Will the United States soon run out of electricity?

From California to Texas via Indiana, electricity network operators are sounding the alarm: production capacities are struggling to keep up with demand, a situation that could cause power cuts this year during the waves of heat and other periods of high consumption.

On Friday, the California network operator said it expected shortages this summer, especially if high temperatures, fires or delays in bringing new power sources into service exacerbate the problem. In charge of much of the Midwest, the Midcontinent Independent System Operator (Miso) for its part warned last month that it could be forced to take emergency measures to meet summer demand, waving the risk of power outages. In Texas, where several power plants are currently shut down for maintenance, the network operator said it feared difficulties during the heat wave which could last until next week.

In the United States, the risk of electricity shortages is increasing because the dismantling of old power plants is faster than their replacement by renewable sites equipped with battery storage devices. For the networks, this historic transition from coal and natural gas to wind and solar power is a headache, especially since they must also prepare for the upcoming closure of a number of aging nuclear power plants.

The challenge lies in the fact that solar and wind power plants, which produce very cheap electricity, do not operate continuously; batteries are therefore needed to store their production. Although large battery storage capacities are being manufactured, regional operators have recently expressed concern that they will not compensate quickly enough for conventional power plants that can operate day and night.

The problem is that the development of renewable energies and batteries is complicated by supply difficulties and inflation. After a recent Commerce Department investigation into whether Chinese solar panel makers were circumventing tariffs on their products, imports of critical power plant parts have been suspended, bringing the U.S. solar industry to a halt. .

Faced with the prospect of having to impose power cuts when demand exceeds supply, many operators are trying to answer the same question: how to promote the production of batteries and other new technologies while delaying the closure of conventional power plants ?

“Everyone is facing the same problem,” sighs Brad Jones, acting director of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages the Texas electricity grid. We are all trying to find solutions to use renewable sources as much as possible, while ensuring that we have sufficient production to ensure the reliability of the network. »

Difficulties linked to the offer come, moreover, to add to other problems of reliability of the networks. Over the past two decades, giant power cuts have become more frequent due to the aging of the network which makes it more fragile and the increase in the number of extreme weather events caused by climate change. And, in the coming years, the rise of electric heating and cooking, coupled with the rise of electric vehicles, could further increase the pressure.

Reliability is stirring debate in Texas, where a storm last winter shut down all power plants and forced the grid operator to shut off power to residents for days on end

On Friday, California regulators said the delays were for 3,800 megawatts of additional power. These delays could last until 2025 and pose a problem for a State which is doing everything to ensure that renewable energy and storage succeed in compensating for the closure of several gas-fired power stations and a nuclear power station. Gavin Newsom, the governor of California, recently said he was considering extending the life of Diablo Canyon, the nuclear power plant, to reduce the risk of cuts.

“We need to be sure that we have enough new resources installed and operational before abandoning this equipment,” explains Mark Rothleder, director of operations for the California Independent System Operator, the Californian network operator. Otherwise, we risk exposing ourselves to capacity problems. »

Reliability is a hot topic in Texas, where a storm last winter shut down all power plants and forced the grid operator to shut off power to residents for days on end. If several elements contributed to the problem (some plants were not made to resist freezing, others ran out of fuel…), the situation revealed in broad daylight the vulnerability of the Texas electricity sector and many voices rose up to demand change.

Texas is currently considering a Copernican revolution: paying suppliers upstream for an estimated need for electricity instead of paying afterward for what has been consumed. This move could be great news for current producers, including NRG Energy and Vistra, which own many traditional power plants and could therefore benefit from these contracts.

Among battery and renewable energy specialists, on the other hand, the project makes people cringe; this is notably the case of Eolian, for which it would be better to subsidize batteries, small gas turbines and other technologies capable of developing rapidly.

“What we heard after the cuts is that it is essential to ensure the lighting and the reliability of the network, underlines Peter Lake, president of the Public Utility Commission of Texas. Nothing is worse than turning off Texas. »

Miso warned that if electricity consumption increases more than expected this summer, shortages are possible. It recently launched an initiative to better evaluate different types of resources based on their ability to feed the grid depending on the time of year and weather conditions. It also seeks to improve the delivery of electricity to areas that need it.

Its chief executive, John Bear, said the efforts would help the network manage the energy transition, although it anticipates short-term power outages. In fact, recourse to emergency measures has been more and more frequent in recent years.

“It worries me,” says John Bear. We must know that when we install solar panels or wind turbines, it is not the same thing as thermal sources such as gas or coal.

(Translated from the original English version by Marion Issard)

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