During a brutal summer, midwest utilities keep the power flowing

Kansas City StarAugust 7, 2012 

If the neighbors are talking about brownouts, chances are they mean lawns, rather than the power grid.

July was brutal — 13 days with 100-degree-plus heat, and only two days had highs less than 90 degrees.

Such a sweltering stretch typically has utilities issuing urgent pleas for energy conservation and, if customers don’t comply, threats of power cutbacks as demand outstrips supply.

But listen to what area utilities are saying.

The “system is holding up very well,” said Leonard Allen, a spokesman for Westar Energy, Kansas’ biggest electric utility.

“We’ve been very fortunate,” said William Herdegen, vice president of transmission and distribution for Kansas City Power & Light.

And the Board of Public Utilities serving Kansas City, Kan., isn’t seeing anything out of the ordinary.

What happened?

On the supply side, KCP&L has the added power of its Iatan 2 power plant near Weston, now in its second summer. As a result, the utility has been able to meet its own needs and often has power to sell.

All the utilities also have other weapons at their disposal to curb demand without having to make public pleas.

In return for lower rates through the year or other compensation, some commercial customers had already agreed to be ready to either reduce usage or switch to backup power at their utility’s request. And KCP&L and Westar had signed up thousands of residential customers for a program that lets the utilities cycle their air conditioners to reduce demand at times of heaviest use.

As far as delivering the power, utility executives say improved equipment maintenance has allowed their systems to better deal with the stress caused by air conditioning’s heavy demand for power.

So instead of big heat wave problems — such as the 2003 blackout in the upper Midwest and Northeast, or half of India losing power this summer for a couple of days — the area got through the seventh-hottest July on record with relatively few, short outages.

Area utilities also had some luck from — believe it or not — the weather. Though temperatures have been high, humidity has generally been low, which allows air conditioners to work less and use less electricity. That has kept peak electricity demand this summer from setting records. The early August break in extremely high temperatures has also given utility equipment a little rest.

Of course, “summer is not over,” said David Mehlhaff, a spokesman for the Board of Public Utilities, and the area could bake again later this month. But at least the utilities will be ready.

Last Wednesday, it was 100 degrees outside KCP&L’s Hawthorn power plant, and like many other days this summer, both the plant and its employees were being tested.

There was plenty of water and Gatorade to drink, and many of the plant’s workers were part of buddy teams in case one was overcome by the heat. Two employees were cleaning the cooling fins of a giant transformer that was pushing 161,000 volts of electricity to help meet the heavy demand for electricity.

In a nearby control room, others were staring at banks of monitors and gauges tracking the plant’s operations, including the internal temperature of the crucial transformer. Any problem, such as failure of a cooling fan, would set off an alarm signaling a “First Level ” situation demanding immediate attention.

“I can’t remember such (hot weather) lasting this long,” said Darrel Hensley, senior director of generation for KCP&L. “It’s a test of our readiness, and I’m proud of everything our employees have done.”

The string of triple-digit highs last month meant power plants, transformers, transmission lines and other utility equipment had to work at a high level for a prolonged period.

And the longer a heat wave lasts, the more stress it causes, similar to running a car engine not only at high speed but also for a long time, said Mark Gabriel, a senior vice president at Black & Veatch Corp., an engineering firm based in Overland Park.

“The duration is as important as the peak,” he said.

That makes reducing stress on the system crucial to preventing wider problems. Thanks in part to its peak-demand programs, KCP&L said, its heaviest load this summer was 5,653 megawatts of power, on July 25. Its record peak demand was 5,734 megawatts, back in 2006.

KCP&L said its voluntary program to cycle air conditioners, which has 53,000 customers, has been triggered four times this summer, and each has reduced consumption by 49 megawatts. And commercial customers, who had previously agreed to curb demand when needed, have done so three times this summer. That further reduced the load by 87 megawatts.

Equipment also got some relief in July from lower temperatures at night.

“It allows us to cool down a bit and get ready for the next day,” said Herdegen of KCP&L.

Area utilities have also sidestepped serious problems caused by the drought, although the lack of moisture in the ground has made it hard for underground cables to cool off, and there have been some breaks in the lines.

Elsewhere there have been more severe issues. Power plants account for 41 percent of the fresh water used in the U.S., according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, because it is needed to cool the steam that produces electricity.

Nuclear power plants, which can’t use water above a specified temperature, are producing power at their lowest seasonal level in nine years, about 93 percent of capacity, and electricity production has been slashed at a handful of coal-fired plants on rivers whose water levels are way down.

Area utilities, however, say water levels remain adequate. A spokeswoman for the Wolf Creek nuclear plant near Burlington, Kan., which is owned by KCP&L and Westar, said it was operating at 100 percent. It has a 5,000-acre lake, she said, deep enough to keep sufficiently cool.

Meanwhile, the collapse of big parts of India’s electric grid, which cut power to 600 million people in the biggest blackout in history, has raised questions about the reliability of the U.S. grid.

The last widespread grid outage in the U.S. was in 2003, triggered on a hot day by a high-voltage line sagging onto a tree branch. Operators, unsure what had happened, were unable to prevent a cascading outage that eventually covered a swath of the upper Midwest and Northeast that affected 50 million people.

The grid still has serious problems, including bottlenecks that hinder transmission. But the 2003 outage caused some reforms, including mandatory reliability standards and improved monitoring.

“I think the grid is getting better,” said Jeff Roark, senior product manager for the Electric Power Research Institute.

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