Affordable, reliable and sustainable: report compares utility performance

With three hurricanes in 2020, Louisiana had the worst performance among states for getting the power back on after a major event, according to a new report that compared how utilities ranked in three areas: reliability, affordability and environmental responsibility. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

A nationwide comparison of electric utility performance by an Illinois consumer advocacy group found that customers in states that are heavily reliant on fuel oil and natural gas, as in the Northeast and South, tend to pay more than those with larger amounts of carbon-free generation, among other findings.

The report by the Illinois-based Citizens Utility Board ranked all 50 states and the District of Columbia for utility reliability, affordability and environmental responsibility using 2020 public data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Census Bureau.

For overall performance across those categories, the top 10 were, starting with the highest ranked, Washington, Nevada, the District of Columbia, South Dakota, Illinois, Colorado, Arizona, Minnesota, Oregon and Nebraska. The bottom 10, starting with the lowest ranked, were West Virginia, Alaska, Mississippi, Massachusetts, Louisiana, Michigan, Alabama, Georgia, Indiana and Connecticut. North Carolina came in 26th.

It’s the second year in a row the group has compiled the report, which started as a way to measure how Illinois compared to other states and morphed into a project it hopes will be useful for utility regulators, electric ratepayers and state policymakers across the country, said David Kolata, the board’s executive director.

“What we’ve tried to do here is provide as full a picture as we possibly can,” he said. “We view this as a conversation starter not a conversation ender. We do think it provides a convenient and accessible way to get at this data. … Our hope is every state will improve in these categories.”

Affordability

Given the wide state-by-state variance in regulatory regimes, the difference in rates between customer classes and how their bills are put together, it can be difficult to compare electric prices across state lines. Also, climate and heating and cooling differences can make apples-to-apples bill comparisons tough. Electric customers in the South, for example, tend to rely on electricity for heating in the winter and face hotter summers that require more air conditioning than in the North, where gas is more common for home heating.

“Whereas households in warmer climates may consume more electricity on an annual basis to run air conditioning units than households in colder climates, those same households will not spend as much on natural gas, propane or other heating fuels during the winter,” the report says. Other states, like Alaska and Hawaii, are expensive by virtue of their geographic isolation from the larger U.S. electric grid.

The top 10 for overall affordability — as measured by average household energy expenditures, total household electric costs as a percentage of income, electric cost per kilowatt hour, total cost electricity expenditures and cost of energy efficiency savings — were Read more

As another winter storm strains the electric grid, it’s time to fix transmission, experts say

Detroit residents brave the frigid temperatures and heavy gusts of wind in downtown Detroit on December 23, 2022 in Detroit, United States. (Photo by Matthew Hatcher/Getty Images)

Christmas week onslaught that impacted hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians is just the latest warning sign

The deadly winter storm, christened Elliott by the Weather Channel, that tore through much of the United States over the Christmas weekend placed a huge strain on the American electric grid, pushing it past the breaking point in some places.

Frigid temperatures, in some places setting records, drove a surge in electric demand while also causing big problems for gas, coal and other power plants that took electric generation offline just when it was needed most. That forced some southeastern utilities to cut power to thousands of people on a rotating basis, and led grid operators to urge customers to conserve power.

“Supply and demand for electricity have to exactly balance in real time,” said Michael Goggin, a longtime electric industry analyst and vice president at Grid Strategies, a consulting firm focused on clean energy integration. “If not, in a matter of seconds the grid can collapse.”

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation announced Wednesday that they will open a joint investigation into the power system’s performance.

“There will be multiple lessons learned from last week’s polar vortex that will inform future winter preparations,” said Jim Robb, president and CEO of NERC, the nonprofit regulator that sets and enforces reliability standards for the bulk power system in the U.S.

“This storm underscores the increasing frequency of significant extreme weather events (the fifth major winter event in the last 11 years) and underscores the need for the electric sector to change its planning scenarios and preparations for extreme events.”

But for some experts, a major lesson from the storm is already plain, and it’s the same as learned in past severe winter weather: The U.S. grid needs to be better connected to enable power to be moved easily to where it’s needed in moments of crisis.

“Although this was a massive event that ultimately affected huge parts of the country, there were geographic elements to it,” said Ari Peskoe, director of the Electricity Law Initiative at Harvard Law School. “The attention belongs on the transmission system.”

The storm

John Moore, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said the storm was unusual in several aspects, including the rapid drop in temperatures triggered by a blast of arctic air pushing down from Canada far into the American South, the rapid strengthening called “bombogenesis,” and the heft of the pressure behind the system, which he said set a record in Edmonton, Canada.

“It’s a very broad system and it’s a lot of impacts associated with it. … The cold air with this one was a little bit stronger than we usually see this time of year,” Moore said, noting that the storm caused temperatures to drop 37 degrees in one hour at Denver International Airport, for example, and set temperature records in Wyoming and Montana, according to preliminary data.

