The West’s electric grid is stretched, and extreme events could knock the lights out

Experts see enough power for a normal summer this year, but it’s getting harder to bet on normal.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Power lines along the train tracks after a fire came through at the mouth of Weber Canyon, Tuesday September 5, 2017. The West's electrical grid is facing an increased threat from extreme events like fire.

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As Utah heads into its summer peak-demand period, those who monitor the electrical grid are optimistic but not certain there will be enough juice for every swamp cooler and air conditioner.

“The Western Interconnection is experiencing heightened reliability risks heading into the summer of 2023 due to increased supply-side shortages along with the ongoing drought impacts in some areas, continued wildfire threats, and expanding heat wave events,” says the summer 2023 assessment from the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), an independent organization that tracks electrical generation, transmission and distribution.

The “Western Interconnection” refers to the 136,000 miles of transmission lines that connect 14 Western states with Canada and Mexico. Those lines allow Utah to pull power from (or deliver power to) the rest of the West as supply and demand shifts. The region is monitored by a division of NERC called the Western Electric Coordinating Council (WECC), which models future electricity usage down to the hour.

“The short-term outlook is relatively better than it used to be,” Saad Malik, director of reliability assessments for WECC, told a Utah legislative committee earlier this month. He said in the last couple of years there have been some delays in retirements of older power sources in the West, and that has improved the picture.

But Malik cautioned that the future is getting harder to predict, particularly with regard to weather. “A lot of the extremes are becoming more normal.”

For its part, the National Weather Service predicts a hotter than normal summer in most of the West, but extreme heat is not forecast at this point.

Demand is outpacing supply

Jim Matheson, the former Utah congressional member, is among those who have been sounding the alarm on grid reliability across the country. Matheson is now CEO of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, which represents hundreds of small rural power systems across the country.

In an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune, Matheson laid out what he sees as the three big factors behind a five-year drop in reliability: Demand is up. Supply isn’t keeping up. Bureaucracy is keeping supply from keeping up.

First, demand is growing as population increases and more of everyday life is electrified, particularly cars and trucks. Matheson also cited growth in industrial demand as the nation tries to restore some manufacturing that went overseas.

Second, supply has become less predictable as baseload sources (both coal and aging nuclear plants) are reduced and renewables increase. “We are shutting down the always available resources and not replacing them or replacing them with intermittent resources,” he said.

‘Good Neighbor’ bad?

Utah’s political establishment has pushed this as the biggest threat to reliability. The state recently filed a legal challenge to the EPA’s “Good Neighbor Rule,” which would require Utah coal plants to limit the amount of ozone-producing pollutants drifting to Colorado. Utah leaders fear the rule will force power plant owners to close plants prematurely, thus reducing reliability, or add expensive pollution control equipment that would drive up electricity costs.

Matheson declined to put the blame squarely on Good Neighbor, but he did say EPA should do more to consider grid reliability when it makes rules. “I think reliability should be part of the conversation, and I don’t think it is at EPA.”

The NERC reliability report predicted that over the short term the plants will meet the Good Neighbor requirements by limiting hours of operation rather than adding emissions controls, which Rocky Mountain Power has already said it would do at its Utah plants.

“The final rule approved by the EPA includes provisions designed to give grid owners and operators flexibility to help maintain reliability, including allowance-trading mechanisms,” the NERC report said.

That may mean buying more power from other Western sources, which is only possible if they’re not maxed out.

Calfornia is the biggest player in the West, of course. For its part, the California Independent System Operator (CAISO) said in May that it does not expect any cuts in service this summer. CAISO executives say the increase in hydropower from the heavy winter snowmelt and the addition of new production and storage will prevent a repeat of the 2022 Labor Day weekend. That’s when California barely found enough power to keep its grid going after issuing “flex alerts” asking residents to voluntarily reduce their power consumption in late afternoon/early evening when demand peaks.

Still, CAISO and every other operator acknowledge that a major heat wave or a loss of transmission from wildfires or other problems could overtax the grid.

A scarcity of coal

Utah’s coal plants have another problem: finding coal. Rocky Mountain Power has backed away from long-term coal contracts as it sees an end to its Utah coal plants in fewer than 10 years, and it acknowledges that consistent coal supply is a growing problem.

“Market signals matter. When you say you’re going to prematurely retire a power plant ... that sends a signal that this is not a reliable customer,” Utah Mining Association President Brian Somers told legislators.

“We’re going to have brownouts and blackouts in my opinion because the mines are not geared up,” said Utah Sen. David Hinkins (R-Ferron), who represents Utah’s coal country. “We’re bringing in coal from Colorado to keep the plants going,” said Hinkins, who also pointed out that foreign buyers are paying three times what Utah’s utilities have been paying for coal.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A grass fire burns near milepost 105 off I-80 near Saltair on Saturday, April 30, 2022. An increase in fires and severe weather is testing the reliability of the electrical grid in the West.

Mostafa Sahraei-Ardakani, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Utah whose research focuses on power system optimization, thinks economics — not environmental policy — is killing coal. In particular, the fracking boom in the last 15 years has made cleaner natural gas so much cheaper. “Natural gas was going to replace coal anyway,” he said.

State Sen. Nate Blouin, D-Millcreek, who has worked in the renewable energy industry, thinks the state has been missing future opportunities by focusing on coal. He also believes other states are taking greater advantage of all the federal clean-energy incentives that have rolled out in the Biden era. “We’ve kept doing what we’re doing. We haven’t looked to the future.”

That future isn’t just about delivering reliable power to Utahns, Blouin said. It’s also about selling it to others. The state could be a large exporter of clean energy if it focused on developing renewable sources.

Down to the wires

The third factor Matheson cited is the long lag time that power plants and transmission line projects can take in getting permitted. The process can take more than a decade. “It’s really hard to build something new in this country from an approval standpoint,” Matheson said.

New transmission lines are a particular concern. The move away from a few large power plants to a network of smaller renewable sources requires thousands of miles of new lines. “We really need to double or triple transmission capacity,” Sahraei-Ardakani said.

Two years ago, the Utah Office of Energy Development hired a consultant to produce the “Utah Transmission Study,” which identified major lines needed to bring more renewables to the grid. But a recent legislative audit said the energy office has done little to carry out the study’s recommendations.

The supply chain remains another vexing problem. A representative of equipment suppliers told legislators there simply isn’t enough copper wire, transformers and other materials available now, and there isn’t the manufacturing capacity to produce it.

In another nod to climate-driven extremes, utilities are “hardening” their grids to prevent outages or grid-induced wildfires. That is also draining supplies needed for maintenance and upgrades, said Dave Mele, chief operations officer for Western United Electric Supply Corporation, which supplies equipment to utilities.

For Matheson, maintaining reliability is politically essential if the clean energy transition is to succeed. “It’s going to have a tough road ahead if we start having outages. It’s important that we have a good level of reliability associated with it.”

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