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2021 Grid Emergency: Powering Through; Lessons Learned

  • Posted: 04.16.2021

Historic and prolonged Artic weather across the central and southern US in mid-February created unprecedented electric load demand in the region. The Northwest Iowa Power Cooperative (NIPCO) service territory was impacted by energy emergency declarations by its regional transmission operator Southwest Power Pool (SPP). For the better part of the week of February 15, NIPCO, along with its primary power providers, Basin Electric Power Cooperative and Western Area Power Administration (WAPA), monitored and responded to energy grid emergency declarations from SPP, NIPCO’s regional transmission operator.

SPP is a regional transmission organization that is tasked with the responsibilities of ensuring reliable supplies of power, adequate transmission infrastructure and competitive wholesale electricity prices on behalf of its members.

This map, provided by Southwest Power Pool (SPP), shows the geographic locations of the nation's RTOs and the extreme weather implications across the US February 14-16, 2021.

Basin Electric and WAPA (Western Area Power Administration) own generation and transmission resources, and NIPCO owns high-voltage transmission and substation infrastructure in SPP which allows NIPCO’s cooperative network to sell its power into the market and buy member power needs from the market when prices are low.

During the extreme weather events of February 14-18, simply put: the amount of electricity usage in the SPP service footprint exceeded the amount of available generation. Under these conditions, simple economic theory prevails: Electric demand was higher than electric supply and electric market prices skyrocketed. The ability for Basin and WAPA to generate electricity limited NIPCO and its member cooperatives’ exposure to extraordinarily high market prices.

A graphic illustration of the three Energy Emergency Alerts as Red (Level Three, which is the highest threat of energy supply not meeting demand), Blue (Level 2, which signifies a risk of energy supply not meeting demand), and Green (Level one, in which energy supply meets energy demand needs).
Southwest Power Pool Energy Emergency Alerts, defined.

During this time, now deemed a “Grid Emergency”, SPP directed its member utilities to shed electric load in a controlled process in response to its evolving Emergency Energy Alert (EEA) Levels. SPP enacted curtailment measures, relative to the severity of the EEA Level (Level 1, Level 2, or Level 3), to prevent a damaging, system-wide blackout which could take days to restore. EEA Level 3 orders are very rare and are only implemented when electric demand outpaces supply. SPP limited curtailment directives to just two periods of controlled outages: one on February 15 for 50 minutes and one on February 16 for three hours and 21 minutes. These actions prevented longer, uncontrolled, more widespread, and more costly blackouts.

While Iowa cooperative service territories were, each, impacted in different ways, NIPCO’s mature load management system proved valuable as it served to prevent the occurrence of controlled blackouts to members and consumers in western Iowa communities served by NIPCO and its member cooperatives.

Switch Makes Cents logo

NIPCO’s load management system, known as Switch Makes Cents, was developed in 1983 to reduce electric demand by shedding load during times of peak use. To date, approximately 18,000 load-control switches have been installed in homes and businesses in western Iowa. During February’s Grid Emergency, load control of equipment such as water heaters, and generators, contributed to the reduction of 15 MW of load during high-demand periods. NIPCO was directed to further reduce its electric load and, for the first time in NIPCO’s 38-year load management history, interrupted operation of electric heating systems (an additional 20 MW reduction) for 36 minutes over a one-hour time period. Except for the rare, February heat control activation, all of NIPCO’s load-shed curtailment directives from SPP were satisfied through normal operation of the Switch Makes Cents load management program.

While load control in the NIPCO system played a significant role in preventing catastrophic grid implications, so did cooperative members’ adherence to public appeals to voluntarily reduce electric demand. During the February event, cooperative members conserved energy when they could, which decreased demand levels below SPP’s forecasted numbers. Decreased demand brought on by voluntary conservation measures helped to, further, minimize service interruptions across the entire SPP footprint.

SPP plans to collaborate with entities like NIPCO to ensure the region is equipped to manage future Grid Emergencies.

While the February Grid Emergency pushed many electric cooperatives and utilities past its limits, NIPCO’s system proved strong, and much was learned from the experience. NIPCO continues to collaborate with members and industry partners to improve its response protocols, should another Grid Emergency take place. NIPCO reinforced its load-shed strategy with its members which prioritizes what equipment will be controlled, and for how long, as well as identifying substations that serve critical loads such as a hospital, school, or nursing home.

Graphic illustration: a chalkboard drawing of a lightbulb hanging from a cord that is lit up

NIPCO continues to promote the benefits of long-term wholesale purchase power agreements contracted between NIPCO and its power providers. These long-term agreements enable participants, such as NIPCO and its membership, to share risk over time and provides protection against paying high market prices during extreme weather events. NIPCO and its Class A Members will pay the same rate during and after the energy emergency as was paid before because we have long term resources available to serve our load.

As we look back on this event, it is important to note that communication, transparency, accountability, and a commitment to keeping reliable electricity flowing throughout western Iowa remained a top priority among the NIPCO staff and its members. While the February Grid Emergency was just one more event to add to the “Unprecedented Event List”, it illustrates that a balanced and diverse generation mix, a robust load management system, resilient infrastructure, and the power of being a member of a cooperative family proves that we can survive any storm…together.