Bloomberg Law
Feb. 2, 2023, 9:00 AM

Power Grid Failures Reveal the Myth of Fossil Fuel Reliability

Christy Walsh
Christy Walsh
Natural Resources Defense Council

As families across the country traveled to holiday gatherings in late December, a harsh winter storm pushed power grids to the brink of a nationwide crisis.

As they have in the past, grid operators planned to rely heavily on gas and coal power plants to keep the lights and heat on. But these fossil fuel plants failed.

This wave of fossil fuel power plant failures disproves the stubborn myth that natural gas and coal are our most reliable sources of power. In case after case, gas and coal plants struggle when the electricity is needed most, while renewable energy resources such as wind and solar outperform expectations.

Reliability Myth

The myth of fossil fuel’s reliability is putting people’s safety in jeopardy as extreme weather worsens. It’s long past time for grid operators and federal officials to move past the rhetoric from plant owners and take actions based on a plant’s real-world performance.

The negative health and environmental impacts of gas and coal are well known and irrefutable. As power grids face the challenge of standing up to extreme weather events, the country must come to terms with the fact that gas continues to fail at its core value proposition: delivering power when it is needed most.

Ignoring this fact at the expense of renewables will continue to hamper planning for the reliable, clean, affordable grid the country needs.

The pattern is overwhelmingly clear and unsettlingly familiar. In the past decade, crippling weather events include the 2011 cold weather outages in the Southwest, the 2014 polar vortex, and Winter Storm Uri, that struck Texas in 2021. In case after case, fossil fuel plants fail much more often than grid planners expect.

During Winter Storm Elliott in December, coal and natural gas plant outages caused blackouts in North Carolina and Tennessee, and wider, more devastating outages were just barely avoided. Ultimately, 65 million people in the mid-Atlantic and Midwest came far too close for comfort to rolling blackouts during the bone-chilling Arctic blast.

For months PJM Interconnection, the regional transmission organization, asked power plant owners to prepare for cold weather, and on Dec. 23 the grid operator for 13 states from North Carolina to Illinois said it was ready. PJM even planned on assisting neighboring regions.

As the bone-chilling cold moved in, outages at fossil fuel plants began stacking up. Some couldn’t get fuel. Some just stopped working. And others failed to start.

By Dec. 24, an astonishing 46 gigawatts of power plants (enough to power California) were out of service. PJM reported failures across the gas system, including low pressure, frozen compressors, and a lack of commercially available fuel. Plant shutdowns, it said, were “unacceptably high.”

Better Planning Needed

At its core, this is a problem of planning, not technology.

PJM provides capacity payments to power plants with the promise they will be ready and able to provide power when needed. However, gas and coal plants suffer and sputter during the hottest and coldest days. Grid operators must look past the fossil fuel spin and plan accordingly.

The Texas power grid remains vulnerable to severe weather despite measures taken after Uri, the Dallas Federal Reserve said on Jan. 17. More than 4.5 million people lost power from Uri, and at least 240 deaths are attributed to the storm.

Natural gas fuel supply issues caused 87% of outages as gas production wells froze up, pipelines failed to function properly, and uninsulated gas plants couldn’t deliver power even if they had fuel, according to a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and North American Electric Reliability Corp. report on the disaster.

During the more recent December cold snap, 35% to 40% of coal and gas plants in ERCOT, the Texas grid, were offline for at least some time, according to Doug Lewin, president of Stoic Energy Consulting. Lewin also said an “electric reliability emergency exists” in Texas.

The Midcontinent Independent System Operator, which operates the grid for much of the Midwest, faced similar failures during this latest storm, with a quarter of its gas fleet shutting down.

Steps to Take

It doesn’t have to be this way.

A first step is for grid operators and plant owners to stop overestimating the capabilities of gas and coal generators. Grid operator ISO New England is considering de-rating winter capacity for natural gas plants that face regional gas pipeline and supply constraints.

Gas is used for both heating and power generation during the New England winter, and supply shortages have preceded outages, notably during the 2014 polar vortex.

Next, project developers are eager to build wind, solar, and storage, but they continue to be frustrated by a regulatory framework that has slowed integration of renewable energy to a crawl. Incentives available through the Inflation Reduction Act will increase the number of reliable, clean energy resources.

The interconnection rules also need a fix to get these clean resources integrated with the grid as quickly as possible. This will provide a diverse and nimble grid, not one based on technologies of the previous century.

Finally, a redoubling of efforts is necessary to update transmission planning and build the physical grid able to handle the next heatwave, cold spell, or storm. A clean, reliable, resilient, and affordable electric system is within the country’s reach. Moving forward is the best path to realize this potential.

This article does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg Industry Group, Inc., the publisher of Bloomberg Law and Bloomberg Tax, or its owners.

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Author Information

Christy Walsh is a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council where she focuses on improving wholesale power markets and transmission systems to decarbonize the power sector. She also advocates on behalf of the Sustainable FERC Project before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

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