The Causes of the Great NC Christmas Blackouts: Adversarial Processes Produce Better Outcomes

On Friday, December 23, many people in the state lost power because of high winds. But on Christmas Eve– the morning of Saturday, December, 24– the state’s citizenry was subjected to rolling blackouts for the first time in history in the midst of a record demand for electricity. The weather was extremely cold, although the wind had mostly subsided by that time.

On Tuesday, the state Utilities Commission heard from several Duke Energy executives. The commission had sought an explanation for what happened. I had the opportunity to watch part of this hearing online. The explanations offered are as follows:

  1. Critical components within at least a couple of power plants had frozen and become inoperable, thereby reducing the power available from these plants;
  2. The utility was unable to purchase power from utilities in nearby states because they also were also experiencing a record demand for power;
  3. The utility’s computer model for predicting demand for electricity determines how much generating capacity is being recruited to be used, but the model failed to predict the peak demand by ten percent;
  4. During the early morning hours immediately prior to the outages, when it was most cold, solar power was unavailable because the sun had not yet risen (although it should be noted the weather later was cloudy);
  5. There was decreased natural gas pressure but power plants had been switched to oil;
  6. Two transmission lines “tripped” because of the load (or demand); and
  7. Several power plants were “de-rated” which means they were putting out less power.

In other words, a combination of factors created a “perfect storm”. The Duke Energy officials tended to minimize the issue of green energy/ renewables being the source of the problem.

It must be noted that all of the commissioners are appointed by the governor. They each had an opportunity to answer questions and speak after the utility gave its presentation– and again, I only saw part of this. But they tended to be very civil and to dance gingerly around the issues.

But this was precisely the moment that an adversarial process was needed. While the Duke Energy officials were very apologetic, it must be regarded as unacceptable that we are relying upon other utilities for periods of peak demand, from other states that also might be experiencing issues; that critical components of power plants are freezing and becoming inoperable in cold weather; and that transmission lines are failing. Moreover, it is mandatory for power generation to keep up with demand; and clearly the computer model utilized failed. (If it were to fail, it ought to be in the other direction during very cold weather!)

Clearly, there are utilities operating quite reliably in climates much colder than whatever we experience here in North Carolina. It really is impermissible that cold weather somehow is used to rationalize the outages. The system ought to have been sufficiently hardened to perform during extreme cold weather when people need electricity most; and sufficient generating capacity– and transmission capacity– should have been available within our state.

Given the fact that the Utilities Commission is required to assure that we have reliable electric power, this blackout event is its failure. The General Assembly ought to be challenging the Utilities Commission on this issue.

An excellent article by Mick Rankin describes how electric grids work and explains how existing capacity can be challenged by growth. North Carolina certainly has been growing for many years. He argues that more capacity is needed; and that future expanded use of electric cars will challenge the grid further.

Another Carolina Journal article suggests that the Utilities Commission’s new Carbon Plan– to pivot away from fossil fuels and toward green energy– might not comply with North Carolina state law. And it certainly will increase our electricity costs and make us more subject to rolling blackouts as we experienced on Christmas Eve. (Duke Energy had retired coal plants previously in response to the green energy mania. It would have been great if that power had been available…).

Some parties are suggesting an overarching scheme that is much bigger and wider than the state of North Carolina itself; and that the intent of this scheme is to inure us to the normalcy of blackouts. I don’t doubt that may be happening, but I don’t know whether that is part of what happened on Christmas eve. Citizens ought to be forewarned, however; and ought to demand more of their elected officials.


2 thoughts on “The Causes of the Great NC Christmas Blackouts: Adversarial Processes Produce Better Outcomes

  1. TC: Thanks for taking time to listen in and provide that summary.

    For what it is worth this adds a little to your birds eye view:



    Duke Energy customers in North and South Carolina experienced rolling blackouts over Christmas. Duke is appropriately contrite, but its explanation of its own failure is revealing:

    Duke Energy executives repeatedly apologized and owned up to the situation that caused thousands in North and South Carolina to be without power during a bitter cold snap leading up to the Christmas holiday weekend. The admissions came during a hearing Tuesday before the North Carolina Utilities Commission.

    According to testimony before the NCUC, high winds had already left 300,000 without power during the day of Dec. 23 before a severe cold snap later that night and into Dec. 24.

    The linked story does not explain why high winds left 300,000 people without power. This may be a failure of wind turbines, as they must be shut down if the wind blows too hard.

    “I want to express how sorry we are for what our customers experienced,” said Julie Janson, executive vice president, and CEO, of Duke Energy Carolinas. “Winter storm Elliott was an extremely powerful event with a unique confluence of high winds, extreme temperature drops, and other conditions that forced us to curtail power as a last resort.

    “Curtailing power” means imposing rolling blackouts on Duke’s customers. A rolling blackout is when a utility intentionally cuts power to a particular area in order to prevent the entire grid from collapsing.

    “The power that we purchased did not show up, therefore, we were confronted with the hard truth that our energy [capacity] would soon be eclipsed by our [demand],” stated Bowman.

    The purchased power didn’t show up because nearby states were experiencing the same conditions. This is entirely predictable.

    Duke Energy’s “nuclear fleet” was reliable during the storm, according to Preston Gillespie, Duke Energy’s executive vice president and chief generation officer.

    Well, yes. It would be.

    Duke Energy’s “nuclear fleet” was reliable, but solar generation was unable to meet peak demand because it occurred before sunrise.

    Imagine that! It’s always coldest before the dawn, or something like that. The uselessness of solar energy is blindingly obvious, but utilities are happy to invest billions in solar panels and reap guaranteed profits at the expense of their customers.

    Rolling blackouts are starting to become common, and they will only increase as long as our country continues its insane commitment to unreliable “green” energy.

  2. Fred, I mostly accept Duke Energy’s explanation that a combination of factors were contributing to the situation. The point is that we need to learn lessons from this, and make decisions that eliminate those factors.

    And our Utilities Commission staff and commissioners– as well as our elected officials– need to make sure of this. It needs to be plainly clear this will not be tolerated, even if it means adding more capacity and transmission capabilities that are not among the “approved” green alternatives.

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