This time every year, families across the country kick off the summer with time-honored traditions: kids get out of school, pools open, summer camps and road trips begin, popsicles fill up freezers, and air conditioners begin to hum. And every year, the country’s grid regulator, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), grid operators, and grid monitor, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), put out their annual summer reliability assessments, forecasting how the country’s grid and energy resources will hold up to spiked summer demand and hot summer days.
If you checked the headlines, it may look like the sky is falling. But if you check the reports themselves, you will find a much different conclusion. In a presentation on its assessment, FERC highlights: “NERC forecasts regions will have sufficient generating resources to meet expected summer demand; Resource additions outpaced retirements, with rapid growth in storage capacity; Natural gas prices are expected to be lower this summer than [last] one.”
The outlook from the nation’s largest grid operators, was equally encouraging. In the Midwest, MISO announced the results of its auction which showed adequate supplies and a note of calm. PJM, which operates in the Mid-Atlantic anticipated sufficient supply. SPP in the south-central US also released a statement anticipating sufficient resources.
So how do we get from such a steady outlook to such concerning coverage? The divide stems from one key piece of these assessments: all of these reports look at different possible weather scenarios and consistently find both the likelihood and impact of extreme heat and weather conditions increasing.
Even as new power supplies stay well-ahead of demand, the growing and intensifying effects of climate change pose a risk on our worst weather days as heat forces more air conditioners online and once-uncommon events like out-of-control wildfires and hurricanes become commonplace.
Worst-case outcomes make headlines. It’s the job of grid operators and grid monitors to predict and plan for the worst, but it’s also their job to prevent it. And that’s why these reports, and the conversation about these reports, are so important.
Grid operators are conservative by nature. When your job is to keep the lights on 24/7, the worst-case outcome looms large and affects every decision you make. But grid operators have to make a lot of decisions year-round, and the decisions they make for today affect the outlook far into the future.
The extreme weather that provokes worst-case fears is caused by climate change driven partly by pollution from dirty sources like coal and gas generators. Yet, fossil fuel companies seize on these reliability reports to throw stones at renewables and keep them from coming online and eating into their decades’ long grip on the grid. The result is that we continue to use fossil fuels to generate power while they continue to contribute to the very climate change that is threatening the reliability of the grid.
We have the ability to break this disastrous cycle by pursuing clean solutions like new transmission, more storage, efficiency, demand response, and increased renewables. But if we continue to pursue new fossil fuel projects and see them as our only solution to worst-case outcomes, these clean solutions will take longer to come online as our extreme weather problems get worse.
Forecasts and analysis affect planning for new power plants, new transmission builds, and every other facet of grid operation. Without drawing the right lessons from reliability forecasts, we won’t devise the right plans to build a reliable, clean, affordable grid that helps withstand the heat, and mitigate a future with even hotter days.
So, what are some of those lessons, and what are some of the plans we need to make?
For one, we’re doing better than last year. Even with interminably backlogged queues for new power projects (of which the overwhelming majority are renewable and storage) we’re still seeing more new projects come online and more-than-compensate for the retirement of high-polluting plants.
Other details deserve more attention. For instance, PJM gave a presentation highlighting the underperformance of fossil fuels as a leading cause for concern. Similarly, during the 2020 and 2022 heat waves in California and other parts of the West, gas generators significantly underperformed the capacity accreditation they receive from grid operators. Some of that is from because fossil generators are less efficient when it is hot out and therefore produce less energy during heat waves. But fossil generators also fail more than expected during extreme heat.
On the flip side, wind and solar resources have historically performed well during peak demand periods, meeting or exceeding the capacity accreditation they receive from grid operators.
A diverse portfolio of wind, solar, and storage resources performs even better, because one of those resources is typically available if the other is not. For example, solar output is typically high during high pressure heat dome events, when high air electricity demand can coincide with low wind output. Wind output is typically higher at night, complementing daytime solar output, while energy storage helps fill in gaps between periods of high wind and solar output. Using transmission to access geographic diversity in wind resources provides a similar diversity benefit, since if wind output is low in one region it is often high in neighboring regions.
For this summer, we will need to maximize the use of energy efficiency and rapid demand response programs to keep the lights on. In the longer term, we need to focus on getting new clean energy resources connected to the grid and building the high voltage transmission lines needed to get this power to consumers.
Without reforms to more quickly interconnect new generation and upgrade and expand our century-old transmission system, hotter heat waves and stronger storms will continue to stress critical systems with potentially devastating consequences. We need more big transmission projects to facilitate greater renewables, connect affordable clean energy from remote areas where it is produced to big cities and towns where it can be used, and connect multiple transmission regions so that extreme circumstances in one region can be mitigated by calm conditions in another.
We should not ignore the possibility of a worst-case outcome. But we can design for a best-case outcome. We need to continue to add transmission, build and connect clean energy resources, and expand demand response, energy efficiency, and electric storage so we can keep the lights on in the face of ever-worsening extreme weather.
Photo by Bob Reynolds/Shutterstock