While 2021 kicked off short on optimism given chaos from the COVID-19 pandemic, the year was characterized by an extraordinary series of critical energy crises. Power blackouts, brownouts, interconnection mismatches, severe fuel shortages, and near-misses affected nearly every region in the world. Here’s a brief look back at some of the events that characterized 2021.
The year began as Mexico sought answers after the failure of two transmission lines in the northeast on Dec. 28, 2020, resulted in a nationwide imbalance of supply and demand, and ultimately disconnected 8.7 GW of generation capacity. The event blacked out one-third of the country. State power utility Comisión Federal de Electricidad blamed the incident on a brush fire that damaged a 400-kV transmission line and “an excess of intermittent generation,” which led to the instability of the national transmission network. These findings were mostly confirmed by a six-member independent panel, which released their investigation report in July.
China continued its most extensive energy rationing in a decade as several regions fielded higher than expected demand during the coldest winter recorded since 1966. Provinces across China reported grappling with crippling power shortages prompted by a surge in power demand from a stunning ramp up in industrial activity, an especially harsh winter, and tight coal supplies that were exacerbated by a ban on Australian coal.
Japan, meanwhile, faced electricity supply challenges stemming from limited liquefied natural gas (LNG) availability, which resulted in a debilitating surge in wholesale prices. A cold snap and heightened demand in China and South Korea exacerbated regional pressure on LNG supplies. Adding to power supply concerns was an equipment malfunction at the 1-GW Matsushima coal power plant and a 15% loss of solar PV due to snowfall. The crisis forced at least one transmission operator, Tepco Power Grid, to urge commercial users with captive power plants to help it provide power.
Pakistan struggled with an even more severe situation when a technical fault occurred at the 1.4-GW Guddu thermal power plant at the center of the Pakistan grid. The initial fault was followed by a sudden drop in frequency. A cascading blackout occurred a second later, prompting the grid to collapse and causing the entire country—populated by 220 million—to lose power. Power was fully restored 18 hours later. An official inquiry later found the incident had occurred because of a failure to follow standard operating procedures during maintenance work.
In Europe, the interconnected grid was split into two as the northwest and southeast regions grappled with a frequency imbalance. According to the European Network of Transmission System Operators (ENTSO-E), a group whose members comprise regional transmission operators, the incident was prompted by outages of several transmission network elements “in a very short time.” Due to the low frequency in the northwest area, contracted interruptible services in France and Italy (in total about 1.7 GW) were disconnected in order to reduce the frequency deviation. To reduce the high frequency in the southeast area, automatic and manual countermeasures were activated, including the reduction of generation output, such as the automatic disconnection of a 975-MW generator in Turkey.
Prompting perhaps the most sobering U.S. reliability crisis in recent decades, Winter Storm Uri caused 4,124 outages, derates, and failures at 1,045 generators—a combined 193,818 MW—scattered across Texas and parts of the southcentral U.S. for four consecutive days, from Feb. 15 to 19. To avoid a system collapse, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) ordered a total of 20 GW of rolling blackouts, representing the largest manually controlled load shedding event in U.S. history. ERCOT generator losses averaged 34 GW, which is equivalent to nearly half of its all-time winter peak load. The Southwest Power Pool (SPP) and the Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO) in the Eastern Interconnection also faced challenges. SPP averaged 20 GW of generation losses, prompting unprecedented rolling blackouts in Nebraska and Iowa, and MISO averaged 14.5 GW. The power losses during the freeze caused numerous deaths. In a November report, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Electric Reliability Corp. found 44.2% of generator incidents were caused by freezing issues, 31.4% by fuel issues, 21% by mechanical and electrical issues, and 2% by transmission system issues.
Overshadowed by Winter Storm Uri, Japan on Feb. 15 suffered a 7.3-magnitude earthquake with the epicenter located offshore Fukushima prefecture that shut down 10 GW of thermal power generation in the Tohuku area.
Ghana suffered a nationwide power outage on March 7 after a technical fault occurred on major transmission lines between Prestea and Obuasi, grid operator GRIDCo reported. GRIDCo also blamed natural gas supply issues and system maintenance on related incidents.
Facing intense scrutiny after the winter debacle, Texas grid operator ERCOT on April 13 urged Texans to conserve power as grid conditions tightened, owing to “a combination of high generation outages typical in April and higher-than-forecasted demand from a stalled cold front over Texas.” About 32,000 MW of ERCOT’s total resource of 88,156 MW was in outages, a spokesperson warned. The figure was substantially more than the 11.9 GW of generation capacity that was forecast to be in outages in the grid operator’s spring seasonal assessment of resource adequacy.
Several cities in Taiwan, including its capital Taipei, endured rolling blackouts after a trip at the 4.3-GW coal-fired Hsinta Power Plant in the southern city of Kaohsiung. State-run power company Taipower pointed to insufficient electricity supply, which was exacerbated by reduced hydropower output. The region was stricken by drought. The power supply shortages prompted another power cut days later, during a heatwave, after a spike in demand.
Jordan on May 21 also suffered a widespread power cut. The blackout was caused by a technical electrical malfunction in the Jordanian-Egyptian electricity interconnection.
China faced another power crunch. Industrial users in Guangdong were urged to stop production at certain times to alleviate strain on the power system arising from a combination of hot weather and high factory use.
The North American Electric Reliability Corp. (NERC), an entity tasked with monitoring the reliability of the North American bulk power system, on May 26 issued a grim outlook for the summer. It cautioned that “above-normal” heat events pose “elevated risks” for energy emergencies in Texas, New England, the MISO, and parts of the West. In California, risks are even more pronounced, owing to its reliance on imports to offset falling solar PV output in the late afternoon. While grid operators in these regions have resources to meet normal peak summer demand, during abnormally hot events, they could see soaring demand from temperature-dependent loads, such as air-conditioning and refrigeration, or a reduction to power supplies stemming from “lower-than-capacity resource output or increased outages,” the entity said. “I want to be clear, this is not a call against the transition, but rather, a plea for attention to the pace of change in the challenges created for system operators,” NERC’s head said. “I know that operators and planners are working very, very hard to preserve reliability, but they’re continually asked to do so and manage your grid under more and more challenging conditions.”
A large fire at the Monacillo electrical substation owned by Puerto Rican power provider Luma Energy prompted widespread power outages across the entire island on June 10. Luma, a private company that had only 10 days prior replaced the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority as the island’s power authority, in a report described a cascade of incidents, including “multiple explosions” that resulted in the “catastrophic failure” of a breaker and transformer. The transmission line breakers opened to clear the transformer fault, but about a minute later, the system began to experience widespread frequency and voltage disturbances that tripped generation units. The incident was compounded by reports of a cyberattack earlier that day on the company’s client portal and mobile app.
California, stricken by repeated heat events, the prospect of worsening drought, incremental resource delays, and the “unforeseen” loss of 300 MW in thermal resources, on June 29 began bracing for an energy crisis. The California Independent System Operator (CAISO) declared a “significant event,” similar to one it was forced to implement during periods of rotating blackouts on Aug. 14 and 15, 2020.
Utilities across the U.S. Pacific Northwest braced for exceptional stress on the grid as record-breaking temperatures in late June continued to fester across the region, and at least one utility—Avista Corp.—began rolling outages as a measure to alleviate strain on the electric system.
A heatwave prompted New York City to issue a rare emergency call for energy conservation in early July.
A major blackout left all of Honduras and Nicaragua, and parts of El Salvador and Guatemala, without power on July 8. The incident was caused by a “significant imbalance” when the power supply fell by more than a third, said the region’s electricity operator EOR. According to Reuters, “EOR pointed to a failure at the key Amarateca Toncontin transmission line in Honduras and a subsequent overload at the Brillantes electrical substation near the Mexico-Guatemala border that led to a ‘voltage collapse.’” The blackout affected nearly 15 million consumers. Damages were estimated at $18.2 million.
South Korea on July 18 warned that its electricity reserve margin—the difference between the supply capacity and demand—had fallen close to 10%. The country braced for shortages if temperatures surged over the summer. Experts blamed the country’s changing power profile and reduced use of its nuclear fleet. Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power said its nuclear fleet’s capacity factor had remained between 60% and 75% since 2018.
The U.S. West faced a severe drought that severely reduced hydropower capacity, officials warned. The iconic 2-GW Hoover Dam and 1.3-GW Glen Canyon Dam hydropower plants operated at substantially reduced capacity, paralyzed by enduring drought conditions across the West, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) revealed. Drought concerns prompted the USBR on Aug. 16 to declare the first-ever federal water shortage at Lake Mead. The situation had implications for Los Angeles and other parts of Southern California, Arizona, and Nevada, which take the bulk of the allocated firm energy that the plant produces.
Drought is also a major concern for Brazil. The country’s government warned citizens on Aug. 31 that record drought was deeply hampering its hydropower generation, forcing it to import power from neighboring countries and ramping up fossil fuel use. Officials said scarce rainfall in the October to April rainy season in the south-central region had reduced hydropower levels in the Paraná river basin to critical levels. While Brazil has reduced its reliance on hydropower since its 2001 crisis, its 57 dams still account for more than half of the country’s hydropower.
