Energy Officials Say Emergency Shows Need For Changes

As the nation’s heartland strives to pull out of an energy emergency, a local energy official said the focus also turns to a number of unanswered issues.

“There are already a lot of questions about why this happened and where we go from here,” said Brad Schardin, general manager of Southeastern Electric Cooperative in Marion.

The Southwest Power Pool — which manages the grid stability across 14 central and western states — has struggled since the weekend to meet soaring electric demand across its footprint, including South Dakota and Nebraska. Its grid has faced tremendous stress because of a historically cold polar vortex that descended from North Dakota to Texas.

SPP has faced unprecedented demand, particularly in southern states that normally don’t face extreme cold weather this time of year. The power pool resorted to short periodic outages, known as “load shedding” or “rolling blackouts,” throughout its service area to take pressure off the grid.

At one point, SPP declared an Energy Emergency Alert (EEA) Level 3, the highest level which triggers the switching of power off and on for period of time.

At 6:20 p.m. CT Wednesday, SPP declared an Energy Emergency Alert Level 2, which requires SPP to direct its member companies to issue public conservation appeals. The alert will remain in effect until further notice.

For a time, SPP had downgraded to a Level 1 alert, which meant it was able to handle generation needs across its system.

The greatest frustration may be the uncertainty surrounding if and when service providers would lose their power, Schardin said. Those who are affected range from rural-electric cooperatives to investor-owned utilities to municipalities.

Those energy providers are asking many of the same questions, Schardin said.

“They’re wondering, ‘Who determines how this is set up?’ and ‘Why can’t you contact utilities ahead of time?’” he said. “Where they have had load shedding, no utilities have received advance notice. It’s a process where it looks like they have a list in their hands, start with Number One and work their way through the list.”

The worst appears over in terms of customer demand and stress on the grid, Schardin said, but the system faced an unprecedented test that needs to be addressed.

“SPP hasn’t gone to Level 2 for some time in its 70- or 80-year history, and this is the first time it has gone to Level 3,” he said. “There is a lot of talk about the situation, what was done and what could be done better.”

OTHER PROVIDERS RESPOND

NorthWestern Energy, which serves Yankton, has asked its customers to continue reducing power usage, especially during peak demand times, according to spokesman Tom Glanzer.

“The public should follow their service providers’ directions regarding local outages and tips for conservation and safety,” he said.

The Midwest energy emergency means unplanned power outages may continue, according to NorthWestern President Brian Bird. Energy companies in the region are working closely with SPP to monitor the situation and take needed action, he said.

“Those actions may include unplanned outages,” he said in a news release. “Customers may experience power outages if rolling blackouts are implemented to reduce demand.”

NorthWestern Energy and other South Dakota energy providers were directed to reduce demand by dropping some load beginning early Feb. 16, according to the news release. Some customers experienced unplanned power outages as rolling blackouts were implemented to reduce demand by about 10% to keep the energy grid stable.

NorthWestern Energy is working to put as much energy generation online as possible to help meet this historical peak energy demand, said Bleau LaFave, the NorthWestern Energy director of long-term resources.

“NorthWestern Energy is part of a large, integrated market,” he said. “We are working together to manage this emergency situation, keep the grid stable and continue to provide our customers with safe, reliable energy.”

Cities with municipal power are also dealing with the uncertain situation.

In Vermillion, city officials had anticipated a 40% chance of a rolling blackout, from 6-7:30 a.m. Wednesday. The outage didn’t occur, but City Manager John Prescott urged residents to continue reduced energy usage and remain prepared for any situation.

“Due to continued high demand for electricity over a large portion of the multi-state power grid managed by Southwest Power Pool (SPP), a power outage in Vermillion remains a possibility,” Prescott said in a news release.

Vermillion Light & Power continues to request customers conserve energy amid the frigid temperatures and emergency alerts, Prescott said.

“The situation is constantly changing,” he said. “Please be prepared for outages should they happen. While temporary outages are inconvenient and annoying, they can help avoid longer and more frequent outages.”

Wednesday brought some relief for Clay-Union Electric, according to General Manager Chris Larson.

“Things were calmer on the grid for us today, but as we have said before, that can change rapidly,” he said on the website. “We aren’t planning for any black-outs but we have little or no warning when they happen.”

The Nebraska Public Power District issued notices to its customers about the changing status.

“We have been able to avoid service interruptions this (Wednesday) morning, but things may change quickly,” NPPD said on its website.

Wednesday’s change to a Level 2 alert could bring outages, according to the NPPD.

“This may affect service to our customers,” the website said. “We will have very little, if any, notice of where these interruptions may take place. Please prepare for outages lasting 45 minutes or longer.”

TAKING ACTION

Schardin said he has spent much of the last two days participating in conference calls and video updates from SPP and with others. While this past week’s events have been extraordinary, it does spotlight areas that remain vulnerable and need to be addressed, he said.

“Some things worked and some things didn’t. There are things we need to do before this happens again,” Schardin said.

For the most part, Southeastern Electric has remained fortunate, Schardin said. The co-op did receive a rolling blackout from 6:54-7:50 a.m. Wednesday affecting substations at Turkey Ridge, Menno, Viborg-Hurley and Irene.

As of late Wednesday afternoon, Southeastern Electric had one remaining outage with a McCook County customer. The South Dakota Rural Electric Association (SDREA) didn’t show any other outages among co-operatives in the southeast region.

Schardin thanked his members Wednesday or their patience and enduring the unprecedented events. He asked customers to conserve power for another 48 hours.

While energy providers remain cautious, Schardin noted the entire system looked pretty stable not only in the Midwest but also down to Texas and New Mexico.

“I’m pretty optimistic about later this week,” he said. “We just hope there are no generation issues that go off yet.”

Schardin noted the current energy emergency has been driven by historically low temperatures over a wide area of the country, including regions unaccustomed to such extreme weather.

“We’re faring better up here (in the Midwest) because we’re used to it,” he said. “But they were pushed to their limits in Texas and other states where their homes aren’t insulated and they don’t usually need to worry about these conditions.”

The grid carries a built-in understanding of one area helping others in time of need, Schardin said.

“We’re helping our Southern neighbors now,” he said. “We might have a time when we have a 110-degree day in July and need the extra energy, and those other places are below normal in their power usage and can help us.”

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