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Study says a regional energy market could prevent blackouts

A Duke Energy substation.
Duke Energy
A Duke Energy substation.

Expanding solar energy and integrating the power grid more closely with surrounding states could help prevent blackouts like the ones across the Carolinas on Christmas Eve, according to a new study by environmental and renewable energy groups.

Duke Energy has said poor forecasting and cold-related mechanical failures at gas- and coal-fired power plants forced it to cut power to 500,000 customers on Christmas Eve. Federal officials are investigating the outages. So are private groups, which see structural changes in the energy market as a remedy for electricity shortages like these.

An analysis by some of those groups says regional energy markets like those in other parts of the U.S. are less susceptible to power shortages than the regulated monopoly structure in the Carolinas.


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"When power generation is part of a regional market, instead of each utility dispatching the (power) plants locally, you use the available resources more effectively. Overall, the total is greater than the sum of the parts," said Eddy Moore of the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League.

He spoke during a briefing Thursday hosted by the league, the Carolinas Clean Energy Business Association, the North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association and the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

The study comes as many states are pushing a shift toward renewable energy to help deal with climate change. Thursday's speakers also noted that solar production operated well during the sunny weather around the holiday and showed that renewable energy can be part of a more reliable energy grid.

Simon Mahan, executive director of the Southern Renewable Energy Association, helped compile the report after analyzing public data about energy production and use around the Christmas holiday.

"You can see during the outages, solar performed exceptionally well," he said, while showing a chart of energy production. "And so, had it not been for solar power on December 24, the Duke Energy Carolinas system would have been in even more dire straits."

"It's exceptionally important to diversify your energy resources, use wind, use solar, use battery storage, work on inter-regional and regional transmission to connect to your neighbors so that you have a larger-scale transmission system that is less affected by the weather," Mahan said.

Mahan said areas where power transmission and generation are separate, like the Mid-Atlantic and Midwest, have larger grids that can draw power from a wider variety of sources. Those areas avoided blackouts in December.

But that wasn't true for Duke Energy in the Carolinas or the Tennessee Valley Authority in Tennessee and other southern states. Those companies were forced to use rolling blackouts to deal with power shortages.

"Throughout the southeast, we've really struggled with good regional and interregional transmission planning for a very, very long time," Mahan said.

That's because the region is a collection of large companies like Duke Energy and TVA that both generate and deliver electricity. When demand shot up during the severe weather last month, those independent companies had trouble buying excess power from other regions, such as PJM to the north.

"PJM did not have blackouts. So it had power, but it had to give its members the first shot at that power," said Chris Carmody of the Carolinas Clean Energy Business Association. Duke Energy said it had a contract to buy power from PJM, but Carmody said that as a non-member of that regional transmission organization, "they're second in line for that."

Duke and other southeastern utilities have created an energy trading mechanism called the Southeastern Energy Exchange Market. But Mahan said it's not the same as a regional grid operator. And even though there was power available from SEEM during the blackouts, Mahan's analysis shows it went unused.

"When you're in an emergency situation like this, you would expect more power companies to be wanting more power and to use this tool to try and purchase energy," he said.

Carmody said SEEM's limited exchange didn't work.

"There's no there there, that's how I would describe it. I mean, it's designed to do so little in the first place. There just isn't much to it," Carmody said.

South Carolina is studying whether to separate power generation and distribution. It would be up to lawmakers to make the change. A few North Carolina legislators have also said they're open to the idea. But a spokesman said Thursday that the state's largest utility, Duke Energy, is opposed.

"We work every day to improve our electric service and deliver the reliability our customers expect. An RTO (regional transmission organization) would present more risks than benefits to our customers and our state," spokesman Jeff Brooks said in an email. "We remain focused on delivering affordable, reliable and increasingly clean energy in partnership with state leaders and regulators."

Brooks did not explain further what risks might come with the move.

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Corrected: January 27, 2023 at 9:08 AM EST
This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Eddy Moore's first name.
David Boraks previously covered climate change and the environment for WFAE. See more at www.wfae.org/climate-news. He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.