County faces new risk of ‘controlled’ blackouts

Trempealeau County could face something new this summer: electricity outages caused by not enough power generation.

Warnings from the electric grid managers to the distributors of electricity such as Riverland Energy Cooperative, caution that “controlled rolling blackouts” could occur this summer.

“We’ve never been in a situation like this before,” said Jerry Sorenson, general manager of Riverland, which serves much of rural Trempealeau County. “We’re not trying to scare people but I think letting them know is important.” 

“Many steps, including calling on consumers to reduce energy use to help stabilize the electric grid, would be taken prior to implementing controlled outages,” said Katie Thomson, spokesperson for Dairyland Power Co-op, which supplies much of the county’s electricity. “We have never experienced one of these events to date, but we make sure we are prepared for the possibility.”

All the officials spoken to emphasized the need for users to reduce demands on the electric grid during times, in the summer, of extreme heat. “If it’s in the 90s and 100s, pay attention to see if there is a power emergency,” Sorenson said. 

The problem cited by Midcontinent Independent System Operator, or MISO, which manages the electricity grid across a swath of the Midwest and into Canada, and Dairyland Energy Coop, a primary provider of electricity to local distributors such as Riverland and municipal utilities, is that traditional power plants have been shut down as wind- and solar-generation grew.  The alternative power sources, however, do not consistently generate electricity, making power delivery unreliable.

Demand has also climbed, driven in part by post-pandemic economic growth and increased use of, for instance, electric cars. MISO also cited transmission line congestion as contributing to the power delivery difficulties.

And while 2022 represents a first for the risk of blackouts in the county, next year could be as problematic, Sorenson said.

“There’s been a push to go carbon-free,” Sorenson said, “and politics have pushed the utilities. Some very smart people said it might be best not to rush into this, but that got very little traction.” 

Sorenson noted that MISO has slowed down its plans to shutter traditional power plants.

“Every power source has its positives and negatives,” Sorenson said. Besides their unreliability “with solar, it’s what do you do with the old panels. Wind puts animals at risk.” 

MISO’s Executive Director, Zak Joundi, warned that “MISO’s northern and central region is at heightened risk for controlled ‘load sheds,’ or planned blackouts.” MISO forecasts a demand for 124 gigawatts of electricity this summer but anticipates “regularly generating” just 119 gigawatts.

For county agriculture, blackouts could be “devastating,” said Steve Okonek, agriculture educator of the University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension Service for Trempealeau County. 

“Even one day’s loss can spell trouble (for dairy, poultry and other farmers),” Okonek said. “The margins for farmers are so small,” Okonek said.

Blackouts, he said, would be “absolutely bone-headed” and could dissuade businesses from locating here.

Sorenson said that should “temporary controlled outages” be required, the co-op could, for instance, shut off electricity to 25 percent of its customers for a half an hour to an hour, restore it, and cut off the next 25 percent. He said a decision to interrupt electric service in such an emergency would affect all county residents, whether served by Arcadia, Whitehall or Trempealeau municipal utilities or Excel Energy. Sorenson said it is especially important for those who rely on electricity for, for instance, medical devices, to have back up plans.

The alternative to the rolling blackouts during times of very heavy demand could be much worse, Sorenson said, by causing the entire electric grid to shut down or even damage power plants.

While generators would fill the power gap for some places, such as hospitals and emergency services, powering them requires fuel as well.

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