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IPL 'did our part' during peak energy demand

By Mike Genet mike.genet@examiner.net

Even if the city of Independence still had the Blue Valley Power Plant operating, and it ran at full capacity last week, Independence Power & Light wouldn’t have avoided the rolling blackouts that caused much consternation for two days. 

The temporary blackouts, called for by the Southwest Power Pool to avoid grid failures that would cause much larger and longer blackouts, hit a little more than half of IPL’s customers for short periods of time, and any utility across the Central Plains with SPP had to issue them, IPL Director Jim Nail said.

“As a participant in SPP, all of us had a share of the outages,” Nail said Thursday to the Public Utilities Advisory Board, a city-appointed citizens group. “Several thousand megawatts had to be dropped, and we only contributed a small percentage, but we did our part.”

The Southwest Power Pool acts as IPL and Evergy’s wholesale power broker. All told, it serves millions of people across all or parts of 14 states, though the Texas state grid is not part of it. SPP tries to provide the lowest-cost power for particular daily demands. Over time, this saves IPL millions of dollars, as it can buy a large majority of its power through SPP more cheaply than it can produce it. As an aging, expensive plant, Blue Valley in Independence rarely got called upon to run, except when power planners knew in advance that demand would be high.

The arctic weather spell blanketed SPP’s coverage area and caused several issues with natural gas lines, forcing SPP to declare an emergency and request the short blackouts for the first time in its 80-year history.

While seemingly unavoidable, the blackouts have heightened discussion that the Independence City Council had already started about replacing IPL’s six combustion turbines, which sit at three substations around the city, are all at least 45 years old and are near the end of their useful lives. The six turbines account for 93 megawatts of power capacity, most of that necessary to satisfy IPL’s capacity requirements with the SPP. However, they’re mostly peaking stations – designed for use in times of peak demand such as the hottest days of summer, or last week’s arctic spell –  but ultimately provide just a fraction of the energy actually used by IPL customers.

“Five of those six were running throughout this period as called by SPP,” Nail said last week after the blackout days. “Sometimes it would be a couple hours, or even 12 hours, but they ran extensively. We were bringing in fuel oil as fast as we could to keep those running. The Dogwood plant actually ran less than two of our turbines.” 

Dogwood is a natural gas plant in Pleasant Hill, in which IPL has an ownership share. City officials had considered an additional ownership share two years ago to replace Blue Valley but decided for a less-expensive contract with Oneta, a gas-powered plant in Oklahoma that, like Dogwood, had supply issues last week.

“If we’d had our own power plant, if we had Blue Valley or a similar plant, it’s very likely we would’ve had the same natural gas problems that Dogwood or Oneta had,” Nail said.

Nail has told the council IPL’s preference is to replace the turbines with some form of a small plant, either one turbine or a handful of them, that can be efficient enough for SPP to call on quickly for most high-demand situations. It not only fits SPP’s needs but makes the most budget sense for the city, he said. City staff is working on possible requests for proposal, Nail said Monday.

Costs for such a project are unknown, but are expected to run into tens of millions of dollars. 

Council Member Mike Huff, a former division manager within IPL, emphasized Monday that he’s simply pushing to replace the turbines with some baseload production that produces some revenue for the city – not a large power plant that most certainly would cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Paying for that can involve current revenues more than issuing a large amount of debt, he said, and if done well enough can lead to lower rates – not higher rates to pay finance debt.

“What we’re talking about is replacement; we’re talking about replacing the 93 megawatts,” he said. “This has always been important to IPL. It should not be taken lightly by anyone. To say we’re building a power plant is incorrect.”

Huff added that he’s not saying solar and wind power aren’t worthwhile.

“They’re good to have in the portfolio,” he said. “I think technology will improve them.”