STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald
Flip a switch, and on come the lights, the stereo, the television and computers. In the background, the refrigerator hums, the washing machine and dishwasher churn, cellphones and tablets start charging.
But can you count on that electricity to be there, day in and day out, and into the future? Should Southwest Coloradans be concerned that a recent study gave the state a “D” in planning for future needs?
Energy experts say the answers are complex. Producers say that creating more power is challenging and green power is not an immediate fix.
The issues surrounding the electric grid in the United States are a quagmire of complex regulations at national, state, local and tribal levels, operational intricacies of balancing production and demand, and the physical constraints of an aging infrastructure, said Greg Munro, CEO of La Plata Electric Association.
“We are rated 99.9 percent reliable,” said Steve Gregg, operations manager for LPEA. “Once the electricity gets here, we can get it to you.”
Getting it here is where the potential problems lie.
Electricity is one of the few commodities that cannot be stored. It must be used when it is generated, so the industry has to be able to quickly increase production for peak hour usage and ramp down just as fast as demand wanes.
Utilities face multiple challenges in planning and developing the delivery of electricity, said Jim Van Sumeren, a spokesman for Tri-State Generation and Transmission Inc., which supplies electricity to LPEA.
He gave the example of a project in the Nucla area. The so-called Sunshine Project spent 10 years in the development stage before finally getting up and running last year.
“It’s just so difficult to permit and build,” Van Sumeren said.
In 2013, the American Society of Civil Engineers, which issues a report card every four years on the status of the nation’s infrastructure, gave Colorado a “C-plus” on meeting current energy production needs and delivery and a “D” on planning for the future.
The report card, issued in March, points out transmission “bottlenecks” that can forestall getting electricity from the generating facilities to the delivery companies – that’s what LPEA is – for what could be a significant period of time. Inadequate planning for future electricity generation in a state with a burgeoning population – expected to increase by 50 percent by 2040 – also poses a threat to reliable power in the state, the engineers said.
The report card was about the state in general, Van Someren said. Tri-State spends a lot of time planning for the future, including creating an integrated 10-year financial forecast filed with the Public Utilities Commission.
“We estimate what project loads will be in the future compared to what’s existing and determine what needs to be done,” he said.
The big picture
In 2003, 55 million people in the Midwest, Northeast and Ontario, Canada, went without power for two days after a computer glitch caused a cascading blackout. In 2011, most of Southern California went dark in what is described as the biggest power outage in a decade in the Western Interconnect after a technician’s error at a transmission substation outside Yuma, Ariz. That outage lasted 12 hours or more in some areas.
A number of experts believe that such outages will become more frequent because of an ever-increasing population putting pressure on the grid, more extreme weather and the extensive wildfires that seem to plague the West each year.
LPEA’s local outages average one to two hours.
“And sometimes, that’s just how long a lineman has to travel to get to the outage,” Gregg said.
Is green energy the answer?
Everyone, including civil engineers, agrees that green energy is an important part of the mix. But no one thinks it solves all the problems.
“The popular fixation on renewable sources completely ignores the unpredictable nature of wind and solar sources, and to some extent, hydroelectric sources, as well,” the American Society of Civil Engineers said in its report. “Geothermal and nuclear sources provide much more stability, but lack the ability to quickly ramp up production to meet peak hour demands.”
Another significant problem with green sources is that the best places to generate solar or wind power tend to be far from the transmission lines that can get the electricity to customers. In a chicken-and-egg scenario, producers have been unwilling to build wind and solar farms when they can’t sell the power, and transmission companies have postponed building transmission lines to remote locations until a marketable amount of electricity is produced there. Reaching a critical mass of renewable production, where a cloudy day in California is offset by a sunny day in Arizona, also will help make green energy a more reliable source.
Coal and natural gas are left as the fuels that currently best can meet the needs of America’s insatiable need for power, but they come with their own environmental downsides.
Follow the money
Electricity infrastructure isn’t cheap.
LPEA, with its 41,000-plus metered customers, spends about $8 million annually on maintenance projects, including tree trimming and pole replacement. LPEA puts another $16 million to $18 million into capital projects, including items such as rebuilding substations, which run between $2.5 million and $3 million each.
The investment gap in Colorado for distribution infrastructure (money needed that is not expected to be available) is estimated at $57 billion by 2020, with $37 billion needed in addition for transmission infrastructure.
The future outlook
La Plata County residents shouldn’t go to bed worried the lights won’t come on in the morning, Munro said.
“But if we lose the major transmission lines from the Western U.S. grid, Pagosa would be totally out of power,” he said.
The Durango area, however, has many contingency plans. The La Plata County Fairgrounds and Mercy Regional Medical Center have large generators, as does Sky Ute Casino, which the Southern Ute Tribe has designated for emergency occasions.
The American Society of Civil Engineers in its report card and MIT’s 2011 report, “The Future of the Electric Grid,” say some things have to change on the energy infrastructure front if America is to thrive in the 21st century, first and foremost of which is a national energy policy and more consistent regulations.
“Despite alarmist rhetoric, there is no crisis here,” the researchers at MIT said in their report. “But we do not advise complacency. The environment in which the grid will operate will change substantially in the next two decades.”