- - Monday, June 27, 2022

The North American Electricity Reliability Corporation (NERC), the little-known organization that oversees the reliability of the nation’s power supply, recently warned that electricity grids from the West Coast to Texas and up through the Midwest are in danger of electricity shortfalls this summer. The Midwest is at particularly high risk, and just last week the region’s grid operator issued warnings of tight operating conditions that could lead to “rolling blackouts.”

If it feels like the reliability of the nation’s power supply is eroding, that’s because it is. Blackouts in California in summers past and the grid disaster in Texas in February of 2021 weren’t anomalies. John Moura, the NERC official that oversaw this summer’s reliability assessment, has said the blackouts in California and Texas should have been a wake-up call. And reflecting on this summer’s dire reliability assessment, he said, “risks are spreading … there’s clear, objective, conclusive data indicating that the pace of our great [energy] transformation is a bit out of sync with the underlying realities and the physics of the system.” 

Mr. Moura is not the only energy regulator, grid operator or utility leader who feels this way. But despite the collective concern, dire warnings, and growing media attention, there remains no coordinated effort to do anything about it. 

At the heart of this reliability crisis is a mismatch between our inability to build and our willingness to tear things down. Consider the self-congratulation from those who have devoted themselves to shuttering the nation’s fleet of coal power plants — and done so while downplaying the difficulty of replacing that fuel-secure, on-demand source of electricity. 

Proponents of a rapid transition to renewable energy point to the potential development of national electricity transmission highways and the deployment of large-scale energy storage as the keys to managing the variability of power sources dependent on the weather or time of day. But those solutions remain unbuilt. 

In reality, siting and building new interstate transmission lines is a remarkably challenging task. While utilities are spending ever more on transmission infrastructure, the addition of the high-voltage transmission lines needed to move power around the country is in fact slowing, not accelerating. And despite the promise of grid-scale energy storage, it’s a technology that is far from ready to shoulder a significant load. 

We’re tearing down the energy infrastructure that is cranking out reliable electricity far faster than we’re building anything to replace that lost on-demand power. And voters, understandably, want a course correction. 

In new national polling, nearly 8 in 10 voters — including a majority of Democrats, Republicans and independents — want the U.S. government to take action to prevent premature closings of functioning power plants until reliable replacements are built and online. The same polling also found that nearly 9 in 10 voters are concerned about rising electricity rates — the latest unwelcome driver of economy-wrecking inflation. 

Unfortunately, instead of action to reinforce the grid and ensure that dispatchable capacity is there when needed, de facto federal energy policy is going to accelerate coal plant closures. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is launching a suite of regulations aimed at the coal fleet. It’s an agenda remarkably detached from the wishes and needs of American consumers who are increasingly concerned about soaring energy prices and the availability of their power supply. 

What Americans really want is an energy policy that embraces U.S. energy abundance. To preserve grid reliability and fight energy inflation we need to make better use of the resources we have here at home and the energy infrastructure we have in place. Affordable and reliable electricity has become a basic American expectation. The crisis of inflated electricity bills and reliability failures will come if we dissemble what we have before we can bring new reliable electricity sources online. 

• Rich Nolan is president and CEO of the National Mining Association.

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