National Grid technicians work in Buffalo, New York

National Grid technicians work in Buffalo, New York, on December 26, 2022.

(Photo: Joed Viera/AFP via Getty Images)

Regulators Launch Probe to 'Dig Deeper' Into Winter Storm Elliott Power Outages

"This latest storm shows, yet again, that fossil fuels aren't especially reliable in extreme weather," noted one climate reporter. "Simply adding more gas or coal to the grid won't prevent blackouts from happening again in the future."

On the heels of yet another extreme weather event showcasing the inadequacy of the United States' fossil fuel-dependent energy system, U.S. and North American regulators on Wednesday announced an investigation into power outages during Winter Storm Elliott.

The U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), and the latter's six regional entities "will open a joint inquiry into the operations of the bulk power system during the extreme winter weather conditions," the regulators revealed in a statement.

More than 1.5 million homes and businesses across the United States lost power last week amid intense rain, snow, wind, and cold temperatures, according toReuters.

"This storm underscores the increasing frequency of significant extreme weather events... and underscores the need for the electric sector to change its planning scenarios and preparations for extreme events."

"The effects of Winter Storm Elliott demonstrate yet again that our bulk power system is critical to public safety and health," stressed FERC Chairman Richard Glick. "The joint inquiry with NERC we are announcing today will allow us to dig deeper into exactly what happened so we can further protect the reliability of the grid."

Referring to the rotating Arctic air that typically circles the North Pole but occasionally shifts south, bringing bitter cold temperatures to swaths of the United States, as the nation endured in recent days, NERC president and CEO Jim Robb said that "there will be multiple lessons learned from last week's polar vortex that will inform future winter preparations."

"In addition to the load shedding in Tennessee and the Carolinas, multiple energy emergencies were declared and new demand records were set across the continent. And this was in the early weeks of a projected 'mild' winter," he continued. "This storm underscores the increasing frequency of significant extreme weather events (the fifth major winter event in the last 11 years) and underscores the need for the electric sector to change its planning scenarios and preparations for extreme events."

As Vox's Rebecca Leber detailed Tuesday:

In many states, utilities and grid operators only narrowly averted greater disaster by asking customers to conserve their energy or prepare for rolling blackouts (when a utility voluntarily but temporarily shuts down electrical power to avoid the entire system shutting down). Some of the largest operators, including Tennessee Valley Authority, Duke Energy, and National Grid used rolling blackouts throughout the weekend. Texas also barely got through the emergency. On Friday, the U.S. Department of Energy permitted the state to ignore environmental emissions standards to keep the power on.
It wasn't that the country didn't have enoughgas to go around to meet the high demand. There was plenty of gas, but the infrastructure proved vulnerable to the extreme weather. Enough wells and pipes were frozen or broken to bring the grid to its brink.

"This latest storm shows, yet again, that fossil fuels aren't especially reliable in extreme weather," the climate reporter wrote. "Yet so much of energy politics focuses purely on supply—the mining and extraction, and how much oil, gas, and coal is in reserve. It's often taken for granted that this supply will always be accessible."

"In the meantime, we've failed to build more important infrastructure throughout our energy system; more energy storage, distributed power generation, interconnections across the major power grids, redundancy, and demand response are all needed," she concluded. "Simply adding more gas or coal to the grid won't prevent blackouts from happening again in the future."

The nation's latest deadly winter storm—dozens are confirmed dead and the National Guard is going door-to-door in hard-hit Buffalo, New York, to search for victims—comes amid worldwide demands from climate scientists and activists to rapidly transition from planet-heating fossil fuels to renewable energy, and improve grid resiliency in the process.

On a global scale, campaigners condemned COP27 last month as "another terrible failure" because the climate conference's final agreement failed to call for phasing out all fossil fuels, which experts warn is necessary to meet the temperature goals of the 2015 Paris accord—and as Common Dreams reported last week, blowing past those targets, even temporarily, could have dire consequences for all life on Earth.

While U.S. President Joe Biden has pledged to cut the country's greenhouse gas emissions in half, relative to 2005, by the end of the decade, much of his climate agenda has been limited by Congress over the past two years and the incoming Republican-majority House of Representatives is expected to further obstruct the Democratic Party's priorities—including and especially a transition to a cleaner and more reliable energy system.

Despite the recent blackouts, Angelena Bohman—who received a doctoral degree from Carnegie Mellon University after researching grid resilience—toldThe Hill 's Rachel Frazin that the current U.S. system is "fairly resilient," noting that utilites make improvements in anticipation of extreme weather.

However, improvements also take time, Bohman added, explaining that "many utilities own hundreds of thousands of miles of transmission and distribution lines and if you're going to upgrade any section of line, you're doing very small amounts every year and you only have so much money to do that."

Frazin highlighted that one way to better protect transmission lines is to put them underground, but that can be expensive. Bohman told her that though a provision of last year's bipartisan infrastructure legislation directing $5 billion to improving grid resilience is a "great start," in terms of what is needed on a national scale, it is a "drop in the bucket."

While policymakers at all levels of U.S. government fail to address fossil fuel-driven global temperature rise and its devastating effects, such as extreme weather, to the degree that scientists say is needed, and people across the country and beyond suffer as a result, "fossil fuel industry barons win no matter what," Thom Hartmann wrote Monday.

As the author and progressive radio host put it:

They all know accountability for corporate executive decision-making is nonexistent in today's America, corrupted as we have been by five conservatives on the Supreme Court legalizing political bribery. And as long as the GOP has anything to say about it, their hundreds of billions in taxpayer-funded subsidies will never end.
When extreme weather hits the U.S.—be it extreme heat in the summer or extreme cold in the winter—more of their product is burned to create electricity and heating/cooling, earning them more profits.

"When weather is 'normal,'" Hartmann added, "they just go back to bribing climate science deniers and Republican politicians across the nation to block any action to hold them accountable for 60 years of intentional lies."

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