Almost two-thirds of North America is at risk of electricity shortfalls this summer during periods of extreme demand, officials at the North American Electric Reliability Corporation said May 17, a finding that highlights the growing scope of risks in times of widespread heat.
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"Going back at least five years, NERC's reliability assessments have noted a steady deterioration in the risk profile of the grid," John Moura, director of reliability assessment at NERC, said during a press webinar to discuss NERC's 2023 Summer Reliability Assessment.
In years past, risks started to emerge in California and Texas, but today much of North America is in an elevated risk posture, Moura said. The risks are being driven by conventional generation retirements, increased demand due to electrification and an increase in the threat of widespread heat, he said.
This year's summer assessment found no high-risk areas, which are regions that could face power shortfalls even under normal peak conditions. Last year, NERC identified Midcontinent Independent System Operator as a high-risk area, and in 2021, California was a high-risk area.
But more widespread risks pose their own unique threat, Moura said. "In the past ... we've been accustomed to counting on our neighbors with hefty margins for support," he said. "But a wide-area heat event can substantially hamper that ability," he said.
Regions at risk
In the US West, there is abundant energy for meeting peak demand, but the region faces challenges during wide-area heat events and during the evening peak as solar output diminishes, Mark Olson, manager of reliability assessments at NERC, said during the webinar. The portion of the Western Electricity Coordinating Council region from the Canadian border down to Mexico is at an elevated risk, according to NERC.
Southwest Power Pool and MISO will be susceptible to risk because dispatchable generation is insufficient to meet high demand if there is low wind output, Olson said. "Wind energy is really the key to meeting summer peak demand under normal and more extreme conditions," he said regarding those regions.
In Ontario, nuclear plant outages have reduced available capacity this summer, resulting in limited reserves to manage unplanned generator outages and above-normal peak demand, Olson said.
In the central part of the SERC region, formerly known as the Southeast Electric Reliability Council, power supplies will be tighter this summer due to higher forecasted demand, Olson said. "The area is also replacing some of the generation retirements with new firm imports, and that creates some risk," he said.
New England will have less capacity this summer due to retirements and less firm imports, Olson said. "That's a risk because if you have a wide-area heat event, there can be less availability of non-firm supplies to help out the New England area when demand is very high over the full region," he said.
In the Electric Reliability Council of Texas there is additional generation, but demand is also increasing robustly, Olson said. There may not be enough dispatchable generation in periods of high demand and low wind or solar output, according to a presentation discussed during the webinar.
NERC made a number of recommendations to reduce risks this summer. Transmission operators in risk areas should review their plans for resolving supply shortfalls, the presentation said. Operators and load serving entities should develop and coordinate procedures for demand-reduction appeals, NERC said. Owners of solar plants should take actions to ensure they can ride through normal grid faults without tripping offline, Olson said. And state regulators and generators should prepare for managing emergency requests for waivers of environmental rules, the presentation said.
Some industry groups argued that the summer assessment shows the need to avoid policies that speed the retirement of conventional resources.
"Coal is more than five times as dependable as wind and more than twice as dependable as solar when electricity demand is greatest," Michelle Bloodworth, the president and CEO of America's Power, said in a statement. Yet public policy and Environmental Protection Agency rules are forcing the closures of coal plants, she said.
Jim Matheson, the CEO of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, also raised concern that reliability problems will be compounded by EPA rules like the May 11 proposal to require fossil fuel plants to adopt carbon capture or green hydrogen technologies. The NERC assessment is "an especially dire warning," that the public will increasingly face the risk of blackouts during extreme weather, Matheson said. "It's vital that policymakers work to prioritize reliability in every energy policy discussion," he said.