North Carolinians deserve clean, reliable power at the lowest cost to ratepayers. Prioritizing reliability and cost while reducing emissions without mandating resources — as the North Carolina legislature did with 2021’s HB 951 — will stabilize our grid at the lowest cost and eventually minimize blackouts like we saw last Christmas Eve.
A curious column from Conservatives for Clean Energy (CCE) takes a different approach and parrots Gov. Roy Cooper’s earlier suggestion that increasing the share of intermittent, weather-dependent resources, like wind and solar, would have prevented the blackouts Duke Energy customers experienced in December 2022. Cooper and CCE cite the utility’s testimony before the North Carolina Utilities Commission as proof.
Cooper wrote, “According to Duke Energy, the Christmas Eve power outages resulted from equipment failures at coal and natural gas plants while renewable energy performed as expected.”
CCE said, “We learned that it was cold weather-related failures at its coal and gas plants that were the primary cause of the blackouts.”
Both are an incomplete account of Duke’s testimony, which I encourage everyone to watch. The load shedding was a combination of factors, including a modeling forecast that was lower than the actual demand due to colder than anticipated temperatures, purchased power that failed to materialize, and cold weather protective measures where “in a few cases insulation and heat tracing did not prevent instrumentation from freezing…” The result was a loss of roughly 1300 megawatts during the very early, dark hours of Christmas Eve.
It’s important to note that North Carolina wasn’t alone last year. Utility Dive reports that nine states experienced blackouts due to power demand exceeding supply.
As for solar — yes, Duke said it performed as “expected,” meaning it wasn’t available to meet peak demand because “the peak occurred prior to sunrise.” That statement reminds me of this confession from a North Carolina solar power project application: “Solar is an intermittent energy source, and therefore, the maximum dependable capacity is 0 MW.”
To address solar’s glaring dispatchability problem, CCE suggests grid-scale industrial batteries as an “affordable, reliable” solution. They are neither. A recent study figures that grid-scale batteries cost around $700,000 a MWh. To replace the 1300 MW Duke lost for six hours would require 7800 MWh of battery storage. At $700,000 per MWh, the cost would be $5.46 billion. If you need them for longer, plan to spend more. Further, batteries degrade over time. While wind and solar as a fuel source are free, building more and converting them to usable electricity is expensive and risky to our grid.
The obvious choice for clean power investment is affordable, reliable, emissions-free nuclear energy. Bizarrely, CCE never mentions it. Duke Energy said of nuclear’s performance during the blackout event, “Our operating nuclear units were reliable throughout the weather event, producing approximately 10,300 megawatts for both the DEC and DEP systems…”
Nuclear is the clean, reliable, least-cost workhorse that will stabilize our grid. It also meets the legislative requirements in HB 951 and can minimize blackouts in the future. Utilities should be in the reliability business. I guess that’s why Duke’s generating portfolio will be heavily nuclear by 2050.
Duke’s portfolio should be welcome news to the North American Reliability Corporation (NERC), which oversees the US power grid. In its annual report, NERC warns that increased demand and the planned retirement of 83 GW of baseload generation over the next 10 years creates high and elevated blackout risks for most of the US. So far, North Carolina is in the “normal” risk area. Many of the states at higher risk are served by entities CCE would like to see in North Carolina, which is CCE’s other suggestion.
CCE urges “a [c]loser evaluation of joining a regional power market would also be a step in the right direction… Analysis shows this type of market would also yield between $400-600 million in annual savings for customers.”
It doesn’t identify the “analysis,” but it might be the one-sided report out of South Carolina encouraging the state to work with North Carolina either to form or join a “power market,” also known as a Regional Transmission Organization (RTO).
The only thing I agree with CCE on is taking a closer look at RTOs. For me, it’s so North Carolinians learn how RTOs contribute to higher costs and grid fragility about which NERC warns. Any “closer evaluation” must include Meredith Angwin’s seminal book, “Shorting the Grid: The Hidden Fragility of Our Electric Grid.”
A series of Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) orders in the 1990s restructured the electricity industry and gave rise to RTOs, or “power markets.” Theoretically, they were supposed to bring competition to electricity “markets” through auctions over large areas. The promise was lower costs and consumer choice while maintaining reliability. Examples are PJM Interconnection, which serves all or part of 13 states, including the far northeastern part of North Carolina and Texas’s ERCOT.
I was a mild RTO supporter until a Texas friend prophetically warned me in 2018 that it was only a matter of time before the Texas grid collapsed because its “market structure” rewarded heavily subsidized and unreliable wind and solar at the expense of necessary baseload power.
Then I read “Shorting the Grid,” after which I became a vocal RTO opponent. It’s an incisive critique of the current state of America’s electricity system, mainly focusing on the role of RTOs. Angwin’s analysis reveals the RTO grid is teetering on the edge, burdened by the complexities and massive subsidies that favor weather-dependent wind and solar at the expense of baseload power. They are ruled by insiders who profit from the structure and prohibit the public and media from participating.
She also predicted an RTO grid collapse.
In 2021, it almost happened. ERCOT experienced catastrophic failures during Winter Storm Uri. Unable to handle the increased demand, rolling blackouts were employed to prevent a disastrous complete collapse, which was only minutes away. Still, 246 people died, although the death toll would have been much higher had load shedding not been instituted.
This tragic event demonstrates the vulnerability of an RTO-managed power system, contradicting the CCE’s assertion that such a system would necessarily provide a reliable safeguard against energy deficits.
ERCOT is embroiled in dozens of lawsuits because no one knows who is responsible for the inability to meet demand. The buck stops with no one. Contrast that with Duke Energy’s response following last December’s blackout. The utility took full responsibility. The public knows who was responsible, why, and how it will be fixed because Duke admitted as much in testimony to the NCUC.
I support clean energy that works. I’m also a fan of microgrids and self-generation. I’m open to market reforms, but they must favor the least cost and prioritize reliability. It’s a matter of life and death. No one has offered any viable market reforms so far though. Until then, I’ll take our vertically integrated structure over the complex, less-transparent, and less-reliable RTO model that favors weather-dependent wind and solar while driving out baseload.
A suggestion to my South Carolina friends: invest in a generator. You’ll need it if the state joins an RTO.
Below you can learn a bit more on the topic from a recent interview on blackouts and grid reliability: