On June 23, 2023, We Energies cited tight energy supplies in announcing it would extend the life of its Oak Creek Power Plant and Elm Road Generating Station, seen here on April 25, 2019. The plants, in Oak Creek, Wis., near Milwaukee, are coal-fired electrical power stations. The utility delayed the retirement of two units by a year, until May 2024. Retirements of two other units were delayed for about 18 months, until late in 2025. (Coburn Dukehart / Wisconsin Watch)
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The Midwest has an impending power problem, though experts don’t agree on how big the problem is.

Recent reports from both regional and national grid organizations raise concerns about vulnerabilities in the electric infrastructure system. At its core, they say, supply of electricity is dropping while demand is on the rise. They worry there won’t be enough energy to meet consumers’ needs, especially during extreme weather events such as winter storms or prolonged high heat.

A report from the North American Energy Reliability Corp. said it is “concerned that some areas are highly vulnerable.” It identifies parts of the Midwest and Southeast power grid, of which Wisconsin is part, as one of those areas.

The Midcontinent Independent System Operator, or MISO, manages the grid across 15 states spanning the north, central and southern parts of the country, as well as a Canadian province.

The operator is not shy about the fact there are some potential problems on the horizon if no changes are made.

“MISO’s top priority is the reliability for the 45 million Americans who count on us,” spokesman Brandon Morris told IndyStar. “The power system is undergoing significant change, and that presents both challenges and opportunities.”

Reports warn about reliability risks

Those changes are being driven by a transition away from fossil fuels such as coal and toward renewables like wind and solar. Reports from both MISO and NERC raise questions about the future reliability of the grid amid that transformation.

More than 4 gigawatts of nuclear and coal-fired generation has been retired across the MISO grid since winter of 2021, according to NERC, and not many resources have been added in its place.

As supply has dropped, consumers’ demand for electricity has continued to increase with expanding territories and a push for electrification such as electric vehicles and furnaces.

That presents significant risks.

Reports have warned about potential outages in both the winter and summer. But one commonality is that the risk is even greater during extreme weather events, whether that’s prolonged cold or soaring temperatures. That kind of weather causes demand to spike at the same time generation sources are at higher risk of complications and failure.

More renewables continue to be built to fill those gaps: Wind and solar generation are projected to serve 60% of MISO’s annual load by 2041, the operator said. But solving the problem is not quite that simple. A separate report released by MISO at the end of last year said that as more solar and wind is brought online, it becomes more complicated and difficult to plan and operate the power grid.

“MISO is agnostic on fuel and resource types, but we have been vocal in stating that accelerated retirements of highly available resources … is a growing risk,” Morris told IndyStar.

In Wisconsin, three of the state’s largest coal plants are expected to operate longer than originally planned due to supply constraints. That’s after Madison-based Alliant Energy and Milwaukee-based We Energies announced last June that it would delay retirements and push back deadlines to roll out new renewable energy projects. 

Upgrading the grid is key

Renewables might not be dispatchable — meaning they can’t be turned on or off whenever needed — but they are schedulable. Based on weather patterns and modeling, operators of solar panels and wind turbines can fairly accurately predict when those sources will produce electricity.

As technologies to capture and store excess electricity continue to improve, experts say that renewables will soon be able to meet much of the region’s power needs.

The bigger issue is upgrading infrastructure, according to Michael Goggin, vice president at Grid Strategies, a power sector consulting firm. The grid is used to power coming from big centralized plants, but with more renewables the power supply is more dispersed, so transmission needs to catch up.

There are hundreds of pending renewable projects across the region waiting to get the green light to connect to the MISO grid, and dozens have pulled out after seeing little progress or costs skyrocket.

“We can’t bring on new resources quickly enough,” Goggin said. “The transmission barriers are the only real obstacle with bringing renewables and storage online.”

Upgraded and expanded transmission not only helps more renewables connect, but it also makes the grid more resilient to better move electricity where it’s needed most.

MISO said its focus is on ensuring the pace of fleet transformation aligns with the demand for power. To make that happen and update the grid system, MISO has announced major transmission investments. The price tag for the first phase is more than $10 billion, and an additional $20-plus billion is expected to be announced in the coming years.

Wind reigned supreme during winter storm

Some consumer and environmental advocates worry that the reports and concerns about grid vulnerabilities are being used to push the narrative that renewables aren’t reliable and fossil fuels are.

In Indiana, for example, several pieces of legislation have been proposed that would add an additional step before a coal plant could be retired or would expand incentives for utilities to build large natural gas plants.

Kerwin Olson, executive director of the consumer advocacy group Citizens Action Coalition, said he agrees that the uncertainties raised in the MISO and NERC reports shouldn’t be ignored. He also doesn’t want them to be overblown in a way that slows the transition to cleaner energy.

“Is it really dire and the lights will go out, or is everything OK? I think it’s somewhere in the middle,” Olson said. “We need to be cautious and thoughtful and make sure we do this transition right, but we can’t lose sight of moving away from fossil fuels for our economy and environment.”

In fact, during the recent Winter Storm Elliott, which brought record-cold temperatures and blizzard conditions across much of the country just before Christmas, millions of customers were forced to endure outages and the eastern power grid was stressed — just as the NERC report had warned.

But MISO actually fared pretty well, Goggin said. There was a “major drop” in the gas supply during that time, the grid analyst said, but wind output was very strong with the cold air coming in — “that helped, and for MISO it was very significant.”

MISO was even able to export some of its power to other impacted grids, including the Southeast: “They were literally keeping the lights on in the Tennessee Valley,” Goggin said. Some wind plants actually had to reduce their output because the transmission wasn’t capable of moving it, he added.

A changing climate continues to cause more severe weather events of all kinds, experts said, and most people agree that emphasizes the need for a reliable energy system. Goggin said there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

“Having a diverse power supply is important,” he said, “and a key part of the solution is renewables and storage plus transmission, that gives you a very reliable supply of power.”

Jim Malewitz of Wisconsin Watch contributed reporting. Call IndyStar reporter Sarah Bowman at 317-444-6129 or email at sarah.bowman@indystar.com. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook: @IndyStarSarah. Connect with IndyStar’s environmental reporters: Join The Scrub on Facebook. IndyStar’s environmental reporting project is made possible through the generous support of the nonprofit Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust.

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Sarah Bowman / Indianapolis Star

Hello, my name is Sarah Bowman and I am a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. I love all things journalism: I love the opportunities to meet new people, travel to new places, uncover new stories and bring the important information to the public! I have covered and enjoy covering a variety of different topics including education, government, health/medicine, science/technology, business, city, transportation, etc. I also love to write many different types of articles, including news, enterprise, investigative and profile pieces. I am passionate about journalism and what it can do for the world!