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Economy

America Is Depending on Renewables This Summer

It’s a clear sign that wind and solar power really matter.

Summer heat and the electricity grid.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

The weather is changing and there are concerns about the reliability of the electric grid. This is a story that can be written at least twice a year and often is. Whether it’s cold snaps knocking off generation or everyone cranking up the air conditioning, more extreme weather means it’s harder to match the supply and demand of electricity.

Earlier this week, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, which sets and enforces standards for grid operators in the United States and Canada, released its annual Summer Reliability Assessment, reporting that while it expected the grid to make it through unscathed, still “two-thirds of North America is at risk of energy shortfalls this summer during periods of extreme demand,” i.e. if it gets really, really hot.

And every year renewable energy skeptics use the report to blame the increased use of renewables and retirement of fossil fuel generation for the brittleness of the grid.

NERC both pre-empts and acknowledges such criticism this year. “Increased, rapid deployment of wind, solar and batteries have made a positive impact,” NERC’s manager of Reliability Assessments Mark Olson said in a statement accompanying the report. “However, generator retirements continue to increase the risks associated with extreme summer temperatures, which factors into potential supply shortages in the western two-thirds of North America if summer temperatures spike.”

More deeply, though, these worries are just a clear sign of the progress the renewables buildout has made, even before last year’s passage of the Inflation Reduction Act.

The interconnected grids of the United States and Canada are now clearly reliant on renewable and non-carbon generation, from utility-scale solar in the Mojave Desert to wind farms in Oklahoma to nuclear power plants in Ontario. This summer (and every summer after it) will be put up or shut up time for an increasingly renewable-heavy grid.

In short, the renewable buildout, while far from complete, has begun to work. Some 400 million people are, in one way or another, dependent on these resources to keep the lights on.

And when it comes to dealing with potential extreme weather in the summer, all eyes are on wind. In the Midwest and Southwest, the NERC report isolates wind power as a "key factor" in whether the grid will function when demand rises.

In Texas, which is debating subsidizing the construction of new natural gas plants to deal with winter reliability issues, the report notes that, while “resources are adequate for peak demand of the average summer," it worries about "an extreme heat-wave that is accompanied by low winds.”

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  • In the Western United States, NERC called out the familiar issues of vast solar resources disappearing at the end of the day while demand is still high, but noted that there are plans for large-scale batteries to essentially store sunlight for later in the day. NERC, as well as California’s grid operator, also said the massive snowfall this winter will boost generation by the region’s hydropower, a welcome reversal of the typical negative effects extreme weather has on the grid.

    All of this by no means indicates that fossil fuels are out, even as coal is forecast to fall to just 16 percent of overall electricity generation by 2024, according to the Energy Information Administration. And natural gas is "vitally important to electric grid reliability,” the NERC report says.

    But even natural gas’ portion of the country’s electricity generation may have peaked. The EIA expects natural gas to make up 40 percent of electric generation this year and to decline to 38 percent in 2024, while renewables will rise from 23 to 26 percent of generation.

    In the race between the atmospheric carbon dioxide contributing to extreme weather and the carbon-free generation designed to reduce new emissions, the carbon is still winning, but the renewables are at least off the starting blocks. Now it’s time to see if they can maintain their stride.

    Matthew Zeitlin profile image

    Matthew Zeitlin

    Matthew is a correspondent at Heatmap. Previously he was an economics reporter at Grid, where he covered macroeconomics and energy, and a business reporter at BuzzFeed News, where he covered finance. He has written for The New York Times, the Guardian, Barron's, and New York Magazine.

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