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Port: Are we just going to accept rolling blackouts as our new normal?

"When you’re dependent on the weather for generating the electricity and have less dispatchable, you’re going to have tighter markets and you’re going to have times where you have a greater threat of having to have rolling blackouts,” North Dakota Public Service Commissioner Julie Fedorchak has said, noting that we've been too hasty in shutting down coal power.

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Wind turbines
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MINOT, N.D. — It's summertime, and that means the scorching weather is coming.

Yet our electrical grids may not be prepared for what's coming.

North Dakota is served by two power grids. One is the Midcontinent Independent System Operator, and the other is the Southwest Power Pool, and both have been flagged as being at risk for blackouts when summer energy demand spikes.

The ratings come from the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, and they see MISO at "high risk" for blackouts while the SPP is at "elevated risk."

The plans our power suppliers have for dealing with this situation might make you angry. It boils down to asking power customers such as hospitals to go off the grid and rely on their backup generators.

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“In a case where demand would be pushing its limit, we can call on them to take them off our system and they would go to their backup,” Mark Hanson, spokesperson for Montana-Dakota Utilities, told KFYR television last month .

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That's our plan, folks. Move the sick people onto generators.

How likely is that turn of events? We're always told that it's unlikely, but it sure seems like it's all a lot more likely now than in the past, doesn't it? Blackouts caused not by natural disasters or tragic accidents but plain old supply shortages are, increasingly, a part of American life.

It's not couth in many political circles to talk about how we've reached this juncture, but it's staring us in the face. The political campaign to eliminate dispatchable, base load energy sources like coal and nuclear power has made us too dependent on energy produced by the weather.

"When you’re dependent on the weather for generating the electricity and have less dispatchable, you’re going to have tighter markets and you’re going to have times where you have a greater threat of having to have rolling blackouts,” North Dakota Public Service Commissioner Julie Fedorchak has said , noting that we've been too hasty in shutting down coal power.

This has us spending more for power even as reliability declines.

Pay more, get less.

Hell of a deal, isn't it?

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Photo: Coal Creek Station
Great River Energy's Coal Creek Station near Underwood, N.D. Special to The Forum

And remember, but for an extraordinary campaign to save Coal Creek Station, North Dakota's largest coal-fired power plant, we'd be in worse shape. It was scheduled to be shut down and replaced by wind energy . When it was saved, John Weeda, director of North Dakota's Transmission Authority, said the folks at MISO, the grid Coal Creek serves, breathed a "sigh of relief."

Why are we playing this ugly game of chicken with blackouts? Politics.

Many would have you believe that economics are driving this change, but that's not reality. Coal prices are soaring alongside demand for coal-fired energy.

Our problem, as is so often the case, is politicians and bureaucrats putting their fingers on the scale to produce a politically-favored outcome, and as usually happens when politicians go mucking about in economic matters, the end result is higher prices and shortages.

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at rport@forumcomm.com. Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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