The New York Times almost figured it out. In “Why the U.S. Electric Grid Isn’t Ready for the Energy Transition,” The Times explores a litany of challenges to making the transition to a renewable-dominated electricity system. Yet, in reporting the story, The Times is silent on the most inconvenient truth: despite acknowledging that the grid isn’t ready for the energy transition, and widespread recognition that replacement capacity has not yet been built, the Biden administration is aggressively working to accelerate existing plant retirements. It doesn’t take a grid expert to know what happens when an electricity system that is already teetering on the edge loses significant sources of power generation without the requisite replacement capacity turned on to fill the gap.
Getting to the Biden administration’s goal of a largely renewable, emissions-free grid by 2035 would require more than doubling national transmission capacity in a decade. With transmission additions slowing, rather than speeding up, a colony on Mars first seems increasingly more likely.
The hurdles to siting, permitting and building interstate transmission, both technical and political, are enormous with no breakthrough in sight. Siting, permitting and connecting renewable generation to the grid isn’t proving much easier.
According to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), high-voltage electric transmission line additions totaled just 552 miles in the first 11 months of 2022, less than half the previous year. It’s estimated the U.S. needs to add up to 10,000 miles a year of high-voltage transmission to enable the Biden administration’s goals. And the Clean Power Association recently found that the current pace of wind and solar installations would provide just 30% of what is required to reach a net-zero power grid by 2035.
Yet, while there is growing recognition that the energy transition is going to be just a bit more challenging than the Green New Dealers – and now the Biden administration – have promised their supporters, that hard truth isn’t causing a reevaluation of the administration’s regulatory blitz targeting the coal and natural gas generating fleets. That’s where The Times silence is loudest. If the grid isn’t ready – if the buildout isn’t happening as needed – shouldn’t we better value the essential, dispatchable capacity we still have?
There’s no code to crack nor mystery to solve. Grid reliability experts keep telling anyone who will listen to slow down dispatchable retirements. As the nation’s top reliability regulator, Jim Robb, the president and CEO of the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), testified last week, “we must manage the pace of the transformation in an orderly way, which is currently not happening.” Asked if the generating capacity EPA’s regulatory blitz is forcing off the grid can be replaced with renewables and enabling infrastructure without incurring reliability impacts, he said, “Not in the timeframe we’re looking at. No.”
And just yesterday, the four FERC commissioners testified again in front of Congress with grid reliability center stage. One congressman, unwilling to heed the reliability warnings, went so far as to accuse some of the commissioners of fearmongering about a resource adequacy crisis.
Commissioner Mark Christie, visibly exasperated, replied (you can watch it here), “We just heard an accusation about fearmongering with those of us expressing concerns about loss of dispatchable resources. I don’t think the head of NERC is fearmongering when he repeatedly says that this is a coming danger. I don’t think the head of PJM is fearmongering when he has said we’re losing dispatchable resources at a rate we cannot sustain. I don’t think the head of MISO is fearmongering when he says we’re losing dispatchable resources at a rate we can’t sustain. I don’t think it’s fearmongering when the head of New York ISO last week said the same thing.”
Christie wasn’t done, adding, “I think we need to listen to the engineers, not the lobbyists… All the experts are saying – who know how to operate a system, the people who actually know how to operate a system – are saying this is a huge and coming problem and I think we better be listening to them.”
And that’s the rub. The people who have control of the nation’s energy policy – who are dictating the speed of the transition and the speed at which critically important resources are being pushed off the grid – aren’t listening.
There is an immensely reasonable and accessible middle ground within reach if the Biden administration could put pride aside, embrace pragmatism and grasp it: stop forcing essential dispatchable capacity off the grid before you have reliable replacements and their enabling infrastructure built and operating. The system and the capacity we have today is the foundation we need to build upon, not something to cast aside. The continued failure to heed the warnings of the nation’s reliability experts – to in fact do just the opposite – is an extraordinarily dangerous blunder.
- On June 14, 2023