The future is not bright for the Empire State’s electrical power grid, according to the newly released 2021 – 2040 System & Resource Outlook from the New York Independent System Operator (NYISO).
As the Empire State tries to transform its grid to zero-emission electricity production by 2040, it will face three serious problems: a need for an unprecedentedly rapid buildout of wind and solar power; a critical reliance on energy sources that are not yet economically viable; and severe transmission congestion.
Because more people will be driving electric cars, and more buildings will be heated with electricity, installed electrical generation capacity has to more than double in the next 18 years, from 51 gigawatts of installed capacity to between 111 and 124 gigawatts.
Natural gas plants constitute almost half of current capacity, and because they are required to shut down, NYISO predicts that over 95 gigawatts of new – emission-free – energy production must be built in only 18 years. And at least 20 gigawatts of that needs to be built in the next seven years.
By way of comparison, in the last 23 years only 13 gigawatts of energy production have been developed, and over the past five years only 2.6 gigawatts. Meanwhile, in those five years, 4.8 GW of generation has been deactivated, for a loss of over 2 gigawatts of generating capacity – enough to power over a million homes. That means that New York is currently going backwards, not forwards.
If the state does not dramatically speed up the pace of bringing emission-free resources online and keeps to its plan to shutter gas plants, demand for electricity will eventually outstrip supply. That would lead to blackouts, most likely during exceptionally hot or cold weather. As in the Texas blackout of 2021, hundreds or more people could die from being exposed to extreme temperatures or losing power to their critical medical equipment. As always, these deaths would be concentrated among the elderly, the sick, and the poor.
In addition, NYISO warns that this buildout cannot all be wind and solar, due to their intermittency. No one can command the sun to shine and the wind to blow whenever they are needed.
Therefore, a substantial amount of electricity would need to come from sources that are dispatchable on demand, yet still emission free. NYISO calls these sources DEFRs (dispatchable emissions-free resources), a generic name to describe an unknown source.
Possibilities include hydrogen, renewable natural gas, modular nuclear power, and some degree of battery backup. But none of these sources are commercially viable yet, and nobody knows if they will become so by 2040. Batteries, in particular, are unlikely to fulfill a need for multiple days of energy delivery during extended periods of low wind and solar production. If these sources are rushed into use due to premature retirement of natural gas plants, consumer energy costs could skyrocket.
A better approach would be to continue research into these sources and let them come online naturally as, or if, they become affordable.
There are also big constraints on the ability to transmit power from where it will be produced by wind and solar to where it will be needed.
There are 13 “constrained pockets” of renewable generation across the state. These pockets are regions where lack of sufficient transmission capacity could prevent electricity from moving outside the pocket where it is produced to where the demand is. All excess renewable energy production within the pocket would then have to be curtailed, meaning that potential generation would go to waste.
One of the largest pockets is around the offshore wind projects slated for development off Long Island, which calls for injecting more power into the Long Island transmission system than it is designed to handle. Because offshore wind is such a foundational component of New York’s bid for zero-emission electricity, this constrained transmission area is a critical roadblock to the state’s goals.
In short, building the needed generating capacity is not enough. The state will also have to build the transmission capacity to move it around. That is not only costly, but it is time-consuming to plan, permit and build high-power transmission lines, especially as nobody wants them in their own backyards.
As a result, NYISO concludes, “Future uncertainty is the only thing certain about the electric power industry.”
New Yorkers deserve better than uncertainty. Natural gas was once pitched as a bridge fuel between coal and emission-free electricity. Now some want to burn that bridge while we’re still crossing it.
New York’s only reasonable option for the near term is to keep natural gas plants on-line. This may delay the goal of achieving zero-emission electricity production. But if pushed too fast, that goal will be attained only at the cost of New York lives.