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Reality Check

Apr 4, 2023

Cambridge University Dictionary defines “Reality Check” as an occasion that causes you to consider the facts about a situation instead of your opinion, ideas, or beliefs.

Reality, like politics, is mostly local. If we don’t experience something with our own senses or in our own lives it is not real. We spend most of our lives avoiding Reality Checks. For instance, many people believe the world was mostly at peace before Russia invaded Ukraine. Some people still believe the world is at peace because peace is all they experience. Those beliefs belie the reality that in addition to U.S. involvement in the Russo-Ukrainian War, we are or have been involved in the Iraqi, Afghanistan, Persian Gulf, Yemen, and Somalia conflicts and more around the world in recent years.

The feeling of global harmony is supported by a narrow view of a lack of military conflict in our lives. Many people have little knowledge or appreciation of global conflicts unless a family member or friend is involved or killed.

The relative ease of our lives, and the lack of external reality, influences our thinking on nearly all issues. My last two articles have covered the future of electric reliability.

Almost everyone takes reliable and affordable electric service for granted because it is all they know. Too many accept the misguided belief that traditional electric generation resources can be replaced by other resources, like renewables, with no detriment to reliability, service, or cost. Too many also believe the electric grid is invulnerable to focused physical attacks.

There are many who need a Reality Check, especially idealistic environmentalists, politicians and community organizers who have no practical understanding or basic knowledge of the fragility of the electric industry and grid. These are the same individuals making Net Zero Carbon and Green New Deal propositions.

Disruptive, unreliable electric service may already be reality for California residents; or for those who lived in Texas during 2021’s Winter Storm Uri; or for the people who endured rolling blackouts in freezing weather over Christmas. For the rest of us, rolling blackouts, the inability to heat our homes, the lack of hot water and television and internet – those are just remote inconveniences that happen to other people who aren’t as smart or lucky as we are. However, just because something hasn’t happened doesn’t mean that problems are not on the horizon. We are all likely in for a harsh Reality Check on electric reliability if current policies to retire reliable fossil generation units and replace them with intermittent renewables are not changed, and quickly.

The PJM Interconnection, a Regional Transmission Operator that manages the electric grid in the northeast area of the U.S., issued a report titled Energy Transition in PJM: Resource Retirements, Replacements & Risks on Feb. 24, 2023.  

 The Report focuses on generation resource adequacy through 2030. The Report highlights four trends that pose reliability risks due to a potential timing mismatch between resource retirements, load growth, and the pace of new generation additions.

Trend 1:  PJM’s long-term load forecast predicts demand growth of 1.4% annually over the next ten years, totaling up to 24 gigawatts (GWs) by 2030, because of governmental policies to transition to greater electrification requirements and the influx of large data centers.

Trend 2: Utilities are expected to retire 40 GWs of coal and natural gas generating capacity, or 21% of PJM’s current generation capacity, by 2030 because of government and private sector policies. Despite 290 megawatts of generation projects in the PJM queue, 94% of the projects in the queue are renewables and the historic rate of renewable project completion is 5%.

Trend 3:  The Report confirms that 1 megawatt of renewable capacity cannot fill the reliability void sacrificed by 1 megawatt of retiring fossil fuel generation.  Multiple amounts of new renewable generation capacity will be required to replace the retiring reliable fossil fuel generation because of the intermittent and limited-duration nature of the renewable resources.   

Trend 4: Projections indicate the current pace of new generation entry will be insufficient to keep up with up with expected retirements and demand growth by 2030. The completion rate of new projects, from queue to steel in the ground, would have to increase significantly to maintain the required reserve margins.        

What does all this technical electric utility language mean? It means: electric loads in the PJM region will grow, existing reliable fossil fuel plants will be closed because of policy pressures, much more renewable generation will be required to replace retiring fossil-fuel units, and not enough new generation will be built to maintain reserve margins. That means the people in PJM’s region will be subject to power outages and blackouts by 2030.

PJM, the organization that operates the electric grid and is responsible for electric reliability in the northeast, clearly says a Reality Check is needed for the people it serves.  When the local lights go out – reality sets in.

I pray it goes a different way, and I hope you have a good month.   

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