Future of Iowa Power Grid Lies in Cybersecurity, Renewables

Last August, Iowa's power grid was devastated by a line of tremendous storms. Experts say the time is now for the state to prepare for another weather catastrophe — and for potential cyber attacks.

Power lines
(TNS) — As severe storms continue and the threat of cyber attacks grows, energy experts expressed some confidence — and some concern — about the future of Iowa's power grid at The Gazette's Business Breakfast Panel Tuesday.

Dusky Terry, ITC Midwest president, pointed to severe weather such as this past Aug. 10's derecho as one of the potential challenges facing power grid's "aging system." It took crews eight days to restore power to all ITC Midwest's substations.

"That unprecedented storm is now precedented," said Terry, whose company handles the distribution of power on larger, high-voltage lines.

"We need to make sure that we're prepared for the next one."

Terry said ITC Midwest has focused on how to improve reliability since that storm, and residents should "sleep soundly at night" because of the current reliability of the power grid.

"We'll be better prepared for the next big event," Terry said.

When a major outage such as after the derecho does happen, Kerri Johannsen, Iowa Environmental Council's energy program director, said residential real estate redlining and other forms of "economic and social exclusion" leave minority communities especially vulnerable.

"Then when you have a disaster strike, you end up with disproportionate impacts for people of color and low-income people who are living in housing that just isn't as resilient," Johannsen said.


Terry pointed to the increasing threat of cyber attacks, such as the recent ransomware demands on Colonial Pipeline and meat-packing company JBS, as another challenge facing the power grid.

Farlinger admitted she's "a little worried" about the risk of a cyber attack impacting the power grid, but Alliant has a team focused on cybersecurity.

Prevention measures vary from reminding employees to "pay really close attention to emails" to participating in national cyber attack simulations, Farlinger said.


Iowa's energy grid also is experiencing a proliferation in solar and wind energy.

The Dubuque County Energy District has a goal to use 100 percent renewable energy by 2050.

Michaela Freiburger, DCED's program coordinator, said the district is "taking our energy efficiency conversations to the streets" and "meeting people where they are."

Proposals have emerged for a couple solar farms in Linn County. Florida-based NextEra Energy has approached landowners about a solar farm at and near the former Duane Arnold Energy Center, and another solar farm may be built in Coggon.

As solar and wind energy gain popularity, so has battery storage.

Mayuri Farlinger, Alliant Energy director of operations, said battery storage "will definitely be a part of our future" as the utility seeks to capitalize on renewable energy.

"The sun doesn't always shine, and the wind doesn't always blow," Farlinger said, "but I will tell you the wind has been blowing quite a bit in Iowa the last couple months."

Chad Wiltz, Van Meter's vice president for business development, said he's aware of more residential and commercial customers embracing battery storage in the future as costs drop.

"I think you're going to see that more widely deployed at the residential level, just simply because of scale," Wiltz said.

"Where it's at right now is still somewhat cost prohibitive in terms of wide-scale adoption."

As the cost continues to decline, he envisions a "down-up approach" where smaller customers embrace battery storage faster.

As the transition to renewable energy continues, ITC Midwest's Terry said Iowa's infrastructure needs to improve to keep up. The same goes for the increased prevalence of electric cars.

"We are ready today to serve the needs of Iowans," Terry said. "My concern is about the future ... I don't mean 24 hours from now. I mean three years from now, five years from now, 10 years from now."

Farlinger said increased use of renewable energy turns the power grid that was "created to be a one-way street" into a two-way street.

"That continued deployment of renewables on the grid requires power to flow in both directions," Farlinger said. "It requires information to flow in both directions."

©2021 The Gazette, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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