Big Pivots: Will electricity supplies keep pace with the warming climate?
Colorado regulators want assurances utilities will have enough electricity for air conditioners on even the hottest of days
This late-June coolish spell in Colorado is unusual. The trend is toward hot and hotter. Denver in June matched a record set just a few years ago for the earliest time to hit 100 degrees. Grand Junction last year set an all-time record of 107.
What if the heat rises to 116 degrees, such as baked Portland a year ago? Could Xcel Energy deliver the electricity needed to chill the air?
It can in 2022, the company says, but it has less confidence for 2023 and 2024 after it shuts down a coal plant. Xcel frets about disruption to supply chains necessary to add renewable generation.
Tri-State Generation and Transmission, Colorado’s second-largest electrical supplier, also foresees supply-chain issues as it replaces coal-fired generation with renewables. It has extended the deadline for bids from developers of wind, solar, and storage projects by more than two months, to Sept. 16.
Colorado has hit a bump in its energy transition. The climate sends ever-louder signals that we must quit polluting the atmosphere with greenhouse gases. After a sluggish response, Colorado has been hurrying to pivot. Now, inflation and other problems threaten to gum up the switch.
The glitch is significant enough that Eric Blank, the Colorado Public Utilities Commission chair, asked Xcel representatives at a June 17 meeting whether it might be wise to keep Comanche I, the aging coal plant in Pueblo, operating beyond its scheduled retirement at the end of 2022.
“It kills me to even ask this question,” said Blank, a former developer of wind and solar energy projects.
In northwestern New Mexico, the aging San Juan Generating Station has been allowed to puff several months past its planned retirement because of problems in getting a new solar farm on line. Even so, the utility predicts rolling blackouts, as has happened in other states.
No blackouts have been predicted in Colorado. Xcel has a healthy reserve margin of 18%.
But even if Xcel wanted to keep Comanche 1 operating beyond 2022, it lacks the permits to do so, company representatives told PUC commissioners at a June 17 meeting devoted to “resource adequacy.”
In addition to the supply chain disruptions, Xcel failed to adequately foresee demand growth. Residential demand was expected to decline as people returned to offices after the covid shutdown. They have, but less than expected. Too, demand from Xcel’s wholesale customers – it provides power for Holy Cross Energy but also some other utilities – has grown more than projected.
“We can’t go into the summer of 2023 with less than 10% reserve margins,” said Blank. “We just can’t.”
Old technology, though, isn’t always a sure-fire answer. Coal plants routinely must shut down for maintenance. Then there are the fiascos. Problems have repeatedly idled Comanche 3, the state’s youngest and largest coal plant, during its 12 years. Cabin Creek, Xcel’s trusty pumped-storage hydro project at Georgetown, has also been down.
The electrical grid now being assembled will be more diverse, dispersed, and flexible. Many homes will have storage, the batteries of electric vehicles will be integrated into the grid, and demand will be shaved and then shaped to better correspond with supplies. Megan Gilman, a PUC commissioner from Edwards, pointed out that this strategy could be a key response to tightening margins between supplies and demands. Xcel has had a small-scale peak-shaving program but will soon submit plans for expanded demand management.
Meanwhile, it gets hotter and hotter. Russ Schumacher, the state climatologist, says Colorado’s seven of the nine warmest years on record have occurred since 2012. We haven’t had a year cooler than the 20th century average since 1992. Air conditioning has become the new normal for high-end real estate offerings even in Winter Park, elevation 9,000 feet. It’s not just the heat. There’s also the matter of smoke, as more intense wildfires grow larger and expand across the calendar, too. For weeks, sometimes months on end, opening the windows is no option.
Colorado’s record temperature of 115 degrees was set in 2019 near Lamar, in southeastern Colorado. Nobody yet has made public modeling of the potential for that kind of heat in Front Range cities, where 90% of Coloradans live. Last year the deaths of 339 people were attributed to heat in the Phoenix area, where nighttime temperatures sometimes stay above 90.
Power outages in Texas during February 2022 were blamed — mostly without merit — on wind farms. Nobody in Colorado wants to see any plausible excuse to blame renewables. The best way to avoid that is to keep the air conditioners running.
Allen Best writes about these and other topics in greater depth at BigPivots.com.
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