This summer, power grids worldwide won't produce enough electricity to meet the soaring demand, threatening more than one billion people with rolling blackouts. Grids are stretched thin by fossil fuel shortages, drought and heatwaves, commodity disruptions and soaring prices due to the war in Ukraine, and the failed green energy transition where grid operators retired too many fossil fuel generation plants. Combine this all together, and a perfect storm of blackouts threatens much of the Northern Hemisphere.
The power crisis, affecting a large swath of the world and top economies, could be less than a month away when summer begins on June 21. Regions that concerned Bloomberg are Asia, Europe, and the US, where there's not enough power to go around when cooling demand is set to surge as households crank up their air conditions to escape the sweltering heat.
Asia's heatwave has caused hours-long daily blackouts, putting more than 1 billion people at risk across Pakistan, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and India, with little relief in sight. Six Texas power plants failed earlier this month as the summer heat just began to arrive, offering a preview of what's to come. At least a dozen US states from California to the Great Lakes are at risk of electricity outages this summer. Power supplies will be tight in China and Japan. South Africa is poised for a record year of power cuts. And Europe is in a precarious position that's held up by Russia — if Moscow cuts off natural gas to the region, that could trigger rolling outages in some countries. --Bloomberg
BloombergNEF analyst Shantanu Jaiswal says the combination of "war and sanctions" disrupting commodity markets, "extreme weather," and "an economic rebound from COVID boosting power demand" is a "unique" situation that he "can't recall" the last time a "confluence of so many factors" happened together. As we noted in the beginning, it's a perfect storm of factors.
Henning Gloystein, an analyst at Eurasia Group, warns if major blackouts spread across the world this summer, "that could trigger some form of humanitarian crisis in terms of food and energy shortages on a scale not seen in decades."
If the US is any guide to the world's faltering power grids, as warned last week, regulators said half the country could experience blackouts from the Great Lakes to the West Coast. The reason is due to the lack of power generation and a megadrought.
The pattern across the world's power grids is fragility due to the lack of fossil fuel investments and the reduction of fossil fuel power generation plants as grids attempt to transition to cleaner and greener power sources.
Alex Whitworth, an analyst with Wood Mackenzie Ltd, points out that as grids transition to green energy, the lack of battery storage when the sun doesn't shine or the wind doesn't blow will create instabilities and more stress on grids at a time fossil fuel plants are being retired at a rapid clip.
"You'll be facing a supply scare every time there's clouds or storms or a wind drought for a week," Whitworth said. "We really expect these problems to get worse in the next five years."
Bloomberg provides a snapshot of the most strain grids that could result in massive power blackouts this summer:
Supplies of natural gas, the No. 1 power-plant fuel in the US, are constrained nationwide and prices are soaring. Power in much of the country and part of Canada will be stretched, according to the North American Electric Reliability Corporation. It's among the most dire assessments yet from the regulatory body. Consumers will be asked to step up to help keep the grids stable by curtailing their consumption.
In California, the most populous state, gas supplies are clipped even further because of a pipeline rupture last year that has limited imports. Plus, climate change is fueling drought, severely curbing hydropower supplies. The California Independent System Operator said this month that the state may be at risk of blackouts for the next few summers amid extreme weather.
On the 15-state grid operated by the Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO), consumers in 11 states are at risk of outages. MISO, which serves about 42 million people, projected it has "insufficient" power generation to meet the highest demand periods this summer, especially in its Midwest states. The grid has never before given a warning of this kind ahead of the start of summer demand.
In Texas, the grid "is still at risk" of shortages despite the state's scramble to improve resilience after a February 2021 winter storm that left millions in the dark for days, said Gary Cunningham, director of market research at brokerage Tradition Energy.
Aging infrastructure and maintenance delays during the pandemic have added to the problems of more severe weather, said Teri Viswanath, lead economist for power, energy and water at CoBank ACB.
"The US is experiencing more outages globally than any other industrialized nation," she said. "About 70% of our grid is nearing end of life."
The epicenter of the outages so far has been South and Southeast Asia, where brutal heat waves have put air conditioners on full blast. Blackouts have been basically nationwide in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Myanmar, home to a combined 300 million people. And in India, 16 of the nation's 28 states — home to more than 700 million people — have been grappling with outages of two to 10 hours a day, a state official said this month.
India's government has recently directed firms to increase purchases of expensive foreign coal, while also rolling back environmental protocols for mine expansions to try to increase fuel supply. But it remains to be seen whether these moves will ease the strain. The looming monsoon season should bring cooler temperatures and trim energy demand, though it can also flood mining regions and hamper fuel supply.
In Vietnam, the state-owned utility has been bracing for power shortages for more than a month as demand rises while domestic coal supply has sagged and foreign fuel costs have surged.
In China, where coal shortages led to widespread power curtailments last year, officials have promised to keep the lights on in 2022 and have pressed coal miners to boost output to a record. Even so, industry officials have warned that the power situation will be tight this summer in the country's heavily industrialized south, which is far from inland mining hubs and therefore more reliant on expensive foreign coal and gas.
Japan had a power scare in March, when a cold wave triggered a demand surge just days after an earthquake had knocked several coal and gas plants offline. Power supply is expected to be tight during the upcoming summer months, and demand will likely exceed supply again next winter as well, according to grid forecasts. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government has started a campaign for energy conservation, asking residents to take measures like watching less television.
The risk of blackouts is lower in Europe, because fewer people use air conditioning at home. The continent is also racing to fill its gas storage.
But there's little room for error. A dry spring in Norway has limited hydropower supplies. Adding pressure to prices and supplies are extended outages at Electricite de France SA's nuclear reactors. The region's biggest producer cut its nuclear output target for a third time this year, the latest sign that Europe's power crisis is worsening.
If Russia were to cut off natural gas supplies to the region, that could be enough to trigger rolling blackouts in some countries, said Fabian Ronningen, a power markets analyst for Rystad Energy.
While he said the chances that Russia would make that bold move are "unlikely," his views have become more pessimistic as the war in Ukraine continues; two months ago, he said, he'd have put the chances at "highly unlikely."
Some countries have been receiving huge imports of liquefied natural gas and would probably have adequate supplies to absorb the blow, including Spain, France and the UK. The story might be different in Eastern Europe, where nations including Greece, Latvia and Hungary use gas for a significant portion of their power and are heavily dependent on Russian supplies. That's where the potential would be highest for blackouts, Ronningen said.
"I don't think European consumers can even imagine a scenario like that," he said. "It's never happened in our lifetime."
If grids become stressed and break down this summer, it would be an ominous sign for things to come this winter.
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