Iowans and other Midwesterners face “energy emergencies” this winter amid power plant shutdowns, possible natural gas and coal shortages and railroad disruptions, a national utility group has warned.
North American Electric Reliability Corp., a Georgia-based regulator known as NERC, said the Iowa electric grid operator’s winter power reserves are 5% down from last winter due to nuclear and coal plant shutdowns totaling 4.2 gigawatts. According to a much-cited measure, 1 gigawatt is enough to supply 750,000 households with electricity.
Midcontinent Independent System Operator, known as MISO, is the network operator in Iowa and 14 other states. The report states that MISO “is at risk for energy emergencies during the upcoming winter,” NERC reported this week. “An extreme cold weather event extending deep into the MISO area could result in high generator failures due to insufficient weathering in southern units and the unavailability of fuel for natural gas-fired generators.”
NERC said potential rail strikes, restricted and delayed rail deliveries, reduced natural gas, fuel oil and coal supplies, and uncertain global markets are raising reliability concerns.
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MidAmerican believes it has sufficient resources
Despite NERC’s warning, MidAmerican Energy and Alliant Energy, Iowa’s largest utilities, said they are prepared for a blustery winter that is expected to be colder than normal.
“We believe we have sufficient resources to continue to provide the reliable power that customers require,” Alliant’s Morgan Hawk said in an email. The utility’s Iowa subsidiary, Interstate Power & Light Co., is based in Cedar Rapids.
“MidAmerican fully expects to have sufficient power during this winter heating season to meet the anticipated needs of our customers,” MidAmerican’s Geoff Greenwood said in an email.
In addition to concerns about the availability of electricity, prices are also likely to rise. Midwestern residents who use electricity to heat their homes will see their bills increase by an estimated 8% and natural gas users by 33%, according to a winter forecast from the US Energy Information Administration.
Alliant referenced the agency’s forecast when asked about his expectation for heating bills. “Increased demand, underperforming gas reserves and geopolitical repercussions such as the conflict in Ukraine have all impacted global fuel supplies and prices,” a statement said this month.
MidAmerican said customers “should not expect, under normal weather conditions, that their energy bills will increase compared to the last heating season.” However, higher energy consumption will drive up bills, the Des Moines-based utility noted.
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NERC urged state regulators to “consider energy risks for the coming winter season” and “delay the upcoming generation retirement.”
Central America agreed. “One of the key actions of the NERC winter reliability assessment recommends preserving critical generation resources, which MidAmerican considers essential to reliably meet our customers’ needs day and night,” Greenwood wrote in the email.
“While MidAmerican has been investing in renewable energy for nearly two decades, we have also upgraded and maintained our thermal generation assets, which include natural gas and coal generation units, because we understand that we must maintain a balanced energy mix to serve our customers every minute every hour, all year round,” said the utility, which is part of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway conglomerate.
“A solution without natural gas and coal”
Some Iowa groups that have been urging MidAmerican to shut down its coal-fired power plants said the country’s transition to renewable energy isn’t the main reason the Midwest is facing reliability issues.
Kerri Johannsen, director of the Iowa Environmental Council’s energy program, said that total 164 gigawatts of renewable energy projects are “waiting to be connected to the MISO grid,” an accomplishment that would greatly increase the group’s reliability.
Johannsen urged MISO to move “timely” to add the renewable energy projects as well as transmission capacity to make it easier for renewable energy to get to areas where it might be needed. MISO plans to add $10 billion for grid transmission, including about $2 billion in Iowa.
“It’s a solution that doesn’t need natural gas or coal,” Johannsen said, adding that the biggest reliability challenge is access to the fuels.
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Greenhouse gases from the use of fossil fuels contribute to climate change and are “primarily causing the extreme weather and uncertainty,” she said. “That only makes the problems worse. At some point we have to get off this track.”
NERC had warned that MISO’s area could suffer rolling power outages this summer, a situation Iowa avoided despite extreme heat and high power demands.
Donnelle Eller covers Agriculture, Environment and Energy for the Register. You can reach them at [email protected] or 515-284-8457.