As it moved east, it caused a deadly blizzard in the Buffalo area that claimed at least 40 lives and wreaked havoc on the electric grid.

“There were likely other records set across the South and East Coast,” Moore said.

Southwest Power Pool

The Southwest Power Pool, which coordinates the flow of electricity over more than half a million square miles in all or part of 14 states (Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas and Wyoming), set a record for winter electric use on Dec. 22 of more than 47,000 megawatts, blowing past the previous record of 43,661 set on Feb. 15, 2021.

However, there were no rolling outages implemented, a spokeswoman confirmed to States Newsroom.

Outages

Though hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses were left without power because of normal storm calamities such as downed power lines, many other customers in the Carolinas and the Tennessee Valley Authority service territory, which includes most of Tennessee and parts of Kentucky, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Virginia and North Carolina, saw outages because of the strain struggling power plants and surging demand placed on the grid.

“What we saw was concerning,” said Goggin, who was monitoring data from many of the major regional transmission organizations hit by the storm. “You saw very high unplanned or forced outages of power plants of many types but primarily fossil.” The extreme cold shut down many natural gas production wells, he said, which limited pipeline supplies that feed power plants.

“We’ve seen a number of events like this where the extreme cold disrupts the gas system which then cascades to the power system,” he said.

TVA

On Dec. 23, with demand climbing past 33,000 megawatts (its normal December demand is around 24,000) the TVA for the first time in its 90-year history instituted load shedding — temporary, controlled outages — and urged customers to conserve electricity. The service interruptions ended on Dec. 24, with the TVA saying it had supplied more power over the previous 24 hours than ever before to meet an all-time peak winter demand. POWER magazine also quoted a TVA spokesperson saying that a “limited number” of power plants in TVA’s territory “did not operate as expected during this event resulting in a loss of generation.”

“We at TVA take full responsibility for the impact we had on our customers,” the authority said in a Dec. 28 statement. “We are conducting a thorough review of what occurred and why. We are committed to sharing these lessons learned and — more importantly — the corrective actions we take in the weeks ahead to ensure we are prepared to manage significant events in the future.”

In an email to States Newsroom Thursday, a TVA spokesperson could not say how many customers were affected nor provide any information on why power plants weren’t able to perform, citing the ongoing review. In the Memphis area, where Memphis Light, Gas and Water is the TVA’s largest customer, more than 30,000 customers were affected, WMC-TV, a local station, reported. The Chattanooga Free Press reported on Christmas Eve that the TVA had lost about 6,000 megawatts of generation the day before at coal and gas plants.

“Until the review is completed over the next few weeks, any discussion on individual plants would be inappropriate because it would just be speculation on our part,” TVA spokesman Scott Fiedler told States Newsroom. “As the wholesale power provider, we instruct our 153 local power companies to reduce load. They implement the process to limit the impact to their customers. We expect customers were affected by 15-30 minutes in a rolling fashion as LPCs implemented curtailments.”

Duke Energy

Duke Energy, one of the nation’s largest utility companies, was forced to cut power to about 500,000 of its customers in North Carolina and South Carolina on Dec. 24, with the last of them having power restored by about 6 p.m., spokesman Jeff Brooks said.

“The combination of temperatures that were lower than forecast, customer usage that was higher than projected, some reduction in generating capacity on our system and limited options for additional capacity from outside of our service area due to extreme cold weather that impacted the eastern half of the United States created conditions that resulted in the need to conduct temporary outages,” Brooks said.

“We made this difficult decision to protect the electric grid and reliability on our system, and to avoid a potential longer or broader outage to customers.”

Another Duke Energy spokesman told States Newsroom in November, in response to a report by NERC that its service territory might be vulnerable to electric outages in the event of extreme winter weather, that the company was “ready to meet the energy needs of our customers every day, regardless of weather.”

Brooks said the company is still examining generation performance during the storm and assembling information for regulators and couldn’t provide more details on what type of power plants failed to perform.

Duke Energy officials are scheduled to brief the N.C. Utilities Commission staff on the outages on Tuesday. Read more

Environmental enforcement has fallen off under Biden, report says

Executives at the Shell Chemical petroleum refinery in Norco, Louisiana, agreed to install $10 million in pollution monitoring and control equipment in 2018 to settle allegations it was violating the Clean Air Act. The Biden Administration was expected to increase EPA enforcement but that hasn’t happened says a national environmental group. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Federal environmental enforcement, as measured by Environmental Protection Agency civil cases closed against polluters, hit a two-decade low in 2022, per a report released last week by a national environmental group that blames budget cuts, staff shortages and the U.S. Senate’s failure to confirm key leaders.

The Environmental Integrity Project said the 72 civil enforcement cases closed in court during the fiscal year that ended in September under President Joe Biden’s administration was the “lowest number in at least 22 years.”

