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Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Iowa is projected to experience colder-than-normal temperatures this winter, along with much of the upper Midwest, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
In light of this forecast, several organizations assessed how different parts of the power grid can handle energy demands heading into this winter.
The resulting outlooks show that the Midcontinent Independent System Operator, which manages most of Iowa’s energy along with that of 14 other states and a Canadian province, should be able to meet normal winter energy demands. However, severe cold weather events could spell concern for energy reliability in the region.
On Dec. 1, the Iowa Utilities Board requested information about how state utilities plan to address energy needs this winter, especially during extreme weather.
“The assessment report’s forecast for a possible need to shed load (or conduct controlled outages) this winter during peak usage raises the IUB’s concern about the utilities’ plans to ensure the provision of safe and adequate electric service if this occurs,” an IUB news release said.
Since then, utilities, cooperatives and associations across the state have filed documents detailing their plans to handle energy demands and generation this winter. On Monday, IUB and utility representatives gathered in Des Moines for a conference to discuss their preparation in advance of wintry threats.
Projected energy demand and capacity
One of the winter energy assessments came from the North American Electric Reliability Corporation — a nonprofit that evaluates the reliability and security of the power grid. It warned that several regions are at risk of insufficient energy supplies amid severe winter weather, including MISO.
MISO projected its winter energy demand to surpass 102 gigawatts with 113 gigawatts of available supply under normal grid conditions. Demand reached a record-high on Jan. 6, 2017, at 109 gigawatts.
MISO could be at risk this winter, the NERC outlook said, because it has retired more than 4.2 gigawatts of nuclear and coal-fired generation since last winter. Without enough resources added in replacement, the amount of energy in reserve for the region has decreased by at least 5 percent. The report also mentioned impacts from generation unavailability, shipping delays and labor shortages.
However, the outlook also said that the region’s energy — including Iowa’s — should remain reliable without extreme weather events that could lead to outages, or load shedding.
“Though risk has been identified for this upcoming winter season in a high generation outage and high winter load scenario, MISO expects to maintain reliability … Load shedding is unlikely but may be needed under wide-area cold weather events,” the outlook said.
Southwest Power Pool, a regional transmission organization that covers some of western Iowa, is projected to reliably meet energy demands this winter, according to the NERC outlook.
Utilities plan for reliability
At the Monday conference, most entities attested that they are prepared to fulfill Iowa’s energy demands this winter. However, several organizations mentioned that their reliability could be impacted by energy needs in other states within the MISO footprint.
Each MISO region has its own energy capacity requirements. But they still can experience energy shortfalls, like the projections for this winter. During these situations, zones can lean on their neighbor’s energy. An intricate web of contracts gives MISO access to generators elsewhere that can provide needed power.
“Something we're focused on is making sure that we have the capacity that's needed to serve our customers in all seasons of the year,” said Andrew Cardon, who spoke on behalf of Interstate Power and Light — Alliant Energy’s Iowa subsidiary — at the conference. “But I'm not sure that we can comment on what other utilities in other parts of the country are able to do or not do.”
Dehn Stevens, MidAmerican Energy’s vice president of transmission development and planning, shared that 98 percent of MISO’s member utilities have plans to prepare for the winter, 96 percent have reviewed NERC guidelines for the winter and 89 percent have a severe cold weather checklist.
“I just want to point out, though, what we're talking about here is when the best laid plans go awry,” said Jon Tack, a general counsel of the IUB, at the conference. “The data that has been presented indicate there's a higher than normal likelihood that those plans go awry this year, and we want to be ready in case it does.”
Some utilities brought up concerns over prolonged periods of severe cold, which could freeze infrastructure or plague it with ice. Heavy ice and wind could impact transmission lines.
Representatives also discussed backup generation — largely diesel generation — provided by members of the Iowa Association of Municipal Utilities, which represents 754 municipal broadband, electric, gas and water utilities statewide.
Tack commended the association’s assistance during the 2021 Winter Storm Uri. He then asked if environmental regulations could affect how much this generation could be used.
“That's a question that I think our members would like to explore further with you and primarily with the environmental regulator,” said Tim Whipple, who helped represent the association at the conference. “I don't believe we have the flexibility that we would like to see.”
Rising energy rates, supply chain issues
In general, utilities have forecast higher energy rates this winter compared to previous winters. Several attributed the projected increases to higher costs for natural gas and tighter overall capacity across MISO.
Many entities also referenced supply chain issues in their filings. The Resale Power Group of Iowa, an association of public and private agencies that makes energy-related purchases for its members, urged the IUB to promote sharing of critical resources — like infrastructure parts — among Iowa utilities to ensure reliability.
Following recent national railroad contract negotiations, NERC warned of insufficient fuel supplies. However, Iowa utilities assured they have enough coal reserves to meet capacity and they will be able to deliver natural gas to facilities.
Brittney J. Miller is the Energy & Environment Reporter for The Gazette and a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues.
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