Grid Operator: Electricity Supply Could Be At Risk This Winter

An October 29, 2020 article raised a few eyebrows for those of us who didn’t have our eyeballs completely on the presidential horserace.  The article, featured in Regional Transmission Organization (RTO) Insider, said that the regional electric grid (the Midcontinent Independent Systems Operator, or MISO), expects to have enough reliable power plants online to navigate the winter.

However, abnormal weather could result in weather-related power outages or a “load-shedding events.” which are essentially last-ditch efforts to preemptively sacrifice a small section of electricity customers to prevent widespread blackouts.

“Executive Director of Real-Time Operations Rob Benbow said anticipated electricity usage paired with the “outages we have planned” show adequate reserves.

But as usual, a combination of high demand and unexpectedly high generation outages could put MISO operations in jeopardy.”

One situation where load shedding or blackouts could occur is on a high-demand day in January, similar to the Polar Vortex of 2019. Using a high demand, low supply forecast, MISO said it could run out of customers who willingly turn off the power (think large factories) to save money when electricity prices are high. This would be a very bad situation.

According to the article, resource Adequacy Coordination Engineer Eric Rodriguez said December and January bring the highest risk of a maximum generation event, where nearly all power plants on the regional grid are called upon to generate power to ensure reliability.

“MISO has undertaken dramatically more winter preparation since the polar vortexes and subsequent maximum generation events of 2014 and 2019 and the two-day MISO South emergency in January 2018. Since the Midwestern arctic blast in 2019, the RTO has been including the cold-weather cutoff thresholds of wind generators.”

This means the grid operator is now considering the fact that wind turbines don’t work at -22 degrees F into their plans when trying to determine whether there are enough power plants online to meet demand. The risk of power outages in winter is expected to grow as states retire their coal-fired power plants and become more heavily reliant upon solar and wind, unless enough natural gas is built to ensure reliability.

During extreme winter weather events, wind is not guaranteed to work because it could be too cold for the turbines to operate or it could simply not be windy enough for the turbines to generate enough electricity. As for solar, cold weather can actually make solar facilities more efficient by making some of the equipment operate more efficiently, but this is canceled out if there is snow on the solar panels, and its mitigated by the fewer daylight hours we experience in winter time.

If Xcel is allowed to shut down their coal plants before the end of their useful lifetime, there could be a massive hole in the grid where reliable power plants should be filling in the gaps. Unless massive quantities of natural gas power plants are built to make up for the shortfall in reliable power plants, we could be at risk of suffering the same types of rolling blackouts that California experienced in August, but a winter blackout in Minnesota would be much worse.

Without electricity, there is no heating because forced air heating systems, even if they are gas, rely on electricity to run the blower fans to circulate the heat. If you have radiators, electricity runs the pumps that circulate the hot water through the house to keep it warm.

While California experienced short outages due to peaking demand for air conditioning as the sun was setting, an electricity emergency would be far more severe in Minnesota because demand for electricity for heating would increase the most at night when temperatures are theoretically coldest. This means a shift toward more electric heating puts the grid at a higher risk of failure than the current system, which runs largely on natural gas.

Hopefully Minnesotans wise up before it comes to that!