Keeping the lights on statewide
We may be entering the hot days of summer now, but not long ago Alabamians endured one of the cooler winters in recent memory. Our friends in northern Alabama experienced several small snow events, and Texas and other Southern states went through a crippling ice storm like we haven’t seen in many years.
That storm triggered several issues for Texas power customers. Many were without electricity for days because of downed lines or blackouts. Those who had power received enormous bills that totaled thousands of dollars due to supply and demand issues.
The events in Texas may cause Wiregrass Electric Cooperative (WEC) members to wonder if similar situations could develop in our state. While it is unwise to say “never,” Alabama energy generators and distributors like our wholesale power supplier, PowerSouth Energy Cooperative, work diligently to limit the risk of rolling blackouts in the Heart of Dixie.
Our own near-disaster in 2014 inspired changes that drastically reduce the possibility of wide-scale blackouts.
When temperatures dipped to 10 degrees in a January polar vortex that year, a natural gas pipeline that fueled the James A. Vann Jr. Plant in Andalusia froze, shutting down a major power source for PowerSouth Energy Cooperative and its 20 member utilities — including us.
Simultaneously, our members needed their heating units more than ever due to the record-setting cold weather. This forced PowerSouth to purchase power on the open market, an expensive proposition during a polar vortex. This generated an extra $2 million in power costs for WEC in one day alone.
In response, PowerSouth upgraded the pipelines that feed the Vann power plant. They now can withstand temperatures as low as minus 10 degrees for five consecutive days.
Other Alabama power providers responded, too, according to Seth Hammett, PowerSouth’s vice president of business development and the chairman of the Energy Institute of Alabama. The resulting reserves now available stem from more energy generation locally and from striking long-term deals to purchase power from other generators.
To calculate the necessary reserves locally, PowerSouth gauges the peak energy demand of each of its 20 members and then ensures it can provide 25% more than that figure. By comparison, Texas maintains a much lower reserve.
This proactive approach is just one way Alabama power generators and providers prevent rolling blackouts or exorbitant bills. The fact that PowerSouth had the ability to purchase power on the open market reflects the creation of valuable partnerships with power generators elsewhere.
PowerSouth, as well as other providers in Alabama, can rely on power generated in other states and on the federal level, through hydroelectric dams, for example. Texas utilizes a deregulated grid that essentially does not have that capability in most places.
Finally, the sources of power used in Alabama are more balanced than in Texas, according to Hammett. In an article for the Alabama Political Reporter website, he notes more than half of Texas’ power stems from natural gas plants. Another 25% comes from wind turbines, some of which froze during this year’s event. Meanwhile, 36% of Alabama’s power comes from natural gas, another 30% from coal, 27% from nuclear, and 5% from hydroelectric. This allows us more diversity in the fuel mix used to generate electricity in Alabama.
This carefully planned approach hopefully grants our members peace of mind. WEC is always positioning itself to better serve you, delivering a consistent service that ensures your lights remain on at a fair, competitive price.
CEO Wiregrass Electric Cooperative