No Blackouts: Weathering the Perfect Storm
By Mark Viguet, Associated Electric Cooperative
In mid-February, the midsection of America from the Canadian border to the Gulf of Mexico endured one of the worst winter storms on record. For power generation companies like Associated Electric Cooperative, a system that supplies electricity to six transmission and 51 distribution cooperatives with 2.1 million member-consumers in rural Missouri, Iowa and Oklahoma, it was the perfect storm.
Record-setting prolonged subzero temperatures, heavy snow and ice brought all-time high customer electricity usage, limits on natural gas supply that drove prices to historic highs and many operational challenges to keep the lights on. So, how did Associated weather the storm? In a word: balance.
Balanced Generation Strategy Resulted in Reliability
While much of the focus in that storm’s aftermath has been on utility systems that imposed rolling blackouts, Associated’s system of cooperatives in Missouri, Oklahoma and Iowa avoided putting members in the dark. The key: Associated relies on a balanced generation mix, with proven and reliable coal and natural gas generating plants as a valuable foundation for reliability.
Despite significant outside pressure in recent years to move to other options, these fossil-fuel generating stations were the major factor in keeping the lights on for the 2.1 million people who count on Associated. Hydropower allocated by the federal Southwestern Power Administration also was a reliable energy source. Wind generation in Associated’s mix played a small role during the storm.
Cooperative Network, Fossil Fuel Generation Key to Reliability
All facets of the Associated cooperative network – power generation, transmission and distribution – performed exceptionally well through a record hourly peak significantly greater than the pre-storm all-time peak set in 2018, doing so with no rolling blackouts. (See chart below).
Well-maintained and winter-ready coal and natural gas plants, weatherized to withstand negative 20-degree temperatures, were prepared to generate power as electricity demand quickly escalated while temperatures dropped. More than 10,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines operated by Associated’s transmission cooperatives, independent of regional transmission organizations, delivered power reliably. Distribution cooperatives served member-owners to the end of the lines at their homes and businesses with their usual determination and kept them informed with effective member communications.
Performance of Coal, Natural Gas Generation Meets Member Needs
During two critical peak energy demand days (February 15-16), coal plants operated close to full capacity, producing more than one-third of the generation needed by Associated’s members. (See all-time peak charts on this page). Natural gas served about one-fourth of the demand. Associated’s contracted imported power purchases (1,474 MW) and hydropower (478 MW) made meaningful contributions.
Associated’s 1,240 MW of wind energy from eight wind farms produced little to no energy. During the all-time peak of 5,549 MW set February 15, as energy demands were close to exceeding generation capacity, those 1,240 MW of wind produced only 3 percent of the energy generated. On February 16, wind dropped to nearly zero. Member-owned solar installations across the system weren’t generating much, if any, electricity at all during these peaks due to time of day combined with snow and ice cover.
Foundation Built on Coal Generation Ensured Fuel Availability, Lower Power Cost
What made Associated different than so many other utilities impacted by the extreme weather? Baseload coal generation – the foundation of Associated’s reliability and affordability – remained online throughout the event. The regions around Associated’s footprint and the utilities serving them came into the storm shorthanded, having replaced 24/7/365 capacity with resources like wind and solar that are inherently intermittent. They are particularly unreliable during extreme weather like the 2021 winter storm. When natural gas fuel supply, in high demand for home heating as well as power generation, was compromised or extremely expensive, Associated’s coal generating plants could rely on a two-month supply of coal previously delivered on site at a fixed price.
Consequences of Energy Transition: How Did the Industry Get Here?
Government policies that forced the early retirement of many coal plants have significantly decreased the reliability of the generation and transmission system designed to serve residential, commercial and industrial consumers throughout the Midwest. Retirement by other utilities of these coal plants resulted in reliance on natural gas power plants and renewable wind and solar farms.
Natural gas power plants rely on a network of gathering systems, processing plants, compression facilities and pipelines, compromised during the severe weather, to deliver fuel as needed to the gas-fired plants, while coal plants maintain a dependable two-month supply of fuel on site. As noted, wind, solar and other intermittent sources may not be producing energy at significant levels, or at all, during extreme weather events.
The responsibility for the retirement of reliable and affordable generating resources is a policy direction pushing the United States too quickly to rely on technologies designed to provide green energy, but unable to serve as reliable power supplies in extreme weather. This same policy direction also means more price volatility for end-users during extreme weather, when the market price of natural gas spikes during periods of high demand, sending the cost of generation fueled by natural gas skyrocketing.
Consumer-centric Priorities: Reliability, Affordability, Responsibility
Reliable sources of generation are necessary to meet the priorities of most consumers. Advocates for only and all renewable generation by near-term specific future dates are unrealistic, do not rely on engineering expertise and compromise reliability and affordability for the sake of an agenda that irresponsibly puts homes and businesses and the people in them at risk. Patience is needed because the technology does not exist today to replace all fossil fuel plants, high-voltage transmission systems were not designed for a rapid influx of intermittent generation like wind and solar, and ample time is needed to meet arbitrary deadlines put in place despite these challenges.
As this winter storm and the challenges it brought to utilities in the Midwest clearly demonstrate, an unreliable and costly future awaits the nation by relying on power generation sources that rarely will perform when people need electricity the most. Reliability and affordability should be top priorities. Ensuring reliable electricity requires generation that can be depended upon during all weather conditions.
The historic 2021 winter storm and Associated’s reliable performance throughout its duration serve as an important reminder and lesson that demonstrate the value of a balanced electric generation strategy, for consumers and the nation.
Mark Viguet is managing director at Associated Electric Cooperative, Inc.