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FEC: January storm bent grid almost to breaking

| April 3, 2024 2:00 AM

While it may be a distant memory for many folks, the cold snap in January put a mighty strain on the power grid in Flathead County, Flathead Electric Co-op said.

“The extended cold weather arrived via whiteout conditions on Jan. 11 and persisted through Jan. 19. It turned out to be Kalispell’s most intense and prolonged cold in over 20 years, and shattered multiple records while it froze pipes and pushed the electric grid to new limits,” the Co-op noted.

The Co-op gets most of its power portfolio from the Bonneville Power Administration which stretches from the Hungry Horse and Libby dams through the Columbia River basin all the way to Portland, Oregon.

The cold snap impacted almost the entire grid.

“From an electric grid perspective, that meant practically every home and business in the entire region was asking its heat sources to work harder than normal at the same time,” the Co—op noted, resulting in unprecedented demand.

“If we had lost a generation resource like a dam, or experienced a major outage that cold load prevented us from quickly resolving, the situation could’ve been dire. As a region, we got lucky – and electric utilities are not in the business of luck,” FEC General Manager Mark Johnson said.

Around the same time the new low temperature was recorded on Jan. 13, FEC’s system reached a peak electric demand of 441.9 megawatts, smashing the previous peak demand record of 407.7 megawatts set in December 2022. The new peak was 34.2 megawatts, or 8.4% higher than that set in December 2022. At the same time, the growth in the number of meters on the FEC system since December 2022 was only 2.7%, Johnson noted.

To put that use in perspective, the Hungry Horse Dam, at its “nameplate” capacity, can produce about 428 megawatts of power.

The weather was severe, for sure, with 4.5 days of temperatures well below zero.

Co-op staff stayed in constant contact with BPA and the National Weather Service, and made constant adjustments to the power grid.

 The power largely stayed on. Over the weeklong cold snap, the Co-op’s 58,000-plus members experienced about 80 outages impacting 9,552 members. The highest number of members without power at one time was about 1,500. Most outages lasted less than two hours.  Through Jan. 13, most outages were caused by wind and weather. After Jan. 13, most outages were caused by the grid’s protective measures kicking in to protect transformers and fuses from becoming overloaded, the Co-op said.  

“I consider these outage numbers a success,” Jason Williams, Assistant General Manager—Engineering, Operations, and Power for the Co-op said. “After the December 2022 cold snap, our engineering and operations departments spent 13 months improving our local grid in specific response to what we learned. We upgraded equipment, added system redundancy to allow members to be fed power from multiple substations, and hired contract crews to assist with our tree-trimming efforts. We saw the results of that work during the recent cold temperatures.” 

In addition to these grid-hardening efforts, Co-op staff prepared for the predicted cold snap in many ways. Engineers ran complicated calculations to balance loads. Operations crews deployed a backup, portable substation.  Communications staff sent text messages and emails to every member with contact information on file, warning them of the coming dangerously cold temperatures and encouraging them to prepare their homes and businesses accordingly. 

Others coordinated shelter preparations with local agencies. Crews of linemen, tree trimmers, and support staff remained on call 24/7 during the frigid week and worked through wretched conditions to quickly resolve small outages as they occurred. 

 As spring arrives, the Co-op continues to analyze the local grid and to improve it. Staff are actively working with BPA to increase transmission, or how much power can be delivered, into the Flathead Valley. 

“We have enough power right now,” Co-op General Manager Mark Johnson said. “However, this event represented an incredible educational opportunity – we learned a lot about what our local and regional grids can handle. Industry experts agree that we came too close to the edge of catastrophe during that learning experience. The big takeaway for us is that an area growing as quickly as ours must constantly prepare for the future. Everyone at Flathead Electric takes that job extremely seriously.” 

 Johnson also noted that the management and importance of the dams — hydropower makes up more than 70% of the region’s power — particularly the lower Snake River Dams, which some groups would like to see removed. The Hungry Horse Dam is just one of many that provide power to the region.

 The Lower Snake River dams, which reliably generate electricity when river flows are traditionally very low in the deep winter months, ramped up to meet the huge morning and evening peak demands of the deep freeze by producing 1,000-plus megawatts of electricity. The BPA noted that this was accomplished by reducing generation late at night into the early morning hours to less than 200 megawatts and ramping to over 1,100 megawatts during peak daytime hours.

The future of power in the Flathead promising to be a topic of further discussion at the Co-op’s annual meeting on April 18.

The event kicks off at 3:30 to 5:30 with an energy expo and the formal meeting is from 5:30 to 6:15 p.m., with Johnson and Patrick Barkey, the University of Montana’s  Bureau of Business and Economic Research the keynote speakers.

There will be a free barbecue by 406 BBQ at 6:30 p.m. Folks who attend the meeting in person can enter a drawing for a $500 electric bill tax credit.

Learn more about FEC annual meeting at: https://www.flatheadelectric.com/about-my-co-op/how-were-governed/annual-meeting/