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By Erin Campbell

The word “unprecedented” has been used often over the past 12 months, but there really is no other way to describe what happened in the electric industry last month. 

On Feb. 15 and 16, utilities across the Midwest, including several local electric cooperatives in western and north-central Iowa, implemented load control measures and temporary power disruptions to reduce electric demand on the grid. These highly unusual control measures were needed to prevent a catastrophic system-wide blackout. Electric demand reached historic highs due to electric heat use during record-breaking arctic weather that lingered over a large portion of the country. To put it simply, there was not enough available generation/supply to meet this exceptionally high electric use.

The grid’s “air-traffic controllers”

Many electric utilities across the country are members of regional transmission organizations (RTOs) and independent system operators (ISOs), also referred to as power pools. These federally regulated entities work on a regional scale to coordinate, control and monitor supply and demand on the electric grid. RTOs do not own the power grid, but they do work as “air-traffic controllers” of the grid to ensure reliable supplies of power, adequate transmission infrastructure and competitive wholesale electricity prices on behalf of their member utilities. Most Iowa electric utilities are members of one of two RTOs: Southwest Power Pool (SPP) or Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO).

SPP issued unprecedented Energy Emergency Alert (EEA) Level 2 and Level 3 orders to its member utilities across several states on Feb. 15 and 16, calling for high levels of electric demand reduction/curtailment to match available supply.  

Impacted electric co-ops in Iowa

Utilities that are members of SPP, including several Iowa electric distribution cooperatives served by Corn Belt Power Cooperative, L&O Power Cooperative and Northwest Iowa Power Cooperative (NIPCO), needed to shed specific amounts of electric load at particular times to maintain a safe and functional electric grid under the EEA Level 2 and Level 3 orders. The SPP-related outages that affected some Iowans were part of a larger electric demand management effort that impacted several states in the Midwest.

SPP issued the EEA orders to prevent a damaging regional blackout which could have taken days to restore. EEA Level 3 orders are extremely rare and are only implemented when absolutely necessary. In fact, these are the first Level 2 and Level 3 orders issued in the power pool’s 80-year history.

To comply with the Level 3 orders, some local electric cooperative substations were taken offline for about an hour at a time on average. Unfortunately, these outages occurred with almost no advanced warning as SPP manages electric supply and demand minute-by-minute in real time. Local electric distribution cooperatives had just minutes to initiate substation outages and they worked to avoid interrupting service to critical facilities.

These load control measures were unprecedented in our region, stemming from historically frigid weather impacting a vast portion of the country over a prolonged period. While extremely rare, this is another example of how your local electric co-op works to protect the electric grid.   

Erin Campbell is the director of communications for the Iowa Association of Electric Cooperatives.

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