Opinion: Prepare for Electricity Rationing

Electricity pylon | Image by Jiojio/Getty Images

In the hours before President Biden delivered his State of the Union address, the Washington Post ran a front-page story titled “Amid explosive demand, America is running out of power.”

What the Post and other national outlets have discovered is that America’s electricity demand is soaring. And our electricity grid is in no shape to handle it.

None of this was in the president’s address before Congress because it doesn’t fit the administration’s narrative of a smooth and painless energy transition. But the inescapable reality is that the reliability of our power supply is in crisis.

The North American Electric Reliability Corp., which oversees the reliability of the nation’s electricity grid, warned in December of blackout risks for most of the country over the next decade. From one coast to the other, we’re going to be short of power and living under increased threat of energy rationing.

While surging electricity demand from new manufacturing, an avalanche of new data centers, and the emergence of electric vehicles is part of the challenge, two immense policy failures are driving the crisis.

First, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has launched a blitz of rules designed to close well-operating fossil fuel power plants and make it impossible to build new ones unless they use prohibitively expensive and largely unproven emissions control technology.

At the center of the EPA’s crosshairs is the coal fleet which met 16% of the nation’s power last year—and is our grid reliability backstop during bitter cold. When renewable sources of power are no-shows during fierce winter storms, and gas supplies are largely consumed for heating, it’s coal plants that again and again ramp up power to meet surging demand. Despite the importance of these plants, the EPA is determined to accelerate plant closures—all but wiping out the coal fleet in a decade.

Stunningly, there is no coherent plan to replace this essential generating capacity or the critical role it plays during peak winter demand events. And here’s the second glaring failure: new generating capacity and infrastructure simply aren’t materializing fast enough.

Despite the countless billions in largesse thrown at renewable power, battery storage, and rapid expansion of the nation’s interstate transmission lines, the Biden administration’s promised buildout is stuck in first gear.

For example, the administration’s plan to jumpstart offshore wind is already unravelling. Struck by inflationary pressures, supply chain bottlenecks, and local opposition, utilities, and wind developers are throwing in the towel. Of the projects that have been announced over the past few years, 30% have already been cancelled, with more cancellations likely.

Things are going even worse for major transmission projects. According to the Department of Energy, the U.S. needs to double its amount of high-voltage transmission in order to hit the administration’s target of a renewable-dominant grid by 2035. But instead of transmission additions rapidly rising, they’re falling.

The administration’s de facto energy policy is to tear down the generating capacity we have today before we have in place the promised replacement capacity or the infrastructure it requires. That’s insanity. But it’s all the more dangerous now that we’re facing a sudden surge in power demand.

When, not if, blackouts and electricity rationing come—almost certainly accompanied by surging power prices—there should be no confusion about why. This is a self-made crisis and we’re running out of time to fix it.

Matthew Kandrach is president of Consumer Action for a Strong Economy, a free-market advocacy organization.

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