‘Perfect storm’ leads to rolling blackouts in CA

Midwest energy market maintains sufficient resources for reliability

A persistent, record-breaking heat wave hit California in August, causing the state’s three biggest utilities to cut power to hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses for about an hour at a time until the emergency declaration ended a few hours later.

These rolling blackouts—the first California experienced in nearly 20 years—made headlines and sparked questions across the country, particularly in regions like the Midwest that are seeing rapid renewable energy growth. Great River Energy and many of its member-owner cooperatives are receiving the same question: “Could this happen here?”

Some have called the West Coast’s situation a perfect storm: a widespread heat wave, unexpected plant outages, higher amounts of non-dispatchable generation, inadequate resource planning, and changing system needs—all of which contributed to an overreliance on energy imports from other markets that ultimately wasn’t available.

Great River Energy is a member of the Midcontinent Independent System Operator, which provides access to a diverse energy market and allows Great River Energy to sell electricity across a wider footprint.

Unlike California, most utilities in Minnesota are part of a much larger and geographically diverse energy market coordinated by the Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO). MISO is responsible for transmission planning and generation dispatch across 15 states and Manitoba, Canada. Great River Energy has been a MISO market participant since 2005.

The generating resources in the MISO energy market reflect a wide variety of fuel sources, both conventional and renewable. Rolling blackouts are only used as a last resort by grid operators, and MISO works aggressively with its member utilities to plan for all load serving needs. In April, MISO projected it had ample power reserves to meet the 2020 summer system demand requirements.

“Thanks to outstanding work by our operators and strong collaboration with our members, we have been able to successfully navigate the changing demands and shifting load shape created by the pandemic environment,” said Julie Munsell, director of strategic communications at MISO. “While we have more challenges with an active hurricane season ahead, we have the processes and tools in place to ensure power continues to flow throughout our footprint.”

In addition to energy markets, MISO is also responsible for overall system reliability and creating “the rules” every utility in MISO must follow to ensure the grid has enough resources. As a MISO market participant, Great River Energy must have enough generating capacity to supply its members’ peak load needs plus a reserve margin.

“We have a fleet of modern natural gas plants in Minnesota that provide all-hours reliability,” said Great River Energy President & CEO David Saggau. “Most of these plants have on-site backup fuels. We have also built new transmission across the region to ensure energy can be delivered to our members. And, in partnership with member-owner cooperatives, we have developed one of the country’s most robust demand response programs which allows us to effectively reduce electric loads during extreme conditions.”