Changing electricity generation mix raises reliability concerns for Oklahoma customers
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — An unassuming building nestled on a wooded hillside next to the Southwest Power Pool headquarters is key to keeping the lights on for electricity customers in Oklahoma and parts of 13 other states.
What goes on inside the SPP’s operations and data center isn’t top secret, although security is tight and employees have to follow strict reliability, critical infrastructure and electricity market protocols and guidelines. The 36,000-square-foot building itself is designed to withstand a tornado with winds up to 261 miles per hour.
In the windowless grid operations center, a large bank of screens covers one wall, tuned to a couple of news and weather channels. Adjacent screens have color-coded alerts and updates showing which of the region’s 790 power plants are running at that particular moment. Others show maps of the 65,000 miles of transmission lines and real-time electricity prices in the SPP region.
Smaller banks of monitors, desks and computers are arranged around the room, with those operators looking over everything from reliability to transmission service and balancing electricity supply and demand.
The data and operations center runs around the clock, and every function is mirrored by a redundant data and operations center across the Arkansas River in nearby Maumelle. That allows the Maumelle center to take over the grid oversight roles if something goes wrong at the main center.
Ken Quimby, a senior operations functional specialist for SPP, last week explained to visitors the main goal of the operations and data center.
“We’re here to coordinate the flow of energy within the system,” Quimby said before deadpanning, “Without burning the system down.”
That coordination means keeping careful watch of the voltage and frequency of the electricity on the grid, with only small deviations allowed from the 60-hertz frequency required in North America. It also means making sure SPP members — which include utilities and independent power generators — are following through with their commitments to generate power into the region’s electricity markets.
SPP doesn’t own any generating or transmission assets, but it functions like the air traffic controller for the regional electric grid. The organization doesn’t control the more localized electric distribution systems that lead to customer homes and businesses. Those are still operated by local utilities, cooperatives or municipal systems.
Continuing the airline analogy, Quimby said reserving time on an SPP transmission line is like buying an airplane ticket. A tag, or boarding pass, is created, and getting the transmission service is like taking a seat on the plane.
Other desks in the operations center, like the reliability coordinators, protect the integrity of the system, regardless of costs. Quimby said they’re like sky marshals for the grid, making sure all the parts work together to protect the power grid infrastructure.
With the rapid rise of wind and solar generation in the past decade, concerns remain about how to best integrate those renewable, intermittent resources into the grid. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry in April ordered a review of how renewables are affecting grid reliability as aging coal and nuclear units continue to get retired.
It’s unclear when that Energy Department report will be publicly released, but several renewable energy groups have already issued “pre-rebuttal” reports. They think the review will try to find justifications for additional coal and nuclear generation. Most coal and nuclear units, and some types of natural gas units, operate around the clock to provide what’s called baseload generation.
The American Wind Energy Association and Advanced Energy Economy released a report earlier this week concluding that the rise of renewables has not endangered power system reliability.