Christmas Blackouts Challenge Conventional Energy Wisdom

January 7, 2023

WFAE NPR Charlotte:

One of the longstanding arguments against renewable energy like wind and solar is that it’s not as reliable as conventional power plants. But the Christmas Eve rolling blackouts in North Carolina turned that conventional wisdom on its head.

Single-digit temperatures across the region froze instrumentation and sensing lines and caused other mechanical problems that reduced output at several of Duke Energy’s gas- and coal-powered plants.

For the first time ever, the company was forced to use rolling power outages to manage an electricity shortage. About 500,000 customers across the Carolinas lost power at some point on the morning of Christmas Eve, some for hours.

“At a fundamental level, it highlights how extreme weather, due to climate change, increasingly calls into question the resilience of our existing infrastructure, including our electric power generation system, and the assumption that fossil fuel generation is reliable and is there when you need it,” said David Neal, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center.

Meanwhile, although solar energy was obviously not available overnight, it kicked in as the sun rose and performed as expected, with no outages, according to Duke Energy. In fact, Duke executives told regulators Tuesday that solar helped power the pumps needed to replenish the company’s South Carolina hydroelectric reservoirs. That helped avoid more blackouts on Christmas Day.

Neal said Duke’s experience during the blackouts shows that solar, combined with battery storage, “are going to be an important part of a resilient and cleaner electric grid going forward.”

Duke doesn’t currently have any wind power on its Carolinas grid. But Neal said that also should be a future option. “Offshore wind typically generates well in those early morning hours. So it would have been a great complementary resource to help meet that peak,” he said.

Blackouts fuel the debate 

But others see it differently. Since the blackouts, state Senate Majority Leader Paul Newton (R-Cabarrus) and the John Locke Foundation both have blamed the rolling blackouts on Gov. Roy Cooper’s push for more renewable energy.

Newton, a former Duke Energy executive, said in a Dec. 30 interview with Spectrum News that solar energy “destabilizes the grid.” Newton said he supports adding more nuclear energy, natural gas plants and gas pipelines.

“I have to remind people that our governor has fought every new natural gas pipeline that’s been proposed for the state of North Carolina. That natural gas provides dispatchable reliable energy, very clean energy, and yet he fights those pipelines. And I’m telling you, it’s coming back to haunt us,” Newton said.

But it wasn’t just bad forecasting. Equipment froze, and Duke lost generating capacity from coal- and gas-fired power plants just when it was needed most. Altogether, Duke lost about 10% of its capacity from Friday night to Saturday morning. Duke executives gave regulators this accounting:

  • At around 10 p.m. Friday, frozen instrumentation at the gas-powered Dan River plant in Rockingham County cut production by 360 megawatts.
  • Saturday around 2 a.m., frozen sensing lines caused a partial failure at one of four coal-fired units at the Roxboro plant, in Person County. Another 325 megawatts gone. 
  • Instruments froze just before 6 a.m. at the coal-fired Mayo plant, also in Person County, taking 350 megawatts of electricity off the grid.  
  • Around 8 a.m., frozen instrumentation lines knocked out 273 megawatts of capacity at the gas-fired Smith Energy Complex in Hamlet, in Richmond County. 
  • Two more units at Roxboro were knocked offline around 1 p.m. when a coal feeder failed, cutting another 685 megawatts. 
  • Power was lost briefly from a gas-fired unit in Lincoln County just before 5 a.m., though it was later restored as demand peaked.
  • And Duke officials told regulators that operators had to trim output at the gas-fired Buck plant in Salisbury around 10 a.m. because of low gas pressure on the pipeline that feeds the plant. 

4 Responses to “Christmas Blackouts Challenge Conventional Energy Wisdom”

  1. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    That natural gas provides dispatchable reliable energy, very clean energy, and yet he fights those pipelines.

    (1) Winterizing existing plants would have reduced the loss of those thermal (steam-run) power plants in the first place.
    (2) Natgas production has a very high GHG footprint.
    (3) Kids with asthma from natgas cooking don’t think it is “very clean” at all.

  2. mbrysonb Says:

    The price of continuing lies about energy sources, their reliability and the fast-mounting consequences of BAU is coming due- pretending otherwise is increasingly implausible, and an attack on the public interest (the lies of the fossil fuel gang and their political servants will be remembered– though perhaps too late for actual trials. From the first-person economic perspective, there’s a crude rationality about it — but that kind of rationality is also a threat to the future of the world…)

  3. John Oneill Says:

    Natural gas has trouble in cold snaps because of high demand for domestic heating, on top of high demand for electricity. The usual mantra of ‘100% renewables, and electrify everything’, will make things much worse – heat pumps and electric cars will put a heavy extra load on the grid, while solar and wind make production more erratic. Recommended reading – ‘Shorting the Grid – the Hidden Fragility of Our Electric Grid’, by Meredith Angwin.

    • greenman3610 Says:

      indeed a challenge, but bearing in mind that the wide distribution of behind the meter battery storage, in household units like power walls, but perhaps primarily in grid connected EVs, could very well change the math.

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