Rolling Blackouts Reach Minnesota Valley
Twenty-plus years of failed energy policy have led us to where we are at today. Rolling Blackouts are becoming commonplace across the country and finally reaching us.
This, of course, is because of government policy. For the past couple of decades plus, the federal government has been coercing the electric utility industry into forming larger and larger power pools. The purpose was to feather in more and more windmills into the generation mix at all cost.
Since the late 60s, we in this region have had our own highly reliable power pool called the Integrated System or IS. Hydropower, through the Western Area Power Administration (WAPA), and Basin Electric’s mostly coal-fired electric generating facilities work together to provide reliable power through a jointly owned and operated transmission system—no matter the weather conditions. The IS was primarily the upper Missouri River Basin area of which we are a part of.
That was then, this is now. WAPA and Basin finally succumbed to federal government pressure. In October of 2015, our Basin Electric joined a power pool called Southwest Power Pool (SPP) along with WAPA. We, at Minnesota Valley, had unresolved reliability
concerns and strenuously made them known to Basin and WAPA ahead of them joining SPP. Anyway, the premises of joining SPP was that Basin would have improved access to power markets in and out, as well as better transmission access throughout the region in which they operate.
Now we are in a power pool, or region, in which WAPA and Basin operate in, that stretches all the way from the Canadian border into north Texas. This power pool is heavily reliant on green energy backed up by gas turbines to generate electricity when the wind doesn’t blow. This is like ERCOT, the power pool in Texas.
Five years and five months after we joined SPP, a cold snap ran right through the midsection of the country. It created problems for Texas as windmills wouldn’t operate. There was a demand spike on natural gas to run gas-fired electric generation to back up wind that was not running. Gas-fired electric generation couldn’t keep up with demand. What was left of baseload coal-fired electric power plants couldn’t pick up the slack. Then came rolling blackouts, permanent blackouts, freeze-ups and unnecessary deaths. It started in ERCOT before SPP. Then it started in our power pool, SPP.
On Valentine’s weekend, as we were in the deep freeze, we knew our power pool, SPP, was strained. The cascading spiral which crippled Texas was now happening in our power pool. Windmills were dropping offline; gas line constrictions were limiting gas-fired power generation that was supposed to back up the windmills. What is left of our coal-fired fleet of power plants, along with our hydropower, could not keep up with the magnitude of demand for electric power in our power pool. Nebraska south to north Texas was sucking up our coal-fired and hydropower.
On Monday, February 15th, we were in meetings with fellow distribution cooperatives and our power suppliers, including WAPA, being appraised of the situation and discussing collective steps being taken to avoid rolling blackouts or worse yet. There was a real possibility of crashing entire sections of the power pool. As we left the call, we were wary but somewhat assured by WAPA during the call that we were seeing light at the end of the tunnel. WAPA would be the entity responsible for throwing the switches should the SPP power pool need to shed load. We were worried and talked about mitigation steps we would take at Minnesota Valley if we got a heads up on rolling blackouts coming our way from our control area operator, WAPA.
The heavy load on our pool is about 5 a.m. to 8 a.m. About 6:40 a.m. on February 16th, four of our distribution substations went dark. We never got a call from WAPA. We quickly figured out WAPA flipped the switch that feeds those four substations out of their Granite Falls Delivery Point Substation north of Granite Falls. We were given no advance warning. We were stunned.
We are fortunate to be located adjacent to another power pool. We are also fortunate to own and operate our own transmission system. We were able to bring everyone back up in less than an hour. Our guys manually threw a switch to connect to the power pool to the east of us called MISO who fortunately at the time had available capacity for some of our load. After making some calls, we got WAPA to stop randomly throwing switches on our system. They had planned to have rolling blackouts on our system in 45-minute increments throughout the day and possibly the next day. We lobbied them to leave the switch open that they had initially threw. We told them that load had been moved to another power pool that was currently stable. Furthermore, we pointed out that we had borne more than our share of the load shedding burden. They relented. Fortunately, better weather allowed our SPP situation to improve over the next few days.
This should be a wake-up call. But it won’t be. Government, state and federal, will continue to demand more renewable energy and continue the faux race to zero carbon. Make no mistake, if that cold band down the center of the country would have moved 100 miles further east, Minnesota would have had the rolling blackouts in most of the state.
When the next massive deep freeze covers a huge swatch of our country like what happened in Texas and in our power pool, it will happen again. It will go as follows as weather conditions drop deeply subzero.
1) Wind power generating capacity will drop to near zero because of mechanical problems or lack of wind.
2) Gas-fired generators meant to provide electric power when the wind power goes away will keep up for a while.
3) What is left of gas supplies to those generators will be choked off because of the suddenly astronomical demand for gas for things such as home heating. Government has not allowed enough pipelines to be built to get enough gas to gas-fired power generators spread throughout the country. Gas-fired generators will then start to shut down.
4) People will use more gas for heating to keep up with the cold, straining the gas supply system beyond its capability. As gas is constricted to homes, people plug in electric heaters to stay warm, further straining the electric grid.
5) What is left of coal-fired electric generators and hydro powered electric generators will run at full capacity, but will never be able to keep up with the electric demand.
6) Grid operators will be forced to initiate rolling blackouts to keep the system from burning down. If they don’t, major components such as large transformers on the bulk transmission system will burn out. Blackouts will occur. Power in some areas could be out for months. Under normal conditions, a large transformer will typically take 8 to 16 months to get.
7) Unfortunately, what just happened to us and other parts of the country is a vivid and cold reminder of where we are today with our electric grid in most regions of the U.S.
What needs to be done going forward? For starters, the power pools are too big. They expose everyone to regional disturbances and accountability gets washed out with too many players in the pool. Why should we have to send our power down south when we need it here? We also need to have more “spinning reserves”. Currently, 12% is what our power pool requires. It should be closer to 20% and should be coal-fired or nuclear, something always reliable. We should stop overflooding power pools with unreliable and costly wind and solar energy.
We currently don’t have the political will to address the fallacies of the zero carbon and continued green energy push. We don’t have the political will to get done what it will take to keep the lights on reliably as in days past. It will take more rolling blackouts and probably long-term permanent blackouts before the reality of our decades of failed energy policy are truly realized and effectively dealt with. We are just starting to see the economic costs calculated of what happened in Texas and the rest of the country from this event. We know the economic costs will be staggering, but also know they will be distorted and politicized too. Furthermore, we lest not forget the at least 39 unnecessary deaths caused by our failed energy policy.
Green energy did this to us. More green energy will do this to us more often.
American Experiment often receives feedback like this from retired utility workers who are worried about the direction the state is headed in. Hopefully, we can apply enough pressure to lawmakers to make them understand that Minnesotas demand reliable energy.