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With hot summer in the offing, Minnesota electric utilities prep for grid strain

The North American Electric Reliability Corporation and the region's power grid operator warned generation capacity could fall short of demand on the hottest days this summer. Above normal temperatures expected in the Upper Midwest combined with a historic drought are expected to contribute to the strain.

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Swimmers flocked to Lake Nokomis Beach in Minneapolis last summer to deal with the extreme heat. With another hot summer already starting, power companies big and small across Minnesota say they are prepared for the challenges — including the possibility of interruptions. Above normal temperatures expected in the Upper Midwest combined with a historic drought will contribute to the strain.
David Joles / Star Tribune / TNS
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ST. PAUL — With forecasters predicting a hotter than normal summer, electric utilities and regulators are warning that the coming months could bring the potential of forced blackouts and higher prices for some customers in the midwestern U.S.

Power companies big and small across Minnesota say they are prepared for potential challenges this summer, including the possibility of interruptions after the North American Electric Reliability Corp. and the region's power grid operator warned generation capacity could fall short of demand on the hottest days this summer. Above normal temperatures expected in the Upper Midwest combined with a historic drought will contribute to the strain.

“I'd rather be prepared and not need it, than not be prepared and need it, so that's why we're trying to notify our customers as much in advance,” said Vernell Roberts with Detroit Lakes Public Utilities, which serves up to 17,000 customers in the summer. “We're not trying to waive any type of an alarm or anything like that. But we do want customers to know."

Electric utilities in Minnesota and parts of the Dakotas are part of a regional power grid operator that extends from the Canadian province of Manitoba to Louisiana called Midcontinent Independent System Operator, or MISO. Providers across the system work together to manage energy production and consumption to ensure stable supply and the best possible prices for the 42 million people they serve.

Julie Pierce, vice president of Strategy and Planning for Minnesota Power, a northeast Minnesota utility that serves 145,000 customers, compares MISO to an air-traffic controller for the region, and the local utilities have been preparing to chip in however they can should the grid be placed under extreme pressure. This summer when millions of people crank up their air conditioning to fight off sweltering heat, the utilities plan to coordinate to produce more power and cut consumption where they can.

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The challenge isn't just because of the heat. MISO in its summer outlook said it could possibly expect 124 gigawatts of load, or power demand, with 119 gigawatts of regularly available electricity available for generation. To avoid blackouts or grid failure, MISO spokesperson Brandon Morris said the operator will likely have to rely more on emergency procedures. Already this week MISO has issued capacity advisories and hot weather alerts to utilities across the grid.

“We’ve been seeing this trend for the last few years, but this year’s summer assessment and capacity auction reflect the potential for the tightest conditions we’ve experienced,” Morris said in a statement. “The overall stability and reliability of the system will not be compromised, as MISO will continue to implement any actions that may be necessary to prevent uncontrolled, cascading outages.”

Pierce said there are many steps providers can take before taking the extreme measure of blackouts, including giving major industrial consumers an opportunity to shut down operations to avoid the higher rates that come with surging power demand. Roberts said his utility has been identifying industrial customers in Detroit Lakes to do the same.

As electricity providers across MISO’s footprint retire gas and nuclear power plants and replace them with more renewable energy sources like wind and solar, the grid has experienced disruptions, industry analysts say. In a recent report, energy investment research firm BTU Analytics said the retirement of older plants contributed to the shortfall in MISO’s footprint.

However, more renewable replacements are on the way. Pierce, said improving reliability is also a matter of improving and expanding transmission lines and power storage.

“You need more infrastructure to support the renewables that are being put on the system is probably the bottom line of it. And without that, you're going to see big swings,” Pierce said. “This isn't because of renewables. This is because of the energy transformation that's happening in the United States right now.”

Alex Derosier covers Minnesota breaking news and state government for Forum News Service.
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