Keeping the Lights OnSep 21, 2023 03:48PM ● By Dwain Hebda
Photo by Bill Sitzmann.
This summer’s excessive heat, which set records for single-day high temperatures as well as consecutive days of record-high temps in many cities across the US, again put utility companies on high alert. Risks of rolling power outages, resulting in angry consumers, lost business productivity, and quite possibly a number of heat-related deaths, were a real concern for many communities.
Electric utilities nationwide are struggling with an aging power grid, one unable to bear the load of atypical power demands caused by heat waves and other forces. Omaha’s power provider is in planning mode to modernize its systems and meet growing energy needs—now, before the outages begin.
“OPPD has a regulatory obligation to maintain sufficient generating capacity to meet its peak demand plus a reserve margin,” said Colton Kennedy, director of energy portfolio planning. “This means that as load grows, OPPD must proactively plan for and construct generation facilities in advance to meet future needs. The timing of capacity expansion is dependent on several factors. For example, OPPD must consider the rate of customer growth as well as the time required to construct and interconnect new facilities when it considers timing of capacity expansion.
“OPPD’s service territory is experiencing significant near-term growth, above its previous forecast in our Pathways to Decarbonization Study and 2021 Integrated Resource Plan,” Kennedy continued. “This growth is driven by accelerating trends for electrification driving energy usage across customer classes, as well as an increase in projected industrial growth supporting a growing economy.”
According to the US Department of Energy, 70% of the nation’s transmission lines and power transformers are more than 25 years old, which actually may be soft-pedaling the seriousness of the situation. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) suggested in a 2020 report that most of the transmission system was built in the 1950s and 1960s with a 50-year life expectancy, meaning “they have reached or surpassed their intended lifespan.”
Knocking the rust off an aging utility infrastructure several decades in technological arrears is a time-and resources-consuming proposition. Improvement projects are taking place nationwide to the tune of hundreds of upgrade and improvement projects every quarter, commanding billions of public and private dollars to do so. UtilityDrive.com reported in January there were 498 grid modernization-related policy and deployment actions in 48 states in Q3 2021 alone, costing just over $900 million, with $13 billion worth of additional investment tabled for further study by regulators.
Despite this ongoing effort, industry experts say preparing for future load demands—accelerated by wider deployment of electric vehicles, stepped-up business and industrial demands and, some say, climate change—the push for nationwide grid modernization is a job measured in decades and trillions of dollars.
Omaha Public Power District finds itself in the same pitched battle as utilities coast-to-coast, especially given the city’s population growth and the rise of large, commercial customers locally in the data storage and fulfillment/warehousing arena. In response to these demands, the utility has moved decisively to help provide the power capacity needed for current loads as well as the needs of the future, said Jodi Baker, OPPD media specialist.
“OPPD has powered our communities through a great deal of growth and change over the past 75 years,” she said. “Our region is experiencing another period of exponential growth expected to continue for years to come—new neighborhoods, new ways of farming, new data centers, widened roads, and new and expanding businesses. So, the need for this additional generation is not a surprise as resource planning is an integral part of OPPD’s regular operations.
“With that growth, and as our customers rely more and more on technology, we must continue to provide affordable, reliable, and sustainable energy. OPPD expects to add energy load to our system at a rate of 100 MW per year for the next five to six years. For context, 100 MW is the equivalent of adding about 65 metro-area high schools or mid-size hospitals in just one year.”
In its 2022 Annual Report, OPPD detailed projects that were in process or had come to fruition in the name of grid modernization and capacity expansion, including new high-voltage transmission lines and substations. Such projects don’t happen overnight, however; and regulatory and cost hurdles, along with the usual challenges of manpower and materials, are lending greater heft to the mission’s complexity.
“Specifically related to construction of new generation facilities, there comes a need for various supporting infrastructure, including fuel supply such as natural gas pipelines, substations, and transmission lines,” said Megan Walker, project manager, OPPD construction management. “This infrastructure could be part of the larger generation construction project or be accomplished with separate projects that coordinate with the overall. Examples of other steps include onboarding and training staff, public outreach and communication, and permitting for emissions.
“In order to interconnect to the high-voltage transmission grid, we will go through the Southwest Power Pool Generator Interconnection Agreement regulatory process, which studies the request for grid impacts and determines connection requirements such as transmission upgrades to maintain reliable operation of the overall grid.”
As for the future, Baker said the utility is committed to continued investment, both on its own and by partnering with the communities in its service area.
“Partnerships are key,” she said. “Cities and counties have their own development plans that dictate expansions and updates for their own infrastructure. These are things OPPD has to be aware of, too. Working together, we can ensure we have the resources we need to reliably serve our customers now and in the future as businesses thrive and energy use within our area continues to grow.”
Visit oppdcommunityconnect.com/ for more information on OPPD projects.
This article originally appeared in the October/November 2023 issue of B2B Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.