Opinion: Rapid Transition of Power Grid Puts Reliability at Risk

Last December, Winter Storm Elliott caused rolling blackouts in Kentucky as electricity generation from renewables and natural gas faltered.

This August, a heatwave drove up electricity demand across the central U.S., putting power grids in nineteen states under severe strain.

Even more recently, last week, Texas’ grid operator announced an emergency for the first time since 2021, forcing the state to take immediate action to keep the lights on.

These events — the most recent in a long list of blackouts and close calls — point to the undeniable fact that America’s power grid is at risk of failing.

According to U.S. Energy Information Administration data, in less than ten years, the average number of hours of electrical outages experienced by electricity customers nearly has doubled.

Power grids are inherently complex, but the math behind this phenomenon is simple: When reliable, baseload power plants are replaced with intermittent resources that are less dependable, the risk of blackouts and outages increases.

Kentucky is no exception to this rule.

Recent events have demonstrated just how important maintaining a healthy grid and energy mix is to the well-being of Kentuckians.

Some advocates of a rapid energy transition have erroneously claimed that all power sources struggled, equally during Elliott, and that renewables performed just as reliably as conventional resources. Electric utility data tells a different story.

In the 13-state PJM region, which includes the eastern half of Kentucky, coal alone provided nearly half of the additional electricity that was needed during the storm. Wind provided just 10% and solar less than 1%.

More broadly, the grid operators and experts at PJM and in MISO, which includes much of the rest of Kentucky, have assigned a “capacity value” to indicate how dependable each source is when electricity demand peaks like it did during Winter Storm Elliott. The greater the capacity value, the more reliable the electricity source is when electricity demand peaks.

These grid operators have proposed a capacity value for coal between 86% and 92%.

Other sources such as wind and solar are proposed to be valued much lower with a capacity value that ranges from 2% to 45%.

These values show that both grid operators recognize that traditional baseload power sources like coal are considerably more dependable than other sources in keeping the lights on across our state.

Winter Storm Elliott should have served as a wake-up call that shutting down existing baseload generation is a recipe for disaster.

Unless we adopt a true “all-of-the-above” energy policy that prioritizes dependability and affordability, we can expect blackouts and shortages to become increasingly likely.

Fortunately, more and more policymakers are waking up to what Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Commissioner James Danly has called the “looming reliability crisis in our electricity markets.”

Several states are dramatically slowing down the pace of their transition and keeping baseload plants online to avoid blackouts and power shortages.

Ultimately, it’s not about renewables vs. fossil fuels, but about ensuring that the inherent and indispensable attributes of baseload fuels are preserved in our energy mix.

As FERC Commissioner Mark Christie said earlier this year, “The core of the problem is actually very simple. We are retiring dispatchable generating resources at a pace and in an amount that is far too fast and far too great and is threatening our ability to keep the lights on.”

Unless we take what the experts are saying to heart, Kentuckians and Americans as a whole can expect grid reliability to continue to deteriorate.

Michelle Bloodworth is president and CEO of America’s Power, a partnership of industries involved in producing electricity from coal.

This opinion pieced appeared in the Elizabethtown-News Enterprise and the Central Kentucky News Journal on Oct. 14, 2023.