By Ann Foster Thelen
The North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) recently released a reliability report indicating that many states, including Iowa, are at an increased risk for power generation shortfalls this summer. Decreased power generation capacity, increased electricity demand, above-normal temperature forecasts and drought conditions contributed to NERC’s assessment.
You might have noticed local, state and national headlines warning of impending power outages based on the report’s findings. While many of us remember the polar vortex outages that impacted Texas in February 2021, Iowans aren’t accustomed to these types of news reports about potential outages based on energy supply.
What does this report mean for Iowa’s electric cooperative member-consumers, and why is electricity generation a concern now? While the information warrants awareness and consideration, there is no reason to panic.
Reliability is paramount
First and foremost, locally owned electric cooperatives are committed to providing member-consumers with reliable electric service around-the-clock. Iowa’s electric co-ops rely on an “all-of-the-above” generation strategy, including coal, natural gas, hydropower, wind and solar resources. Ensuring reliability involves a portfolio of diverse options to meet consumers’ energy needs while also prioritizing our commitment to affordability and environmental responsibility.
Sources of electric generation have changed dramatically over the past 20 years. More renewable energy sources (wind and solar) have been integrated into the power grid while traditional baseload generation sources (coal and nuclear) have been shut down or retired. Renewable energy is also considered intermittent because the wind doesn’t always blow, the sun doesn’t always shine, and large-scale battery storage isn’t yet feasible. Because of these factors, resources that can be used regardless of weather conditions, such as coal, nuclear, hydro and natural gas, are still critical to ensuring reliable, 24/7 generation.
Power generation and demand mismatch
The power grid is complex and vastly interconnected, even though it might seem simple at the local level. The poles and wires you see dotting Iowa’s countryside and leading to your home or business are just one part of a complex grid that includes local distribution systems and transmission infrastructure. Many of Iowa’s electric cooperatives are part of regional transmission organizations or independent system operators, which coordinate, control and monitor a multistate electric grid (see sidebars about SPP and MISO). These federally created organizations act as “air traffic controllers” to enable the reliable and cost-effective delivery of electric service.
Unlike water or gas, electricity cannot be effectively stored in large quantities at this time. Electricity must be consumed the instant it is generated, which requires supply to be kept in constant balance with demand. That’s where organizations like SPP and Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO) provide incredible value; they constantly monitor electric demand regionally and manage available electric generation resources to maintain an equal balance.
In the rare event that electric demand exceeds available supply, deliberate and thorough plans are in place to keep the grid from shutting down and to minimize interruptions to electric service. Groups like SPP and MISO, along with electric cooperatives, are planning and preparing every minute of every day to use tools and resources to balance electric demand and supply. Some Iowa electric cooperatives have voluntary load management programs in place to cycle off water heaters, air conditioners and commercial/industrial loads to quickly reduce electric demand. Interruptions of electric service are a last resort but could still take place in some areas.
In the news, member-consumers might hear the term “load shedding,” which in simple terms means a reduction in electric demand is needed. If this occurs, a controlled and temporary power interruption could take place on certain portions of the grid to decrease electric demand so it matches the available electric supply on the regional grid. If these brief power interruptions are needed on high-demand days this summer, they would likely last for a couple of hours or less. While highly unlikely, these temporary, controlled power interruptions are protection mechanisms designed to prevent catastrophic, system-wide damage to the regional power grid.
What are electric cooperatives doing?
Those managing the ongoing energy transition must recognize the need for time, invest in technology development and be inclusive of various energy sources to maintain reliability and affordability. A resilient and reliable electric grid that affordably keeps the lights on is essential to daily life. Iowa’s electric cooperatives will continue to advocate for an all-of-the-above energy strategy with policymakers. A diverse energy mix that includes adequate baseload supply is essential to providing member-consumers with safe, reliable, affordable and environmentally responsible energy for the long term.
Your electric cooperative might offer load control programs or have suggestions for conserving energy to lower electric use on high-demand days. If a temporary, controlled interruption is necessary, it could occur with little notice. Follow your cooperative on social media, monitor its website or contact them directly for the most up-to-date information.
Ann Foster Thelen is the editor of Iowa Electric Cooperative Living magazine.
WAYS YOU CAN CONSERVE ENERGY DURING HIGH-TEMPERATURE WEATHER EVENTS
Increase your thermostat a few degrees. For example, if a normal setting for your home is 75 degrees, raise it to 78 degrees or higher.
Limit using large appliances (e.g., ovens, washing machines, electric clothes dryers, etc.) during the late afternoon and early evening hours.
Unplug devices that are not in use.
Turn off unnecessary lights.
Close blinds and drapes during peak hours (typically mid- to late-afternoon and early evening hours) and operate ceiling fans counterclockwise.