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Midwest Frets Over Blackouts // Solar's "New" Obstacle

Midwest Frets Over Blackouts

The Mid-continent Independent System Operator, which oversees the portion of America's grid that stretches from Minnesota to Louisiana, is facing troubling shortfalls. Now some of its members are having second thoughts about their participation in the market. 

Take Joe Sullivan, chair of the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission. His state invested in reliability to weather tightening electricity supplies. But now it appears that problems elsewhere in MISO might render Minnesota's plans moot, bringing on the blackouts anyway. 

“We’ve spent the money for this, but now we’re not going to get the benefit of it?” Sullivan said to E&E News. “The way that I look at the MISO business model right now is that one zone can import or export their resource adequacy problem to the rest of the region, and that is deeply unfair."

MISO announced it might see outages this year due to a 1,200 MW shortfall in capacity--reliable coal plants and nuclear plants switched off either because they couldn't make money or they simply had to retire. They were "replaced" with intermittent and non-dispatchable renewables. That shortfall looks to balloon up to 10 GW in the next five years. It makes sense that some of MISO's members, who have focused on maintaining reliability, don't want to carry water for states that haven't prioritized it. 

“Our Wisconsin utilities are continuing to do an excellent job of planning and balancing your generation portfolio the way they’ve done it for 100 years,” Wisconsin PSC Chair Rebecca Valcq told E&E. “Now, when MISO comes out and says we have a 1,200-megawatt capacity shortfall, it’s a little concerning.”

Valcq echoed Sullivan: “Is it fundamentally fair then to target a state like Wisconsin and ask for load-shedding when all of our utilities have done what they’re supposed to?”

It appears the logic of RTO electricity market has begun to come apart. In Massachusetts, the Attorney General is looking to end the market for residential customers, as it's unclear that the market ever saved them money. More recently, Brien Sheahan, former head of the Illinois Commerce Committee, came out and called the whole experiment a failure. 

"Instead of the promise of lower prices from competition," wrote Sheahan, "the storyline emanating today from these 'competitive' markets — PJM in the mid-Atlantic, the Midcontinent ISO (MISO) in the Midwest, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), and California ISO in the Golden State, among others — is policy failure, catastrophic system failures, blackouts, brownouts, and higher prices (more than 4,000% in MISO’s case)."

While no one seems happy at the moment, what took decades to achieve cannot be undone overnight. Neither party appears to have an alternative vision for how electricity should be run in America. The current situation fits flush into both parties' blind spots: conservatives tend to loathe any market reform, and liberals won't get too enthusiastic about kneecapping their greatest green enabler--some 80% of renewables in America are deployed in RTO areas. 

Solar's "New" Obstacle

Just when the American solar industry thought it had reached escape velocity, something else has sucked it back down to earth. 

"The U.S. solar industry faces a new wave of disruptions in the supply chain this year after the U.S. act on banning products manufactured using forced labor in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region entered into force a few weeks ago," reports Oilprice.com.

The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (UFLPA) came into force a few weeks ago. Now, Chinese solar panel suppliers' exports to America have been getting detained or even shipped back to them as a result of the act. 

"Under the new law," writes Isaac Orr, "companies must prove that imported solar panels weren’t produced using slavery, and the level of documentation required by authorities so far has caught many in the industry off guard."

"The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) is home to half of the world’s polysilicon, which is used in solar panels manufactured in many other countries," reports Oilprice.com. 

The UFLPA came into being based on credible concerns that the Chinese Communist Party has been forcing Uyghurs into labor camps where they make most of the world's polysilicon, a necessary component in solar panels. 

But the solar industry isn't the only one that will feel the effects of the UFLPA. “They are among more than a dozen other sectors that source significant quantities of raw or component materials from the XUAR,” the Center for Strategic and International Studies said in June as the act went into effect. 

Still, the solar industry has had a tough year and it's not certain how much this prohibition on slave labor goods will hurt their industry. Q1 of this year showed the lowest level of solar installations since the pandemic. "Price increases and supply chain constraints continued to suppress the solar market as the industry installed 24% less solar capacity in the first quarter this year compared to the same period of 2021," reports Oilprice.com.

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