Power outages show electrical grid needs to be strengthened
by Michael Goggin on Tuesday, February 23, 2021
This piece originally was originally published in the guest column of the Des Moines Register on 2/18/21.
Parts of western Iowa saw power cuts this week when electricity demand exceeded supply as record cold gripped much of the U.S. Power outages are always life-threatening for those who rely on electric medical devices, but they can be dangerous for anyone during a period of extreme cold or heat. Electricity is increasingly the lifeblood of America’s economy, as those who endured long outages from last August’s derecho can attest.
Investigations are underway to determine what caused millions to lose power across the U.S. this week, but already there are clear solutions such as building more power lines to strengthen the grid. A stronger grid network provides valuable resiliency, so if some power lines or power plants go offline, there are alternative sources of power available.
It appears that all electricity sources – coal, gas, diesel, wind, nuclear, and hydropower – were affected by this week’s record cold. Contrary to some initial claims pointing to renewables as the cause, data show that natural gas power plants accounted for most of the outages, with the cold causing equipment failures as well as fuel interruptions due to overwhelmed pipeline capacity and supply wells freezing.
Extreme weather events tend to be most severe in relatively small regions, so one of the best solutions is building stronger transmission ties to neighboring regions. If extreme heat or cold increases electricity demand or cuts supply in one region, transmission connections to neighboring regions can be lifelines to keep homes warm and people safe.
Transmission provides other benefits for Iowa. Just like the railroads and highways that allow Iowa corn, hogs, and soybeans to reach national and global markets, transmission allows Iowa to sell electricity from its world-class wind resources to other regions. Iowa now leads the country with over half of its electricity provided by wind energy, creating thousands of Iowa jobs, $19 billion in investment, and $65 million in annual tax payments in the state. However, further wind growth is constrained by the grid’s capacity to export power.
The solution is building new transmission lines, including innovative projects like the proposed SOO Green line. That project would be built underground along existing Iowa railroad lines, a first in the U.S.
Expanding transmission will create more Iowa jobs and generate more economic benefits by allowing greater exports of wind power. Since power flows in both directions, surplus wind generation can be exported, while power would flow back into Iowa in the event of an emergency. This week, and during a similar cold snap in early 2019, Iowa was largely spared from outages because power flowed in from states to the east. A stronger grid would help prevent outages and protect Iowa consumers from electricity price spikes during even more severe events.
Federal legislation can enable the investment needed to bolster the grid, just like it did with President Eisenhower’s interstate highway system in the 1950s. A new tax credit for building high-capacity transmission lines is now under consideration in Congress, as are measures to streamline how transmission is planned, paid for, and permitted. A stronger grid will be valuable every day, but particularly during extreme weather events like this.