Could California’s rolling blackouts happen here? |

Could California’s rolling blackouts happen here?

Jeremy Heiman

Power company officials say the rolling blackouts plaguing California can’t happen here.

But an official at the Rocky Mountain Institute, a research and consulting firm that specializes in energy efficiency research, disagrees. Karl Rabago, managing director of RMI, contends that Colorado could easily be vulnerable to future power failures.

A spokesman for Holy Cross Electric, the utility cooperative that serves the Roaring Fork Valley, says the company is confident that its source of power is secure enough to prevent shortages. And Xcel Energy, formerly Public Service Co. of Colorado, which sells electricity to Holy Cross, says its generation capacity is more than adequate, because it has planned in advance for growth in the state.

“They have not given us any reason to be concerned that they won’t be able to supply us with our contractual needs,” said Dave Church, a marketing representative for Holy Cross. “Because of that contractual obligation, we don’t think there’s any possibility of rolling blackouts.”

The contract actually makes Holy Cross more secure than it would be as a self-sufficient utility.

“If we were generating our own power, and we had a failure, we’d be scrambling to find power,” Church said.

But Rabago thinks Colorado might have some real problems.

The state could be nearly as vulnerable to blackouts as California, because the two states’ electrical utility situations are similar in a number of ways, Rabago said. Both states depend mainly on big power plants for the bulk of their power.

Both states can experience extreme weather, which can sharply increase demands for power. And the demand for power is concentrated in dense urban areas.

Colorado’s differences from California might also make it vulnerable to blackouts. Colorado lacks some of the energy efficiency measures and renewable energy sources which tend to reduce California’s vulnerability to power shortages, Rabago said.

Steve Roalstad, a spokesman for Xcel, said the company has been able to increase generating capacity faster than the rate of growth. The company must prepare an updated operations plan every three years, for approval by the Colorado Public Utility Commission.

Xcel generates about 60 percent of its own power within Colorado. A small part of the power used in the state is purchased from out-of-state producers, but much of the remainder is purchased from other power producers in Colorado.

“Barring anything catastrophic, we should have enough electricity for all the customers in our area,” Roalstad said.

Colorado has upped its capacity by 1,200 megawatts, or 12 billion watts, in the past five years, Roalstad said. This year, the company plans to add another 750 megawatts of generating capacity.

This contrasts with California, which, Roalstad said, hasn’t added any generating capacity in 10 years. But Rabago says that is rubbish.

“That’s false,” Rabago said. “That’s a myth perpetuated by the guys that want to build more big power plants.”

Federal data shows that California power suppliers actually added over 3,000 megawatts of new generating capacity in the last 10 years, Rabago said. At the same time, he continued, energy efficiency measures have kept California’s need for power down, cutting the need for over 10,000 megawatts of capacity.

The problems in California are complex. Power demand started to outstrip supply in the mid-1990s, when policy makers allowed utilities to abandon their efficiency efforts, he said. And the power supplies California customarily imported from other Western states dried up due to deregulation and increased demand in the West.

Roalstad said Colorado’s increase of generating capacity is needed not just because of population growth, but because residential consumers are using more electricity. Ten years ago, he said, the average electrical customer used 538 kilowatt hours per month. Now, customers are using 602 kwh per month, he said.

Additional power is being used for larger home entertainment equipment and more computer time, he said. But more than anything, Coloradans are using more air conditioning.

The power used by TVs, stereos and computers is negligible, Rabago said. But air conditioning uses a lot of juice, and Colorado’s appliance energy efficiency standards are backward.

“These guys are putting in hugely inefficient units,” he said. “Colorado has a relatively poor record in energy efficiency.”

Currently, 80 percent of Colorado’s power comes from coal-fired power plants, a major source of air pollution. About 1 percent is from hydroelectric power and 3 percent from arrays of wind generators, called wind farms. The remainder is produced by natural gas-fired power plants.

Xcel is diversifying its power generation sources, Roalstad said, mainly by bringing more wind power on line. The additional wind generating capacity is scheduled to be in service by the end of this year.

An existing 20-megawatt wind farm is being increased to 30 megawatts, and two wind farms being constructed on Colorado’s eastern plains are expected to produce 25 and 162 megawatts.

“It’s clear that renewable energy is an up-and-coming thing,” Roalstad said.

But Xcel had to be ordered by the Colorado Public Utilities Commission to build the 162-megawatt wind farm, Rabago pointed out.

“They were fighting it all the way,” he said. Xcel also agreed in court to create energy efficiency programs that would reduce consumption by 100 megawatts.

California’s rolling blackouts happen when a utility company, short of power, selects part of its distribution area and informs customers there that they won’t have power for a while, perhaps an hour. When the time has elapsed, the power is returned to that area and shut off in another area. In that manner, the blackouts “roll” across the landscape, spreading the inconvenience among more people and businesses.

“A rolling blackout is the ultimate in conservation,” Church said. “It’s not funny for those poor folks, but you conserve by just shutting everything off.”

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