For decades, the United States has enjoyed an electricity grid that is more than 99 percent reliable, delivering electricity consistently and effectively to millions of households across the country. But under the mounting pressures of climate change, fossil fuel dependence, and underinvestment in transmission, the grid is beginning to show signs of strain. U.S. power outages are steadily on the rise, with major blackout events increasing by more than 60 percent from 2015 to 2020. On average, Americans experienced eight hours without power in 2020—an all-time high that’s more than double what it was in 2013.
The leading cause of power outages in the United States is extreme weather, and recent events have showcased just how disruptive these outages can be. Last September, at least 1.2 million customers across eight states lost power when Hurricane Ida barreled into the mid-Atlantic coast. Meanwhile, in California, Pacific Gas & Electric has had to regularly plan transmission line shutoffs to prevent sparking wildfires during what has been one of the most severe droughts in more than a century. Notably, because of decades of environmental injustice in the United States, the consequences of this kind of grid failure disproportionately affect low-income communities and communities of color.
Read more on the need to improve the equity of the U.S. power system
Recurring grid failure also comes at a steep price. In a 2014 report, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) estimated that power outages cost businesses in the United States $150 billion a year. That says nothing of the cost of grid maintenance, which by one estimate could total as much as $2 trillion from 2010 to 2030 to support current levels of reliability.
And climate change is just getting started. The extreme weather ravaging the U.S. power system today is the result of about 1 degree Celsius of warming above preindustrial levels. Without major action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the world is on track to reach at least 3.5 degrees Celsius of warming by 2100, according to the latest assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. This could have “far-reaching effects” on “every aspect” of the electricity grid, costing utilities and customers billions of dollars, as forewarned by the U.S. Government Accountability Office last year.
That is, unless Congress does something about it. The targeted investments included in President Joe Biden’s economic plan will help to fortify the reliability of the U.S. power system while transitioning the country to a more affordable and sustainable clean energy future.
Fossil fuels are directly contributing to grid vulnerability
The United States’ prolonged dependence on fossil fuels has jeopardized energy reliability—and will continue to in the absence of federal intervention—in part by exacerbating the climate crisis. The more greenhouse gasses that are emitted from the power sector, the more frequent and severe extreme weather events will become, causing a vicious cycle of electricity disruptions in every region of the country.
Furthermore, the fossil fuel systems specifically designed to function as backstops during power outages are, themselves, not always sufficient in safeguarding grid reliability. This was on clear display during the Texas winter freeze last year, in which major points of failure in the natural gas fuel supply left more than 4.5 million customers—or an estimated 10 million people—without electricity. Meanwhile, as record-breaking heat waves become more commonplace, high temperatures will continue to cut into the efficiencies of fossil fuel power plants, reducing their output and potentially forcing certain units offline.
U.S. electricity grid is showing signs of strain
Increase in major blackout events in the United States from 2015 to 2020
Number of hours Americans spent without power, on average, in 2020 (an all-time high)
Annual cost of power outages to businesses in the United States, according to 2014 DOE estimates
Estimated cost of grid maintenance from 2010 to 2030 to support current levels of reliability
Fossil fuels cannot be the solution to a problem they are contributing to; it is time to stop propping them up despite their high costs, fallibility, and pollution. Clean energy technologies are a mature alternative for reliably powering the electricity grid, as analysis by RMI has shown. And yet, the fossil fuel industry continues to impede renewable energy deployment, force higher costs on to ratepayers, and even bribe state legislatures. These bad-faith interventions, paired with the widespread rhetoric about the purported unreliability of renewables, are yet another indication of the hold that fossil fuel interests have on U.S. democracy.
Clean energy has the potential to revolutionize the power grid
Fortunately, the grid doesn’t have to remain vulnerable to fossil fuels. Study after study has found that the U.S. power system can maintain and even strengthen its reliability over time by achieving President Biden’s science-backed goal of transitioning to 80 percent clean electricity by 2030 and 100 percent clean electricity by 2035. For example, a meta-analysis by Energy Innovation looked at 11 different studies of policy packages that would drive the United States to 70 to 90 percent clean electricity over the next 10 years; across the board, the studies affirmed that the grid would remain dependable throughout this clean energy transition—including five studies that specifically considered the performance of the grid when strained by extreme weather or high levels of electricity demand. Repeated technical analyses from the National Laboratories have resulted in similar findings, as has recent analysis from Stanford University and rigorous new modeling from the DOE.
Grid operators agree. In a letter to Congress last September, 21 national grid experts, including the former CEO of the largest U.S. regional grid, PJM, wrote that “both experience and research show” that the U.S. power system can maintain “full reliability” while achieving 80 percent carbon-free electricity. Additionally, grid operators and utilities will still be obligated to conform to the reliability standards established by the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, subject to state public service commissions, and be overseen by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission—regardless of how increasingly clean their energy mix is.
Moving to a greater diversity of clean energy resources—a combination that includes at least wind, solar, energy storage, hydropower, and nuclear—will not only slash power sector emissions but also establish redundancy and flexibility in the power system. The implementation of energy efficiency and energy demand management programs can then complement clean energy portfolios by helping customers reduce their electricity consumption during peak hours, further minimizing the strain on the grid at any given time.
Long-term energy reliability is contingent on the clean energy investments included in Biden’s economic plan
Building a clean and reliable electricity grid will take investment. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, enacted in November 2021, gets at one part of the solution set by directing $65 billion to expand, modernize, and weatherize transmission lines, including through the DOE’s new Building a Better Grid Initiative. But this funding alone is far from enough to transition the entire U.S. power system at the scale and rate required.
If Congress is truly committed to improving grid reliability—and shoring up communities against the climate impacts to come—then it must enact a reconciliation package that will deliver on the critical investments in transmission, renewable energy, energy storage, and more that are currently included in Biden’s economic plan. For example:
- A robust package of 10-year clean electricity tax credits with direct pay and credit optionality will position the United States to achieve a fully decarbonized power grid by 2035.
- An investment tax credit for regionally significant, high-voltage transmission lines will expand and update the grid, enabling an additional 30,000 megawatts of renewable energy capacity, according to analysis by the American Council on Renewable Energy (ACORE).
- A production tax credit for existing nuclear energy will prevent the premature retirement of the fleet’s clean generation.
- A new investment tax credit for stand-alone energy storage will encourage the adoption of large-scale battery storage, supporting the continued expansion of renewable energy sources and providing the flexibility that the grid needs to respond to fluctuating and escalating electricity demand.
- Additional investments in distributed energy, including refundable tax credits for rooftop solar and battery storage, will create more resilience, reliability, and redundancy in the power system in the face of extreme weather events.
- Investments in building weatherization and energy efficiency will ease the burden placed on the grid during energy emergencies, helping to prevent future power outages and lowering electricity bills for consumers.
Importantly, these investments will enable the U.S. power system to reliably meet electricity demand, mitigate and better respond to the impacts of climate change, and provide consumers with access to lower-cost, pollution-free forms of electricity generation.
It is time to stop perpetuating the false choice between clean energy and a reliable electricity grid. Congress has the opportunity to transform the U.S. power system for the betterment of all Americans; and in the face of the climate crisis, the country can no longer afford to wait.
The authors would like to thank Dan Esposito from Energy Innovation and Russell Mendell from RMI, as well as Trevor Higgins and Sally Hardin from the Center for American Progress, for their contributions to this column.