Electric Utility Is Sparking! Department Of Public Utilities Briefed On County Electric Distribution And Generation

Participants Thursday night at the BBU Town Hall in Council Chambers. Photo by Kirsten Laskey/ladailypost.com

The BPU hears a presentation on the County’s electric distribution. Photo by Kirsten Laskey/ladailypost.com

Los Alamos Daily Post

While Los Alamos County Department of Public Utilities (DPU) is exploring a variety of energy options for its electric generation including solar and battery storage, geothermal, wind, pump hydro and simple cycle gas turbines, there is one option that DPU feels is the strongest bet: the Carbon Free Power Project (CFPP).

CFPP is a proposed nuclear electric generation facility to be constructed at an Idaho National Laboratory site. The facility would utilize VOYGR-6 technology–six small modular reactors (SMR) being developed by NuScale Power. The plant is projected to be operational by 2030 and will emit a total of 462 megawatts. As of 2021, Los Alamos has subscribed to 1.8 megawatts.

“We think it is worth it to keep an eye on this,” DPU Deputy Manager Jordan Garcia said during the town hall Thursday night.

However, he pointed out that for the CFPP to be successful, it needs a full subscription. Right now, the subscription is about 25 percent. Additionally, the project needs to pass its economic competitive test, which is to not exceed the target price of $89 per megawatt in 2022-dollar value. The target price rose from its original $58 per megawatt but remains competitive when compared to the prices of other electric generation sources, Garcia said. Plus, nuclear power would be more reliable than other energy sources. The Board of Public Utilities (BPU) was scheduled to vote Wednesday on whether to stay in the CFPP. The CFPP is not the only source of electric generation that the County is researching. Garcia addressed other potential sources for the future during the town hall, which include solar, battery storage, wind, geothermal, pumped hydro and gas turbines.

Garcia said as of right now, the County’s resource mix is roughly 19 percent non-carbon emitting and 81 percent carbon emitting. Part of its energy comes from Abiquiu hydroelectric plant as well the El Vado hydroelectric plant and the firm electric service the Department of Energy provides from Glen Canyon Dam.

The electricity provided by DOE has gotten “tricky”, Garcia said. “Because of aridification and drought, they changed a lot of how they deliver energy.”

One of the big energy market problems happening now is that all of DOE’s hydro producing resources including Glen Canyon went from a major power producer to an entity that is having to purchase power as the dam’s water is drying up, Garcia explained.

“They have essentially become part of our competition (for power resources) … they are buying it and there is only a finite number of resources available on the grid right now,” he said. “That is part of the liquidity problem.”

Garcia added that DPU relies on economy purchases that are either natural gas or coal to meet its load and it has a lifetime purchasing agreement with the coal plant in Laramie, Wyo. On the non-carbon emitting side, Garcia said DPU signed with a company called UNIPER to deliver a firm 15 megawatts around the clock through solar and wind. It is firm, or guaranteed, because UNIPER will acquire traditional energy sources on the market when needed to meet required loads. Right now, UNIPER has only constructed the wind power. Looking at the load needs for the county, Garcia said the big issue is electrification. The pressure to get away from carbon is putting a lot of stress on the electric system. DPU is working to ensure its electric generation and distribution systems can handle that pressure.

Garcia further reported when the department conducted its integrated resource plan (IRP), the 20-year outlook revealed that the DPU and Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) will need at least 55 megawatts of four-hour battery storage, 380 megawatts of solar and 135 megawatts of wind. While the County also has subscribed to 1.8 megawatts through the CFPP, that is projected to increase to 8 megawatts as project subscription grows. He further reported that the IRP’s five-year outlook projects the County will need 30 megawatts of battery storage, 85 megawatts of solar and 105 megawatts of wind. Electrification is a big player in the County’s plans, especially with DPU’s goal to eliminate natural gas by 2070 in the County, Garcia said. To illustrate the impact that will have on the County, Garcia said if all DPU customers went completely electric right now, it would triple the current load.

“That’s a lot of stress on the distribution system … and a lot of resources to be able to find in a short period of time,” he said.

Because of that impact, the County has stretched electrification plans over the course of 50 years. As far as the County’s current electric distribution, Garcia said it is a power pool partner with the Department of Energy to serve LANL. There is a baseload of 45 megawatts that the power pool never goes below, Garcia said. In the summertime it peaks around 90 megawatts and it peaks around 84 megawatts in the wintertime. Divided up, White Rock and Los Alamos each require roughly 21 megawatts and the laboratory needs 26 megawatts for just one of its large loads alone, he explained. The energy market has been volatile and there have been a lot of changes, Garcia said.

“The past couple of years we’ve seen a big transition in the energy markets … there’s been quite a few coal retirements–different plants that are retiring that were more traditional–in lieu of solar and wind production and other different renewable energy sources,” he said. “Part of that has caused some trouble on the grid, especially making power available.”

For Los Alamos, he explained, traditionally the power pool was able to meet 75 percent of its load and bought roughly 25 percent of its electricity on the open market. However, different markets have been introduced. Garcia described them as automated systems that optimize generation units based on make-or-buy decisions. He said the weakest link was the traditional method of bilaterally trading energy. It dried up equity in the market of available megawatts that were available for purchase. The power pool has worked to ensure it has adequate supply, Garcia said. In fact, it has reversed its previous position and carries a positive reserve of 12 percent. In other words, the power pool now meets 112 percent of its load. He added DPU prefers to be more power heavy and be able to put more megawatts on the market or help with its partnerships with Sandia National Laboratories and Kirtland Air Force Base.

“We like to have more of a positive reserve margin to ensure adequate supply,” Garcia said.

He emphasized again the impact current conditions are having on the market. The availability of natural gas plays a large part in driving market conditions. Garcia said electric energy, in which natural gas is a primary production resource, is competing with residential heating infrastructure that is natural gas dependent and hasn’t been updated in years. Plus, a lot of infrastructure in the Gulf Coast region is intended to liquify natural gas and export it rather than make it available for energy providers like DPU.
Drought and aridification conditions also are sustaining issues.

“A lot of people rely on federal resources that are not able to produce right now,” he said. “In addition to energy production, the grid also uses them as ancillary services for stabilization. “Without them, it’s going to be a completely different grid.”

As soon as the federal government changed from being a power producer to a power taker, “it turned our markets around quite a bit,” Garcia said.

It also drives up prices. For example, in 2021, the PNM Four Corners Index had a max price of $961 per megawatt hours. There was a total of 27 hours above $300 per megawatt hour, according to Garcia’s presentation. So what is the answer to all this volatility and change? According to Garcia’s presentation the solution is to continue searching for various energy resources, to pursue the CFPP, to explore partnerships, to realize that firm energy resources are becoming much more valuable and to be aware of extreme weather events. Garcia said the Integrated Resource Plan does not take those extreme weather events into account. The town hall concluded with a survey on future energy resources. Of those who responded, 72 percent said carbon neutrality matters to them. Nuclear ranked highest in order of preference for potential resources to power Los Alamos County in the future.


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