How Politics is Making Power Failures the Norm

Modern society is heavily dependent on electric power, yet the power system is and always has been a fragile thing.

Because the power system on the whole has been designed by competent engineers and operated by skilled staff, the vast majority of the time, the power system works as intended, providing power to homes and businesses, on demand, even during periods of extreme weather. As designed, historically the U.S. power grid has proven remarkably resilient.

Sadly, as political considerations have increasingly trumped basic physics and engineering, electrical power failures have become more common in the past couple of decades in the United States. The decline in the reliability of the electric power system has coincided with the increasing incorporation of intermittent wind and solar power into electric power networks.

The increase in wind and solar power was not driven by market forces. Instead, it is the result of politicians forcing and incentivizing ever greater amounts onto the power grid. In a single generation, politicians have undermined the integrity of the U.S. electrical grid.

A large-scale power grid consists of two segments: base load power and peaking power. Baseload power is the minimum amount of energy needed for the grid to function properly while delivering power to every user who needs it during a normal day. For the grid to function, it needs a fairly constant flow of power. Coal, nuclear, hydropower (in some areas), and, to a lesser extent, natural gas, have satisfied the nation’s baseload demand for the past century because they operate full time, with onsite back-up, usually in the form of diesel boilers, to provide power during routine maintenance or break downs.

Peaking power is the additional power needed when the system is faced with unusual amounts of demand, usually in July and August in the South, when air conditioner use soars along with summer temperatures. Peaking power also increases during the cold winters in northern states. Natural gas has commonly served to provide peaking power because natural gas plants can be built to scale. Fuel can usually be delivered as needed and can be cycled on and off quickly based on demand.

Neither wind nor solar can be relied upon for either baseload or peaking power. Wind turbines only generate power when the wind blows between certain speeds, and the power they generate fluctuates constantly along with wind gusts. Solar panels provide no power at night or when covered by snow, ice, or soot, and only reduced power on cloudy days and during storms. Except on completely cloudless days with clear skies, the power generated by solar panels also fluctuates second by second with the passage of clouds.

A power system that depends on the weather cooperating is a bad idea. Yet, over the past two decades wind and solar power have accounted for an ever-increasing portion of electric power capacity in in the United States. And it’s all due to politics.

In a majority of states, legislators have required a set minimum amount of power within the state come from wind or solar power, regardless of the costs and the reliability problems it creates. On top of that, federal, state, and local subsidies encouraged wind and solar to continue growing beyond the minimum amount set by states. 

Because taxpayers and ratepayers pick up more than 50 percent of the cost in many instances, wind and solar generators make a profit while selling electricity into the power grid below what it cost them to produce and deliver it to users. As a result, dozens of coal-fueled power plants, accounting for tens of thousands of megawatts of reliable baseload electric power capacity, have closed across the country.

The downside of renewable energy was experienced in Texas in mid-February when more than eight million Texans lost power during a bitter cold spell. Some water treatment plants lost power as well, leaving thousands without access to clean water. Widespread “boil water” orders were issued. One can’t boil water during a power outage if one’s stove is electric. In California, the state most reliant on wind and solar power, rolling blackouts are quickly becoming the norm each summer.

Despite these examples, federal, state, and local politicians are angling to make a bad situation worse, calling for ever greater reliance on electric power even as they undermine the reliability of the power grid. Several states are considering or adopting laws to end the use of fossil fuels to generate electricity within the next 10 to 20 years, while simultaneously pushing laws to electrify the transportation system by ending the use of vehicles with internal combustion engines.

Moreover, some cities and states are considering or have already passed laws to bar new homes and businesses from hooking up to natural gas for heating, cooking, water heating, and industrial and commercial uses.

That means as power failures become more common, increasing numbers of people won’t even be able to cook in their homes or, if necessary, boil water for safety. In addition, because cars don’t charge when the electricity is off, people won’t be able to travel, even during emergencies. Nor will government agencies, if they adopt electric vehicles, as the Biden administration is pushing for, be able to get to people during crises accompanied or brought on by power failures.

Weather, like wind and solar power, is fickle. Because of that, no large-scale power system should ever rely on wind and solar power for a substantial percentage of its electric power supply. Nor should politicians force people to forgo the use of gasoline and diesel-powered cars and trucks or appliances powered by natural gas. As Texas showed recently, and California demonstrates every summer, to do so is to court catastrophic, potentially life-threatening failure.

H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D. (hburnett@heartland.org) is a senior fellow at The Heartland Institute, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research center headquartered in Arlington Heights, Illinois.

Image: Dan Nguyen