leeches.
“It’s really the same case in different parts of the West,” said Elliot Mainzer, chairman of the board of the California independent system operator, which operates most of the state’s network. “There is a competition for scarce resources that we have not seen for some time.”
The specter of blackouts highlights a paradox in the shift to clean energy: extreme weather triggered by climate change exposes cracks in society’s departure from fossil fuels, even if that shift is meant to stem worst global warming. States that shut down coal and gas-fired power plants simply aren’t replacing them quickly enough to keep up with the uncertainties of an unstable climate, and the region’s existing energy infrastructure is extremely vulnerable to forest fires (which threaten transmission lines) and drought (which is once down) abundant hydropower resources) and heat waves (which destroy demand).
On Wednesday, California’s grid managers warned that while they are better positioned than they were last summer, the risk of blackouts in extreme heat remains a clear possibility. Forest fires that start after a dry winter can increase the risk if they threaten transmission lines.
“We are facing another very dangerous year of fire,” said US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack during a briefing on Thursday. “We see a higher risk and an earlier risk.”
For many, the 2020 California power crisis was the first indication of how serious the regional blackout had become. While the blackouts highlighted the state’s reliance on solar energy – a resource that dwindles in the evenings as demand increases – California’s reliance on imported electricity was an equally significant problem. Utilities routinely get their power supplies from outside the state and get power over high voltage transmission lines to where it is needed. But last summer, neighboring states that were coping with the same heat wave as California struggled to keep their own lights on, and imports were hard to come by.
This year this dynamic is taking place on a larger scale. All over the West, states have become dependent on importing electricity from one another. This works well in temperate weather when the electricity demand is relatively low. But it’s a problem when a widespread heat wave covers the entire region. The Western Electricity Coordinating Council, which oversees power grids in the western United States and Canada, estimates that without imports, Nevada, Utah, and Colorado could be without electricity for hundreds of hours, or the equivalent of 34 days, this year. Arizona and New Mexico could be short for enough hours for a total of 17 days, according to a report by the organization that examined worst-case scenarios to help states develop plans to mitigate potential outages.
“It’s not necessarily a problem in California or Phoenix anymore,” said Jordan White, vice president of strategic engagement for the group known as the WECC. “Everyone chases the same number of megawatts.”
While power outages are not a guarantee in any region, dealers are already relying on supply bottlenecks and rising electricity prices throughout the west. At the heavily traded Palo Verde hub in Arizona, prices have nearly quadrupled since the outages last summer, while the Mid-Columbia hub in the Pacific Northwest has tripled.
“We are already seeing record prices in the west, some of which are due to a fear factor that is being priced in,” said JP McMahon, a Wood Mackenzie marketing partner. “Last year was a wake-up call.”
The reasons for the deficit are twofold: Climate change makes it difficult to forecast electricity demand, while the switch to clean energy is putting a strain on electricity supplies.
Where utilities and grid managers used to rely on predictable consumption patterns from season to season – more air conditioning in August, less in October – they now expect record-breaking summers and historic winter storms that cause large, unexpected increases in demand.
“It’s getting harder and harder to take out the crystal ball to know for sure how hot it will get,” said White.
At the same time, older coal and gas plants that can deliver power around the clock are being displaced by climate change regulations and their own dwindling profitability. In the west, electricity generation from such plants fell by 6% from 2010 to 2018, according to the WECC. While wind and solar capacity in the region has more than tripled, the production of these resources varies by the hour, making them more difficult to rely on in an unexpected demand crisis. Massive batteries can help make up the difference, but their installation is only just beginning.
It’s a global phenomenon. Sweden is preparing for blackouts and curbing electricity exports this summer after the nuclear blackouts left the country with insufficient spare capacity to accommodate large fluctuations in demand. In China, even a surplus of coal-fired power plants could not stop the lights during a severe cold explosion last winter.
At this point in time, no sub-region in the WECC supply area is generating enough electricity to meet its own needs during periods of high demand. They all depend on imports to avoid failures.
After the California crisis, utilities signed contracts for more backup power supplies, trying to make sure they weren’t relying on the same suppliers as everyone else. Some companies, including Southern California’s Imperial Irrigation District, are working to curb their reliance on imports. It is not clear, however, that all utilities in the areas of highest risk plan a different course of action.
If not bad, the situation is close. Temperatures in the west are expected to be above average in summer, with the worst heat hitting the southwest. Drought has affected more than 84% of the land in the 11 western states.
After the failures last summer, California is one of the best positioned in the summer. The state is plugging around 1,500 megawatts of batteries into the power grid, has postponed the shutdown of several aging gas facilities, and raised the price cap on electricity trading to incentivize imports when external supplies are required and available.
Even if imports are readily available for those who need them, there is no guarantee that transmission lines can transport these electrons to where they are needed. Extreme weather can turn off the high-voltage lines that sew the western states together, and forest fires are notorious for turning off transmission lines. Although it received little attention at the time, a large transmission line in the Pacific Northwest that was damaged by a storm last spring had limited flow into California during the summer energy crisis.
Energy consultant Mike Florio, who previously sat on the California network operator’s board of directors, said other states could learn from the West’s dilemma. You should keep a variety of resources as you decarbonize, learn how to balance the daily rhythm of sun and wind, and not move too fast to shut down old gas-burning plants that can provide electricity in an emergency.
“We forget that we still have a lot to learn about how to operate such a system,” said Florio. “We probably want to at least keep our existing gas capacity in reserve. It can be used less, but something that has already been built is cheap insurance. “