In a rare occurrence, New Zealand on Aug. 9 struggled with tight supplies as a cold snap strained its grid, and national grid operator Transpower grappled with how to assess its wind resource. The grid operator ultimately ordered distribution companies to reduce power consumption in response to an unplanned outage of Genesis’ Tokaanu hydropower station on the Tongariro River. A government investigation released in November found that Transpower’s actions relied on forecasting that showed a reserve deficit of up to 31 MW “largely driven by a drop in wind offers and an increase in demand.” However, the government said “forced disconnection of household electricity was entirely avoidable.”
A power blackout hit Zambia on Aug. 8, forcing mining companies in the country to turn to costly diesel generation.
China’s tightening coal supplies, more stringent energy intensity and environmental restrictions, and soaring industrial power demand triggered yet another widespread power crisis. Blackouts and brownouts reportedly afflicted numerous provincial jurisdictions across the economic powerhouse, most prominently in Guangdong in the south, and Heilongjiang, Jilin, and Liaoning in the northeast.
A major energy crisis began brewing in Europe, where natural gas supplies had been projected to lag behind demand. In Ireland, considerable anxiety had been building around the prospect of blackouts. Retirements of aging plants, ongoing outages at existing plants, new intermittent generation additions, and increasing electricity demand posed a precarious environment. On Sept. 9, Ireland warned of a power shortfall owing to low wind on both sides of the Irish Sea.
In the UK, where coal plants have all been shuttered but winter reserves are slim, power prices began to soar when Ireland cut exports. The situation grew dire in the UK after a fire took out a cable that transmits power to the UK from France. On Sept. 15, analysts warned that energy prices were breaking records daily. Gas and coal reserves began to fall well below normal weeks, even before the heating season had begun, while limited gas supplies from Russia, diminished North Sea production, and competition with Asia for LNG compounded the crisis.
Puerto Rico declared a “state of emergency” due to the critical condition of its generating power plants. Blackouts were reportedly constant and longer lasting. Puerto Rico’s Electric Power Authority, which is responsible for the generation of electricity, and Luma, the private company that handles transmission and distribution of power, pinned the blame on mechanical failures at generating plants involving components such as boilers and condensers.
Stricken by a surge in global coal prices and freight costs, several coal power plants in India began to experience a critical coal supply shortage that forced some plants to curtail power. Fearing a power crisis, the Ministry of Power directed hydropower generators to defer scheduled maintenance through October. The Ministry of Coal, meanwhile, issued a wide-ranging reform agenda that will boost coal supplies but also prepare India’s coal sector for a new role in a low-carbon future.
Europe’s energy crisis ramped up as a cold winter depleted gas reserves and a spell of still days reduced wind power supply to the grid. Natural gas prices rose to record levels, pushing wholesale power prices up 200% over the first nine months of the year. The hard-hit UK considered lending money to energy-intensive industries to help them pay power bills. In Spain, where power prices had tripled since December 2020, the government announced emergency measures to cap prices. France and Italy moved to help their low-income citizens pay bills.
Germany on Nov. 18 suspended the process of certifying Russia’s Nord Stream 2, intensifying Europe’s energy crises. Construction of Nord Stream 2 by Russian state-owned company Gazprom began in 2018 and was completed in September. The pipeline is expected to deliver 55 billion cubic meters of gas per year from Russia to Europe. Though several European countries want to transition to non-carbon sources of energy, the European Union currently gets about 40% of its imported natural gas from Russia.
NERC issued another grim outlook for the winter. The entity warned that much of the central U.S.—a region that stretches from the Great Lakes into southern Texas—may face critical power deficiencies during extreme winter weather conditions over the next three months. Natural gas supply disruptions and low hydropower conditions could also imperil power reliability in New England and the West, it said.
ISO New England (ISO-NE) warned that New England faces a precarious fuel supply risk that could necessitate emergency actions if a severe prolonged cold snap hits the region this winter. The grid operator said it is cautiously watching three “variables that could put the region in a more precarious position than past winters” and force the ISO to “take emergency actions, up to and including controlled power outages.” Among its most concerning issues was that current storage levels of oil and LNG were lower than in recent winters. The region is also prone to natural gas pipeline constraints when it experiences simultaneous demand for natural gas for heating homes and operating gas-fired power plants, it said.
France on Dec. 30 announced it risks power shortages if temperatures plunge or it faces low wind in January because more than a quarter of its 56 nuclear plants are not operating. Reports suggested these plants were in outage, owing to pandemic-related postponements of maintenance schedules.
What’s ahead? Look for more in POWER’s January 2022 forecast issue.
—Sonal Patel is a POWER senior associate editor (@sonalcpatel, @POWERmagazine).