We see families huddling for warmth and light in Texas and wonder if the same thing can happen here. It can. And it does.
Think of every major wildfire that threatens utilities and water. Think the 2003 St. Patrick’s Day blizzard that paralyzed much of the Front Range for days. Think the 2013 northern Colorado floods.
Even more recently than that — think Sunday in Larimer County. The Platte River Power Authority sent a note to customers on that frigid day, when wind chills were forecast up to minus 20 Fahrenheit, saying its overall power supply was challenged. Customers, the utility said, should pull back their thermostats and conserve power in order to lighten the load on the grid.
Colorado GOP House Minority Leader Hugh McKean even put it in his speech to the opening of the state legislature this week, blaming the problems of his northern Colorado constituents on renewables: “All of the lofty goals of having 100% renewable energy were not sufficient to both provide the electricity we all demand as well as the heat for our homes. We should never have to make those choices, especially on the coldest day in recent history. The 21st century should not hallmark a return to the candles and wood stoves of the 19th.”
Like many things, only more so, the power grid is not that simple.
Yes, Colorado’s growing share of renewable utility energy is vulnerable to the weather. So is the “old” grid based on fossil fuels. Platte River Power did suffer a partial loss of available power Sunday. (Colorado’s utility grid drew about 25% from renewable sources in 2019, and that percentage rises every month as coal plants shut down and wind and solar farms come online.)
The Wyoming wind turbines Platte River Power buys power from iced up. Ice on the blades makes them wobble and can ruin expensive technology for the long term. So the wind farm couldn’t produce. The large solar array it takes electrical power from was covered in snow, and didn’t produce.
But the far bigger problem was that Xcel Energy, which supplies the natural gas that Platte River Power uses to fire up its backup generating plant, said it couldn’t supply enough fuel on Sunday. Other customers needed the gas for home heating. Xcel has the right to tell Platte River that.
So Platte River, which sells power wholesale to Estes Park, Fort Collins, Longmont and Loveland, sent messages to customers asking them to conserve all energy use for the day. They did. Platte River had forecast high demand that day of more than 500 megawatts, and customers cut back by about 10 megawatts, enough to avoid any strain on the system.
By Sunday afternoon, Xcel and Platte River were telling customers that normal use was fine. Also the wind farm thawed out and started sending power again. “For all intents and purposes, we were back to normal,” explained Steve Roalstad, Platte River Power’s fairly beleaguered spokesman.
Utility companies and environmental advocates know there is a reality and perception problem for renewables, and so they are working to build short-term storage at renewable sites. Current battery arrays can store significant electrical energy for four to eight hours of peak demand, or to fill in for interrupted supply. Storage technology gets better over time, and will improve. Long-term storage, at higher capacity, is possible by using off-peak power to produce hydrogen, which can be stored in massive quantities, and then drawing down the hydrogen at peaks to generate electricity.
In Texas, the problem includes politics
Fossil fuels have their weather problems, too. In Texas and elsewhere, natural gas delivery has frozen up, interrupting power for both homeowners using gas directly and power plants burning natural gas to generate electricity. Coal piles freeze up. Power lines fail under downed trees or other old-technology problems.
Texas also has issues because it has isolated itself from a regional grid that can easily and cheaply supply backup power if prior agreements are in place and a strong transmission spine is in place. Western Resource Advocates energy analyst Vijay Satyal said that years ago, Texas turned itself into an “island,” cutting itself off from most of the backup grid other states connect to. Texas leaders thought they could deliver power more cheaply if they weren’t asking customers to pay for extra regulation in other states, and they doubled down on the Lone Star mentality.
“The Texas spirit in 2002 was, we don’t want extra regulation,” Satyal said. They turned themselves into Hawaii, he added. Moreover, despite multiple recent incidents of extreme cold weather, hurricanes and more in recent years, Texas regulators have never demanded their own utilities do the kinds of grid reinforcement or maintenance that help when the next storm hits.
“This is the big problem that Texas is dealing with, and unfortunately lives have been lost,” Satyal said. “Let’s not blame markets. Markets can work well if they are designed well.”
Colorado utilities have better connections to a backup grid in Western power consortiums. Colorado and most Western regulators also allow their utilities to ask customers to pay for more maintenance and readiness costs. Satyal and Platte River Power did say there is room for more Colorado utilities to join even more reliable emergency power consortiums that won’t gouge prices for last-minute supplies, and Platte River is doing exactly that.
It’s the nature of human-power needs that demand often peaks when supply is most threatened. In the summer at 5 p.m., people get home from work and want air conditioning all at the same time, while a thunderstorm is rolling through, clouding up solar panels and downing transmission lines. Utility companies and their regulators are supposed to plan for these contingencies, while acknowledging that planning perfectly for a 100-year storm is impossible.
Sunday’s “crisis” in northern Colorado never put supply and demand too far out of balance, Roalstad said.
“In our case we were so close, we just asked our customers and they responded,” he said. “Obviously these kinds of circumstances have to be factored in, as we do, in our long term planning.”
Many critics of climate change control efforts continue to echo McKean’s jabs at renewable sources. Are we doomed to huddle around makeshift fires if we keep replacing reliable coal with more fickle wind and sun?
Satyal, whose organization advocates for alternative energy, said it’s true that coal and natural gas are usually extremely reliable sources that come on almost instantly, day or night. But utilities are adding battery storage with every new farm, and retrofitting older ones, while technology improvement is constantly stretching the amount of energy stored and the length of time it can last.
Even the western utilities that do plan for winter storms can do better, Satyal said, including by making sure wind turbines are outfitted with coated blades and gear warming units, and with meticulous planning of maximum loads and potential backup sources.
The city of Tucson planned for the last solar eclipse, which temporarily erased power generated by solar panels, by making sure battery backups stored pre-eclipse electricity. Many politicians just don’t know how much has changed in power generation, Satyal said.
“There’s so much about the grid that people don’t know that is surprising and shocking,” he said.