A few months ago, winter storm Elliot caused power outages in several southern states. Fortunately, most of Mississippi avoided power outages, but parts of northeast Mississippi that are supplied by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) suffered power losses as TVA was forced to shut off the electricity to residents for the first time in its 90-year history.
To make sure nothing like this happens again, now is the time to ask ourselves what we need to do to ensure we have a reliable network for the future. This means questioning some of the claims of the wind and solar lobby about the reliability of renewables.
Power outages occur when there is not enough electricity supply on the grid to meet demand. This is a real challenge for energy specialists, in particular because the electricity is consumed instantaneously. The grid is not a storage device, like a giant bathtub that fills up with electricity for later use.
TVA experienced power outages during winter storm Elliot because electricity demand greatly exceeded supply forecasts, and some coal and natural gas plants encountered unexpected problems forcing them to go offline.
On the demand side, TVA set new all-time high power production records on Friday, December 23, 2022, and it still wasn’t enough to meet the demand on its system, forcing the company to initiate service outages for two hours and fifteen minutes.
According to Bloomberg, electricity demand exceeded expectations in part because there was a massive shift to electric heating from 2009 to 2020. Demand also exceeded expectations due to a lack of historical data for similar cold spells in December.
On the supply side, TVA experienced 6,000 MW of outages at power plants which led to the supply shortfall. The Cumberland Coal Generating Station, a 2,500 MW facility owned by TVA, has shut down due to frozen instrumentation, and a flow of natural gas from Appalachia to the Tennessee Valley has halved due to problems mechanics with pipelines, according to BloombergNEF data analysis.
These factors converged to cause the Christmas power outages. However, if we learn the wrong lessons from winter storm Elliott, we will be spending billions of dollars without reducing our risk of outages in future winter storms.
Wind and solar energy advocates correctly identified the problems that arose with these specific coal and natural gas plants during Elliott, but they offered “solutions” that were expensive, unreliable, and utterly unsatisfactory. Essentially, they blame coal and natural gas power plants for not being sufficiently dispatchable while simultaneously promoting energy sources that are not at all dispatchable.
For example, following the storm, RMI argued that the construction of large inter-regional transmission networks and more wind turbines would have helped to mitigate the magnitude and duration of outages in the Southeast, which is plausible, but their implication that such a strategy could prevent outages in the future is erroneous.
Becoming more dependent on inter-regional wind power transfers won’t necessarily strengthen Mississippi’s power grid during future winter storms, as wind turbines in the Upper Midwest shut down when temperatures drop below -22°F to prevent turbines do not suffer damage.
This means that if we have an even colder winter storm, we cannot necessarily rely on the Upper Midwest wind fleet to perform as well as in Elliott. Adding more solar power to the Mississippi grid will also have limited value during future winter storms, as winter peak electricity demand tends to occur at night, when the sun is not shining, but temperatures are the coldest and demand for home heating is high.
Winter storms like Uri and Elliot have shown that fuel supply to natural gas-fired power plants can be compromised during extreme cold events. As our grid has moved away from coal and nuclear power plants with on-site fuel storage, we have also increased our risk of outages.
To increase grid resilience, regulators should consider requiring on-site fuel storage at natural gas plants – whether liquefied natural gas or petroleum at dual-fuel plants – to ensure that network reliability is not compromised by fuel supply interruptions. This strategy kept the lights on in New England while TVA issued continuous blackouts.
Winter Storm Elliott will be a lesson learned for future forecasting, but with the rapid electrification of the home heating industry, it’s becoming increasingly clear that Mississippi and other states will need more power plant capacity. distributed across its system to handle the growing demand for electricity, no less.
Proposals to reduce the risk of power outages by building more wind and solar installations are opportunistic attempts to “both sides” of the reliability debate and establish false equivalences about the relative reliability of wind and solar. solar versus dispatchable power sources like nuclear, coal and natural gas. .
Resources are limited, so energy regulators must prioritize solutions such as on-site fuel storage that will provide the highest value at the lowest cost. If we learn the wrong lessons from Elliott, we will find ourselves in the same situation again in the next winter storm.
Isaac Orr is a researcher specializing in energy and environmental policy at the Center of the American Experiment.
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