US Faces Increased Risk of Winter Power Outages
U.S. regulators from the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) issued a stark warning in their 2023-2024 Winter Reliability Assessment, revealing that over half of the U.S. population is at a heightened risk of power outages during peak winter conditions. The vulnerable regions span from Texas to New England, and the risks stem from inadequate generator weatherization and limitations in natural gas infrastructure.
NERC’s director of reliability assessment and performance analysis, John Moura, highlighted the ongoing challenges, stating that the combination of insufficient weatherization and natural gas infrastructure limitations has consistently resulted in a significant number of generators being unavailable during critical winter periods.
This year’s risk surpasses that of the previous winter, where NERC estimated that about a quarter of the U.S. population faced potential winter energy emergencies. The elevated risk areas include Texas, the Midwest, New England, and the South. While most regions can meet energy demands under normal conditions, the situation becomes precarious during extreme cold spells, as seen in Winter Storms Elliott (2022) and Uri (2021).
Notably, the failure of natural gas generators played a significant role in the power outages during these severe weather events. Despite natural gas-fired generation being a prevalent energy source, its production rapidly declines in extremely cold temperatures, contributing to electricity and natural gas shortages across wide areas.
Although efforts are being made by gas operators to weatherize their conditions and mitigate winter risks, NERC officials expressed skepticism about whether these measures would be sufficient to bring the risk down to an acceptable level. While the focus on weatherization is aimed at preventing a recurrence of previous outages, NERC emphasized that the bulk power system has become more vulnerable to winter conditions, primarily due to generator outages rather than peak demand.
This situation raises concerns about the reliability of the power grid during the upcoming winter, especially if faced with a sudden cold snap similar to previous storms. The lessons learned from Winter Storm Uri, which left millions in Texas without power and resulted in tragic consequences, underscore the importance of addressing vulnerabilities in the energy infrastructure.
This development is indicative of a broader issue, calling for increased investment in energy infrastructure, grid resilience, and strategic planning to ensure the stability of power systems during extreme weather conditions. Rather than racing to eliminate coal power plants and build as many solar and wind farms as possible, the U.S. needs more reliable and weather-resilient power sources to address the growing energy demands and mitigate risks associated with extreme weather events.