Alerts from all sides on the stability of the electricity network

Just when it didn’t seem like things could get any worse — gasoline at $5 to $8 a gallon, supply shortages in everything from baby formula to new cars — comes the devastating news that many of us will experience power outages this summer.

The alarm was sounded by the nonprofit North American Electric Reliability Corp. and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

The North American electrical grid is the largest and most complex machine on Earth, incorporating everything from the wobbly pole you see by the roadside with a bird’s nest of wires to the most sophisticated engineering ever devised. It works in real time, even more so than the air traffic control system: all the planes in the sky don’t have to land at the same time, but the electricity has to be there at every switch.

Except that he may not always be there this summer. Rod Kuckro, a respected energy journalist, says it’s up to Mother Nature, but the prognosis isn’t good.

Speaking on ‘White House Chronicle’, the weekly news and public affairs program on PBS which I host and produce, Kuckro said: ‘There is a confluence of factors which could affect the energy supply in the majority of the 48 (lower) states. These are the continued reduction in hydroelectric production in the West and the persistent drought in the South West.

According to NERC and FERC, the greatest threat to electricity supply is in the vast central region, which stretches from Manitoba in Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. It is served by the regional transmission organization, the Midcontinent Independent System Operator.

These operating entities are not-for-profit corporations that organize and distribute wholesale electricity from their regions for public utilities. In California, it’s the California Independent System Operator; in the Mid-Atlantic, it’s PJM; and in the northeast, it is the independent operator of the New England system. They do not generate electricity, but they do control the flow of energy and can cause brownouts and blackouts.

With record storm activity and high temperatures expected this summer, power outages could be deadly. The elderly, the young and the sick are all vulnerable. If the power supply fails, everything from air conditioning and refrigeration to lights and even the ability to pump gas or access cash at ATMs.

The United States, as well as other modern nations, runs on electricity and when that is not enough, it is catastrophic. It’s chaos in the broadest sense, especially if the outage lasts more than a few hours.

In the same episode of “White House Chronicle”, Daniel Brooks, vice president of integrated grid and energy systems at the Electric Power Research Institute, also referred to a “confluence of factors” contributing to the impending power crisis. Brooks said, “We are going through a significant shift in terms of the energy and resource mix, and how those resources behave in certain weather conditions.”

If the electricity supply is stressed this summer, the change in the generation mix will attract a lot of political attention. At its heart is the shift from fossil fuel generation to renewable energy. If there are power cuts, a political storm will ensue. The Biden administration will be accused of accelerating the shift to renewables, though utilities won’t say so.

The weather deteriorates and the network is strained to cope with new realities as well as old bugaboos, such as the extreme difficulty of building transmission lines. Better transmission would greatly relieve network stress.

Peter Londa, President of Tantalus Systems, which helps its 260 utility customers digitize and cope with new realities, explained some of the challenges facing utilities not only in changing production sources, but also in the new form of electrical demand. For example, he said, electric vehicles, particularly the highly anticipated Ford F-150 Lightning pickup, could be a boon for owners and utilities. During a power outage, their electric vehicles could be used to power their homes for days. They could be a source of storage if thousands of homeowners signed up with their utilities for a storage program.

The fact is that utilities are facing three major shifts: in generation to wind and solar, in customer demand, and especially in the weather. Mother Nature is on a rampage and we all have to adapt to that.

Llewellyn King is executive producer and host of “White House Chronicle” on PBS.