Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro has asked regional power grid operators to enhance the electricity system’s dependability—and he’s got ideas about how to do it. But his premises are flawed, and his suggestions misguided. Shapiro wants reliable power, yet he’s banking on unreliable sources to provide it. That approach isn’t just wrongheaded; it’s a recipe for failure.
“Here in the Commonwealth, we are embracing the advantages that cheaper, lower carbon fuel sources offer,” Shapiro wrote in a letter to the management of PJM Interconnection, the non-profit which maintains the electric grid for Pennsylvania and a dozen other states.
The governor was referring to wind and solar power, which aren’t cheaper than traditional fossil fuel plants and can, in some cases, increase overall carbon emissions. In short, they add costs for consumers and undermine reliability. This scenario has played out dramatically in places like Europe and California, where power outages and soaring prices are undisputed facts. Pennsylvanians have, so far, avoided the worst of this because wind and solar still account for only a small amount of PJM’s power supply—low single-digit percentages.
That changes if Shapiro gets his way. His letter effectively urges PJM to expedite the installation of new wind and solar projects to prevent shortages caused by the expected retirement of coal-fired power plants—closings currently accelerated by the governor’s refusal to remove the threat of a carbon tax on fossil fuels.
PJM sees its surplus generating capacity, reserved for meeting peak demand, falling significantly below the federal requirement in the coming years. PJM has warned that energy rationing might become necessary by 2026 to manage supply shortages. In other words, Pennsylvanians could expect rolling blackouts in the near future.
While Shapiro is right to worry about the power grid, his solution worsens the problem because wind turbines and solar panels are woefully inadequate replacements for coal, natural gas, or nuclear plants.
David Stevenson, an energy analyst with the Caesar Rodney Institute, explains that each lost gigawatt of baseload electricity generated by coal and natural gas—as well as by nuclear fuel—requires three gigawatts of wind and solar to replace it. To replace the 40 gigawatts of baseload generation to be retired by 2030, we’d need to build 120 gigawatts of wind or solar power.
That’s far more than the 94 gigawatts in the pipeline.
“PJM experts report that wind and solar projects entering the queue for acceptance into the grid historically have only a one in twenty chance of being built,” said Stevenson. “Developers literally submit 20 projects when only one is planned for construction because of uncertainties of available transmission capacity and uncertain local zoning approval. PJM currently has 94 gigawatts of wind and solar awaiting approval, but only about five gigawatts will likely be built—or about two gigawatts of baseload power.”
In other words, plans exist for only 2% of the new “renewable” generation needed.
Wind and solar require many times the material and land area to produce equivalent amounts of electricity from traditional sources. Expecting to replace efficient, reliable sources of electricity with expensive, unreliable technologies is a “lopsided” transition that defies logic.
Shapiro also calls on PJM to reform market procedures for reliability but ignores a fundamental flaw that prevents the most reliable energy sources—baseload fossil fuel plants and nuclear power—from adequate compensation. Annual payments to ensure reliability have collapsed from $8.3 billion to $2.2 billion in the last three years. Meanwhile, penalties for just one day of non-performance during a cold spell last December were $1.8 billion, nearly equal to an entire year of capacity revenue.
The decline in these revenues is largely the result of state and federal policies that provide subsidies to wind and solar, and the long-term impact of those policies is emerging.
PJM’s failure to “keep the lights on” with as little drama as reasonably possible during December’s cold snap is just the beginning of the reliability issues Pennsylvanians will face if the grid operator continues to accommodate more “renewable energy” while endorsing policies that speed the retirement of nuclear or fossil fuel baseload capacity.
Meredith Angwin, in her book Shorting the Grid, explains mandates for renewable energy “will not succeed in building grids that are 100% renewable” but instead will make “the grid more fragile and more expensive.”
Decades of programs like Pennsylvania’s Alternative Energy Portfolio Standards, which subsidize expensive and unreliable energy and discourage the development of reliable fossil fuels, are failing Pennsylvanians. Shapiro should end energy subsidies and allow free markets to determine the path to cheap, clean, and sustainable power.
Gordon Tomb is a Senior Fellow with the Commonwealth Foundation, Pennsylvania’s free-market think tank, and a senior advisor with the CO2 Coalition in Arlington, VA.