By Brian E. Clark
August roared in like a blast furnace, but Wisconsin utilities managed
get through the recent hot spell – which featured several days of
100-degree-plus temperatures — thanks to conservation, imported
electricity and voluntary interruptions of service.
Yet, for part of Wednesday at least, it all came down to one 345-kilovolt transmission line keeping the power on in central Wisconsin, officials said.
The crisis occurred after a lightning strike and subsequent fire knocked
out most of a Wisconsin Public Service (WPS) generating plant near
and forced the utility to draw in hundreds of megawatts of electricity
from Minnesota. One megawatt of electricity is enough to provide the
of about 800 average homes.
The incident – and WPS’ handling of it – shows how difficult it is to
plan for so-called “acts of God,” officials said. It also highlights the
need for continued improvements in the state’s transmission system, they noted. Critics, while acknowledging new plants and infrastructure may be needed, say much more needs to be done on the energy efficiency side to curtail consumption.
Charlie Higley, executive director of the Consumer Utilities Board (CUB) said asking large large customers to shut down in exchange for lower rates is one of the oldest and least-sophisticated approach to dealing with power crunches.
“We could implement far more effective programs that would reduce peak demand even further,” he said. “It is CUB’s contention that far too little is being invested in efficiency, including programs to reduce peak demand, and that these investments would be far cheaper than building new power plants and power lines.”
Until policy makers and utilities “truly take energy efficiency seriously, we’ll need more power plants and power lines, and our utility bills will continue to increase far more than they would if we made serious investments in energy efficiency,” he concluded.
In he short term, utilities said Wisconsin should manage to get through the rest of the
summer without serious power outage problems.
Milwaukee-based We Energies set two demand record without having to ask customers to cut back use. Some of its larger customers were asked to go off-line on Tuesday, however, following requests regional coordinators of the transmission grid, the Midwest Independent System Operator (MISO). That move forced managers at the corporate headquarters
of Northwest Mutual Life Insurance Co. and Kohl’s department stores to switch to backup generators to meet electricity needs.
Alliant Energy did not match a record set in July, but a spokesman said the utility won’t hesitate ask big customers in southern Wisconsin to voluntarily shut down if the thermometer rises again. But both said they
believe they can handle another hot spell.
Paul Spicer, a spokesman for Green Bay-based WPS, said lightning from a
heavy thunderstorm knocked out its 300-megawatt Unit 3 coal-fired plant
Weston early Wednesday and also prevented a peak-demand natural gas
from coming on.
In addition, heavy rain soaked coal, which clogged another unit and
sparked a fire. Still another unit was reduced to half its capacity,
meaning the plant was producing only 30 megawatts instead of its normal
400, Spicer said.
At that point, some customers were asked to voluntarily shut down and
region was squeaking by with power was shipped on a single transmission
line – dubbed V308 – from Minnesota. By evening, however, the units were
back on line.
If V308 had failed Wednesday, mandatory blackouts would have been
implemented to prevent rolling power failures, Spicer said.
Still, he noted, his utility should have more than enough power
capacity to meet its needs for the rest of the summer – Mother Nature
“It was precarious,” said Annemarie Newman, a spokeswoman for the
Transmission Co., which operates transmission lines in Wisconsin and
several surrounding states.
“We were really out of breathing room,” she said. “Fortunately, we had a
coordinated plan ready and were able to implement it without blacking
She said the Arrowhead-Weston transmission line, which should be in
service by 2008, would be able to handle much more imported power.
“We’ve made some big strides, but we still have a ways to go,” she said.
“Central Wisconsin is the most vulnerable.”
“We need to build to handle growth and increased power use in our
she said. And because the state is a net electricity importer, she
“Still, utilities are dependent on a certain amount of luck,” she
acknowledged. “We were fortunate this did not happen on Monday, when the
whole region was hotter because we are part of a regional system.”
Newman said fast-growing Dane County is in particular need of a new
transmission line because it imports 50 to 70 percent of its energy
“It takes five to six years to plan and build one of these things,” she
said. “And we are barely keeping up with demand today. We need to move
Bill Skewes, executive director of the Wisconsin Utilities Association,
said it was unnerving to know that the only thing between blackouts for
part of the state was a single 345-kilavolt power line.
“I won’t say we were hanging by a thread,” he said. “But it was close.”
Even before the Weston lightning strike, he said the state’s utilities
were running full bore.
“It was very hot and we had all our generating facilities, including
peakers, up and running and had to exercise voluntary load management
options. (If customers agree to shut down during hot spells, they get a
break on their rates.)
“Fortunately, we had enough reserve capacity to get by,” he concluded.
“But the tenuous thing is transmission. If that line up there would have
gone down, we would have had serious problems.”
Linda Barth, a spokeswoman for the state’s Public Service Commission
(PSC), said transmission capacity has been a major concern since the
1990s when threats of brownouts were a frequent summer concern.
“We now have more natural gas plants to meet peaking needs, more
plants and more transmission lines,” she said.
The state also required utilities to have an 18 percent reserve margin,
they can deal with exceptionally strong demand on hot days such as the
state experienced Monday through Wednesday.
“And we continue to plan, so we can be prepared and have a reliable
system,” she said. “We need to keep making investments in our