‘Bitter, dangerous, arctic’ chill disrupts power grid, forcing coordinated blackouts

By: - February 15, 2021 1:27 pm

Andrew French, chairman of the Kansas Corporation Commission, warns in February that natural gas is being sold at far above normal rates. The Kansas Gas Service filed a plan to recover the exorbitant costs from ratepayers over five, seven or 10 years.(Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Public officials pleaded Monday for Kansans to turn thermostats down and conserve electricity as utilities warned that severe cold would force coordinated power outages across the Midwest.

Gov. Laura Kelly declared a state of emergency Sunday in anticipation of sub-zero temperatures and wind chills that reached the -30s. The extreme conditions knocked wind turbines and natural gas plants off the grid as power consumptions soared, prompting concerns about skyrocketing natural gas supplies and an inability to meet demand.

Gov. Laura Kelly during a news briefing Monday at the Statehouse urged Kansans to cut back on their energy usage. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

Evergy, which serves eastern Kansas and western Missouri, announced plans Monday afternoon to begin shutting off power for rotating blocks of customers for 30-60 minutes at a time. The rolling blackouts were directed by the Southwest Power Pool, which markets the power supply for a 17-state region.

Officials raised the possibility that without the planned outages and steps to by residents to reduce consumption, the region could run out of power as temperatures continue to dive lower.

“I can’t stress this point enough,” Kelly said. “We all must cut back on natural gas and electricity usage now to ensure we have enough available to make it through these sub-zero temperatures. How we respond over the next 48 to 72 hours is critical.”

Andrew French, chairman of the Kansas Corporation Commission, said Monday that natural gas was being sold at prices 150-200 times the normal rate. Those higher costs eventually will be passed on to consumers.

French said wind turbines can’t produce as much power as normal because of conditions like freezing fog. Natural gas plants were malfunctioning, he said, and are competing with gas utilities for scarce supply.

“You have this confluence of events, which is limiting the availability of power throughout our region at a time where we’re all of our customers have extreme demand for that power,” French said.

Evergy began the rolling blackouts in Kansas at 12:15 p.m. Monday. The utility said it turned off power for 60,000 customers and may do so for others as needed in the coming days. Evergy asks residents not to talk to workers in the field, and to check Evergy’s online outage map instead of reporting an outage.

Evergy, the state’s largest electric utility began shutting off power Monday afternoon to rotating blocks of customers at the request of the Southwest Power Pool. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

“Our Evergy employees are working around the clock to manage our power plants and power lines,” said Kevin Bryant, Evergy’s COO. “But even with reliable operations, the extreme cold is driving high demand for electricity and straining natural gas supplies, requiring all the utilities in the region to ask for customers’ help in conserving energy until the temperatures warm up later this week.”

French said he expects more coordinated rolling blackouts Tuesday morning, after temperatures plunge to new depths. The Southwest Power Pool was coordinating with all utilities in the region for the power cutoffs, he said.

In response, the University of Kansas closed campuses in Lawrence and Overland Park to all classes Monday whether taught in-person or remotely. A statement issued by KU said only weather-essential personnel should report Monday and Tuesday to campus.

The National Weather Service office in Topeka is predicting a record overnight low of -15 Monday night. Temperatures are expected to remain below freezing until Friday, with a high of 35.

“The bitter, dangerous arctic airmass continues to plague northeast Kansas through mid-next week,” the office wrote in a post on its Facebook page.

Officials ask that residents turn thermostats down to 65-68 degrees, avoid electric space heaters, close binds and shades, turn off unnecessary lights and appliances, use low-temperature cooking methods, and avoid doing laundry, washing dishes or bathing during peak hours of 5 a.m. to 10 p.m.

U.S. Sen. Roger Marshall, a Republican representing Kansas, said he spoke with utility officials about the spike in gas prices and unprecedented strain on demand.

“We will be doing all we can at the federal level to confirm no foul play or price gouging has occurred and continue to support our utility companies and community leaders as they work diligently to keep Kansans warm,” Marshall said.

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Sherman Smith
Sherman Smith

Sherman Smith is the editor in chief of Kansas Reflector. He writes about things that powerful people don't want you to know. A two-time Kansas Press Association journalist of the year, his award-winning reporting includes stories about education, technology, foster care, voting, COVID-19, sex abuse, and access to reproductive health care. Before founding Kansas Reflector in 2020, he spent 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. He graduated from Emporia State University in 2004, back when the school still valued English and journalism. He was raised in the country at the end of a dead end road in Lyon County.