Iowa, other states at risk of ‘energy emergencies’ this winter, group warns

Source: By Donnelle Eller, Des Monies Register • Posted: Tuesday, November 22, 2022

A national group warns that Iowa and other Midwestern states could experience temporary outages this winter, due to power plant retirements, possible natural gas, coal and other fuel shortages and transportation disruptions.

Iowans and other Midwesterners are at risk of “energy emergencies” this winter, given power plant retirements, possible natural gas and coal shortages and railroad disruptions, a national utilities group is warning.

The North American Electric Reliability Corp., a Georgia-based regulatory authority called NERC, said the winter power reserves of Iowa’s power grid operator are 5% below last winter’s due to nuclear and coal power plant retirements totaling 4.2 gigawatts. According to one widely cited measure, 1 gigawatt is enough to power 750,000 homes.

Midcontinent Independent System Operator, known as MISO, is the grid operator in Iowa and 14 other states. The report said MISO is “at risk for energy emergencies during the upcoming winter,” NERC reported this week. “An extreme cold-weather event that extends deep into MISO’s area could lead to high generator outages from inadequate weatherization in southern units and unavailability of fuel for natural-gas-fired generators.”

NERC said potential rail strikes, constrained and delayed rail deliveries, reduced natural gas, fuel oil and coal inventories, and uncertain global markets feed into reliability concerns.

MidAmerican expects to have sufficient resources

Despite NERC’s warning, MidAmerican Energy and Alliant Energy, Iowa’s largest utilities, said they’re prepared for a blustery winter, forecast to be colder than normal.

“We expect to have sufficient resources to continue to deliver the reliable energy customers need,” Alliant’s Morgan Hawk said in an email. The utility’s Iowa subsidiary, Interstate Power & Light Co., is based in Cedar Rapids.

“MidAmerican fully expects to have ample generation to meet our customers’ anticipated needs throughout this winter heating season,” MidAmerican’s Geoff Greenwood said in an email.

In additions to the concerns about the availability of power, prices also are likely to be higher. Midwest residents using electricity to heat their homes will see their bills climb an estimated 8% and natural gas users, 33%, according to a U.S. Energy Information Administration winter outlook.

Alliant pointed to the agency’s forecast when asked about its expectation for heating bills. “Increased demand, lower-than-average gas reserves, and geo-political impacts such as the conflict in Ukraine have all affected global fuel supplies and prices,” it said in a statement this month.

MidAmerican said customers “should not expect to see an increase in their energy bills compared to the last heating season, under normal weather conditions.” Higher energy use, however, will push bills higher, the Des Moines-based utility noted.

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NERC urged state regulators to consider “energy risks for the upcoming winter season” and “delay imminent generation retirements.”

MidAmerican agreed. “One of the NERC winter reliability assessment’s key actions recommends to ‘preserve critical generation resources,’ which MidAmerican sees as imperative to reliably meeting our customers’ needs, day or night,” Greenwood wrote in the email.

“While MidAmerican has been investing in renewable energy for nearly two decades, we have also been upgrading and maintaining our thermal generation assets, which include natural gas and coal generation units, because we understand that we must maintain a balanced energy mix to serve our customers every minute of every hour, all year long,” said the utility, part of Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway conglomerate.

‘A solution that doesn’t involve natural gas and coal’

Some Iowa groups that have pushed MidAmerican to retire its coal plants said the nation’s transition to renewable energy isn’t the primary reason the Midwest faces reliability challenges.

Kerri Johannsen, the Iowa Environmental Council’s energy program director, said renewable energy projects totaling 164 gigawatts are “waiting to connect to the MISO grid,” power that would significantly add to the group’s reliability.

Johannsen urged MISO to move “in a timely manner” to add the renewable energy projects as well as transmission capacity so renewable energy can more easily move to areas that might need it. MISO plans to add $10 billion in grid transmission, including about $2 billion in Iowa.

“That’s a solution that doesn’t involve natural gas and coal,” Johannsen said, adding that the biggest reliability challenge is access to the fuels.

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Greenhouse gases that come from using fossil fuels contribute to climate change and cause the “extreme weather and uncertainty in the first place,” she said. “It just makes the problems worse. At some point we need to get off that track.”

NERC had warned MISO’s territory could experience rolling blackouts this summer, a situation Iowa avoided despite extreme heat and high power demands.

Donnelle Eller covers agriculture, the environment and energy for the Register. Reach her at deller@registermedia.com or 515-284-8457. 

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