IPL preparing for winter energy surge, looks to avoid rolling blackouts

Mike Genet
The Examiner

To lessen chances of a rolling blackout or similar energy emergency if an arctic spell hits this season, Independence Power & Light – as well as central plains power broker Southwest Power Pool – have been trying to learn some lessons from the winter of 2021 and take precautions. 

The Missouri Public Utility Alliance early in November sent a memo to member utilities, warning that winter energy prices and supply issues could hit utility customers again this winter. Supply shortages and high demand have ramped up natural gas prices, which could in turn affect the electric grid, so utilities are asking customers to reduce energy usage even a bit at expected times of peak demand. 

Jim Nail, IPL director, told the City Council that the city-owned utility can forecast its demand fairly well – due to having mostly residential customers with regular energy habits – and by monitoring the market it can also forecast its energy costs with fair confidence. In addition, IPL has worked to ensure it has enough fuel for its own production. 

Last winter, Nail said, generator freezing and natural gas supply issues caused numerous outages at power generators across the plains, while at the same time cold weather also pushed up energy demand by customers to stay warm. That led to power outages generally in Texas or planned blackouts to avoid widespread grid failures elsewhere. 

“There were multiple issues, not just fuel supply,” Nail said.  

Lack of winterization caused instrumentation and turbine blade freezing in many places, but Nail said the larger issue with Southwest Power Pool generators was gas supply issues. Even coal plants had some freezing issues, he said. 

“Under different circumstances, all the different types of generation are going to have an issue, so the more diverse you are, the better prepared you are,” Nail said. 

IPL is going to maintain about 75 percent of its diesel fuel tank capacity to power its own turbines, Nail said, compared to about 50 percent normally. Last winter, the utility scrambled to secure enough fuel to power its turbines that were called upon during peak demand days. 

“Now we've got multiple companies we're working with; we've increased our number of suppliers,” he said. 

Also, while the short-term rolling blackouts went fairly smooth for IPL last winter, Nail said the utility has been reviewing its load-shedding plan to make sure any blackouts, if at all needed, don't cause larger issues based on where they take place. 

Nail shared several popular tips to reduce energy consumption, some of which he said “have been around for as long as I've been alive.” 

• Take advantage of heat from the sun (open drapes where windows are letting in sunlight). 

• Cover drafty windows at night so less heat escapes. 

• Adjust the thermostat temperature, as even one or two degrees less can make a difference in household utility costs. 

• Schedule service for your heating system, to make sure it's as efficient as possible. 

• Lower water heating costs by, again, slightly reducing the temperature. 

• For those putting up lights for the holiday, use more-efficient LED lights. 

Economists project that residential customers who heat with electricity as opposed to natural gas shouldn't see a much bigger spike than normal in their electric bills, Nail said, “but there are things residents can do to help” during peak demand days, and “the price of gas is one we're all going to have to work with.” 

The winter weather and energy discussion comes as the council knows that over the next couple months it will consider plans to possibly spend tens of millions of dollars for a new generation facility. Several council members said Monday such a decision should be preceded by more than one chance for public input.