Natural gas shortages, high prices helped drive February power outages

During winter cold snap, natural gas power plants struggled to get fuel.

By: - May 11, 2021 4:08 pm

Lanny Nickell, SPP’s executive vice president and chief operating officer, answers questions during a meeting Tuesday of the Kansas Corporation Commission about the February power outages. (Screen capture)

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A precipitous drop-off in natural-gas powered electricity, coupled with high demand and other power generation outages, drove the grid instability that forced power outages in Kansas in February, officials with the Southwest Power Pool said Tuesday.

Lanny Nickell, SPP’s executive vice president and chief operating officer, appeared before the Kansas Corporation Commission to answer questions on the February cold snap that left thousands out of power — some for hours. He said the long stretch of severe cold spread across SPP’s enormous footprint forced the organization for the first time in its 80-year history to interrupt customers’ power across its entire network.

“It was so widespread. It was so cold,” Nickell said. “It affected us in a way that we’ve just not seen before.”

SPP is a regional transmission organization that oversees the electrical grid and wholesale power market in 17 states, including Kansas and western Missouri. When sub-zero temperatures hit in February, it asked electric utility providers, like Evergy, to implement rolling blackouts to keep the grid from spiraling out of control.

Both SPP and federal officials are still investigating the sources of the problem, including shortages of fuel for natural gas power plants and some frozen wind turbines. But he answered preliminary questions from KCC members about the event.

As the cold weather approached, Nickell said, SPP committed every generator it had available to run during the cold. The organization imported power from other grids. It asked customers to reduce their consumption. But it wasn’t enough.

SPP had to interrupt power for about 1.5% of its power demand on Feb. 15 for nearly an hour, Nickell said. It interrupted about 6.5% of the power load in Feb. 16 — this time for more than three hours.

Nickell said SPP staff, like members of the public, saw the news about cold weather coming in February and worried about the prolonged cold meteorologists were forecasting.

“I just never thought I’d see this. I was surprised,” Nickell said. “I guess I just kind of kept hoping as the event materialized and as conditions worsened that maybe those forecasted temperatures wouldn’t happen, that maybe generation would come back online.”

In all, Nickell said, SPP’s strategies worked.

“It prevented us from what we could have experienced, which would have been much worse,” Nickell said. “It would have impacted many more customers and would have lasted longer.”


Why was the grid unstable?

A few factors led to the widespread outages in February, Nickell said.

First, power generation didn’t meet expectations. Only 42% of the grid’s maximum energy capacity showed up during the worst stretches of the cold snap, Nickell said. In Kansas, that generation was about on par with the regional grid as a whole.

About 63% of the generation failure, Nickell said, was because of a lack of fuel for the power plants, not because the generators failed. Only 42-48% percent of SPP’s “accredited” natural gas capacity — the power SPP feels it can rely on routinely — came through.

What caused that drop-off — a lack of production or transmission — is still under investigation. Nickell said, anecdotally, utilities told him it wasn’t being produced at its normal capacity. Others, he said, told him they couldn’t afford to buy it.

During the cold snap, prices for natural gas rose by 100 to 200 times. One Kansas city, Mulberry, is suing BP for allegedly price gouging by charging $329.615 per mmbtu during the height of the cold snap compared to $2.98 just beforehand for the natural gas that it, in turn, provides to residents.

Though natural gas was the worst, SPP also saw reduced capacity in wind and coal power.

About 7,000 megawatts of wind power weren’t available because of iced-over wind turbines, an issue that started days before the outages because of fog that froze in the cold weather. But compared to its accredited capacity, wind energy showed up strong. However, much of it came from non-accredited resources, he said.

“We had a lot of what we call non-firm wind energy being produced at that time,” Nickell said.

Coal, Nickell said, performed reliably during the cold snap. More than 70% of the grid’s coal capacity was available. 

To get through that period, Nickell said, SPP relied on its interconnection with other grids and its diverse mix of power sources.

“We have a diverse generation mix, and every megawatt that showed up we were thankful to get,” he said.

But the power SPP could import also fell off, in some cases, because other grids had their own instability.

Finally, the severe cold resulted in record amounts of consumption as customers tried to keep their homes warm.

Even as the cold weather approached, SPP was still obligated under an agreement with the independent grid that supplies most of Texas, Electric Reliability Council of Texas, to send power south.

Once SPP had to cut off power to its own customers, it was able to stop supplying power to ERCOT, Nickell said.

Commissioner Susan Duffy asked Nickell how much interruption Kansas saw compared to the rest of the states in the SPP. Nickell said the state suffered about one-fifth of the interruption.

“I just get a little defensive when I think about our state and our folks being interrupted for not 30 minutes, not an hour, but much longer,” Duffy said. “Now, maybe that was a local decision. We’re still ferreting all that out.”

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Allison Kite
Allison Kite

Allison Kite is a data reporter for The Missouri Independent and Kansas Reflector, with a focus on the environment and agriculture. A graduate of the University of Kansas, she’s covered state government in both Topeka and Jefferson City, and most recently was City Hall reporter for The Kansas City Star.