Plan catches wind
Wyoming, Colorado consider switch to Southwest Power Pool
Utilities in Colorado and Wyoming want to join an electricity transmission network stretching from Texas to North Dakota, but regulators have raised concerns over whether such a move could degrade the reliability of the states’ power supply.
Supporters argue that joining the 14-state Southwest Power Pool, which has abundant and affordable wind generation and a robust wholesale power market, could bring $1 billion or more in economic benefits to the region and smooth operations.
But any switch, if not done right, could leave the region more vulnerable to outages, and Colorado Public Utilities Commissioner Frances Koncilja organized a meeting to discuss the issue on June 27.
“We do have significant concern that any transition or reordering proceed in manners where reliability be preserved,” said Jim Robb, chief executive of the Western Electricity Coordinating Council.
Colorado and Wyoming are currently part of WECC’s territory, which covers 14 western U.S. states as well as British Columbia, Alberta and northern Baja in Mexico. The reliability coordinator that ensures power flows smoothly and consistently across that vast region is an independent entity called Peak Reliability.
Peak operates two security centers, one in Vancouver, Wash., and one in Loveland. Workers in each location constantly monitor the grid for problems and work to prevent small issues from escalating into
If local utilities, organized as the Mountain West Transmission Group, join the Southwest Power Pool, one question that needs to be resolved is who handles the duties of reliability coordinator.
Does Peak Reliability, with its expertise in the complexities of the Western power grid, stay in charge? Does the Southwest Power Pool, with an integrated marketplace that can quickly dispatch and allocate power, take over? Or do the two work together?
“It reduces the risk having one set of eyes,” argued Marie Jordan, president and CEO of Peak Reliability. “What happens in Colorado doesn’t just stay in Colorado.”
Jordan said about a quarter of the power coming from hydropower plants in the Pacific Northwest bound for Los Angeles swing east and then south through lines in the mountain states rather than heading down Oregon and California.
In the West, large electrical loads move from remote power plants on lines traveling long distances in difficult terrain, which makes balancing power more difficult, said Bob Cummings, senior director of engineering and reliability initiatives for the North American Electric Reliability Corporation.
That contrasts with central and eastern states, where transmission lines travel shorter distances from more numerous power plants to end-users. That leaves more alternate routes available to tap when problems arise, he said.
Cummings said the playbook that the Southwest Power Pool uses for dealing with problems has about 10 scenarios. But in the WECC territory, they number more than 255.
“We have instances in the past where the (reliability coordinators) weren’t ready. They became contributors to some major system disturbances,” said Cummings, who is also known as “blackout Bob” because of his expertise in power outages.
Carl Monroe, chief operating officer of the Southwest Power Pool, said his group is game for taking on the reliability coordinator role and developing the expertise it needs. It also has experience “looking into” other power networks.
“We move generation in the most secure and reliable and economic manner,” he said. “Our main job is reliability.”
Colorado Public Utilities chairman Jeffrey Ackerman said he went into the meeting thinking the preferred scenario was to go with two reliability coordinators, given the added security that having two sets of eyes offers over one.
But the utilities in the region, while still undecided, appear to be leaning towards going with a single coordinator — the Southwest Power Pool.
“We could obtain an integrated service at lower cost for our customers rather than paying for two (reliability coordinator) services,” said Steve Beuning, director of market operations at Xcel Energy, the state’s largest utility.
Beuning said the contract that members of the MWTG have signed with Peak allow for them to exit with 18 months notice and that a smooth transition could take place.
Denton McGregor, reliability center manager with Black Hills Power, also said joining a regional transmission organization like the Southwest Power Pool offers the opportunity to deal with problems when they arise.
Technology has helped utilities spot problems in real-time. But many of the fixes still come through a manual rather than automated process, he said.
“Markets can solve some of the problems we struggle with in real time,” he said.
Supporters of the 14-state power group say there could be $1 billion or more in economic benefits to the region. However, regulators are studying whether change could make the region more vulnerable to outages.