Plan catches wind

Wy­oming, Colorado con­sider switch to South­west Power Pool

The Denver Post - - BUSINESS - By Aldo Svaldi

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

wide­spread black­outs.

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.

Spencer Platt, Getty Im­ages

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.

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