Energy Central Professional

 

Are rolling electrical blackouts a possibility here? It's complicated


Steven Spearie  

 

    The thought of "rolling blackouts" or being disconnected from electricity in the middle of this summer's hottest temperatures "makes people nervous," admitted Springfield Ward 1 Ald. Chuck Redpath last week.

    Those decisions about possible short-term outages, insisted officials from City Water, Light and Power, aren't theirs to make.

    They are made on a regional basis by a member-based organization of grid operators, though the Springfield utility is trying to cushion inconveniences for its customers.

    Redpath was one of several Springfield City Council members who questioned CWLP chief utility engineer Doug Brown following his May 17 presentation on the rolling blackouts to the full board.

    Ward 9 Ald. Jim Donelan was particularly incensed in feeling that CWLP didn't have a plan to address the crisis that could worsen next year and potentially fester for years.

    It isn't just consumers who could feel the pinch of potential rolling blackouts and higher electric bills. Businesses and manufacturers across Illinois could be affected in different ways.

    "If we have (blackouts), you'll see significant production gaps," cautioned Mark Denzler, president and CEO of the Illinois Manufacturers' Association. "You'll have increased problems in supply chain and at the end you might have reduced products available to consumers on shelves."

    Even in Springfield, where the scenarios could be less dire, the scene struck Redpath as "scary."

    "I worry about senior citizens who don't have a backup energy source like a generator," Redpath said. "That might be a situation where we put somebody in harm's way. We have to think about all that stuff and there's a lot of discussion we need to have with the utility on contingency plans."

    The setup

    The Springfield area gets most of its electrical power from Dallman 4 and three other "peaking" generators, two that are oil-burning and one that has a dual-fuel operating capability. They cover, Brown said, "99% of our load 95% of the time."

    Unit 4 went online in 2009 and is the city's only operable coal-fired unit with the early retirement of Dallman 33 in 2021 and the decommissioning of Units 31 and 32.

    Since deregulation, CWLP has belonged to the Midcontinent Independent System Operator, or MISO, which is comprised of 15 states stretching from Louisiana into Manitoba, Canada, and is further broken down into regions. Illinois (minus Chicago and some northern counties) is part of the North Central region.

    It is MISO, Brown pointed out, that has signaled the warning about potential rolling blackouts because of a shortage of electrical generation, about five gigawatts, or five billion watts, this summer during projected high energy usage times. That shortfall could more than double next year, MISO has warned.

    That shortfall comes from a number of units across the region that are shutting down operation.

    CWLP can't disconnect from the grid to escape the possible rolling blackouts, Brown said.

    If one of its units goes down, then CWLP can pull electricity off the grid, or import electricity Brown said.

    "We can't sell power or buy power on the market if we're not connected to the grid," he said. "We can't just pick and choose what's best for your specific situation at that particular moment."

    What rolling blackouts

    might look like

    Rolling blackouts are temporary-controlled outages and are dictated by MISO, not CWLP, Brown said.

    MISO has indicated that any possible rolling blackouts would be "a last resort."

    With generation of power by Unit 4, CWLP is looking to enact any possible rolling blackouts in 15-minute increments, Brown said, part of a planning process the utility's transmission distribution group has done.

    "Fifteen minutes is probably the minimum that we can do," Brown said. "It's an impact and it's inconvenient, but it's not a detrimental impact to the economy or residents' lives.

    "Some of the utilities could have longer impacts."

    Whether CWLP customers get advance notice depends on how MISO issues it or if it knows there is a high load and a lack of power generation, Brown added.

    "We don't have control over when they tell us," he said. "I would like to say we'd have days notice of it, but (we may not)."

    As soon as CWLP is informed, said spokeswoman Amber Sabin, it would issue media advisories and do what it could to say it was implementing rolling blackouts.

    In a regional energy emergency, CWLP and other MISO member utilities would begin with internal conservation measures, bring on "peaking" units and other generation resources as possible, and then publicly appeal to customers to take steps to conserve electricity, lowering thermostats, minimizing lighting, unplugging devices, for instance, as a pretext.

    "If MISO utilities can get conservation and reduced load, then you can avoid the rolling blackouts," Sabin said.

    The reaction

    Donelan, who represents the northwest part of Springfield, was the most animated in his questioning of Brown at the May 17 city council meeting.

    He hasn't backed down.

    "I've heard arguments," Donelan told The State Journal-Register last week, "that the utility knew we were going to have potential problems like this for quite some time and if that's the case, where's the plan? I want to see a solid plan because we have residents, whether they're senior citizens or people in the hospital (who) rely more so than your average folks on electricity and power. It's extremely important.

    "Sure, I could go without air conditioning at my house in the middle of summer, that's fine. What about those people in the hospital and have ventilators and oxygen machines at home? That's why I was so adamant (at city council). What was talked about is unacceptable to me."

    Donelan admitted he's grateful Unit 4 is still generating power, but CWLP "has to figure something out" regarding potential shortfalls with energy capacity.

    "We've known we needed power purchase agreements. We heard a lot of excuses last week about why we don't have those in place now," Donelan said. "Maybe some of those are legitimate, maybe some aren't, but we have to get something in place to protect this community, because I think...we'll find as the board of directors if it does happen as they suggested, it's unacceptable and it will not be tolerated by the residents.

    "I am sympathetic to the fact that it's an unusual energy market. I think that was well outlined (by Brown on May 17). There have been some obstacles for sure, but I think we need something in place that's going to help protect the city of Springfield, the residents, the businesses."

    Brown countered that CWLP is "continually looking at energy and capacity deals in the market and once prices come down, we will most likely purchase more (energy) longer term. In addition, we do purchase energy and capacity in the market as needed and hedge on future needs by purchasing in the shorter term to help reduce the risk of being exposed to even higher prices."

    In a little over a decade, said the IMA's Denzler, Illinois has lost 6,910 megawatts of energy, including four plants that will be retired this year. Without renewable energy to backfill that hole, "you get exactly what we're talking about today, which is a lack of capacity in the marketplace and therefore substantially higher (electric) rates and potential (rolling blackouts).

    "(Illinoisans are) paying higher prices at the pump. They're paying more for food. Now they're going to pay more to keep their house cool in the summer and heated in the winter. Those are difficult decisions. People may make decisions. A business can't always make that decision. They don't have the ability to say, 'Hey, we're not going to produce this product or we're going to shut down.'"

    Despite dire warnings about electric power in central and southern Illinois, Hannah Lee Flath, the communications coordinator for Sierra Club Illinois, reminded that MISO leadership has stated publicly that the rapid expansion of wind and solar power has more than compensated for the shutdowns of coal-fired plants in the MISO region, including clean energy projects that have come online here.

    "The Climate and Equitable Jobs Act (CEJA) passed last year is the answer to both generating enough power to meet even heavy summer demand for electricity in every part of Illinois, while also delivering that power at a reasonable cost to consumers," Flath said.

    Redpath said he is realistic weary, but realistic, about the potential rolling blackouts.

    "When you flip the switch, you want the power to come on," Redpath added. "I know CWLP is trying as hard as they can to make sure it doesn't happen, but I think it's inevitable that it's probably going to happen this year or for sure next year."

    Contact Steven Spearie: 217-622-1788, sspearie@sj-r.com, twitter.com/@StevenSpearie.

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