Light switch

The following commentary was written by John Szoka. Szoka served 10 years in the North Carolina House of Representatives (2013-2022), chaired the House Energy and Public Utilities Committee, and co-chaired the Joint Energy Policy Committee. He was appointed to the N.C. Energy Policy Council effective Jan 1, 2023. See our commentary guidelines for more information.

Among the regions that experienced issues from the extreme cold over Christmas weekend, the southeast was hit especially hard. In my home state of North Carolina, half a million North Carolinians were subjected to rolling blackouts imposed by the state’s primary energy provider, Duke Energy. Duke was called before the North Carolina Utilities Commission on Jan. 3 to testify about the events that led to the blackouts, and they presented a lengthy list of failures and apologies — none of which included blame on renewable energy, as several regional and national media outlets originally and errantly editorialized about before the facts were released. 

In Duke Energy’s testimony, the utility squarely placed blame for the blackouts on its frozen fossil units and technology glitches rather than on renewable energy or any state or federal energy policies. In North Carolina, failed software systems and frozen instrumentation at gas and coal power plants were the prime culprits. 

Another point of failure was Duke Energy’s continued resistance to joining a regional power market such as PJM. Utilities that were part of that market fared much better, without emergency blackouts. Duke, however, found itself at the bottom of the priority list to get backup power from neighboring utilities when Duke’s fossil fuel units’ power output was dramatically and unexpectedly reduced. Perhaps this rolling blackout event will increase Duke’s openness to joining a regional power market to prevent blackouts in the future.

Duke explained in public testimony that the rolling blackouts had absolutely nothing to do with reliance on solar or other forms of renewable energy. In fact, Duke explicitly stated that its solar sources operated throughout the extreme cold without incident. A more rapid integration of solar plus storage into the grid could help avoid future outages caused by frozen fossil fuel generation.

The series of failures Duke outlined in its testimony to the Commission is worrisome, particularly when North Carolina’s current regulatory construct is that of a monopoly. The series of Duke’s errors and failures highlight the need for energy market reform in North Carolina and across the Southeast, and any attempt to pin the blame on renewable energy is misplaced.