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Indiana's power grid at high risk for energy emergencies

Indiana at high risk for power shortages in July
Posted at 11:42 AM, Jul 01, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-01 11:42:27-04

GREENSBURG, Indiana — Rhonda Jackson isn’t counting on the utility industry to keep her water pumps running at Jackson’s Nursery in Greensburg, Indiana. The company has invested more than $200,000 since 2016 to install rooftop solar panels and an emergency backup generator.

“If the electric went down for a half an hour, it would knock our pumps out and we would have to reset the timers, which is very time consuming,” Jackson said. “A 12-hour day of plants going without water, would hurt them. We do want to keep our plants vibrant and looking good. And we do need to run our pump system 24-7.”

While it’s a big investment, Jackson is feeling pretty good about her decision, after the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, or NERC, said the power grid serving most of Indiana is at “high risk of energy emergencies” this summer. It’s the first time this section of the nation’s power grid has made the “high risk” category, raising the prospect of rolling blackouts.

“The greatest risk occurs in the month of July, coinciding with the typical peak in annual demand,” said NERC’s 2022 Summer Reliability Assessment, released in May.

The annual NERC report identifies potential trouble spots for the grid, trying to prevent colossal failures like the near collapse of the Texas power grid in 2021, which left millions without power for days and cost hundreds of lives. The report places the entire western half of the U.S. at elevated risk of power shortages. Most of Greater Cincinnati is operated by the PJM energy market, which NERC rates at low risk of power disruptions.

The MISO territory includes most of Indiana and parts of western Kentucky.

Indiana’s grid is operated by the Midcontinent Independent System Operator, or MISO. It’s a regional transmission system that works with dozens of utilities to distribute electricity to more than 42 million people in 15 states and the Canadian province of Manitoba. Although it has never implemented rotating blackouts in Indiana, MISO spokesman Brandon Morris said capacity shortages have been on the rise in recent years.

“This year’s summer assessment and capacity auction reflect the potential for the tightest conditions we’ve experienced,” Morris said. “The overall stability and reliability of the system will not be compromised, as MISO will continue to implement any actions that may be necessary to prevent uncontrolled, cascading outages.”

Duke Energy Indiana stressed that rolling blackouts are a last resort and the utility has many steps it can take before interrupting service.

“It’s likely before this would happen MISO would direct us to ask for voluntary conservation from customers, so there would be public appeals,” said Angeline Protogere, principal communication consultant for the utility serving 840,000 customers in 69 Indiana counties. “For years, we have had voluntary contracts with large power customers whereby they receive incentives from us so that during times of very high demand we could call on them to reduce their energy usage.”

If it comes to blackouts, Protegere said Duke Energy would protect critical energy users like hospitals and water treatment systems, while keeping regional outages as brief as possible.

But those reassurances don’t go far enough for Jackson, who has worried about grid reliability since Hurricane Ike knocked her business offline for three days in 2008. Those worries intensified when family members lost power in Texas last year.

“The stress on the power grid is immense,” Jackson said. “We would like to be energy independent at some point, but I don’t see that happening in the near future.”

The power grid isn’t likely to solve its problems quickly either, said Heather Payne, a Seton Hall University Law Professor who has written research papers on the topic.

“Climate change is really the root of what’s happening here,” Payne said. “Average daily temperatures are getting hotter. People turn up their air conditioners. That creates higher demand and higher peaks. It’s that extra electricity usage that is really putting a strain on the electrical grid.”

Coal plants that once provided most of the nation’s power have been forced into retirement by environmental rules aimed at preventing climate change. Drought conditions have reduced hydropower generation and caused wildfires that threaten transmission lines. Renewable resources like wind and solar energy have yet to become meaningful contributors to electric reliability.

“This generation shortfall is more extreme now because of hotter temperatures and other issues related to climate change,” Payne said. “But it isn’t new. It’s just more acute.”

And that’s why Jackson hired Lohrum Electrical LLC to update her off-the-grid resources, which started with a rooftop solar panel in 2016. Lohrum installed a second solar panel, a Generac power system and an underground pumping system that can cover her entire property if the grid goes down.

Micah Lohrum demonstrates the durability of solar panels by throwing ice cubes at them.

This year’s blackout threat is driving new business for Lohrum.

“It seems like we probably get a couple of phone calls every day with people wanting to do some sort of emergency backup power, whether it be solar and generators or battery or all of the above,” said Micah Lohrum, owner of the Greensburg-based energy solutions company. “In the next ten years, we’re going to be using so much energy that we’re going to have to pull it from every avenue that we have.”

Lohrum has a solar panel with battery storage and a back generator at his home, which doubles as his business address. He sells surplus electricity from the solar unit to his utility, Decatur County REMC.

Lohrum’s typical customer spends between $30,000 and $40,000 on the solar systems he installs, paying off that investment with reduced utility bills over 10 years.

“I’m offsetting my energy bill by about 75%,” Lohrum said.

For those who can’t afford to generate their own electricity, conservation is the best way to avoid summer blackouts.

Payne said turning up the thermostat on hot days and closing blinds to keep sunlight from heating up your house can go a long way toward helping utilities meet peak demands. She also thinks utilities could do more by paying customers who reduce usage and paying more for electric generated by rooftop solar.

“When we think of when, in the summer, we want our air conditioners the most, it’s the middle of a hot afternoon,” Payne said. “And that is exactly when solar could be providing a lot of generation onto our electricity grid.”

Jackson is grateful that her backup system will be up and running in July, when the threat of blackouts is highest.

“We haven’t regretted our purchase,” Jackson said. “Financially, it made sense to be ready in case an emergency happened.”