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After Close Call at Christmas, Senators Discuss Strengthening PA Power Grid

Residents of Pennsylvania came close to facing rolling blackouts when winter storm Elliott hit the week of Christmas last year.

The effects of the storm, a “bomb cyclone,” were bad enough. Strong winds and temperatures dropping to 30 below with wind chill resulted in some 108,000 Pennsylvania households losing power.

In response, the state Senate held a hearing Monday to examine what can be done to improve the electric grid and power generation so consumers don’t suffer future blackouts. Representatives from the Public Utilities Commission, industry groups, and the power transmission utility PJM spoke.

Sen. Gene Yaw (R-Bradford) said some witnesses were using “politically correct” language. “I probably won’t be,” Yaw said. Society needs energy to build an economy, and after that, “you can deal with the environment.”

“We’ve been tinkering with the environmental side without considering the economics and operational side,” Yaw argued. Five years ago, the state had a “perfect mix” of natural gas, coal, and nuclear electricity generation. “We did not have reliability issues at all.”

But now there are political pressures to go to green energy. “I think we’re dealing with a lousy deck,” said Yaw.

Asim Haque with PJM, the region’s transmission utility, said a report that came out Friday found older power plants are not being replaced quickly enough with new sources, despite all the focus on green energy generation. As a result, customers face a very real possibility there won’t be enough electricity supply to meet demand.

“Keeping the lights on is PJM’s most important priority,” said Haque. But the mix of power generation is shifting, raising concerns about reliability. The state’s supply is moving from reliable generation sources like gas, coal, and nuclear power to less reliable solar and wind power.

He also sees the demand for electricity increasing with more data centers coming to Pennsylvania and more electric vehicles hitting the roads.

Gladys Brown Dutrieulle with the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) said, “Reliability is the key to replacing aging infrastructure.”

Natural gas provides 53 percent of the power to generate electricity in the state, nuclear energy provides 33 percent, and coal provides 12 percent. Wind and solar make up the remainder.

Diane Holder, vice president of Reliability First, said they work with agencies in 13 states and Washington, D.C. She noted wind and solar are “weather dependent” and better battery storage is needed to make power output from those sources less variable.

She said the country needs more time to transform its energy generation from current methods to renewable energy. There are also “challenges to integrating renewables onto the grid.”

Yaw said the witnesses mentioned 94 percent of new energy coming online was from wind and solar, with only 6 percent natural gas, which is more reliable.

He asked why more natural gas and nuclear plants aren’t being built. “The more we bring (renewables) online, the more we have a problem (with reliability).” More natural gas plants “would help,” he said.

Dutrieulle noted gas plants are more expensive to build and new nuclear plants are even more costly.

Yaw said that while nuclear plants don’t produce emissions, they require “tons of concrete and plastic (to build). There is a carbon footprint to everything.”

“The projections in this study indicate that the current pace of new entry (of power plants) would be insufficient to keep up with expected retirements and demand growth by 2030,” the PJM report said.

Over the past decade, Pennsylvania has benefitted from the supply of natural gas via the Marcellus Shale source. But in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the resulting increased reliance on natural gas around the world, there is more volatility in the market.

Haque added another obstacle to constructing new natural gas power plants: The ESG movement.

“ESG (Environmental, Social, Governance) requirements, impact whether financing can be obtained,” Haque said. Some large financial institutions, such as BlackRock, have adopted ESG stipulations for their investments and won’t fund fossil fuels.

However, “we do assume we will receive new megawatts from natural gas,” he added.

Sen. Carolyn Comitta (D-Chester) picked up on Holder’s mention of a “great transition” to clean energy, noting that fossil fuels would still be needed during that time.

“Things are happening very quickly,” she said.

Haque said fossil fuels are “still essential.”

Rachel Gleason, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coal Alliance, said coal-powered plants stepped into the breach and saved the state from blackouts last winter.

“During winter storm Elliott, it was coal that came to the rescue again,” she said. And “unreliable wind and solar” are being subsidized and they are not required to pay fines if they do not provide the power they’ve promised. Those subsidies distort the energy market, she said.

But Andrew Williams with SolSystems said solar is part of a “comprehensive energy plan.”

