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    Continued warm, dry weather in Colorado raises alarms about reliability of power systems


    June 1, 2022 - Judith Kohler

     

      Colorado utilities are preparing for what's shaping up to be a hotter-than-normal and relatively dry summer while regulators are assessing how to keep the lights and power on as the climate changes.

      The Colorado Public Utilities Commission has started discussions with climate, weather and water experts as well as power providers to figure out if it's prepared to ensure reliable, adequate electric and gas service as extreme heat and cold test the systems.

      Xcel Energy-Colorado is actively watching what's happening in Colorado and across the West heading into summer and is working to ensure the utility has the resources to deliver reliable service, said Hollie Velasquez Horvath, the regional vice president of state affairs and community relations.

      Xcel Energy, the state's largest electric utility, is looking at a situation where utilities in the West relying on hydropower will likely see their resources tighten because of lower-than-normal levels in some of the region's reservoirs. Hydropower is only about 1% of Xcel's energy mix.

      "The availability of the extra energy that we sometimes depend on through the summer we know will be constrained," Horvath said. "We're thinking about that every day."

      Xcel Energy has "a pretty robust communications plan" to contact customers to encourage scaling back use if there are problems with the electricity supply, Horvath said.

      "Controlled outages would absolutely be our last resort," Horvath said. "We're making sure we can do everything we can on the generation side."

      Widespread drought and the below-normal snowpack in the West threaten the availability of hydroelectric power that can be transferred among utilities, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation said in a recent report. Wide-scale extreme heat would put the area "at risk of energy emergencies," according to the report.

      The PUC is considering both the near- and long-term impacts of climate change as it makes decisions about Colorado's energy needs.

      "We need to build an electric system involving many millions of dollars of invested capital to keep the lights on during the extremes," Eric Blank, PUC chairman, said during a hearing Wednesday.

      Blank said utilities and regulators look to historic data and events to help plan for the future, but asked for advice on forecasting during a time of volatile weather.

      "I wish I had a good, solid answer for you on that one," said Russ Schumacher, the state climatologist and associate professor at Colorado State University.

      Schumacher said records show the subzero weather in Texas in February 2021 that knocked out power to millions and drove up energy costs in Colorado and other states is rare, but similar events have happened. However, last summer's heat wave in the Pacific Northwest, when British Columbia had its highest-ever temperature and hundreds of people died, was "so far outside the envelope of anything that's ever been observed before in that area," he said.

      "Certainly there's a lot of useful information still in the historical data. We're not at the point where we should just ignore that because we expect the future to be different," Schumacher said. "But it may be we have to expand the imagination a little bit of what might be possible."

      The outlook for Colorado and a big part of the region is hot and relatively dry over the next few months. A long-range forecast by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows a 60% to 70% chance of above-normal temperatures for all but the northeast tip of the state June through August.

      Most of the state has a 33% to 40% chance of below-normal precipitation for the same period, according to NOAA. The best chance for relief will be the annual monsoon, which the weather forecasting company AccuWeather said could begin in late June or early July.

      All of Colorado is in drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Conditions range from abnormally dry to extreme and exceptional drought in parts of southern Colorado. Each of the state's 64 counties qualifies as primary natural disaster areas by the federal government because of the ongoing drought.

      The prospect of another summer of wildfires roaring through drought-stricken forests and grasslands has the PUC and utilities stressing the need to see that downed power lines don't spark fires.

      Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, which provides wholesale power to several Colorado rural electric cooperatives, has wildfire prevention plans that include checks on areas with a heightened risk, spokesman Lee Boughey said in an email. The company will work in June to remove vegetation along a transmission line in southwest Colorado.

      Horvath said Xcel Energy's wildfire-mitigation plan includes inspecting its infrastructure in fire-prone areas, cutting trees and other vegetation around power lines and replacing transmission lines and poles.

      Black Hills Energy spokeswoman Ashley Campbell said the utility is aware of concerns about the adequacy of resources in the event of a hot summer. She said in an email that Black Hills will closely monitor the situation.

      "Our resources, including the Pueblo Airport Generating Station, are well-maintained with contingency plans in place to minimize any forced outages," Campbell said.

      Tri-State constantly monitors the condition of its grid, especially in the hotter summer months, Boughey said. The Westminster-based power provider works with other utilities in energy trading markets and a regional transmission organization.

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