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The last five years I’ve managed a small power plant in Missouri for a local municipal utility. The original section of the plant was built in 1928 and has been added onto in two separate additions, most recently in 1976. The plant houses nine dual fuel (diesel and natural gas) generators, ranging from a 1946 model to 1976.
Our utility is part of the Southwest Power Pool (SPP) and purchases its energy from the SPP Integrated Market in addition to contracts with other power providers. Being older engines, our units are rarely economical “in the market”. We maintain the plant because, in order to participate in SPP, each utility must maintain a level of “firm capacity” to “back up” its energy needs; and these units are an affordable way of meeting our requirements. If a disaster struck, the plant could also provide some form of emergency power supply.
Outside a few maintenance runs here or there or the occasional high price market day, our generators sit idle. The newest, most efficient units may run 75 hours a year, the oldest 25. In September of 2020, we ran all nine units together for one full hour, the first time that had been done in anybody’s memory.
This brings us to Winter Storm Uri. It was probably the Thursday prior to Valentine’s Day that things started to heat up. The cold temperatures were already pushing down into the middle of the country and forecasts of increased demands in natural gas began pushing prices up. As the cold and ice swept across Oklahoma and Texas, pipelines, gas wells, and gas power plants not built for such weather failed. Within a couple of days, the gas price went from ~$3/MMBtu to $300/MMBtu (even more in some areas). This unbelievable increase led to a subsequent increase in market energy prices. To make matters worse, coal power plants also froze solid (including one of our contract units) and wind production tumbled.
We had been notified of the gas increases that Friday and was being urged by our marketers to be prepared to run our plant. Fortunately for us, we had been sitting on over half a million gallons of diesel which literally overnight became one of the most economical fuel sources on the market (on straight diesel our units are roughly $175/MWh, the SPP market averaged $17 all of 2020). I was hesitant if not terrified. We weren’t staffed nor ready to generate like they were insinuating we may have to. With temperatures forecasted as low as the negative teens, something was going to break; either the plant or our employees.
We started and ran a few units on Saturday to hedge some costs. After the market cleared on Saturday we couldn’t believe the prices for Sunday: over $3000/MWh around the clock! (As I write this, prices are in the $20s). We started units back up on Valentine’s Day morning and didn’t shut down until the following Friday once temperatures warmed back up and wind production rebounded. On two separate occasions, we ran all 9 units, one for 15 hours straight and the other for 21. Our oldest unit ran the longest continuous run at 77.6 hours. We burned just over 217,000 gallons of diesel that week, more than we had burned in any year since 2001 (which was an abnormally large year itself). More generation in that one week than every year since 2013. To top it off: no major breakdowns.
We were astonished and exhausted. We had borrowed two other ex-plant employees from other departments to help work overnight. Our Maintenance Foreman and I put in several 15+ hour days. We learned things we would have never been able to learn had it not been for that. I never want to do it again though.
Even with our generation, we weren’t able to avoid blackouts. Tuesday morning the 16th, SPP issued an EEA 3, their highest level of alarm. At an EEA 3, the generation in SPP is not enough to meet demand and load must be shed, the first time in their 80 year history. We were contacted by our area coordinator to shed load at approximately 7 AM and our rolling blackouts lasted for about two and a half hours. I had the unfortunate task of opening and closing the breakers, with nine generators roaring in the background, and a control room full of managers and operators frantically trying to come up with a blackout plan and communicate with priority customers ahead of the outages. It was one of the most hectic situations I’ve been a part of.
Now the nightmare is behind us but there is still a lot to figure out. Many communities and utilities across the central United States are hurting but mine is not one of them. I’ve seen stories of area utilities burning through an entire year’s budget that week in fuel purchases alone. Some have already declared bankruptcy. We still have to wait to see how the financials will pan out but we have good reason to believe we’ll come out feeling very good about ourselves and how we were able to serve our customers.
Below is a video we put together last year about the plant: