New powerlines run north and south along South Farm Road 97 in Greene County. The lines were built in 2022. (Photo by Rance Burger)

Springfield power customers played a small part in a record-setting event for the largest energy supplier in the central United States.

At 4:30 p.m. on July 5, the Southwest Power Pool experienced the single largest demand for electricity across its power grid since the company was founded in 1941. The peak demand load across 17 states reached 51,090 megawatts as users battled high temperatures by cranking down their air conditioners.

On Friday, the Southwest Power Pool sent out a “Resource Advisory,” set to start Monday, July 25. The power company noted, “Resource advisories do not require the public to conserve energy,” but that some procedures and guidelines are sent to power transmission operators.

This news may give some of Springfield’s California transplants flashbacks to rolling blackouts on the West Coast. But this recent surge in demand will not result in rolling blackouts, like what happened in Springfield back in February 2021.

Peak demand load in the power industry occurs at times when members of a population are using electricity at the same time. On a small scale, imagine running your household air conditioner at 68 degrees, using every television, computer and stereo in your house, turning on all of the lights simultaneously, while charging an electric car in the garage and running a vacuum cleaner. On a larger scale, peak demands usually occur in the morning, as most of the population prepares to go to work and to school, and in the early evening when everyone comes home for the day.

If peak demand loads exceed the amount of power, measured in megawatts, that a power grid can transmit, interruptions can occur. While rolling blackouts are highly unlikely, even as high temperatures stay above 90 degrees in a dry, hot Southwest Missouri, energy conservation can be helpful for everyone to reduce demand and keep their utility costs down. Springfield City Utilities Manager of Media and Energy Services Joel Alexander said the utility that serves 118,195 residential, commercial and industrial customers appreciates individual efforts to conserve electricity.

“Anything an individual, or business, can do to reduce the amount of energy they use, especially during afternoon and early evening hours, will be beneficial for everyone,” Alexander said.

A major difference between energy for heating in the winter and energy for cooling in the summer is that many Southwest Missouri homes are heated with natural gas, but cooled with electric air conditioners.

The John Twitty Energy Center is a coal-fired power plant owned and operated by Springfield City Utilities. The plant has two generation units and a total generation capacity of 494 megawatts. (Photo by Rance Burger)

A cold look back at Winter Storm Uri

In February 2021, the central United States experienced a once-in-a-century cold weather event that became known as Winter Storm Uri.

Winter Storm Uri caused the official temperature in Springfield to reach a low of 14 degrees below zero on Feb. 16, 2021, according to National Weather Service records. Prolonged sub-zero temperatures put a heavy demand on electricity consumption across the Southwest Power Pool, and also caused natural gas wells to freeze and cause shortages.

Springfield City Utilities reported a series of 30-60 minute rolling blackouts during Winter Storm Uri in order to reduce peak demand for power. Customers were asked to reduce their power and natural gas consumption and turn down their thermostats during the storm in an effort to avoid full-scale blackouts across the City Utilities service area.

Alexander said the events of February 2021 and the events playing out in July 2022 are different.

“The heat demand situation is a different scenario and we’re monitoring it very closely,” Alexander said. “The main difference is that power generation throughout the territory is performing very well and for the most part, keeping up with the demand.”

On Feb. 15, 2021, Southwest Power Pool had a “load shed event” across its entire service area. Member utility companies were directed to reduce their power consumption by a proportional share to drop the total power consumption across the region by 1.5 percent.

“It is up to each (utility provider) to determine how to lessen its use, whether by curtailing residential, commercial or industrial load,” the Southwest Power Pool’s comprehensive report on the winter storm reads. “SPP has no visibility into and has no authority to direct how utilities lessen their load. In other words, there’s no way for SPP to see or direct whether the reduction comes from particular homes, neighborhoods, farms, businesses, factories, etc.”

Monitoring the heat in 2022

New powerlines run north and south along South Farm Road 97 in Greene County. (Photo by Rance Burger)

The entire Southwest Power Pool territory stayed under “Conservative Operations” status from July 17-21. Springfield City Utilities customers generally aren’t asked to take power-saving measures until emergency status is activated. In the event of an emergency, City Utilities will ask media outlets to report the change in status, and use its own social media platforms to inform customers.

“The conservation message would be first and conservation to reduce the load demand is going to be the first step for the region to minimize the chance of mandatory orders,” Alexander said.

With prolonged heat and a high demand for electricity for air conditioners, the main concern is that generation, transmission and power delivery systems will work around the clock.

“With little if any downtime, a malfunction could create problems in certain areas,” Alexander said. “In other words, we feel that if there were to be outages, they would probably be contained to smaller sections instead of the entire 14-state SPP territory.” 

Southwest Power Pool Vice President of Operations Bruce Rew said the company learned from what happened in February 2021, and even though the seasons are different, the ability to meet the demand for electricity in the summer months has changed for the better.

 “SPP’s job is to prepare for both expected and unexpected scenarios that could affect electric reliability across our region,” Rew said. “We work closely with our member utilities to make sure our forecasts are as dependable as they can be, and then maintain contingency plans and monitor the regional grid around the clock so we can respond quickly and effectively if things don’t go as planned. We know how much the 18 million people in our region depend on our services, and we do everything in our power to responsibly and economically keep the lights on.”

There is some concern with power distribution equipment in Springfield as temperatures stay hot.

“Transformers need time to cool down, and typically that happens overnight with cooler temperatures — something that isn’t really occurring right now,” Alexander said. “That factor, along with the usual wildlife contact, vehicle accidents and routine utility issues are what the line crews are ready to respond to.”

Rance Burger

Rance Burger covers local government for the Daily Citizen. His goal is to help people know more about what projects their government is involved in, and how their tax dollars are being spent. He is a graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia with 15 years experience in journalism. Reach him at rburger@sgfcitizen.org or by calling 417-837-3669. Twitter: @RanceBurger More by Rance Burger