Summertime … and the risk of blackouts is high

Rolling blackouts may hit Minnesota this summer because electric companies have closed down too many reliable power plants — think coal, nuclear and natural gas — on the regional electric grid and attempted to replace them with unreliable, weather-dependent wind turbines and solar panels.

If wind generation sinks when temperatures spike — as it often does — it could be lights out.

This predicament was entirely foreseeable and preventable, but the risk of blackouts will grow in the coming years unless lawmakers, utility regulators, and electric companies like Xcel Energy — the largest power provider in Minnesota — stop prioritizing renewables at the expense of grid reliability.

The most important thing to know about the electric grid is that the supply of electricity must be in perfect balance with demand at every second of every day. If demand rises as Minnesotans flip on their air conditioners, an electric company must increase the supply of power to meet it. If companies are unable to increase generation to meet demand, grid operators are forced to cut power to consumers.

Generating more electricity is relatively easy with dispatchable power plants — plants that can be turned up or down on command, like those fueled with coal, natural gas and nuclear fuel. But so far, Xcel Energy hasn’t developed a mechanism to turn up its wind turbines, making it more challenging to provide reliable power as we become more reliant upon wind and solar to meet our energy needs.

Complicating matters further is the fact that the 15-state electric grid to which Minnesota belongs, the Midcontinent Independent Systems Operator (MISO), is a collective resource in which power plant capacity is shared with electric companies throughout the footprint. An electricity shortage in one area can result in the need to initiate rolling outages through the entire footprint.

MISO currently has a 1,200-megawatt (MW) capacity shortfall, which means we don’t have enough reliable power plant capacity online to meet our expected peak electricity demand, plus a margin of safety. For context, 1,200 MW is the amount of power plant capacity needed to power about half of the homes in Minnesota on an average hour. The shortfall could grow to 2,600 MW by 2023 and 10,900 MW by 2027.

The growing gap between regional electricity demand and our ability to reliably meet it will be exacerbated by Xcel Energy’s plans to shut down their coal plants — beginning with the 680 MW Unit 2 at the Sherburne County Generating Station next year; Unit 1 in 2026 (680 MW), and Unit 3 (876 MW) in 2030. The plan is to replace them with wind, solar, a mysterious “firm peaking” resource and electricity imports from other power providers, possibly in other states.

In our 110-pages of public testimony to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC), the Center of the American Experiment argued that adopting this strategy would be tantamount to enacting the same energy policies as California and hoping for different results.

Unfortunately, the PUC members, many of whom were appointed by Gov. Tim Walz, rubber-stamped Xcel’s proposal, and a few months later, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation issued a report stating the Upper Midwest is at a higher risk of rolling blackouts than the Golden State.

We are in a reliability hole, and the first thing we need to do is stop digging.

To this effect, Minnesota lawmakers need to take immediate, and preferably bipartisan, action to keep the lights on now by extending the lives of all of our reliable power plants, including our coal plants, until we have reliable replacements.

The second thing they must do is lift Minnesota’s unscientific ban on building new nuclear power plants. This step is essential because nuclear plants are the only source of power that can deliver reliable electricity, regardless of weather conditions, that also happen to produce zero emissions.

Minnesota’s electricity must be reliable first, affordable second, with reduced carbon dioxide emissions third on our hierarchy of energy needs. Luckily, nuclear can check all three boxes, if we let it.

The following article originally appeared in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. It was written by Isaac Orr and John Noer.

Isaac Orr is a policy fellow specializing in energy and environmental policy at the Center of the American Experiment. John Noer formerly served as an executive vice president at Northern States Power Co., which is now Xcel Energy.