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Electricity grid operator warns Kentucky of possible energy supply crunch 

A street is seen at night. There are a few streetlights visible, and powerlines run between them. Mountains are visible in the background.
Jon Cherry
Main Street is seen at dusk on June 28, 2023 in Benham, Kentucky.

A vice president of one of the country’s largest electricity grid operators told Kentucky lawmakers this week that increased power demand, coupled with the retirement of coal and natural gas plants could create an energy supply crunch in the next decade.

That operator, PJM, provides wholesale electricity to utilities in 13 states in the Northeast, including about half of Kentucky. PJM Vice President Asim Haque spoke to Kentucky’s Joint Committee on Natural Resources and Energy on Thursday about the coming energy transition.

“We are concerned about being in a supply crunch at the end of this decade,” he said.

PJM projects the proliferation of electric vehicles and data centers will increase the demand for power in its region in the coming years. At the same time, the company projects around 40 gigawatts of coal, gas and other power sources to retire by the end of the decade.

Right now, PJM gets less than 10% of its electricity from renewables, but most of the power that companies plan to bring online over the next 10 years will come from renewable sources like wind, solar and battery storage.

"Will we have enough watts? That's the first concern," Haque said. "We can't simply shut down all thermal resources and replace them with non-thermal resources," he said.

Haque said that although the company is resource agnostic, meaning they don’t care where the power comes from, PJM believes that thermal power sources including coal, gas and nuclear will be important to maintain reliability in the coming years. He said they’d like to create an environment that attracts emerging technologies like small modular nuclear reactors and hydrogen, but they’re not cost effective yet.

Republican Rep. John Blanton of Salyersville said federal regulations are burdening utilities with higher costs.

"These policies are destroying our grid,” he said. “Those of us that are awakened and see through the smog, we understand that is an attempt to shut down all of our fossil fuels.”

Republican Rep. Tom Smith of Corbin asked whether the energy transition should move slower.

"We're also on the side of fossils, I am, of using fossil fuels here in Kentucky," he said.

New polling finds 72% of Republicans say the economy should be prioritized over the risks of climate change. Fossil fuels are fueling climate change, which is causing Kentucky to become warmer and wetter. One study found recent heat waves affecting the U.S. and Europe would be “virtually impossible” without climate change.

There is scientific consensus that people have a limited amount of time left to end the use of fossil fuels and avoid the worst impacts of climate change. Allowing warming to go unchecked could push global systems past irreversible tipping points. For example, a study released last month found that warming could disrupt North Atlantic ocean currents. Those currents are interconnected to weather systems for much of the northern hemisphere and could destabilize them.

Ryan Van Velzer is the Kentucky Public Radio Managing Editor. Email Ryan at rvanvelzer@lpm.org.

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