The Trump administration’s EPA closed an average of 94 cases per year while the Obama administration averaged 210 per year, the report says.

“The Biden administration’s Environmental Protection Agency was expected to step up enforcement of the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and other environmental laws after the investigation and prosecution of polluters reached new lows under the Trump administration,” the group said in a statement. “It has yet to keep that promise, thanks to a refusal by Congress to reverse more than a decade of budget cuts or to confirm President Biden’s nominee to head EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance.”

The number of people working in EPA’s civil enforcement program has fallen from 3,294 in 2012 to 2,253 in 2022. There were 189 criminal enforcement EPA agents in 2012 but that number had fallen to 155 by 2022, the report says.

“The professional staff at EPA appears to be doing the best it can with increasingly limited resources,” said Eric Schaeffer, the Environmental Integrity Project’s executive director and the former director of civil enforcement at EPA. “But they are not helped by ruthless budget cuts and the inability of the Senate to confirm President Biden’s pick for Assistant Administrator of EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, David Uhlmann.” Read more

Reliability watchdog warns of potential electric shortfalls this winter

The regulatory body that sets and enforces reliability standards in parts of the U.S. power system warns that if certain regions experience extreme weather this winter they may not have sufficient energy supplies. (Photo by iStock/Getty Images Plus)

The nonprofit regulator charged with helping ensure the reliability of the North American electric grid is warning of potential electric supply shortfalls during severe weather this winter in several regions of the country.

Earlier this month, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, which sets and enforces reliability standards for the bulk power system in the U.S., Canada and part of Mexico, said New England and parts of the South and Midwest, are “at risk of having insufficient energy supplies during severe winter weather.”

The organization pointed to fuel supply problems, potential shipping disruptions, limited natural gas infrastructure, fossil and nuclear plant retirements and high potential peak electric demand as contributing risk factors during sustained cold weather.

“While the grid has a sufficient supply of capacity resources under normal winter conditions, we are concerned that some areas are highly vulnerable to extreme and prolonged cold,” said John Moura, NERC’s director of reliability assessment and performance analysis, in a statement. “As a result, load-shedding may be required to maintain reliability.”

(Load-shedding means intentionally interrupting the flow of electricity to customers to reduce the strain on the grid.)

Warnings of potential outages in the South

NERC’s report says Texas, which largely operates its own electric grid, and much of Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and the Carolinas, are all vulnerable to extreme cold because it could trigger power plant outages and big spikes in demand. In many parts of the South, electricity is the prime heating source and NERC says power generators and the fuel supply infrastructure that serves them “remain vulnerable without weatherization upgrades,” despite improvements since Winter Storm Uri in 2021, which caused an estimated 246 deaths in Texas after the grid collapsed.

“While the risk of energy emergencies in the three areas hardest hit during that event has not been eliminated, enhancements to equipment freeze protection and cold weather preparations for both the gas and electric industries is a positive step,” said Mark Olson, NERC’s manager of reliability assessments.

Duke Energy, which has about 4.5 million electric customers in the Carolinas, said it is prepared for extreme weather with well-stocked coal inventories that exceed pre-winter goals.

“We are ready to meet the energy needs of our customers every day, regardless of the weather,” said Bill Norton, a company spokesperson. “As we do before each winter, we have prepared for the possibility of extreme cold across our electric system.”

Norton also cited a power mix that includes renewables, nuclear, natural gas, coal and hydroelectric power, grid upgrades to serve a growing number of customers in North Carolina and plants that can run on more than one kind of fuel as key to guarding against outages caused by extreme weather.

NERC’s recommendations

NERC made a broad series of recommendations to mitigate risks to the power grid from extreme weather. First, it said power generators should be preparing for winter conditions and communicating with grid operators. They also should ensure they have adequate fuel on hand and the organizations that monitor them should keep tabs on fuel supplies as well. But NERC also urged state regulators and policymakers to “preserve critical generation resources at risk of retirement prior to the winter season and support requests for environmental and transportation waivers.”

Holly Bender, the Sierra Club’s senior director of energy campaigns, called NERC’s suggestion to suspend environmental rules to keep fossil plants running “the wrong strategy.” Rather, Bender said the report makes the case that reliance on fossil fuels itself poses risks and she urged state regulators to instead push energy efficiency and weatherization programs that will cut power use. “Whether it’s water shortages in the summer or frozen coal piles and short fuel supply in the winter, fossil fuels like coal and gas struggle through extreme weather,” she said. “In addition to the public health, environmental, and climate impacts, fossil fuels are increasingly unreliable, contributing to energy insecurity and unpredictable price spikes that impact the most vulnerable members of our communities the most.”

Robert Zullo is a national energy reporter for States Newsroom based in southern Illinois focusing on renewable power and the electric grid.

Report says many utilities are slow-walking clean energy goals