Reliability at Risk


Steve Freese
President and CEO

Over the last year, feature stories and several of my columns in this magazine have focused on the critical importance of electric service reliability to our members. As societal and political pressure pushes us towards a goal of carbon pollution-free electricity, reliability is a subject that we will continue to pay very close attention to because there is no practical reason why having one should negatively impact the other.

As we look at how we can achieve the goal of carbon pollution-free electricity, reliability should always be the backbone of any long-term plan we implement for our members. When you flip a light switch, you expect the lights to come on. It’s that simple, right? Well, maybe not.

The electrical grid is the most complex machine humanity has ever created. While those in the industry have a pretty good understanding of it, most of our consumer members do not. Producing and securing reliable electricity begins with basic knowledge and understanding of some key components and terminology. “Baseload” is an industry term that means no matter what happens tomorrow, this is the amount of electricity the cooperative must provide to power everything you use—furnaces, air conditioners, lights, water heaters, stoves, computers, phones, and coffee makers. That’s just what’s in your home. Consider what else it takes to power small businesses, industrial complexes, schools, hospitals, data centers, etc. Your cooperative must provide that baseload supply of electricity day in and day out. A significant portion of electric reliability comes from coal and natural gas plants to supplement the intermittent supply of renewable power like solar and wind. Unfortunately, at this moment, there are no technologically feasible means to produce 100% carbon pollution-free electricity to power our baseload needs without the serious threat of brownouts or blackouts unless we commit to drastically amping up our nuclear power capabilities.

Nineteen of Wisconsin Electric Cooperative Association’s (WECA) cooperative members own the generation and transmission cooperative they get their wholesale electricity from, three cooperatives own a portion of an investor-owned facility that provides much of their power, and the remaining two cooperatives buy their power from other investor-owned utilities. In most cases, we have had no problem with these generation facilities producing enough electricity to serve our members. However, there are warning signs that electric and grid reliability is under duress.

Last summer, the Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO), which operates the grid in all or part of 14 states, including Wisconsin and the Canadian Province of Manitoba, issued warnings that if we had extended days of hot temperatures, we would likely have rolling blackouts. The warning was issued because of power lost from retiring coal plants that were not matched by the supply of power gained by new wind and solar farms. With these electricity supplies tightening, the risks of rolling blackouts remain high. A brutal storm in the Midwest could have severe effects on the grid, not unlike what happened to the Texas power grid in February 2021. That event catapulted natural gas shortages in Minnesota and electricity outages in North Dakota. Let’s also not forget when high temperatures in California led to widespread rolling blackouts in 2020.

More recently, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s Mark Christie echoed a similarly eerie warning last month before a U.S. Senate oversight hearing, stating, “I think the United States is heading for a very catastrophic situation in terms of reliability.” He continued, “The core of the problem is actually very simple. We are retiring dispatchable generating resources at a pace and in an amount that is far too fast and far too great and is threatening our ability to keep the lights on.”

I am sharing this information with you not to scare you but to help prepare you for events that could happen if we do not have a balanced plan and reasonable transition period to fully achieve carbon pollution-free electricity production. We can still do everything right in Wisconsin. However, if a regional grid emergency hits, MISO can still implement rolling blackouts to preserve the system’s integrity. This is something you need to be aware of and possibly be prepared for. Let’s pray and hope it never comes to be.