Is North Carolina prepared for power grid blackouts in extreme winter weather?

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — Extreme weather caused in part by El Nino will continue to affect us through out the winter, and those who watch our power grid warn that extreme weather could elevate the risk of blackouts.

CBS 17 wants to know how well prepared is this part of the country for conditions that could disrupt the flow of electricity during the cold weeks ahead.

Winter—it puts a strain on our efforts to lead a normal life and it also puts a strain on the grid.

“You very well might see the system constrained and there’s certainly the increased risks of brownouts and blackouts,” said David Holt, who is president of the Consumer Energy Alliance.

Holt is referring to a report from the North American Reliability Corporation (NERC) which warns much of the country is at elevated risk for grid failure in extreme weather this winter, including the southeast.

That potential grid failure is a worry to some of us who live here.

“Infrastructure should be improved dramatically, quickly, and our future is dependent upon it,” said Raleigh resident Russ Kolman.

Dallas Smith is also worried about the grid reliability because he lived through a huge failure of it not that long ago.

I’m pretty concerned because we actually were in Texas when that whole system went down, the whole ERCOT thing,” he said. “I think I’d be pretty darn concerned about it, to be honest.”

ERCOT is the system that operates Texas’ electric grid which failed miserably two winters ago causing a ripple affect around the nation.

In December of 2022, what became known as Winter Storm Elliot stressed the grid all over the country, including here in the Southeast.

It turns out 18% of the country’s entire electrical grid failed during that winter storm, according to a federal report.

Among the problems reported at power plants across the country were frozen sensors and other similar equipment which stopped working.

All of a sudden, there wasn’t enough power to go around because all of the grid is interconnected.

One of the things that we experienced during winter storm Elliot, was we had purchased power to import into our state, and it wasn’t delivered as expected,” said Jeff Brooks of Duke Energy. “That was a unique circumstance we haven’t experienced often, but it’s something we have to plan for in the future.”

Many power plants depend on natural gas for fuel and during winter storm Elliot they too had problems with the extreme cold—failing to deliver the needed fuel to power plants.

In its report, NERC recommended utilities winterize their power plants and components to avoid conditions which would cause them to fail.

We’ve improved our cold weather protections at our plants, mostly around instrumentation,’’ said Brooks “We saw some instrumentation that created challenges for us last year and so we’ve worked to improve that.”

“We’ve also worked to adjust our maintenance cycles so that we have our maintenance done by the beginning of December so that all those resources are available to help serve customer energy demand across the state when temperatures get very cold,” he said.

However, grid problems go beyond having to deal with temporary weather issues.

“The number one concern is, we’re not building out enough capacity fast enough,” said Holt. “That’s a concern for the entire country, not just specific regions of the country.”

In an area like ours, where growth is coming in leaps and bounds, that’s a concern to those who live here.

“Ten years from now, 20 years from now, 30 years from now, especially if we don’t do something immediately, things are going to get worse,” said Kolman.

“We’re not adding enough capacity of permanent power, natural gas or nuclear that meets that demand,” said Holt. “We’re also not adding enough power that’s more intermittent, like wind and solar.”

Consumer Investigator Steve Sbraccia wanted to know what Duke Energy is doing to meet the growing demand.

“Some of that growth is very near-term,’’ said Brooks. “We’ve got to be able to meet that now.”

“Some of the new plants, the natural gas plant in Person County that we’ve proposed, new nuclear in Stokes County and other plants that we will continue to add to the system are designed to meet that growing energy need,” he said.

Wind and solar are in the mix too, but they take up a lot of land—and it may not be feasible to rely on large numbers of those kinds of facilities for future power needs.

Sbraccia asked Holthow large a windfarm would be needed to replace one gas fired electric power generating plant.

“We’re talking hundreds of wind turbines,’’ said Holt. “We’re talking miles and miles of major industrial solar panel farms.”

A better way to help manage and conserve our electric energy use may be to rely on technology.

As we add more renewables and battery storage and electric vehicles across our system, we’re going to need a system that’s smarter and that can handle the dynamic power flows that come with that,” said Brooks.

The use of Artificial Intelligence on the grid will become more prevalent in the future.

One current use of AI now is so-called “self-healing” circuitry.

“This technology is great when an outage occurs because it automatically detects the outage and reroutes power to other lines to help restore service faster.”

The International Energy Agency predicts electricity use will grow 20% faster in the coming decade than it did in the previous 10 years.

However, upgrading the grid is not a problem that’ll be solved tomorrow.

It’s a complicated process involving regulations, public support and construction of the infrastructure needed to support it.

All of that takes time and planning.

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