The Big Christmas Chill Was a Wakeup Call

by Bill O’Keefe

As temperatures dropped dramatically over the Christmas weekend, Dominion Energy’s advice to its customers — those who still had power — was to turn down their thermostats. Virginia was not alone. PJM, the regional grid management organization covering 13 states and the District of Columbia, made the same request because its gas plants couldn’t get enough fuel to meet the demand for home heating.

According to The Wall Street Journal, rolling blackouts were averted because PJM ordered some businesses to curtail power while switching some generators to oil. The large regions served by both the Tennessee Valley Authority and Duke Energy experienced rolling blackouts. And for the second year in a row, Texas faced a grid problem as wind power plunged and demand doubled.

The Wall Street Journal also noted that, “While there wasn’t a single cause for the power shortages, government policies to boost renewable energy snowballed and created problems that cascaded through the grid. There have been warnings about grid vulnerability for years but this Christmas proves that these warnings have not been taken seriously. The climate lobby blames climate change and greedy energy companies for this year’s problems but there have been colder Christmases — 1980 and 1983 for example. And, there have been colder Decembers that were survived without a grid breakdown or near breakdown.

The problems faced by utilities should be a warning and a reason for reassessment. Will Dominion heed that warning or will it continue on its present course? How will it prevent more serious problems as the demand for electrical power continues to increase and electric heat pumps are promoted and subsidized as responsible replacements for gas- and oil-fired furnaces?

That Dominion had to urge its customers to turn down their thermostats indicates that it did not have sufficient surge capacity to meet the demand caused by low temperatures. We need to know why. It could be the result of the 2019 decision to shutter all of its coal-fired capacity as part of its Net-Zero 2050 commitment and the General Assembly mandate to do so by 2024.

Unfortunately for Dominion and its customers, two recent reports cast doubt on the feasibility of net-zero carbon emissions and the assumptions of the Clean Economy Act. The first is from the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI); the second from the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC). The EPRI report concludes, “Achieving economy-wide net-zero CO2 emissions while maintaining reliable delivery of energy and energy services across the economy will require a broad set of low-carbon technologies.”

Many of these technologies are not commercially viable and require further technological advances before they will be — carbon capture and storage, bioenergy, and hydrogen and hydrogen-derived fuels. At the same time, NERC cautions that “capacity deficits … are largely the result of generator retirements that have yet to be replaced … energy limitations and unavailable generation during certain conditions (e.g., low wind, extreme and prolonged cold weather) can result in the inability to serve all firm demand.” To repeat in simple everyday language: retiring fossil fuel plants too fast creates a risk of grid failure and blackouts during extreme weather.

The transition that Dominion is engaged in seems to be analogous to planning a long vacation where plans can be made with a high degree of certainty and without contingency plans. Given all of the uncertainties that Dominion must overcome, a more appropriate approach would be to proceed as Lewis and Clark did in carrying out the expedition commissioned by Thomas Jefferson. That would require more caution, periodic reassessments, and fewer big dollar bets on technologies that don’t yet exist and its controversial BIG 176-square mile offshore wind farm.

Dominion owes its customers regular and independently validated reports on its technological progress and whether construction of its wind farm is on schedule, within budget, and remains practical. The General Assembly needs to reassess the feasibility and practicality of the Virginia Clean Economy Act, provide an honest and open assessment of achieving very low emission goals by 2050, and restore the State Corporation Commission’s regulatory authority.

William O’Keefe, a Midlothian resident, is founder of Solutions Consulting and former EVP of the American Petroleum Institute.