Regional power shortages, record chill force more blackouts in Kansas

By: - February 16, 2021 11:12 am

Chuck Caisley, a senior vice president at Evergy, said the utility was ordered on by the Southwest Power Pool to shut off power on short notice, making it difficult to provide advance warning to customers. (Screen capture/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Operators of the regional power grid again ordered utilities to implement rolling blackouts Tuesday morning to conserve natural gas and electricity as bitterly cold temperatures plunged to double-digit negatives.

The rare, emergency action was a temporary response to skyrocketing natural gas prices, high demand for power and an unprecedented week of extreme wintry conditions for the middle swath of the country. The National Weather Service office in Topeka recorded an overnight low of -21, the seventh-coldest day ever, and a new record low for the third straight day.

Low temperatures combined with moisture created problems with wind turbines, access to natural gas and the burning of coal across the Southwest Power Pool, which manages a 17-state power grid.

The SPP on Monday declared its first-ever emergency and ordered all utilities to shut off power to rotating blocks of customers for 30-60 minutes. The order was reissued Tuesday morning and halted before noon, with the caveat that later blackouts may be needed.

In a briefing Tuesday morning, Chuck Caisley, a senior vice president at Evergy, said the SPP gave the utility 10 minutes to reduce its load. That provided virtually no time to give customers warning before shutting their power off, Caisley said.

On Monday, Evergy inflicted temporary blackouts on 34,000 customers in western Missouri and 18,000 in eastern Kansas. The utility at 6:45 a.m. Tuesday began shutting off power to 170,000 customers.

“We try and pick places that will keep the grid balanced and stable and operational from our service territory, as well as where power is flowing in the Southwest Power Pool generally,” Caisley said. “That’s very complex. It’s done in a very short amount of time.”

Caisely said Kansas was generating enough power to meet demands, but the blackouts helped ease congestion on transmission lines so that power could flow to population centers elsewhere. In Texas, he said, more than 5 million people were without power.

Officials again asked residents to take action to conserve energy. And while Tuesday morning was the worst part of the forecast, temperatures were expected to remain below freezing until Friday.

The SPP in a statement Tuesday said the blackouts are necessary to force conservation of power.

“This is done as a last resort to preserve the reliability of the electric system as a whole,” the SPP statement said.

Kimberly Gencur Svaty, a lobbyist whose firm works with the energy industry, said the severe weather conditions caused natural gas wellheads to freeze, limiting access to pipelines. The problem escalated over the course of an usual week’s worth of increasingly cold weather.

The cost of natural gas was a normal $3 per mmbtu on Monday of last week, Gencur Svaty said. By Wednesday, the price had doubled.

The highest pricing in decades had during the polar vortex of 2014, when the cost was $34 per mmbtu, Gencur Svaty said. By Thursday, the price was up to $45. That’s when an ice storm hit Oklahoma and Texas.

“Madness ensued in the natural gas market,” she said.

When the markets closed at 5 p.m. Friday, natural gas prices from various pipelines ranged from $200 to the high $300s, Gencur Svaty said. On Monday, the cost soared past $500.

“The best thing that can happen right now, aside from temperatures rising, will be significant energy conservation on the part of everyone across the board — homeowners, businesses, everyone, and not just in Kansas. This is a region-wide situation,” Gencur Svaty said.

The Southwest Power Pool in 2020 received 31.3% of its power from wind, 30.9% from coal, 26.6% from natural gas, and 6.4% from nuclear. In Kansas, 43.3% of electricity comes from wind, 31.9% from coal, 19.5% from nuclear, and 5.1% from gas.

The power from wind turbines has been significantly reduced in recent days because by freezing hydraulics, moisture in the air and slow winds.

Kansas Sen. Mike Thompson, a Republican from Shawnee and former TV meteorologist who dismisses concerns about climate change, responded to the power shortages by posting on his Facebook page about the need for reduced reliance on renewable energy.

“Wind turbines are frozen up. Solar is useless,” Thompson said. “Due to the necessity of extra natural gas resources being diverted to excess quick ramping generating capacity when wind is not available, the natural gas supplies are being stretched to the limit.”

“Right now,” he said, “coal plants will be our savior in this frigid weather.”

Caisley, the Evergy executive, said the frigid weather also posed problems for coal power production.

Coal is stored outside, he said, and when it freezes, moisture makes the coal more like concrete. Crews have to break it apart and load it manually into the power plant.

“That takes a lot of time. It takes a lot of effort,” Caisley said. “And then ultimately, when the coal is burned, it doesn’t generate as much electricity as it normally would because of the moisture content and the temperature of the coal.”

Gencur Svaty said technology for renewables has grown significantly in the past 20 years, fundamentally changing the utility industry, and will continue to evolve. The holy grail is figuring out long-term battery storage, which would be a game-changer.

“I think you take this type of situation, and you say, we need to continue investing in technology, research and development in order to ensure that days like this don’t happen again, where we’re not scrambling across the board, and across power sectors,” Gencur Svaty said. “It’s not about coal versus natural gas versus wind. It’s about how do we ensure that we continue to invest in research and development, and deploying new technologies.”

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Sherman Smith
Sherman Smith

Sherman Smith is the Kansas Press Association’s journalist of the year. He has written award-winning news stories about the instability of the Kansas foster care system, misconduct by government officials, sexual abuse, technology, education, and the Legislature. He previously spent 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. A lifelong Kansan, he graduated from Emporia State University in 2004 as a Shepherd Scholar with a degree in English.

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