America’s push to move faster to green energy is compounding stress on the current system and creating a new brand of energy crisis in the U.S. Scott Thuman reports on the growing power problem.
Late July in the northern tip of Michigan, the sun-fed harvest from these trees helps make this the self-declared cherry capital of the world. But before the fruit can be processed down these lines, it needs to be kept cold — very cold — requiring a lot of electricity. Some created at this on-site solar farm, much more coming down these transmission lines.
Having reliable power is vital for the crop, and it’s what keeps Rachel Johnson, a member relations manager at the aptly-named Cherryland Electric Cooperative, awake at night.
Scott: Talk to me about supply and demand these days.
Rachel Johnson: The way I like to explain to our members is to think of the energy grid as a bathtub, and essentially we're filling that bathtub with a low-flow faucet, and at the same time, we've pulled the drain on the bottom. So we are putting resources into the tub at a slower rate than we're draining resources out of the tub, and then to make matters worse, the tub is getting bigger because we're electrifying everything. So things like electric vehicles and just our increasingly electric-dependent lives are increasing the demand for electricity, and we are just not putting new power supply on the grid at the rate at which we're taking it off the grid.
So urgent a problem that all summer, much of this area was considered at risk of so-called rolling blackouts — targeted, deliberate power outages in certain areas.
A couple of hours away from the cherry factory is the Alpine Power Plant, one of the newest, cleanest, and most efficient in the region, where giant jet turbines are fed by natural gas.
Scott: This is a real workhorse. A system like this one can provide power for about 100,000 customers. The problem, some say, is there just aren’t enough of these out there.
Eric Baker runs the Wolverine Power Cooperative, operating this power station and several others across northern Michigan.
Scott: Do you think Americans should expect more blackouts?
Eric Baker: Yes.
Scott: Does that scare you?
Eric Baker: Yeah, it does, and it almost offends me. I'm a career utility planner. This is what I've grown up doing, in this industry for 30-some years is, in some way, planning for transmission or generation to bring reliable and affordable power to our rural customers. And so yeah, it bothers me a great deal.
What bothers Baker and many others in the power-generation business is switching off older coal and nuclear plants, like this one in southwest Michigan, that closed earlier this year. They say it's leaving a power gap that renewables can’t yet fill.
Eric Baker: I think more and more wind and solar is a good idea. Where it's challenging is when it gets to the margin of the assets that we need to keep the lights on. Because we don't have a technology that can store energy today, and I don't think we will in a decade, and I don't know that we will in two decades, have a meaningful storage technology that can collect power today and discharge that over several days in the future.
But the pace of change is accelerating, with the White House encouraging the move away from older, dirtier options.
President Biden: Just 15 years ago, America generated more than half its electricity from coal — coal-fired plants. Today, that’s down to 20% because there’s a big transition happening.
Some states that built their economies on fossil fuels are leading the way in wind and solar. In Texas, new renewable power plants like this one outside of Fort Worth are now filling fields. At the same time, crews are planting utility poles and hoisting lines as old farmland sees suburban spread.
But despite its leading role in both old and new energy, the Lone Star state has also built a reputation for power problems.
This past summer, high heat had grid operators here pleading for people to adjust thermostats and lower demand. And just two winters ago, in a rare cold snap, blackouts spread like wildfire, leaving residents powerless for days. The emergency was blamed for 249 deaths and led to protests in the state capitol Austin.
Adrian Shelley: It's a failure of leadership.
Adrian Shelley, the Texas director of Public Citizen, a progressive advocacy group, accused regulators and lawmakers of repeatedly failing to plan ahead.
Adrian Shelley: Many of the people in the positions of power today were there ten years ago, in 2011, when the grid failed. They knew what needed to be done back then. They made the decision not to do it. It happened again.
Across the country, the idea of grid failure comes up more and more these days.
Scott: We talk about rolling blackouts as something that might happen. You say it's not a matter of if, but when.
Rachel Johnson: The risk is only going to increase over the next few years if we don't fix that core problem of increasing the amount of new electric-generating resources on the system in order to meet the growing demand for electricity.
As millions of Americans working from home put added strains on the system, and others consume more too, keeping everything from phones to laptops to electric cars in a constant state of charge.
Sharyl: So do people think that billions of tax dollars that the Biden administration plans to spend on the grid, which a lot of people say is needed, will solve this problem?
Scott: Experts say it’ll help, but much more is going to be needed. Because while the Biden administration wants to spend $10 billion on the grid, you also have some experts who suggest that it could cost $2 trillion between now and the year 2050 to address all the necessary upgrades.