Last week, on live TV, a Houston weatherman was in the middle of describing how blisteringly hot weather challenges electrical grid reliability – when the lights cut out. This bizarre moment highlights just how real the threat of blackouts and brownouts are this summer.
Texas, thankfully, has avoided a catastrophic blackout, but the current situation is still horrible. Texans having to curtail AC use in the midst of crippling heat is just plain misery. Bad policy brought this nightmare to life. And we need to wake up.
A failing power grid is unacceptable for an energy superpower like the United States. We have abundant resources and the engineering know-how to reliably power our future. As the former chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) under President Trump, I can assure you that this predicament is preventable.
Misguided political decisions laid the groundwork for the possible blackouts we now face – along with outrageous energy prices that have left many Americans in the red. We can and must reverse course.
My top responsibility at FERC was protecting grid reliability for the American people. That meant when Americans flipped the switch, the lights turned on and power was readily available. I quickly learned that the only way to protect grid reliability – and to do it in a way that keeps costs down – is to let engineers and market forces, not politicians, call the shots.
For years politicians have influenced decisions about our generation mix by funneling government subsidies to their preferred energy sources, often solar and wind. Costly subsidies have forced some traditional baseload power plants (like natural gas, nuclear and coal plants) out of business. These steady sources of power would have been cost-competitive and stayed online, providing much-needed grid stability, if politicians had not put their thumbs on the scale.
I want to be clear: The growth of renewable generation like solar and wind is not the problem. We are in a clean energy transition because families and businesses are rightly demanding carbon-free power.
It makes good economic sense to bring clean energy online in a swift, orderly and market-driven way. Republicans and policymakers of all stripes should embrace this trend. A cleaner energy future is within sight.
But we must be smart about how we get there. Short-sighted government subsidies distort energy markets and cause premature plant retirements. They are forcing us to skip the "transition" part of the energy transition, leaving our grid vulnerable.
We’re seeing this play out in real time. Decisions by Democratic state leaders shut down a nuclear plant in New York and are poised to do the same in California (though Gov. Gavin Newsom might be forced to change course to avoid running out of trustworthy energy).
This is happening despite warnings from the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) that electricity shortages could lead to disastrous blackouts and brownouts around the country.
As we face this reliability crisis, we also face an affordability crisis. Americans have been grappling with record high gasoline prices – and natural gas hit a 14-year high. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, energy costs have increased over 40% in the last year.
Consumers are paying more money for less-reliable energy. Enough is enough.
Democrats may claim that extreme weather caused by climate change, rather than their rash choices, causes blackouts. It is true that climate change is testing the mettle of our grid. But make no mistake: When bad policy distorts our energy mix, reliability suffers.
Democrats may also claim that grid failures and high energy prices are simply the price we must pay for expediting the energy transition and lowering greenhouse gas emissions. That, however, is a false tradeoff.
We can have dependable, affordable energy today as we rapidly move to a carbon-free future. The U.S. can and should lead the energy transition. But costly subsidies for preferred energy resources are not the answer. We must put engineers and market forces back in the driver’s seat.
Blackouts are simply too costly. When politicians pick the winners and losers in our energy mix, nobody wins.
Neil Chatterjee served as chairman and a member of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.