Skyrocketing energy costs have been on everyone’s mind for the past several months, but recently a new concern has been added to the list for the summer: electrical outages. In the midst of an ongoing pandemic, a war in Ukraine, and climate anomalies, it may have been easy to overlook news coverage on the issue, but in May national and state news outlets began reporting on major parts of the U.S. power grid and probable outages this summer. 


The concern was driven home locally on June 14th via University of Illinois massmail outlining the planned campus response to insufficient electric capacity this summer. We decided to look into the issue and reached out to Scott Tess, the Sustainability and Resilience Officer for the City of Urbana. We asked him to explain the issue(s) in simple terms and share some ideas that the average citizen can do to help stave off energy issues as well as prepare for possible outages.

Smile Politely: Can you tell us about your role with the City of Urbana and what kind of expertise you have related to energy issues?

Scott Tess: I manage the Municipal Electric Aggregation program with a consultant where we competitively select electricity supply for all residential accounts in Urbana. I’ve also created the bulk purchasing program, Solar Urbana-Champaign, running for its seventh year this year and the bulk purchasing program, Geothermal Urbana-Champaign, running its second year this year. These bulk purchasing programs make it faster, easier, and cheaper to get renewable energy for homes and businesses.

SP: In simple, layperson terms, what are the energy issues we are expecting for this summer?

Tess: Electricity rates are up substantially for accounts that are not in a fixed contract.  Households in Urbana’s Municipal Electric Aggregation program with Homefield Energy will enjoy low electricity rates through the end of the calendar year. It’s uncertain what the electricity market will look like come January 2023, but households should plan for some upward adjustment in price at that time.

There is limited surplus electric generating capacity sitting on the sidelines waiting to be turned on for the hottest days of the summer when all the air conditioning is running full steam. While planned rolling electric outages are very unlikely this year, there is an elevated risk that Ameren Illinois and MISO (the regional transmission organization) are working to mitigate. We are asking residents to come together to help ease the load on our shared electric grid as well by turning up the A/C temperature set point a few degrees and running large electric appliances very early or very late in the day to shave the peak off our collective electricity demand.

SP: What is an expert's definition of a "brownout"?

Tess: Anyone who has visited poorer countries realizes that the U.S. enjoys an astoundingly reliable electric supply. Disruptions to electricity supply in the U.S. is always a big news story precisely because they are so rare. Regional transmission organizations and utility companies employ a number of practices to maintain full electric capacity on the grid including working with large industrial customers to curtail operations in times of limited electric supply. In very rare circumstances a utility may utilize a planned local outage to keep electric supply consistent for the rest of the grid.

SP: Is this expected to be an ongoing problem or is it a one-time fluke?

Tess: Supply chain issues relating to war, COVID, and tariffs which are impacting deployment of new electricity generation will resolve on some timeline, but I can’t speculate on what that timeline will be. Deployment of more distributed solar, more utility solar and wind, and more grid-tied battery storage will help electric capacity and electric price challenges. We’ll be launching the seventh year of Solar UC which primarily develops new solar arrays on homes and small businesses. What’s great about rooftop solar energy is that it provides power to a home or business during the times of day when the A/C is likely to be working the hardest.

SP: What should the average citizen do to be prepared for brownouts or the anticipated energy problems?

Tess: Ameren Illinois has excellent guidance about how to manage an electric outage, regardless of the cause.

Indoors:

  1. Turn your refrigerator to its coldest setting and leave the refrigerator closed.
  2. Turn off and unplug any unnecessary electrical equipment.
  3. Place important documents in a safe box or other waterproof storage space.
  4. Register your electrically operated medical equipment with Ameren.
  5. Make sure your emergency kit is ready.

Outdoors:

  1. Make sure your vehicle's gas tank is full.
  2. Bring lawn furniture and other lightweight objects inside.
  3. If you have a swimming pool, turn off all pumps and filters and wrap them in waterproof materials.
  4. Insulate or cover water lines, hose bibs, etc. in cold weather.

The best thing to do is take action now, long before any outage. Hire an HVAC company to inspect and improve energy efficiency, air sealing, and insulation. Attend a Solar Power Hour with Solar UC and a Geo Power Hour with Geothermal UC to see if these renewable energy installations are a good fit for you. Make plans with your neighbors about how you might help each other in the event of an electric outage.

SP: Is there anything we didn’t ask you about that you’d like us to be aware of?

Tess: The electric grid serves us all, and we can all do our part to keep it in good working order with sufficient capacity and a growing proportion of clean renewable energy.

Now is the time to start doing our part to conserve energy and also vote for leaders who support clean, renewable energy. We hope that we won’t have to endure energy blackouts or brownouts and that measures can be put into place to control skyrocketing costs, but in the meantime it’s a good idea to be proactive and prepared. 

The Editorial Board is Jessica Hammie, Julie McClure, Patrick Singer, and Mara Thacker.

Top photo from University of Illinois Facilities & Services webpage