Majority of U.S. Power Grid at Risk of Failure This Summer, Report Warns

The U.S. West and Midwest could be facing grid failure this summer, according to a Summer Reliability Assessment by the North American Electric Reliability Corporation. 

In its seasonal reliability assessment for the summer of 2022, the nonprofit corporation, which sets regulatory standards for U.S. grid operators, warned that the Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO) is at “high” risk of its energy reserves falling short of its normal energy needs. MISO provides energy transmission for the Midwest, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana. Texas and the western U.S., meanwhile, are at “elevated risk” of seeing grid shortages should its power needs peak beyond normal volumes, according to the report. 

Risk of grid failure in U.S.

Screengrab: NERC

The latter eventuality is most likely to be the result of drought conditions that Texas and the Western and Southern U.S. have grappled with for years, the report says. As for the West, hydro-powered generators rely upon dwindling water reserves, without which the region must instead import electricity to meet demand on hot evenings. 

“In the event of wide-area extreme heat event, all U.S. assessment areas in the Western Interconnection are at risk of energy emergencies,” the report says definitively, leading to “forced outages.”

In Texas and the South, extreme heat threatens to increase peak demand, forcing outages and other emergency procedures for load shedding, or cutting supply to reduce strain on the grid. This is what happened last summer, when the grid operator asked Texans to reduce their usage amid a June heat wave, just months after the February, 2021 freeze forced widespread blackouts. In hot conditions, grid shortages introduce a number of heat-related health risks to vulnerable communities, beyond the day-to-day discomfort of being asked to raise one’s thermostat to 78 degrees fahrenheit, as Texans were asked to do. 

In the Midwest, things are a bit more dire, and perhaps more certain: MISO is gearing up to have 2.3 percent less generation capacity this summer than it had last year, while its projections for peak demand have gone up by 1.7 percent in kind. Crucially, at the start of the summer, the operator is missing a key transmission line connecting the northern and southern segments of its coverage area to damage caused by a tornado last December.

That means the Midwest grid operator will likely need to shed load or import extra electricity to meet normal demand this summer—a fact that MISO itself has expressed awareness of, per an April report from Utility Dive

NERC’s summer projections also point to ongoing strain on the supply chain, a result of both COVID-19 labor gaps and Russia’s war in Ukraine, to explain likely forthcoming grid strain. A number of ongoing energy generation and transmission projects have been slowed by a lack of product availability, shipping delays and labor shortages, the report says. That’s on top of the cybersecurity threats that Russia and other actors could pose to electricity and critical infrastructure in the U.S., and the forthcoming late-summer wildfire season, which could affect transmission lines in regions where flames break out.

In tandem, these factors create a mosaic of risk for grid operators, whom the report authors encourage to prepare for strain. 

“It’s a sobering report,” John Moura, NERC director of reliability assessment and performance analysis told Utility Dive. “It’s clear the risks are spreading … and the pace of our grid transformation is a bit out of sync with the underlying realities and the physics of the system.” 

Vice

Audrey Carleton

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