“Solar works any time the sun is up,” he said. “Solar performed as needed during Elliott.” And many new data centers have solar panels on their rooftops, he said. But he admitted it will be unlikely that Pennsylvania will rely totally on renewable energy by 2035 as some people would like.

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California and Texas Blackouts Could Be Coming, Energy Experts Warn

It could be a cruel summer for millions of Americans who are not only paying big energy bills but also worried the AC will conk out.

That is because energy experts warn, several regions face potential blackouts and much higher utility bills. The Midwest electric grid has “a high risk” of failure according to the North American Electricity Reliability Corporation (NERC) in its Summer Reliability Assessment report. The report also warns the West Coast, and Texas could have blackouts while rates skyrocket.

In mid-June, utility power providers were warning that hot weather could lead to “capacity problems on the grid.”

Part of the problem, said John Moura, NERC Director of Reliability Assessments and System Analysis, is the rapid remaking of the nation’s electrical grid will pose challenges to grid reliability over the next decade. Recent blackouts in California and Texas, “should serve as a wake-up call for the rest of the country,” Moura said.

Americans are waking up to the problem, said another energy group.

A poll by The National Mining Association (NMA) found about 8 in 10 voters–including a majority of Democrats, Republicans, and independents–want the government to prevent premature closings of functioning power plants until replacement generating capacity is online. The poll found that 9 in 10 voters are concerned about rising electricity rates.

Voters were also asked if the U.S. should ramp up coal production to ease Europe’s dependence on Russian coal for steelmaking and electricity generation. Some 60 percent want greater U.S. coal production, the poll noted.

“Americans are deeply concerned that they are paying far more for a supply of electricity that is less reliable than ever before. With grid reliability deteriorating, energy inflation soaring and the threat of blackouts now a reality for tens of millions of Americans, it’s time for an energy policy reset,” said NMA President and CEO Rich Nolan.

An energy industry business coalition says blame sticker shock on U.S. regulatory policies.

“The rise in electricity prices is, unfortunately, much too predictable considering the energy policies of the past two Democratic administrations promised–and have since delivered–Americans. Between Presidents Barack Obama and Joe Biden, they have forced the shuttering of power plants across the country, made the siting and construction of transmission lines virtually impossible, stopped pipeline expansion, and closed off domestic energy production,” argues Craig Stevens, a spokesman for the group “Grow America’s Infrastructure Now.”

A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Energy did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Besides energy availability, price is also a problem, a regulator noted.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission says electricity prices for June through September in the California, New England, and Texas markets rose 77 percent to 223 percent from last year’s prices. Those numbers came from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). In its latest “Short Term Energy Outlook” issue, it forecasts electricity prices in the Northeast regions will double. They will exceed $100 per megawatt-hour between June and August. That is up from an average of about $50/MWh last summer.

EIA pointed to the high price of natural gas as a cause of price hikes, as well as constraints on fuel switching to coal from “continued coal capacity retirements, constraints in fuel delivery to coal plants and lower than average stocks at coal plants. New England is feeling the heat of higher prices.

For example, New Hampshire ratepayers will soon dig deeper. Liberty Utilities is seeking approval for an increase in the default residential energy rate from 8.393 cents per kilowatt-hours to 22.223 cents per kilowatt-hours, according to a Public Utilities Commission filing.

Granite Staters using Liberty will pay about 50 percent more for electricity when the new rate takes effect in August, says Donald Kreis with New Hampshire’s Office of Consumer Advocate.

Is there a solution?

NMA spokesman Conor Bernstein said while there is no immediate answer, long-term national policy should be to use domestic energy resources.

“Getting us to our energy future shouldn’t mean disassembling affordability and reliability along the way,” Bernstein contends. “This global energy crisis has underscored the need for U.S. energy leadership and, as this polling clearly shows, Americans recognize the critically important role American coal can play in reinforcing our energy security and that of our allies and they want their elected officials to take action.”

Bernstein also blamed the EPA. “It wants to use every tool in its toolbox to accelerate coal plant retirements. That’s an agenda, that will only exacerbate the reliability and affordability challenges already gripping the country. Doubling down on that approach is insanity.”

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