The Coming Electricity Crisis

Artificial-intelligence data centers and climate rules are pushing the power grid to what could become a breaking point.

The Editorial Board - WSJ

March 28, 2024 

President Biden and the press keep raising alarms about a climate crisis that his policies can’t do much about. Yet in the meantime they’re ignoring how government climate policies are contributing to a looming electric-grid crisis that is more urgent and could be avoided.

These pages have been warning for years about an electric-power shortage. And now grid regulators and utilities are ramping up warnings. Projections for U.S. electricity demand growth over the next five years have doubled from a year ago. The major culprits: New artificial-intelligence data centers, federally subsidized manufacturing plants, and the government-driven electric-vehicle transition.;


Georgia Power recently increased 17-fold its winter power demand forecast by 2031, citing growth in new industries such as EV and battery factories. AEP Ohio says new data centers and Intel’s $20 billion planned chip plant will increase strain on the grid. Chip factories and data centers can consume 100 times more power than a typical industrial business.

PJM Interconnection, which operates the wholesale power market across 13 Midwest and Northeast states, this year doubled its 15-year annual forecast ; for demand growth. Its projected power demand in the region for 2029 has increased by about 10 gigawatts—about twice as much as New York City uses on a typical day.

Don’t expect the power to come from New York, which is marching toward a power shortage as it shuts down nuclear and fossil-fuel power in favor of wind and solar. A new Micron chip factory in upstate New York is expected to require as much power by the 2040s as the states of New Hampshire and Vermont combined.

Electricity demand to power data centers is projected to increase by 13% to 15% compounded annually through 2030. Yet a shortage of power is already delaying new data centers by two to six years, according to commercial-real estate firm CBRE Group. It is also driving Big Tech companies into the energy business. Amazon this month struck a $650 million deal to buy a data center in Pennsylvania powered by an on-site 2.5 gigawatt nuclear plant.

Data centers—like manufacturing plants—require reliable power around the clock year-round, which wind and solar don’t provide. Businesses can’t afford to wait for batteries to become cost-effective. Building transmission lines to connect distant renewables to the grid typically takes 10 to 12 years.

Because of these challenges, Obama Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz last week predicted that utilities will ultimately have to rely more on gas, coal and nuclear plants to support surging demand. “We’re not going to build 100 gigawatts of new renewables in a few years,” he said. No kidding.

The problem is that utilities are rapidly retiring fossil-fuel and nuclear plants. “We are subtracting dispatchable [fossil fuel] resources at a pace that’s not sustainable, and we can’t build dispatchable resources to replace the dispatchable resources we’re shutting down,” 

Federal Energy Regulatory Commissioner Mark Christie warned this month.

About 20 gigawatts of fossil-fuel power are scheduled to retire over the next two years;—enough to power 15 million homes—including a large natural-gas plant in Massachusetts that serves as a crucial source of electricity in cold snaps. PJM’s external market monitor last week warned that up to 30% of the region’s installed capacity is at risk of retiring by 2030.

Some plants are nearing the end of their useful life-spans, but an onslaught of costly regulation is the bigger cause. A soon-to-be-finalized Environmental Protection Agency rule would require natural-gas plants to install expensive and unproven carbon capture technology.

The PJM report cites “the role of states and the federal government in subsidizing resources and in environmental regulation.” It added: “The simple fact is that the sources of new capacity that could fully replace the retiring capacity have not been clearly identified.”

Meantime, the Inflation Reduction Act’s huge renewable subsidies make it harder for fossil-fuel and nuclear plants to compete in wholesale power markets. The cost of producing power from solar and wind is roughly the same as from natural gas. But IRA tax credits can offset up to 50% of the cost of renewable operators.

Baseload plants can’t turn a profit operating only when needed to back up renewables, so they are closing. This was the main culprit for Texas’s week-long power outage in February 2021 and the eastern U.S.’s rolling blackouts during Christmas 2022.

The media will discover this problem eventually, though not this year if it might call into question Mr. Biden’s climate agenda.; Perhaps they’ll notice when more blackouts arrive.