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'Monday is going to be a tough day,' DL utilities manager says; rolling blackouts possible this summer

Speaking at the end of a Detroit Lakes City Council meeting on June 14, the city's public utilities general manager, and chairman of the board for Missouri River Energy Services, presented the grim news that regional power generation may not meet the expected demand over the summer and rolling blackouts across the region are possible.

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Gov. Tim Walz, left, and Detroit Lakes Public Utilities Commission General Manager Vernell Roberts, right, talk about the chemical process involved in wastewater treatment during a 2019 tour of the city's new wastewater treatment plant.
Marie Johnson / Detroit Lakes Tribune
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DETROIT LAKES — Just as Detroit Lakes City Council members were ready to adjourn their meeting on June 14, the city's public utilities general manager laid out some bad news: Rolling blackouts could be coming to Detroit Lakes this summer.

Vernell Roberts, general manager for Detroit Lakes Public Utilities and chairman of the board for Missouri River Energy Services, said regional transmission operators — of which MRES members like Detroit Lakes are a part — are projecting an energy generation shortfall over the summer.

"Monday is going to be a tough day," said Roberts at the end of Tuesday's council meeting. "If we go into these rolling blackouts, we're going to try to do it an hour-off, and an hour-on and, if we have to go back, it'll be another hour, try to keep so no customer will be off for more than an hour at a time."

In an interview with the Detroit Lakes Tribune, he explained that Monday will be especially tough because it'll be the third consecutive day of high temperatures and commercial and industrial business will be back at their facilities.

Typically, he said, people tend to turn the air conditioning up a little higher on the third consecutive day of a heat wave. MRES, including Detroit Lakes Public Utilities, is a member of the Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO), which distributes power to all of its operators across a large, middle portion of United States from Canada to Louisiana.

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"So, Monday is probably going to be one of the critical days within MISO to find out, are their resources going to be adequate to get through Monday, what's the load going to do, and are people tired of the two days of hot weather and want to cool off on Monday morning," said Roberts. "A lot of people go back to work, so if people can ramp down their thermostats, roll back on their air conditioners on Monday, especially from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., and conserve during those times on Monday, we may be able to ride it out."

The city public utilities department sent out a news release explaining the power shortfall on Monday, June 13.

Projected peak electrical usage for the region over the hot summer is expected to be 124 gigawatts per peak hour, while the projected generation capacity for the same region is only 119 gigawatts, which means regional users need to make up the 5 gigawatts deficit from somewhere within the MISO distribution area, according to the release.

To put five gigawatts in perspective, Roberts said there is a 3-unit power plant near Monticello, Minnesota that has to potential to generate 2,500 megawatts, so we would need two more of those plants to be online by Monday in order to make up the generation deficit, otherwise, electricity-use reduction will be the primary tool the utilities will use to alleviate the strained system.

"Right now, the real-time load in MISO is 105 gigawatts, so we're not at the cap yet, so we've still got some room," he said. "If there are any other bumps in the system, if a storm comes through and knocks a transmission line out, or there's a mechanical failure at an existing power plant, if the wind dies down, and this is the big one, if the wind dies down and there is no wind production, we're in trouble. Then, we're going to have to start doing bigger steps to protect the system."

If power distribution systems are damaged due to an overload, or failure, it could take up to two weeks to repair those systems, Roberts said.

Roberts also explained how power shortage notifications may be issued only hours in advance, giving local providers limited time to react to the notifications, which means residents need to be mindful about their energy usage on these upcoming hot days.

"I've got a programmable thermostat in the house and typically before I get home, I try to get the house cooled down a little bit and, at night, I try to force the temperature down after 10 o'clock, that way the house is cooler going into the next day," he said. "We're just trying to get that out to our customers and we're trying to get ahead of this thing the best we can and get the word out early."

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He said power reduction notifications would be sent out as email, social media postings, and other means, and likely be done in stages.

First, a general conservation notice would be sent out by Detroit Lakes Public Utilities for residents to voluntarily comply to lower their power use.

Secondly, he said, public utilities would implement their load control means and voltage reduction measures that would be unseen by the public and they would also begin asking facilities with generator capability to switch to their generators.

Lastly, if they still haven't reduced the electric load enough by that time, then they would start flipping the circuits on residents located on fringe areas of Detroit Lakes and working their way toward the center of the city using an hour-off, hour-on method.

Commercial and industrial areas would most likely remain unaffected due to the long lead times needed to power down their machines, he said.

"Government facilities are going to get impacted ... now, we're going to leave city hall on because the phones are going to be ringing off the hook and we need to be able to provide answers to the customers and explain this to customers," said Roberts. "These things can be very dynamic and very fluid because once the system gets to that point, it doesn't take much to start having significant ripple effects if something goes wrong."

He also told council members that utility officials are reaching out to the medically-assisted community to understand how long those individuals are able to be without power in terms of oxygen and other medical support that may impact their care.

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Membership map of Missouri River Energy Services in 2021, including Detroit Lakes, some of which are members of the Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO) and Southwest Power Pool (SPP).
Contributed / MRES

When asked what the causes for the power shortfall are, the answer is a complicated one, Roberts explained.

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"There are no physical deliveries of energy from generator to customer anymore, and it's been that way for many years," he said. "This is the creation of the market to provide more lower cost energy for everybody in the country, and, for the most part, it's worked pretty well."

The major issue, he said, is the accelerated early-retirements of coal plants and a quick and robust recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. During the pandemic, there was an energy surplus due to many businesses being shut down, which in turn forced some providers to take plants offline due to the reduced electric need, he said.

However, some of these plants were also already on a decommissioning timetable as energy sectors began turning away from carbon-burning energy sources, and the cost to bring them back online in the short-term outweighs the amount of time they would need to be operational to make the reintegration costs worth it for the providers.

"When the economy started coming back, a lot of these resources were gone," said Roberts. "Now, these facilities are no longer in service and there is just no way to produce the energy needed to provide the load within the MISO footprint."

Roberts added: "I say, generation equals load, and load equals generation, every second of the day, every day of the month, every month of the year, and it has to be that way. If that gets out of whack, bad things happen."

Lead Multimedia Reporter for the Detroit Lakes Tribune and the Perham Focus.
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