In today’s “What’s Next” speech, the governor doubled down on her commitment to an energy policy that is making Michiganders colder, poorer, and more vulnerable to the cruelty of nature.
“We can achieve 100 percent clean energy while balancing reliability and affordability,” Whitmer said in a speech touting wind, solar and some “other common-sense sources” she chose not to define.
What does Whitmer mean by “reliability and affordability?” Our energy policy colleague Isaac Orr at the Center of the American Experiment provided a hint in his recent blog post “Could be tight on the grid today.”
Orr’s look at the Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO) details the potential increase in demand and resulting tightening of supply that could occur across much of the Midwest as a result of a heatwave that is stretching from Minneapolis to New Orleans.
MISO is the non-profit organization charged with ensuring the stability of the electric grid over an area covered by 15 U.S. states running from Minnesota to Michigan on the northern border and south to Louisiana, also including the Canadian province of Manitoba.
Source: MISOEnergy.org (4:45 pm Thursday Aug. 24, 2023)
Orr writes that MISO declared a Maximum Generation Event last Thursday. These “Max Gen Events,” are considered a part of MISO’s “Emergency Operations” and occur “when there is a shortage of capacity resources.”
MISO explains that emergency operations occur when an event “has the potential to, or actually does, negatively impact system reliability” and allows for emergency pricing to kick in as a means of controlling demand for electricity. MISO documentation confirms that information about emergencies is “communicated in escalating order as advisories, alerts, warnings, and events.” These warnings inform utilities and the public about “potential limited operating capacity.”
These events call for utilities to hold off on any planned maintenance on generation units. They allow MISO to “require external capacity resources to be available,” or to “curtail non-firm energy sales.”
The event triggers an “all hands on deck” style of warning, telling utilities to be ready to generate as much electricity as they possibly can. But this warning makes clear that weather-dependent forms of electricity generation like wind and solar can’t play a serious role in a reliable and resilient grid. During emergencies, utilities may be called on to ramp up generation rapidly. But no utility can tell the wind to blow or the sun to shine on command.
MISO posted a notice indicating it was escalating their Maximum Generation Alert to a Maximum Generation Emergency Event, citing “Forced Generation Outages, Above Normal Temps, Higher than Forecasted Load.”
High temperatures across much of the Midwest strain the electric grid as people rely heavily on air conditioning to keep their homes cooled. “We may be hitting the highest electricity demand of the year, known as the peak electricity demand,” Orr explains.
At these high levels of electricity demand, the grid can be stressed beyond the capacity of utilities to supply sufficient electricity to customers. A first line of defense for utilities is to employ “Load Modifying Resources, or LMRs,” where large electricity-using industries are called on to reduce their use. In Michigan, major businesses like Hemlock Semiconductor or the automobile manufacturers would idle their operations during the period of high demand.
If these cuts in business use are not sufficient to drop electric demand, the grid operator can then employ “load shedding,” which Orr describes as “the nice grid operator way of saying initiating rotating blackouts.”
Looking back now, we know that we did make it through the day. Fortunately, we did not need to go beyond warnings to actual outages, even though wind resources were producing at much less than forecasted levels.
However, warnings like last week’s Max Gen Event highlight the value of reliable energy sources. Most of Michigan and the MISO region were able to keep electric service on, but that reliable, resilient electric service is increasingly threatened. The MISO website indicated that while demand was near its peak just before 5 p.m., more than 91% of the region’s electric supply was coming from fossil fuels and nuclear. Wind supplied just over 3%; “other” supplied 3.5%; and solar supplied 2%.
The same results have been seen in past periods of extreme weather. During the January 2019 Polar Vortex that struck many of the northern states, we explained how “throughout the blisteringly cold day on Jan. 30 , utilities across the Midwest relied on fossil fuels for 80 percent of the region’s electricity. Coal provided about half of our electricity, while natural gas provided 30 percent. Nuclear provided just over 14 percent, while wind was providing only about 4 percent and solar wasn’t even listed; it was grouped in as one of the ‘other’ sources, at less than 2 percent.”
But in Michigan, those reliable resources either have been closed or are targeted for closure in the near future. Consumers Energy’s “2021 Clean Energy Plan,” which has been approved by state regulators at the Michigan Public Service Commission, commits the utility to “focus[ing] heavily on increasing renewable energy and energy efficiency” and continuing “the journey to net zero carbon emissions by 2040.” To meet these goals, the utility will close its last coal plant by 2025 and build nearly 8,000 megawatts of solar in Michigan by 2040. Through an agreement with another energy provider, Consumers has already shuttered its sole nuclear plant in May 2022.
DTE has settled on a similar though slightly less extreme plan to reach net-zero CO2 emissions by 2050. In a recent settlement agreement, which was approved by state regulators, the utility committed to early closure of its last coal-fired generation station by 2032 and “Accelerating development of renewable energy projects” by adding 15,000 MW of solar and wind and 1,800 MW of battery storage in Michigan by 2042.
The same system-wide instability occurred in Texas in February 2021, when Winter Storm Uri pressed the state’s electric grid to failure, leaving more than 5 million people across the state in the cold and dark.
“The immediate cause for the power outages in Texas was extreme cold and insufficient winterization of the state’s energy systems,” we wrote at the time. “But there’s still no escaping the fact that, for years, Texas regulators have favored the construction of heavily subsidized renewable energy sources over more reliable electricity generation. These policies have pushed the state away from nuclear and coal and now millions in Texas and the Great Plains states are learning just how badly exposed they are when extreme weather hits.”
If limited resources were focused on proper maintenance, weatherization and reliability, as opposed to net zero crusades, the grid would not be left to the mercy of extreme weather events. Instead, Texas Public Radio reports that Texas just avoided having to impose rolling blackouts as “record energy demand came dangerously close to the available supply.”
This latest Max Gen Event was another clear warning from the grid operators at MISO. We are deliberately designing an electric grid that will be stretched to the limit during routine weather conditions. During past events, we have relied heavily on fossil and nuclear generation to keep the grid from failing. As we continue to implement long-term plans that target the closure of reliable fossil and nuclear sources, we are making blackouts and restrictions on energy use the norm.
When that happens, we will have nobody to blame but ourselves.
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