Could rising temperatures across Kansas lead to rolling blackouts this summer?

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Across Kansas, pools are open, barbecues are starting to fire up and you can finally wear white again.

Summer has come to the Great Plains and the quickly rising temperatures could ultimately mean insufficient power to supply sky-high demand for air conditioning and other uses, a national report warns.

While it is unlikely conditions will deteriorate to February 2021 levels, when cities across Kansas were forced to save power amid a historic winter storm, the possiblilty for rolling blackouts is real.

An annual assessment conducted by the North American Electric Reliability Corporation said there was a “low likelihood” of emerging reliability issues over the summer and the state’s largest utility said it was prepared.

But the NERC report also contained a word of warning. “Load shedding may be needed under extreme peak demand and outage scenarios studied,” the group wrote.

All in all, the regional grid including Kansas and many of the other Plains states, called the Southwest Power Pool, is at an elevated risk for reliability issues this summer, the report said.

In past years, this hasn’t been the case. But temperatures across the region have been projected to be higher than recent summers — carrying potential consequences.

“I think it’s increasingly clear that our severe weather is impacting our daily lives, including our ability to have reliable electricity more than ever,” said Zach Pistora, a lobbyist for the Kansas chapter of Sierra Club.

Gina Penzig, a spokesperson for Evergy, insisted the company is “ready to meet customers’ needs this summer.” The utility generally performs seasonal maintenance in spring and fall so as not to disrupt operations during the summer, when the state sees the highest demand for electricity.

Penzig said essential services, such as hospitals, wouldn’t be affected in the event of rolling blackouts.

“Evergy is committed to maintaining reliable, affordable electricity,” Chuck Caisley, senior vice president and chief customer officer, said in a statement. “From the power plants that generate electricity to the lines and transformers that are key parts of the system, our teams are working to make sure electricity is available when our customers need it.”

The Southwest Power Pool has said publicly it is prepared for the summer crunch.

“2022 Summer Operations within the SPP Balancing Authority and Reliability Coordinator Area footprints are expected to be normal with no forecast of extreme operational situations,” an SPP report on summer 2022 expectations said.

Still, James Zakoura, an energy law attorney representing a group of large industrial companies in Kansas, said the SPP already issued an advisory in May warning of the high temperatures and their impact on power generators.

“That’s never been done before,” he said.

The NERC report showed that, under most scenarios, the grid would be able to cope with summer temperatures and the resulting instinct to reach for the thermostat.

Under the most extreme situations, however, where record temperatures combined with limited capacity due to lower wind power or unusual outages, issues could arise.

Still, the prognosis for Kansas could be worse.

The Midcontinent Independent System Operator, which includes states from Mississippi to Minnesota, is at an even higher risk for having insufficient capacity after fossil-fuel fired plants in the upper Midwest were closed and not replaced.

But risks still remain for the state and region. That is particularly true given natural gas costs that have remained high, in light of sanctions against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.

Typically, decisions made by regional planners about which fuel to use when is based on cost. The cheapest energy sources will be used first. So generally, wind and solar will be dispatched most quickly because they cost little to generate.

Nuclear, coal and, finally, natural gas are next. If renewable energy is unavailable, more of a reliance on natural gas could provide for the state’s energy needs — at a cost.

“We don’t see anybody telling us we’re going to have to shut down at all,” Zakoura said. “Just how are you going to pay for the electricity, please.”

Meanwhile, widespread drought in the western United States, including Kansas, which can reduce the ability for hydroelectric dams to generate power. It also can make hot weather even hotter.

Generators that rely on the Missouri River for cooling, for instance, could be affected if the river is drier than usual.

All this adds up to concern, even if residents don’t see their power go out at any point this summer.

“It’s a sobering report,” John Moura, NERC’s director of reliability assessment and performance analysis, told reporters last month. “It’s clear the risks are spreading … and the pace of our grid transformation is a bit out of sync with the underlying realities and the physics of the system.”

Few statewide changes in energy policy have occurred since Winter Storm Uri in February 2021 saw natural gas prices skyrocket to historic levels and residents were asked to conserve energy and endure rolling blackouts for several days.

Tweaks have been suggested for both the Southwest Power Pool and Evergy alike, although Kansas is widely believed to be in a better position than other parts of the country, such as Texas, where the winter cold snap turned deadly in 2021.

Some, including top conservatives in the Kansas Legislature, have called for curbing the amount of energy the state gets from renewable energy, though wind power performed roughly as expected during Winter Storm Uri.

Bills to make it harder to advance solar and wind projects died in committee, gaining little traction even among Republicans, underscoring the influence renewable energy developers now have in Topeka.

Local officials have taken matters into their own hands on  addressing renewable energy projects.

Earlier this week, the Johnson County Commission approved regulations outlining when and where solar projects can be placed in the county.

The measures were put in place after controversy surrounding a major project proposed near Gardner.

The solar farm, which would also include development in neighboring Douglas County, could bring hundreds of millions of dollars in development to the area, but the idea has rankled residents concerned about its effects on their property.

The restrictions would allow projects to proceed but require they occur at least a mile and a half from a city and be capped at 2,000 acres

Meanwhile, clean energy advocates have argued Winter Storm Uri and the summer threats underscore the need for the state to better outline where it gets it will get power.

The lone benchmark for renewable energy has sat at 20% — a goal the state has long since surpassed. But efforts to establish an energy plan at the state level have also languished in the Legislature.

Still, Evergy has taken steps to implement programs to encourage energy efficiency, something advocates have long perceived as a deficiency in Kansas.

The plan is still under review by state regulators, with a ruling expected on the matter in August.

Pistora, the Sierra Club lobbyist, said the programs, if implemented properly, would be a start to ensuring that demand in future summers doesn’t create problems when consumers most need electricity.

“If we’re not doing our best to save energy and make sure that our buildings provide for the most efficient use of our energy supply, I don’t think we’re doing ourselves any favors,” he said.

As reported in the Topeka Capital Journal. 

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