America can’t learn the wrong lessons from Winter Storm Elliott
It has been two months since the frigid temperatures that accompanied Winter Storm Elliott caused rolling blackouts in several Southern states. Luckily, the portions of southern states that rely on the Midcontinent Independent Systems Operator (MISO) narrowly avoided power outages, but Americans living in areas served by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) experienced losses of electricity as TVA was forced to cut power to residents for the first time in its 90-year history.
Now that the dust has settled on the storm, renewable energy advocacy groups are attempting to gaslight the public about the causes of the blackouts by misrepresenting the reliability of coal and natural gas power plant generators relative to wind and solar facilities. In doing so, they are encouraging Americans to learn all the wrong lessons from the cold snap that pushed our electric grid to the brink.
Background on Blackouts
Before we dig into the specific causes of the Christmas blackouts, it helps to take a step back and explain to the reader what a blackout is, and why it happens.
This may be stating the obvious, but blackouts occur when there is not enough electricity supply on the grid to meet demand. While balancing supply and demand may seem easy in theory, in the real world, this is no easy feat.
The most important thing to know about the electricity system is that electricity is consumed at the exact second that it is generated—think about what happens when you unplug a lamp, the light goes off instantly.
Furthermore, the grid is not a storage device, like a giant bathtub that fills with electricity for later use. Instead, electrical energy is transferred from power plants to your outlet at nearly the speed of light for just-in-time delivery. It helps to think of the grid as a highway, not a parking lot. These factors make the second-by-second balancing act much more difficult than the average person probably imagines.
Causes of the Christmas Power Crunch
Returning to Winter Storm Elliott, the main reasons for the blackouts stemmed from electricity demand far exceeding forecasts for needed supply, and problems at coal plants due to frozen instrumentation and at natural gas plants due to pipeline and fuel supply issues.
On the demand side, reports from TVA, MISO, and Bloomberg indicate that electricity demand far exceeded expectations as the cold weather enveloped Southern states. In fact, TVA set new all-time high power generation records on Friday, December 23rd, 2022, and it still wasn’t enough to keep up with demand on its system, forcing the company to initiate rolling outages for two hours and fifteen minutes.
Electricity demand surpassed expectations in part because there has been a massive shift toward electric heating from 2009 to 2020, with Bloomberg reporting states like Tennessee, the largest state in terms of electricity demand administered by TVA, seeing a 20 percent increase in homes using electric, rather than natural gas heat. Demand also exceeded expectations due to a lack of historical data for similar cold snaps in December.
On the supply side, TVA experienced 6,000 MW of outages at power plants that resulted in the shortfall in supply. The Cumberland coal plant, a 2,500 MW facility owned by TVA, tripped offline due to frozen instrumentation, and natural gas flows from Appalachia to the Tennessee Valley fell by half as a result of mechanical problems at pipeline infrastructure, including at a compressor station in Ohio operated by an affiliate company of Enbridge, according to data analysis from BloombergNEF.
Unexpectedly high demand, driven in substantial part by an increase in the use of electricity for home heating, outages at Cumberland, and pipeline and compressor problems converged to cause the Christmas Blackouts. However, if we learn the wrong lessons from Winter Storm Elliott, we will spend billions of dollars without reducing our risk of blackouts during future winter storm events.
What not to do: Invest in unreliable technologies
Wind and solar advocates have correctly identified the problems with coal and natural gas plants that occurred during Elliott, but they have offered “solutions” that are expensive, unreliable, and entirely unsatisfactory. In essence, they are faulting coal and natural gas power plants for not being dispatchable enough while simultaneously promoting energy sources that are not dispatchable at all.
For example, an analysis from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) suggests that the United States must reduce its reliance on coal and natural gas to reduce the risk of grid failures. However, UCS implies wind, solar, and battery storage will better suit our energy needs moving forward when in reality, such a strategy would make America more vulnerable to winter blackouts.
Other organizations, such as RMI, have argued that building large, interregional transmission grids and more wind turbines would have helped alleviate the magnitude and duration of blackouts in the Southeast, which is plausible, and that such a strategy could be helpful in the future.
However, becoming more reliant upon interregional transfers of wind energy will not necessarily shore up the electric grid during future winter storms because wind turbines in the Upper Midwest shut down when temperature dip below -22° F to prevent the turbines from sustaining damage. In fact, when temperatures dip this low, wind turbines become net consumers of electricity as the electric heaters in the gearboxes draw power from the grid to keep the oil in the gearboxes from freezing.
This means that if America experiences an even colder winter storm, MISO’s wind fleet cannot be relied upon to perform as well as it did during Elliott. Adding more solar to the grid will also be of limited value in future winter storms.
Solar panels are relatively good at helping to meet electricity demand in hot summer months because the sun is generally shining on the hot summer days that drive demand highest for air conditioning. However, during winter cold snaps such as Elliott, peak electricity demand tends to occur on cold winter nights when the sun isn’t shining. Unfortunately, this means solar facilities are unable to help meet demand during winter peaking events.
What we need to do: Value onsite fuel supplies
Winter storms like Uri and Elliott have shown that fuel supplies for natural gas power plants can be compromised during extreme cold weather events, and these new challenges must be addressed as the grid continues to move away from electricity generators with onsite fuel supplies.
For example, in 2008, the United States generated 50 percent of its electricity from coal-fired power plants and 20 percent was generated from nuclear plants, and 22 percent came from natural gas, meaning 70 percent of the power generated that year came from power plants that can store multiple months of fuel onsite. By 2021, natural gas had become the largest source of electricity in the U.S., comprising 39 percent of electricity generation, with coal and nuclear providing 22 percent and 19 percent, respectively.
Now that many coal and nuclear power plants have already been shut down, winter storm events like Elliott are demonstrating that we need to consider requiring onsite fuel storage at natural gas plants to ensure that the grid’s resiliency is not compromised.
This concept has been practiced in New England for more than a decade, as onsite oil supplies allowed dual-fuel power plants to keep the lights on in the Massachusetts Bay Area while TVA was issuing rolling blackouts. Requiring natural gas power plants to have onsite fuel storage, whether it be oil or liquefied natural gas, would be the lowest cost, most pragmatic way to keep the lights on when the mercury dips.
The rapid electrification of the home heating sector is driving electricity demand higher than grid operators had previously anticipated. Winter Storm Elliott will be a lesson learned for future forecasting, but it is becoming abundantly clear that the U.S. will need more dispatchable power plant capacity on its system to handle increasing electricity demand, not less.
Proposals to reduce the risk of power outages by building more wind and solar facilities are opportunistic attempts to “both sides” the reliability debate and draw false equivalencies about the relative reliability of wind and solar to dispatchable energy sources like nuclear, coal, and natural gas.
In the end, shoring up the gas supply should be the number one priority and will likely consist of fixing what ails our gas delivery systems and ensuring that gas power plants have onsite fuel storage, whether that be in the form of oil in dual fuel plants or liquified natural gas tanks.
Resources are finite, so energy regulators must prioritize the solutions that will provide the highest value for the lowest cost. If we learn the wrong lessons from Elliott, then we will find ourselves in the same situation during the next winter storm event.
Isaac Orr is a policy fellow specializing in energy and environmental policy at Center of the American Experiment.