Step outside and you can feel it. A mild spring in Louisville and Southern Indiana is giving way to a sizzling summer.
People are cranking up air-conditioning units in their offices. They are plugging in more fans in their homes.
As people attempt to stay cool, they all are using more and more power — and doing so at a rate that’s causing growing concern of overworking the region’s electric grid.
Rolling power outages are unlikely under current conditions, said a spokesperson for the Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO), which runs the power grid across portions of 15 states, including all of Indiana and parts of Western Kentucky.
But as temperatures are expected to continue dancing around 100 degrees this week and the next, both local and national officials believe the risk for rolling power outages in Southern Indiana has never been higher.
At the end of April, MISO predicted “emergency procedures” could be needed to keep up with the energy demand through the summer.
This prediction came true Sunday, when the group launched both a Capacity Advisory and Hot Weather Alert that were expected to last through Wednesday night, an indication providers should prepare for the potential for blackout orders.
One such provider was Jackson County REMC, which issued a statement to its customers in Southern Indiana last Sunday indicating the possibility of “rolling blackouts in the region this summer” as advised by MISO.
Power outages associated with rolling blackouts typically last between 15 to 30 minutes in one area, before power turns back on and a new blackout begins in an adjacent area. According to MISO, if the electricity shortage reaches a “critical stage” — as more and more people crank up air-conditioning units and fans — the grid could collapse and lead to conditions similar to what Texas experienced last winter, when hundreds died after the state’s power grid shut down amid a February snowstorm.
Our region isn’t alone, either. As summer gets hotter, the North American Electrical Reliability Corporation (NERC) noted potential electricity disruptions are possible in several areas around the country, including the West Coast and other parts of the Midwest.
Rolling blackouts are a measure specifically designed to prevent such a collapse. But strategic communications adviser Brandon Morris said MISO has never had to implement rolling blackouts in its history, and though a collapse is theoretically possible under current conditions, it’s still unrealistic.
“We’ve been seeing this trend for the last few years, and this year reflects the potential for the tightest condition we’ve experienced,” Morris said. “The overall stability and reliability of the system will not be compromised.”
MISO officials stressed there is not yet cause for any panic.
In a statement, the organization said it uses the term “emergency conditions” to describe any conditions other than normal. Some statements, including those by NERC officials, have caused more distress than they would otherwise warrant, officials said.
Angeline Protogere, a communication consultant with Indiana and Kentucky utility provider Duke Energy, said their company talks with MISO every day. As of now, she said, Duke Energy does not anticipate anything close to a crisis.
“We prepare carefully to meet electric demand during extreme weather,” she said. “I really want to emphasize that (rolling blackouts) are a last resort and they have never occurred here.”
Either way, MISO officials said they have steps in place to follow before resorting to a blackout. The company would first ask for a voluntary reduction of power from consumers, Morris said, and would work to buy power from neighboring providers such as LG&E and KU to make up any potential shortages.
Will LG&E and KU do rolling blackouts?
Daniel Lowry, media relations manager for LG&E and KU, said Louisville residents shouldn’t be worried about blackouts, either.
“We have sufficient generation capacity to meet the customers’ anticipated demand,” he said. “We are in good shape.”
Michael McIntyre, an associate professor of electrical engineering at the University of Louisville, said a more sweeping national commitment to renewable energy infrastructure could help prevent outages in the future. More and more providers are working to phase out coal and natural gas, he said, but in general, federal investment in new wind and solar power has not been sizable enough to match new demand.
And with the possibility for outages comes the possibility for collapse.
“We need to invest in research and development of renewable energy,” McIntyre said. “We really need to move to put that in place.”
Reach reporter Thomas Birmingham @[email protected] and follow him on Twitter @cthomasbirm.
Rolling blackouts in Indiana possible as heat stresses the power grid