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Dan Harms: How reliable is our power supply in Southwest Colorado?

It has been an epic month for the national power grid, with severe weather causing rolling blackouts in Texas and widespread power outages across the United States.

In the wake of these events, La Plata Electric Association (LPEA) members are rightfully concerned about the reliability of their power. What exactly was the cause of this breakdown in electricity supply? Could this happen here? What is LPEA doing to ensure reliability now and into the future?

To answer these questions, we need to first understand the power grid. The North American power grid has been referred to as the world’s largest and most complex machine ever built. It consists of two major and three minor alternating current power grids. The two major grids are the Eastern Interconnect and the Western Interconnect, whose dividing line extends north to south just east of the Rockies. All of Colorado is in the Western Interconnect.

The three minor grids belong to Alaska, Quebec and Texas, which operate their own grids largely independently.

When the recent winter storm hit Texas, people lost power not because lines were being torn to the ground, but because of power supply failures. Cold weather wreaked havoc across the spectrum of generation technologies.

Natural gas generators experienced fuel shortages due to frozen supply wells and high residential heating demand; coal piles were frozen into a block; and freezing fog coated windmills and made them unusable. Add this to the fact that Texas operates an independent grid and it meant the state had no one to supply backup power, which left a lot of people in the dark and cold.

It is unlikely that this situation would happen here in Colorado for two key reasons. First, we are served by the Western Interconnect grid, which includes 14 states and the provinces of British Columbia and Alberta. Governed by the Western Electricity Coordinating Council, it is the largest and most geographically diverse grid in North America, which helps us deal with regional events more effectively than Texas. Second, Texas was unprepared to deal with the impacts of freezing temperatures on its energy infrastructure, while Colorado’s system already uses freeze-protection devices.

One of the lingering misperceptions about the Texas blackouts is that the state’s reliance on renewable energy was a major contributing factor. Although Texas does have high concentrations of wind energy, nonrenewable generation resources still provide more than 75% of the state’s electricity. Because of this, the failure of natural gas and coal generation facilities played a larger role in the blackouts than renewables.

Regardless, some people are still nervous about a perceived over-reliance on renewables and what that will mean for our local power reliability in the future.

As you may know, LPEA aims to reduce our carbon footprint 50% below 2018 levels by 2030 by adding more carbon-free power sources to our energy portfolio. But we plan to meet this goal and ensure continued reliability through a diverse energy mix. While some of this carbon-free energy will come from traditional renewables like solar and wind, we will continue to use dispatchable low-carbon to carbon-neutral resources (those which can be ramped up and down when required, like natural gas) until new and proven technologies are developed to balance the intermittency of renewables.

As LPEA explores new power supply options to deliver you affordable, low-carbon power into the future, know that there is one thing we will never sacrifice: reliability. You depend on electricity every hour of every day and LPEA’s future power supply must support that.

In short, through careful planning and resource diversity, you will continue to receive the same reliability LPEA is known for, regardless of future power supply selection or severe weather.

Dan Harms is vice president of grid solutions for La Plata Electric Association.

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