Polar vortex had real impact on utilities operations in Willmar
WILLMAR -- When the temperatures took a nosedive Jan. 29 through Jan. 31 prices for electricity raced upward as energy providers across the Midwest struggled to produce enough power for the demand. Even in Willmar, Municipal Utilities staff had t...
WILLMAR - When the temperatures took a nosedive Jan. 29 through Jan. 31 prices for electricity raced upward as energy providers across the Midwest struggled to produce enough power for the demand. Even in Willmar, Municipal Utilities staff had to race to make sure there was enough heat to get customers through the bitter cold as comfortably as possible.
"We had some excellent teamwork involving five departments," said Chris Carlson, power supply manager at Willmar Municipal Utilities.
The most pressing need was making sure the district heat system continued to produce heat for customers while CenterPoint Energy had a natural gas curtailment in place. The curtailment meant WMU could not go over its 600 decatherms of natural gas a day - no matter the need - or a fine would be implemented. The power plant, which provides the steam for the district heat system, runs on natural gas.
"We were not able to burn anymore gas," Carlson said. "We tried our hardest to keep our gas under 600 decatherms."
Willmar did end up paying a $1,191 fine for going over during the 44-hour long curtailment.
"In my opinion, that was pretty minimal," Carlson said, who had worried the fine may have been higher.
The Midcontinent Independent System Operator, which oversees the power grid in the middle of the country, called a load modifying resources emergency during the vortex, which required power producers to increase their production to add to the load of energy on the grid. However, since Willmar was already in a gas curtailment, it was under no obligation to increase power production. Also, the city's backup diesel generators were inoperable due to gelling diesel fuel.
WMU General Manager John Harren said the generators at the time were filled with biodiesel fuel, not straight number two diesel fuel, which usually doesn't gell up in the cold. Going forward, Harren said the utilities will make sure the generators are filled with number two before the cold weather takes hold.
Power also wasn't coming from the wind turbines, which shut themselves down after the ambient temperature went below negative 20. They didn't turn back on until temperatures rose to about four below zero, 46 hours later.
For about four hours on Jan. 30 energy prices on the open market skyrocketed. At 8 a.m. the locational marginal pricing for power was at $641.40 per megawatt or 64.9 cents per kilowatt. By 9 a.m. the prices were up to $687.08 per megawatt and an hour later prices had dropped to $446.65 per megawatt. Even once the worst was over, prices per megawatt were still in the $60 range, when normally prices are around $20 per hour.
"Over double the price," Carlson said.
The reason for the price spike was supply and demand, as nearly a quarter of the power production on the MISO system was unavailable. Some power producers were also using generation systems which are more expensive to run than regular natural gas or coal generators, Harren said.
During those high-price times Willmar's power usage was lower than estimated for that time, meaning Willmar had power to sell.
"We were selling at these prices," Carlson said.
The utilities ended up netting about $6,000, Carlson said.
"We were very fortunate. I believe there were utilities that were not so fortunate as us," Carlson said.
While the polar vortex did cause some headaches, both locally and nationally, overall WMU weathered the vortex well.
"It is a good position to be in," said Justin Mattern, vice chair of the Municipal Utilities Commission.