Stressed couple trying to refresh from summer heatwave. This summer’s heat brought up questions of grid reliability and further emphasized the need for reliability as a priority. Credit: iStock/Paolo Cordoni
As extreme heat swept across the United States this summer, more than half of the country’s population was under excessive heat warnings or advisories in July.
Dr. John Balbus, Acting Director of the Office of Climate Change and Health Equity, an office under the U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services, notes there has been an uptick in emergency room visits related to heat, telling an ABC News affiliate in Houston, TX, “You can see the numbers going from baseline in the mid-spring of maybe 20 or 50 per 100,000 emergency room visits being related to heat, to numbers over 1,000 [per 100,000 ER visits during the heat wave].”
With extreme weather becoming more commonplace and impacting the economy and health of many Americans, our electric grid’s ability to operate under extreme circumstances is even more critical. Americans are becoming more dependent on the power grid to not only cool and heat their homes during the summer and winter, but to fuel their electric vehicles, power public transportation, and operate heavy machinery in the industrial sector.
Yet, despite increased dependence on the electric grid, many policymakers continue to push for the retirement of dispatchable and reliable generating plants that are essential to keeping the grid operating during extreme weather. Despite the rapid rise of renewables, new projects aren’t coming online fast enough or in sufficient amount to replace retiring resources, delayed by permitting and supply chain challenges. Meanwhile, dispatchable generation plants continue to retire, placing our electric grid at grave risk. Dispatchable plants are vital to the electric grid, where they provide vital baseload power and support weather-dependent sources like solar and wind that can stop producing with little notice.
Planned U.S. utility-scale electric generator retirements, 2023. Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, February 7, 2023.
The Energy Information Administration reported in February 2023 that 15.6 GW of dispatchable electric generating capacity are scheduled to retire in 2023, 98 percent of which is coal and natural gas.
However, as capacity shortfalls and extreme weather continue to put pressure on power grids across the U.S., states like California are reconsidering the retirement of dispatchable generation plants amid increased demand on the electric grid and evidence of the challenges intermittent energy sources still face. In August, Governor Newson’s administration requested that three gas plants that were set to retire this year, Ormond Beach, Long Beach, and Huntington Beach, be allowed to stay online through 2026 to ensure grid reliability.
Together, the three plants can power 2.5 million homes and can be used when load forecasts project surges in power demand. As part of a wider effort to improve reliability in the state, Newsom’s Administration also extended operations for the Diablo Canyon Nuclear power plant, noting the “potential convergence of extreme weather events” like heat, drought, and wildfires, that are expected to appear in summer 2025, according to a California state advisory committee.
And on August 31, the California Public Utilities Commission voted 5-0 to expand natural gas storage capacity at the Aliso Canyon storage field. This decision is at least a tacit admission that dispatchable resources are and will continue to be needed for years to come to ensure system reliability.
California is no stranger to extreme heat, drought, or wildfires, with each weather event impacting the state in recent years. Last summer, California’s grid operator, CAISO, issued ten straight days of flex alerts amid extreme heat, urging residents to curb power usage in order to avoid rolling blackouts. The state avoided blackouts because of natural gas, which made up 60 percent of CAISO’s fuel mix during peak demand. Between the hours of 5 and 9 p.m., just as cooling demand peaks, solar energy output normally declines. Natural gas is the only resource currently capable of coming online with sufficient speed and scale to fill that gap.
Cities in the western United States that continually face high summer temperatures must plan realistically for the future. El Paso, TX, nicknamed “The Sun City” for its 302 days of sunny weather per year, frequently sets record summer heat temperatures. El Paso Electric (EPE) customers used more energy this summer than ever before in its 120-year history, with demand peaking at 2,384 megawatts, 200 megawatts higher than the utility forecasted. EPE planners didn’t expect the grid to reach that number until 2030.
In cases of extreme demand, grid operators in El Paso can buy and import electricity from other nearby utilities connected to the Western power grid. However, the city mainly relies on four natural gas-powered plants that began operating between 1957 and 1963. The units are set to retire but will be replaced with a new, more efficient natural gas plant and an accompanying solar farm.
However, officials are finding it difficult to plan for the future. Forecasting power demand is challenging as a growing population, extreme weather, and adoption of power-hungry technologies such as electric vehicles and refrigerated air conditioning continues to spread. These challenges emphasize the importance of continuing to invest in and develop dispatchable power sources to balance out the addition of intermittent sources.
Challenges balancing the power grid aren’t exclusive to the areas in the western United States. The National Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) issued a dire warning in its 2023 Summer Reliability Assessment, cautioning that the United States was at risk of tight electric supplies should grid demand spike. The West, Midwest, Texas, Southeast and New England were all flagged for risks of shortfalls.
Planning for the power grid of the future must be based in reality. Increased reliance on our power grids in the form of electrified transportation mixed with the variability of extreme weather events and growing populations means realistic grid planning must continue to keep dispatchable, reliable power at the forefront of all policy decisions. This kind of pragmatic, reality-based grid planning is critical to not only our economy, but our health and wellbeing too.