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Mass outages unlikely, but 'perfect storms' could spur power failures in Upper Midwest this winter

Ten months since plunging temperatures in Texas shocked natural gas prices and triggered electricity outages as far north as Minnesota and North Dakota, power grid experts caution that the system may not be prepared for another bout with extreme weather this winter.

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Regional congestion on the power grid looms as an obstacle to further development of energy generation in North Dakota, prompting legislation that would require new wind farms to provide backup power sources -- action wind advocates say isn't needed to ensure reliable power. David Samson / The Forum

BISMARCK — Ten months since plunging temperatures in Texas shocked natural gas prices and triggered electricity outages as far north as Minnesota and North Dakota, power grid experts caution that the system may not be prepared for another bout with extreme weather.

The likelihood that such an intense storm knocks out power generation in southern states again is low. In Texas, politicians and grid operators have looked to reassure residents that they aren't about to see a repeat of February’s disaster.

But the shortcomings that allowed for outages earlier this year will take much longer than a few months to resolve. Though federal regulators have instituted new standards for operators to shore up the grid for future extreme weather, many of those deadlines don’t kick in until 2022 or 2023.

An assessment released last month by the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, a nonprofit that oversees the reliability of regional grid systems, warned that a combination of severe weather and generator outages could lead to forced blackouts up and down the central United States this winter.

Those risks are most pronounced in Texas, which sits on an unregulated, isolated grid and whose power generation relies heavily on natural gas, but NERC and power grid experts noted that the Upper Midwest is not immune from all of the Lone Star State’s woes.

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“The sky isn’t falling, and it will not fall,” said Massoud Amin, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Minnesota who specializes in power grid systems. “But we aren’t bulletproof, either.”

Amin, who previously served on boards overseeing the reliability of grid operations in both Texas and the Midwest, said that, barring “perfect storms” of factors, he doesn’t foresee a widespread outage in the Upper Midwest this winter.

But he added that in recent decades a convergence of trends has eroded the reliability of the power grid and left it vulnerable to dangerous failures under the right mix of circumstances — not just in Texas but around the country.

“A double punch” of aging infrastructure and rising occurrences of extreme weather have already contributed to a dramatic increase in the frequency of outages, Amin noted. Between the 1950s to the 1980s, North America experienced “major outages” — a loss of 50 megawatts of power or more — three to four times per year, Amin said. That number that has increased steadily over the years to about 135 annual incidents today.

Under extreme weather scenarios, the demands for power generation can increase sharply even as the capacity to produce power dwindles. In February, both of the power grid operators that oversee electric flows in North Dakota had to turn to grids outside of their footprints to draw in additional power. North Dakota households in the footprint of Southwest Power Pool, or SPP, experienced controlled blackouts as the operator sent electricity south to assist states whose power supply was unprepared for the unusually frigid temperatures.

This winter, a global crunch on supply chains could add another challenge if weather conditions begin to strain the system. If everyone suddenly needs the same spare parts or maintenance support at the same time, it could exacerbate the problems posed by extreme weather, Amin said.

A spokesperson for Midcontinent Independent System Operator, which provides open access transmission service across the central United States, added that supply chain problems combined with recent downsizes in the coal industry and ballooning coal demand in the face of soaring natural gas prices could pose higher than normal risks to fuel supplies this winter.

JT Smith, a director of policy studies at MISO, said on a grid reliability call Friday, Dec. 10, that the recent NERC assessment points out the vulnerabilities of a worst case scenario and underscores issues that the grid operator has been looking into for several years.

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If “worst case scenarios align,” Smith said, MISO could be forced to lean on neighboring grid operators to keep the lights on. The impact of February’s winter storm was unusually broad, Smith noted, straining systems across much of the central United States and forcing MISO to ship in power from eastern states.

Similar circumstances to what happened in February could result in the same problems for the power grid this winter, Smith said. “And that shouldn't be surprising to anybody.”

The winters ahead

Texas' catastrophic power generation failure landed a month into the North Dakota legislative session earlier this year, as lawmakers were already in the thick of debates about the future of the state’s energy production. Since then, the power crisis 1,000 miles to the south has had a heavy hand in debates over the the mix of resources deployed on North Dakota’s grid.

By the end of the legislative session, Republican lawmakers had extended hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks and potential low-interest loans to the coal industry, even as some of their ambitions to boost coal were checked by wind industry and utility lobbyists .

One proposal signed into law, Senate Bill 2313 , allows state regulators on the Public Service Commission to assign a value to the qualitative benefits of "baseload" generation, a term sometimes used to describe 24/7 power sources like coal and natural gas, as opposed to intermittent sources like wind and solar. It also gives the commission the latitude to assess small fines of up to $5,000 on utilities that experience power outages.

Carlee McLeod, president of the Utility Shareholders of North Dakota, which represents investor-owned utilities, argued that steps taken by lawmakers this session didn’t accomplish anything that will better protect the reliability of the grid down the line.

Though the power grid bill was watered down over the course of the session, McLeod said the legislation was "opening that door to political decisions rather than good policy decisions."

John Weeda, the director of the North Dakota Transmission Authority, noted that the Public Service Commission is limited in its control since it only has regulatory authority over investor owned utilities, not the rural electric co-ops that own most of the power generation sources in North Dakota.

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And Weeda, who spent several decades working in the coal industry, said that while "the heart is in the right place" with policies that North Dakota lawmakers have enacted to exercise more control over the stability of the power grid, the state remains beholden to shifting forces in the market and high-level decisions by grid operators.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at awillis@forumcomm.com .

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