Winter Storm Elliott brought the electricity grid to the brink of collapse.

On Christmas Eve of 2022, the Eastern United States was gripped by Winter Storm Elliott, a catastrophic cold wave that killed hundreds and caused power outages throughout the region. But it could have been much worse. Even as people huddled in their homes against frigid temperatures well below zero, the power grid they depended on to keep the heat running teetered on a months-long shutdown as fossil fuel-based generators failed at an alarming rate.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and the North American Electric Reliability Corp. (NERC) reported that a staggering 13% of generating capacity in the region failed, shedding light on the challenges faced by the grid system that covers two-thirds of the United States. Natural gas-fired generators took the hardest hit, accounting for 63% of the outages.

This was followed by:

  • Coal and lignite at 23%
  • Oil at 4%
  • Wind at 4%
  • Nuclear, solar, and hydroelectric at 1% each

–According to a forthcoming report. (1)

The commissions identified the primary causes of these outages, with 55% attributed to freezing and fuel issues and 41% to mechanical and electrical issues related to below-freezing temperatures. About 10 gigawatts of gas-fired outages occurred due to curtailed gas supplies from pipeline operators, a significant contributor to the crisis.

One-third of the outages were the results of freezing equipment even when ambient temperatures were above the units’ documented minimum operating temperatures. This alarming revelation raises questions about the resilience of the grid during harsh winter conditions.

Another red flag during the storm was the failure of 154 “blackstart” generating units, which are crucial for restarting the grid after outages. These smaller generators are distributed widely across the grid and are started remotely to help keep the grid properly energized when the network is stressed. (2) Without them, a cascade of more significant shutdowns can occur, disrupting power supply for weeks–or even months. Most of the failed blackstart units were gas-fired.

The commissions proposed a series of recommendations. They included launching broad technical reviews, identifying high-risk power plants, passing gas infrastructure reliability legislation, and assessing new processes for handling capacity shortages during extreme cold weather events.

“This is too close,” FERC Acting Chairman Willie Phillips told Utility Dive(1), noting Winter Storm Elliott was the fifth time in 11 years there have been significant wintertime power outages.

The last five major cold-weather events shared similarities, such as:

  • Widespread failures of power plants to run
  • Drops in gas production
  • Failures by some grid operators to accurately forecast their peak load

–According to FERC and NERC staff.

“It’s deja vu all over again,” FERC Commissioner Mark Christie said (1).

A New Deal for the twenty-first century

During the depths of the Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt launched the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) to employ out-of-work Americans on projects like building out National Parks and damming rivers.

John F. Kennedy copied the model when he launched the Peace Corps in 1961 with the goal of sending young Americans abroad to help improve impoverished regions. Bill Clinton launched Ameri-Corps in 1993 to engage young Americans in service work around the United States.

And last month, the Biden-Harris Administration inaugurated the American Climate Corps, an initiative aimed at preparing young individuals for careers in clean energy, conservation and climate resilience. (1)

The program will be much smaller than the depression-era program, which employed millions over the course of 10 years. The American Climate Corps is set to create around 20,000 jobs for young Americans in the rapidly expanding climate and renewable energy sectors within its first year. Recruiting will be targeted at disadvantaged communities.

“We need millions of people, especially young people, employed to do the essential work of averting climate catastrophe and building a fair and equitable new economy,” said Varshini Prakash, the executive director of Project Sunrise, a climate activist group focused on young people.

“I am thrilled to say that the White House has been responsive to our generation’s demand for a Climate Corps and that President Biden acknowledges that this is just the beginning of building the climate workforce of the future,” Prakash told reporters. (2)

A central theme of the American Climate Corps is equity and environmental justice. It prioritizes underserved communities, including those that have historically powered the nation’s energy infrastructure.

Additionally, President Biden has called upon tribal, state and local governments, labor unions, nonprofits, the private sector and philanthropy, to expand training partnerships to meet climate goals. As part of this initiative, the Department of the Interior is committing $15 million to grow the Indian Youth Service Corps and other programs that support the next generation of conservation and climate stewards. This initiative aims to work closely with federally recognized tribes and organizations, reaching over 5,000 young people and increasing program capacity by 30 percent.

It is also encouraging AmeriCorps to extend access to Segal AmeriCorps Education Awards to American Climate Corps. These awards support post-secondary education, training, and reducing student debt.

Although the program is designed to put boots on the ground for climate projects in the near term, the emphasis is on creating clear career paths into the growing climate field. The Office of Personnel Management is proposing a rule to create a streamlined pathway into federal service for participants in the program. Several states have launched aligned climate corps programs funded through public-private partnerships, demonstrating the effectiveness of skills-based training in creating pathways to well-paying jobs. Five additional states, including Arizona, Utah, Minnesota, North Carolina and Maryland, are now moving forward with their own state-based climate corps programs. (3)

The White House has launched a dedicated recruitment website and will be rolling out details on participation and projects in the coming months.