REPORT: California, Texas Face Rolling Blackouts If Summer Heat Stresses The Grid

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Michael Bastasch DCNF Managing Editor
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The two most populous U.S. states could face rolling blackouts during summer heat waves largely because of shuttered coal plants and a lack of natural gas storage, according to the country’s grid reliability watchdog.

The North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) warned on Wednesday that California and Texas have “potential reliability concerns” from “a resource shortfall or a diminishing resource surplus.”

“The sizeable gap in generation resources for the 2018 Texas summer peak and the natural gas situation in California pose potential reliability concerns,” Thomas Coleman, NERC’s director of reliability assessments, said in a release.

Grid operators in California and Texas, however, said they had tools to mitigate capacity shortfalls during extreme weather. Operators said they can import electricity, curtail demand or even bring mothballed plants back online.

NERC’s summer reliability assessment found Texas faced a shortfall in its power reserves compared to what its projected peak summer load. The shortfall is “primarily due to approximately 2,100 [megawatts (MW)] of delayed new resources and approximately 5,000 MW of plant retirements that were expected to be available to serve load for this summer.”

Vistra Energy closed three large coal plants across Texas in early 2018 due to economic pressures. Low-priced natural gas and renewables drove down wholesale electricity prices to levels unprofitable for coal plants.

In total, 4,273 megawatts coal-fired capacity retired between January and February 2018. Another 806 megawatts of natural gas-fired capacity was shut down in late 2017, NERC reported.

Those plants were expected to provide reserve capacity for when millions of residents cranked up the air conditioning in the summer heat. One megawatt can power 1,000 homes. (RELATED: Zinke: We Need A Border Wall To Protect The Environment)

“When extreme condition scenarios are reviewed, operational challenges occur during times of peak demand low wind output, and generator outages,” NERC found. However, the likelihood of all three extreme scenarios occurring at once is low.

For California, NERC found the state faced “significant risk of encountering operating conditions that could result in operating reserve shortfalls.”

“The increased risk is primarily a result of lower hydro conditions and the retirement of 789 MW of dispatchable natural gas generation that had been available in prior summers to meet high load conditions,” NERC reported.

NERC also noted restrictions at Aliso Canyon and other natural gas storage sites were a problem for reliability in Southern California. NERC said: “Operational constraints limit Aliso Canyon output, increasing ramping requirements in California.”

California regulators placed restrictions on Aliso Canyon, the state’s largest gas storage site, after leaks were found in 2015. That, combined with pipeline outages, could make things difficult for Southern California during a summer heat wave.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) expects electricity bills to jump three percent on average this summer due to slightly higher prices and cooling degree days when Americans crank up the air conditioning.

Although, EIA projects the western U.S. to see a more mild summer than in 2017, while the eastern U.S. sees a slightly warmer season.

“Effectively and efficiently addressing future reliability risks, whether they occur in the next year or in 10 years, requires NERC to continually build upon its analyses while enhancing collaboration with industry and government partners,” Coleman said.

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