America’s energy future will be shaped to a significant degree by two new tensions that are rapidly converging. A massive number of electric vehicles (EVs) will soon be populating our roads, but our nation’s electric grid is woefully unprepared to supply the additional capacity required to fuel these vehicles. Even this summer, the entire Western electricity grid is facing the threat of blackouts for lack of adequate supply. If our transportation future is transitioning toward electric, something has to give.
The rolling blackouts that stunned California last summer were apparently a preview of a far larger problem The Western Electricity Coordinating Council is warning that the West simply doesn’t have enough power supply to meet a region-wide period of high demand.
The rush to invest in renewable power and push aside existing baseload generation —namely coal capacity — has left Western states perilously dependent on power imports. Relying on imports can work when it’s just one state that’s short on power. But what happens if an entire region is facing high demand?
Should a heat wave hit multiple states, there will be no power surplus to move around. When demand races past supply, just as it did last summer in California, grid operators will have no choice but to cut power for millions.
Across the West, increased investment in wind and solar power, aided by huge federal subsidies, has meant less investment in dispatchable, traditional generation. It has also meant the power sources that underpin reliability—such as coal, nuclear, and natural gas power plants—have been left with reduced revenue. Consequently, many have been forced into early retirement despite the glaring need for the back-up insurance they provide to the grid.
For years, concerns about the loss of this baseload capacity have been dismissed by renewable proponents because electricity demand has been flat or falling across much of the country. But that’s now about to change in a big way.
The pivot to EVs is growing, with a half-dozen automakers so far announcing plans to go all-electric. The Biden administration has made EVs a centerpiece of its climate and infrastructure plan, proposing $174 billion for new charging networks and consumer incentives. From Teslas to the new F-150 Lightning truck, EVs are arriving in ever-growing numbers and transforming power demand.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which oversees the nation’s grid, recently warned that electrification of transport will mean the U.S. needs to double its electricity generating capacity by 2050. You read that right. The grid must be able to handle double the current demand in less than 30 years.
Maintaining grid reliability and electricity affordability is already a colossal challenge. Doing so while doubling demand underscores the need for a far more responsible approach to the energy transition.
With our homes, businesses, and eventually our cars all counting on the grid, affordable and reliable power will only grow in importance. Responsibly managing the integration of renewable power should mean that it’s added on top of the nation’s existing on-demand power sources, not in place of them. Consumers deserve a no-regrets grid. Ensuring we have that means better valuing the existing baseload generation that has underpinned it for so long.
California’s rolling blackouts last year, followed by the Texas grid catastrophe in February—and now the threat of blackouts across the Western U.S. this summer—are a wakeup call. We need a grid we can count on. Ensuring we do means properly valuing the dispatchable, reliable generating capacity we already have.
Matthew Kandrach is president of Consumer Action for a Strong Economy, a free-market advocacy organization.