Reliable electric service is a luxury we often take for granted. Unfortunately, we may not think about how important a reliable energy supply is to us until we have to go without it, like during a severe storm. For Nebraska’s public power providers, reliability has many components. Reliability is considered at every step of the electric delivery process, from the point of generation to delivery into our homes and businesses. Reliability can be impacted by the different generation resources used, by the age and maintenance of utility infrastructure, by security concerns, and by the ability to deploy a trained workforce to restore power in the event of an outage.
Reliability begins by choosing the best generation resource for our system needs. Nebraska’s generation mix is a diversified portfolio of resources which include coal (73 percent), nuclear (17 percent), natural gas (4 percent), hydroelectric (4 percent), and renewable resources (2 percent). Each of these generation resources provides its own positive and negative attributes which can include cost considerations, environmental impact, and the availability of that resource. In regards to relatability, not every resource is created equally. Base load resources like coal, nuclear, natural gas, or hydroelectric power can run continuously and can be actively controlled to follow load and meet consumer demand. Variable resources like wind and solar, however, rely on environmental conditions which can be hard to reliably predict. As wind speeds vary or cloud cover changes, the electric output from these generation resources can fluctuate dramatically and in an unpredictable manner. This complicates an already difficult load-balancing process. Unfortunately, most power plants were not built to be continuously ramped up and down. Unlike your light switch, they cannot be turned on and off at a moment’s notice.
From the power plant, electricity travels at the speed of light through transmission and distribution lines to end users. What many don’t know is that there is currently no economical way to store large amounts of electricity. There are no large battery systems capable of storing excess capacity for a later time when that power is needed. The moment we turn on the light switch, a generator must be running at that instant to meet that demand. This means that Nebraska’s electric providers must balance the energy needs of consumers with the generation supplied. This requires a complicated balancing process which takes into account customer usage trends and weather forecasting to help predict demand. Load control centers monitor electric generation and demand at every minute of every day, relaying messages to power plants telling them to increase or decrease generation to match consumer demand. If demand exceeds the amount of generation available, blackouts could occur.
Reliable electricity is also the result of a complex infrastructure of substations, transformers, and miles of transmission and distribution lines. The electric grid must be constantly monitored, controlled, and maintained to ensure reliability. Some of the most common causes of electric outages are related to animals and trees coming into contact with power lines and weather related incidents. The electric grid has many safeguards designed to isolate these outages. Circuit breakers along the power lines will trip isolating an outage and in many cases electricity can be redirected along a secondary path keeping the lights on for customers. Electric providers have also incorporated new advances in technology which can help to pinpoint the cause of outages, decreasing the time needed to identify the source, make repairs and reenergize electric lines.
Despite all efforts to maintain electric infrastructure and provide reliable service, Nebraska’s severe weather can take a toll of our electric system. In the event of an outage, rural electric member-systems work together and employ a workforce of dedicated men and women that are called into action. These individuals often work in extreme and dangerous weather conditions to ensure you continue to have electricity.
Often working at night during severe storms, lineman must travel through flooded roads identifying storm damage. Once damages have been assessed and the source of an outage identified, rural electric systems have developed emergency response plans to restore service as fast as possible. This usually means that individuals work in a way that will get electricity restored to the most people as soon as possible. Major repairs involving substations and transmission lines may affect thousands of people and will need to be repaired before distribution lines and individual outages will be fixed.
Nebraska’s energy experts are managing the demands of a complex electric grid while responsibly increasing the use of environmentally friendly renewable energy resources and doing so with fewer outages than our neighboring states. A reliable electric supply is a result of a complex system of multiple generation resources, miles of transmission and distribution lines, a complex load monitoring system, and a dedicated workforce willing to work in extreme conditions to keep your lights on. Nebraska’s rural electric member-systems are working hard to keep your lights on and we are proud of our record.