The power blackouts that plagued large regions of the Northeast on Thursday were 1,500 miles from Northwest Colorado, but that doesn't mean it couldn't happen here.
"It could certainly happen; we're on the grid," Paul Villancourt said. "It's been in trouble twice before."
Villancourt is manager of engineering and operations for Yampa Valley Electric Association, the rural cooperative that provides power to most of Routt and Moffat counties, as well as small portions of southern Wyoming.
The Yampa Project power plant in Craig and the Hayden Station, just east of Hayden, are on a "very short piece of what everyone calls 'the grid,'" Villancourt said. However, it's a different grid than the one that experienced cascading outages Thursday in the most wide-spread blackouts the nation has ever seen.
The country is divided into three primary grids: the Texas Interconnect, the Western Interconnect and the Eastern Interconnect system, where power outages were experienced from Manhattan, N.Y., to Detroit on Thursday. Colorado's eastern boundary is a portion of the eastern boundary of the West
ern Interconnect; Nebraska and Kan-sas are on the eastern grid.
When California experienced rolling blackouts in spring 2001, Northwest Colorado was unaffected. Routt and Moffat counties' close proximity to two largest power plants can be an advantage when there's a disturbance on the grid, but not in every case, Villancourt said.
"All of these power plants are tied together on a high voltage connection," Villancourt said. "Anything that happens to the connection can affect the plants."
There is a very good reason why the plants are linked, Villancourt added. For purposes of discussion, imagine that Steamboat relied on a power generator that was built for its exclusive use. If anything happened to it, Steamboat would be in the dark, he said. That might lead the community to wish for a second, backup generator, but that would be cost-prohibitive.
In order to offer cost-effective backup to large cities across the West, Villancourt said, the power plants are linked.
"That's the good part of the grid," he said. The downside is that an instability in the system can take down a lot of plants.
A good portion of the Western grid can go down without affecting Northwest Colorado if power plants in the region are isolated from the difficulties, Villancourt said. However, if the isolated, unaffected portion of the region is too small, there won't be sufficient power demand to keep the generators on line, he said. Northern Colorado, isolated from a problem on the grid, stands a good chance of staying online. Steamboat alone probably wouldn't.
Disturbances on the grid have the potential to cause costly damage to power generators, Villan-court said. That's part of the reason households and businesses lose power -- there are elaborate systems in place to protect generating plants from damage.
The reasoning is not unlike the system of circuit breakers in a single-family home.
"You want your circuit breaker to go before your house burns down," Villancourt said. "You want your power plant to go down before your turbine is damaged."
Getting a power plant back online is far less time-consuming and costly than waiting many months for a new turbine to be built, he pointed out.
Construction of power plants and power lines has slowed in the United States for a variety of reasons, Villancourt said. As demand increases, greater and greater loads are put on existing systems.
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