Energy Tour Day 5 – Controlling the Grid

GroupAs many of our classmates are returning from spring break, today we did too. But our fifth and final day on this whirlwind journey across eastern Montana wasn’t just a travel day, we explored natural gas energy use and the coordination of power on the energy grid. It all started with a breakfast hosted by Crowley Fleck in Billings. We were able to sit down with various attorneys practicing in their energy law division and pick their brains about energy development in Montana. Many of these attorneys had been guests with us throughout the week.

Our next stop was to pickup lunch and one of NorthWestern Energy’s legal counsel in Three Forks. Once back on the road toward Butte, we were treated to an in-depth discussion on the energy grid in the United States. The modern power grid has been termed the most complex machine in the world, and I could go into detail but it suffices to say that everything we learned today confirmed this statement. One of the biggest challenges this machine faces is balancing power, since it must be used instantaneously and cannot be stored for later use. This was all a precursor to our next site visit, NorthWestern’s System Operations Control Center, otherwise known as the “SOCC.”

In classroomThe SOCC is a very tightly controlled facility, with no signage on the building and secured from any unauthorized access. Once we entered the facility it was immediately apparent why security is so tight. NorthWestern’s SOCC balances the entire distribution of energy within their network, which is most of Montana. As we previously learned, energy must be used instantaneously and thus requires a tremendous amount of effort to coordinate the supply from various generating sources whenever demand is requested. To put it simply, the SOCC is the reason why the lights turn on when you flip your light switch on. While photos were restricted in this highly sensitive area, I can say that it was an incredible scene. Each person has somewhere around 10-14 computer monitors that allow them to manage this complex system. This tour helped to create the bigger picture around the massive amounts of energy production we have been exploring.

Group views controlsBut how do you keep the system balanced when the wind isn’t blowing, or when your coal power plants are already operating at maximum efficiency, and you still need more power (cue the classic Star Trek Scotty quote). NorthWestern’s answer to this predicament is one-of-a-kind in the United States. The solution was to create the Mill Creek Generating Station (now known as the Dave Gates Generating Station). This natural gas power plant in Anaconda was our final stop. We were given an extensive tour, including looking directly into an actual gas fired turbine. This facility helps to balance the demand for energy by providing only what is needed to supplement the other generating facilities on the grid. These last two visits were a perfect wrap up to all that we had learned throughout the past four days.

For five days and over 1,400 miles we toured a hydroelectric dam, wind farm, oil fracking operation, coal power plant, coal mine, natural gas power plant, and the distribution center for all these energy sources. We had lectures from various attorneys representing land owners, utilities, and developers, to name a few. We met the local attorneys in each town. Everyone from plant operators to upper level management opened their doors and minds to us as we explored their industry. The amount of information and access we were given was unprecedented. The people we met were friendly and willing to help us understand how it all works. While I hope this blog, in some small sense, helped you understand how incredible this spring break program was, I also can’t express my thanks enough to all of the companies and people who made this trip possible. While I may have technically been in school over spring break, it felt more like a fun road trip, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything else.

Written by: Mike Pasque '16