Right now, the United States is suffering some brutally cold weather. Northern states like North Dakota and Minnesota have seen night-time temperatures dropping below zero degrees Fahrenheit. And Duluth is currently chasing a record for the coldest sustained weather, set way back in 1912.
These Arctic conditions are extremely challenging, and Americans are turning up their thermostats to stay warm. As a result, the current “Polar Vortex” is pushing America’s power grid to the limit.
The Midcontinent Independent System Operator, or MISO, which oversees power transmission in 15 central states, reports that coal is currently generating more than half of its overall electricity. In fact, a Feb. 15 snapshot of MISO’s grid showed coal producing roughly 45,000 megawatts of electricity, with natural gas coming in second at 25,000 megawatts. Essentially, during the current Arctic blast, coal is proving to be the sturdiest fuel for carrying the load.
MISO data shows just how lopsided this electricity portfolio is. On Feb. 15, MISO’s customers were drawing roughly 88,000 megawatts of electricity. Coal’s 45,000 megawatts covered more than half of this demand. In comparison, wind and solar power hardly contributed. Solar panels delivered roughly 287 megawatts, and wind turbines topped out at around 4,900 megawatts. That means these much-vaunted renewable energy systems produced only around 5 percent of the electricity needed across 15 states.
MISO has now posted alerts warning of extreme weather conditions and potential “fuel restrictions.” But all of this pales in comparison to Texas’s current troubles. Stunningly cold weather — including sub-zero temperatures — have led to a massive spike in electricity demand across the state. However, much of the Texas power grid now relies on wind turbines.
And in the current Arctic blast, half of the state’s wind turbines have frozen, taking at least 12,000 megawatts of power offline. Even worse, home heating needs have drained the state’s natural gas capacity, leaving some gas-fired plants without fuel.
As a result, Texas is now seeing blackouts. On Feb. 15, up to 2.5 million Texans were without electricity. This is the inevitable result of policies that favor intermittent wind generation while pushing aside the fuel-security and reliability provided by coal plants.
Worryingly, Texas’s shift to wind-generated power is being replicated across the nation. President Biden hopes to eliminate all coal and natural gas plants from the U.S. power grid by 2035. This is deeply concerning if one tries to imagine a Polar Vortex in 15 years when none of the current coal plants are still available to do the heavy emergency lifting.
As Texas scrambles to pull together needed power, it’s clear that baseload power must remain a key component of reliable electricity generation. The United States should continue to pursue an “all-of-the-above” fuel mix. Wind and solar can certainly contribute to the nation’s power grid. But smart future planning dictates that coal, natural gas and nuclear power will still be needed to help with the heavy lifting during uncooperative weather.
Terry Jarrett is an energy attorney and consultant who has served on both the board of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners and the Missouri Public Service Commission.