Story by Brian Grimmett
WICHITA, Kansas — Rolling electrical blackouts rippled across the Midwest Monday while the region shivered in an arctic blast and suddenly found itself short on electrical power.
Record-cold temperatures across the region led to an extraordinary winter demand and a limited supply of electricity across the central United States. To prevent a major uncontrolled power outage, the regional grid operator known as the Southwest Power Pool asked utilities mid-day to begin rolling blackouts. The request lasted about an hour.
While cold temperatures increased demand, they also hurt utilities’ ability to crank out electricity. Some wind turbines got knocked out of commission by freezing fog. Power plants couldn’t crank out their usual electrical output because of freezing coal stacks. Natural gas-burning electrical plants had equipment malfunctions while the price of fuel skyrocketed as much as 150 times the normal wholesale price as people cranked up their furnaces to fight off the chill of sub-zero temperatures.
The price spike for major natural gas suppliers and power plants will eventually end up increasing the amount people pay on their monthly bills.
Andrew French, chairman of the Kansas Corporation Commission that regulates utilities, said the power infrastructure in the state was struggling to perform in the extreme cold.
“This will be impacting every utility in every state in this region,” French said.
Indeed, the Southwest Power Pool coordinated blackouts across the region in early afternoon and braced for more Monday evening and Tuesday morning.
“In our history as a grid operator, this is an unprecedented event and marks the first time SPP has ever had to call for controlled interruptions of service,” Lanny Nickell, SPP’s chief operating officer said. “It’s a last resort that we understand puts a burden on our member utilities and the customers they serve, but it’s a step we’re consciously taking to prevent circumstances from getting worse.”
Essentially, the regional electricity manager decided on deliberate, smaller-scale blackouts on purpose for 30 to 60 minutes rather than risk much of the Midwest going dark at once for hours or days.
Limitations and stress on the amount of natural gas available for gas-fueled electrical power plants has limited some power generation capacity, which can generally supply much larger electricity needs during the summer.
The blackouts aimed to decrease the demand on the system to a level power plants can meet. As of Monday afternoon, Evergy said blackouts had affected 60,000 customers.
The largest electric utility in Kansas, Evergy, warned that equipment might not operate as expected when it begins turning power off and on in the extreme cold. That could lead to outages lasting longer than an hour.
If power goes out at your location, officials are asking people to not call Evergy or 911 in order to keep the lines open for actual emergencies.
Evergy asked its customers to only call in an outage if it lasts longer than an hour.
The emergency could last through Wednesday morning as temperatures remain well below freezing across the region.
Officials said everyone should try to not use any appliances that aren’t essential, set thermostats to 68 degrees or lower and be prepared to wear multiple layers indoors.
Meantime, some employers responded by shutting down early Monday. The University of Kansas, for examples, canceled classes early in the afternoon and sent most of its on-site employees home.
David Weishaar, the adjutant general of Kansas, said he asked Kelly for an emergency declaration late Sunday afternoon and began surveying local emergency management officials for their needs and began exploring the deployment of electrical generators from the Kansas National Guard.
Brian Grimmett reports on the environment, energy and natural resources for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service. Follow him on Twitter @briangrimmett. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of Kansas Public Radio, KCUR, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio - focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.