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Electric Demand Increase Projected, Creating Grid Vulnerability

Demand for electricity is expected to rise dramatically in the next decade at the same time the U.S. is trying to move away from fossil fuels to renewables to meet climate and emissions goals, a recent report indicates.

The 2023 Long-Term Reliability Assessment (LTRA), published in December by the North

American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), analyzes the 10-year future of the North

American electrical power market, identifies key vulnerabilities, and offers recommendations for grid operators.

NERC is a non-profit “international regulatory authority with the mission to assure the reliability of the BPS (bulk power systems) in North America.” Its area of focus includes the continental United States and Canada. The full LTRA report can be found here.

Among the most striking observations made in the report is the large increase in electricity demand that is forecast to occur over the next decade. According to NERC, peak demand for electricity is anticipated to rise by 79 gigawatts (GW) in the summer and by 91 GW for winter over the next decade. This trend would represent a dramatic shift from the flat or declining demand trends of the past two decades as more energy-efficient products have permeated the market.

The trend reversal is primarily driven by efforts toward electrification, including the rise of

electric vehicles (EVs) and the surge of data centers being brought online across the continent. Electrification of buildings, vehicles, and some industrial processes could be a way to lower greenhouse gas emissions, but only if the electricity was produced with clean sources of energy.

With increased demand for electricity comes increased generation capacity, which will be fueled primarily by natural gas and variable energy resources (VERs), namely solar and wind power, NERC found. Generation capacity for natural gas is expected to increase by two percent from 2023 to 2033, to just under 500,000 megawatts (MW) of power. Natural gas is a fossil fuel, but it produces significantly less emissions than burning coal to produce power. If coupled with emerging carbon capture and sequestration technology, it could be considered a clean energy source. The largest increases in generation capacity, by percentage, are expected to come from solar (48 percent), wind (11 percent), and associated battery power.

However, the report identifies risks associated with such a sharp increase in power demand.

Though natural gas is expected to provide the bulk of generation capacity in the coming decade, retirements of natural gas-fired power plants, totaling 83 GW of generating capacity, are expected to occur, with VERs like solar and wind positioned to ramp up to meet needs.

There are significant vulnerabilities that need to be addressed related to VERs, given their intermittent nature, and as the mix of power generation in North America changes, the grid must adapt. This reality will “fundamentally chang(e) how the BPS is planned and operated,” the NERC report stated, noting that as supplies come “increasingly from VERs and natural gas-fired generators, there is a growing risk that supplies can fall short,” leading to blackouts and other shortfalls.

NERC provides several suggestions to prevent and mitigate the anticipated problems. Central to those recommendations is expanding and strengthening electricity generation systems, specifically solar PV, battery storage, and natural gas. Solar PV and wind power have grown significantly in their shares of the power mix, and in number of projects coming online for generation in recent years. Additionally, battery storage capacity is following the same trend, complementing VERs by allowing for storage of otherwise unused electricity.

If unmet, the challenges facing North America’s electricity grid are not only disruptive but potentially harmful to human health. Organizations like NERC are crucial in conducting and disseminating research to properly inform officials and other stakeholders in their operations.

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