The Inconvenient Marriage of “Uncertainty” and “Reliability”


Steve Freese
President and CEO

Every once in a while, I’ll look back at some of the columns I’ve written for this magazine to ensure I keep my writings fresh and mentally check the status of some of the past issues. I recently did this and found that my column from May of 2023 is pretty much a reflection of this month’s column. Unfortunately, that is not a good thing because a year ago I was warning readers that an overzealous, 0-to-60 transition to clean energy would create tremendous uncertainty and put into question our ability to produce 24/7/365 reliable electricity.

Reliability is the buzzword in the electrical industry right now for a number of reasons. Many are the same as those I wrote about last year, but we’ve experienced a first since then. For the first time since its formation in 1968, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) last year identified energy policy as a risk priority for grid reliability.

NERC is a nonprofit regulatory authority that oversees six regional reliability entities across the U.S. and Canada and is largely responsible for developing and enforcing reliability standards to reduce risks to the bulk power supply. Along with grid transformation, extreme weather events, security, and critical infrastructure interdependencies, NERC summarized that “energy policy, including timelines for implementation, can be a reliability risk factor.” Recognizing that clean, yet intermittent, energy continues to grow, NERC concluded that as “the resource mix evolves with new and different resources being brought into the system, upfront planning is needed to ensure that sufficient associated infrastructure, both transmission and distribution, is built to support the interconnection and delivery of the new resources.”

Speaking of interconnection and delivery of those new sources of energy, in March we learned that a federal judge has once again temporarily halted the completion of Dairyland Power Cooperative’s Cardinal-Hickory Creek transmission project from Dubuque, Iowa, to Middleton. Even though most of the 102-mile line is complete, at the center of yet another lawsuit on the project are environmental groups trying to prevent the transmission line from crossing the Mississippi River near Cassville. The line is a means to move vast amounts of solar and wind energy from the West, but lawsuits have significantly delayed the project with massive cost overruns largely resulting from inflationary pressures and legal bills.

Adding to all this uncertainty, Dairyland Power Cooperative’s efforts to ramp up electric reliability with the construction of the 625-megawatt Nemadji Trail Energy Center (NTEC) project recently stalled before the Superior City Council when the council failed to schedule state-mandated public hearings. Partnering with Minnesota Power and Basin Electric Power Cooperative, Dairyland’s NTEC project will serve as an on-demand natural gas resource when renewables like solar and wind are not available, but its future is now uncertain as the three owners consider their options moving forward.

WECA is hopeful that the issue of reliability will take center stage at the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin with Governor Evers announcing the appointment of Marcus Hawkins as commissioner. Hawkins was most recently the executive director of the Organization of MISO States (OMS), where he worked closely with commissioners from the 17 state regulatory agencies within the Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO) footprint.

In his leadership role at OMS, Hawkins was a guest panelist at WECA’s 2022 Education and Lobby Days event. He brought a wealth of knowledge when discussing the near collapse of the Texas electric grid and the risks and challenges facing Wisconsin. Hawkins is incredibly astute on reliability issues and keenly aware that the energy transition must be well thought out and methodical if we are to ensure safe, reliable, and affordable energy. If Hawkins brings that understanding to the PSC, he will be an asset to the state.

There’s obviously a lot happening around the state and the country when it comes to making efforts to take any uncertainty out of the reliability equation. It all starts with your local electric cooperative. That’s why your electric cooperative leaders made reliability their key message with Wisconsin’s congressional delegation last month in the nation’s capital. Our cooperatives strive to make the delivery of your electricity safe, affordable, and reliable. If any one of the three is missing or under threat, the marriage suffers, and our state and national leaders need to hear and do something about it.