Colorado utilities say they’re preparing in case weather turns extreme

With Colorado’s current wet, cool weather, the prospect of rolling blackouts because of power plants straining under hot, dry weather seems as unreal as a desert mirage. But a national watchdog agency says the risk of electric outages is high in case of extreme weather this summer and Colorado utilities say they are preparing.

While power supplies are sufficient in all regions, the West and much of the rest of the country will face an elevated risk of power shortfalls in the face of heat waves and wildfires, said the North American Electric Reliability Corp. The regulatory authority, which oversees the national electric grid’s reliability, noted in its 2023 Summer Reliability Assessment that there’s a 50% to 70% likelihood of higher-than-average temperatures through September in most parts of the country.

The report also notes that heavy snows and rain have alleviated drought in big parts of the West, including Colorado, which could boost hydropower generation. And NERC said much of the country should see lower electricity prices because natural gas prices are lower.

However, parts of the Pacific Northwest are still in drought and water levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead remain a concern when it comes to generating hydropower, a situation that could have regionwide implications. Both Oregon and Washington state had record-breaking heat in May and high temperatures fanned wildfires in western Canada.

Heat waves, wildfire risks and the early retirement of some power plants factor “into potential supply shortages in the western two-thirds of North America if summer temperatures spike,” Mark Olson, NERC’s manager of reliability assessments, said in a statement.

Xcel Energy-Colorado is looking at NERC’s analysis of regional energy challenges and planning for a summer that’s hotter than in past years, said Hollie Velasquez Horvath, regional vice president of state affairs and community relations.

“We’ve been working to maximize all of our own generation and ensure that we’ve got the resources that are available for our customers’ demand through the summertime,” Horvath said.

Xcel, Colorado’s largest electric utility, is taking such measures as solidifying short-term contracts with power suppliers in the East to further diversify its mix of resources.

“In addition to that, we have been actively working to make sure that, two utility-scale solar projects are coming online on time,” Horvath said.

Both facilities are in Pueblo County. The 248-megawatt Thunder Wolf solar project by Xcel and NextEra Energy Resources was commissioned Wednesday. Thunder Wolf’s capacity is enough to supply power to 42,500 homes annually.

The 250-megawatt Neptune solar project is set to start operating later this week. Both facilities include battery storage.

“As long as all of that continues to meet the calendar, we should have enough energy generation to meet our customers’ demand this summer,” Horvath said.

The natural gas market has stabilized, so Horvath doesn’t expect the kind of big price hikes seen during the winter that drove up customers’ bills.

“But I would also say that we’re always at risk given the energy constraints potentially that surround us with the other states,” she added.

State regulators are keeping an eye on how utilities are keeping up with demand as the population grows and climate change leads to more extreme weather, both hot and cold. The Colorado Public Utilities Commission is considering the near- and long-term impacts as it makes decisions about the state’s energy needs.

Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association said it continues to diversify its power sources to make sure it can meet demand if temperatures soar and people crank up the air conditioning in the next few months. The Westminster-based wholesale power provider serves 42 member electric cooperatives in Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico and Nebraska.

“We’ve been doing a lot of work since the spring in order to make sure our power plants are ready to run all summer. That’s key,” said Barry Ingold, Tri-State’s chief operating officer.

Heading into the summer, Ingold and Tri-State CEO Duane Highley said the company’s infrastructure and power resources look to be in good shape.

“We have surplus capacity, unlike some of our neighbors,” Highley said. “You never say never in this business because there could always be some horrible cascade of events, but we’re as good as we can be situated for this summer.”

Tri-State said its involvement in regional energy markets and organizations helps it keep the power flowing across its four-state territory. The utility is a member of the Southwest Power Pool, a regional transmission organization, and is a member of regional energy imbalance markets, which allow companies to buy and sell power across a network in real time.

Xcel Energy participates in regional energy markets. The networks are seen as increasingly important as more renewable energy is added to the grid. When the wind isn’t blowing in one utility’s area, it can put out a bid for another utility’s surplus wind power.

At Tri-State headquarters, a handful of employees in a marketing center monitor screens that show the available power sources across the region and the prices. Other screens show what kind of power — solar, wind, coal, natural gas — is in use on the system.

“What we do in this room is basically make sure that Tri-State has enough resources to serve our load. It could be our own plants, power purchases. It could be long-term contracts,” said Matt Weiss, the utility’s resource dispatcher and trading manager.

Weiss’ staff handles the real-time trading while Dave Hardy’s staff handles the “day-ahead” transactions.

“The real-time group is watching moment by moment, hour by hour during a 12-hour shift,” said Hardy, the energy portfolio manager.

Hardy said his staff is sizing up the next day to ensure Weiss’ group will have enough resources lined up.

A couple of floors down is a control room with many computer screens and a huge board hanging on the wall with many colored lines mapping out the networks, some owned by other power providers, that deliver electricity throughout Tri-State’s service area. Mike Houglum, vice president of transmission operations, said the center’s focus is on keeping the system safe and reliable, meaning it continues to deliver when and where needed.

The employees track the voltage and frequency levels on the system in addition to any problems with equipment or power generation.

Like Xcel, Tri-State continues to increase the amount of power it gets from renewable energy sources. Highley said Tri-State expects to be at 50% renewable energy by 2025.

Both Tri-State and Xcel Energy said as they add more renewable energy and remove so-called “dispatchable” power sources, such as natural gas and coal that can be turned on and off, meeting customers’ demand will be more of a balancing act.

“I think as we transition into more renewable energy on the system and less of the 24/7 dispatchable power, we do have the risk at some point of making sure that we can balance the reliability with the affordability, especially in the summertime when we’ve got extreme heat and our customers are using their air conditioning,” Horvath of Xcel said.

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