More rolling blackouts possible across Oklahoma
Oklahomans are back to wondering when their power might go off or come back after local utilities including Oklahoma Gas and Electric Co. were ordered on Tuesday to again initiate rolling blackouts to conserve power across the country's midsection.
As temperatures reached as low as a 15 degrees below zero in central Oklahoma on Tuesday morning, the Southwest Power Pool (SPP), the regional transmission operator that oversees the grid that serves parts or all of 14 states between here and Canada, notified users across its system at 6:46 a.m. that it was ordering blackouts within parts of its system in an attempt to conserve available power supplies.
The order was rescinded about 10:30 a.m., an email from Oklahoma Gas and Electric Co. stated. And just after 1 p.m., the SPP stated it had dropped its alert status back to a Level 1, meaning it had enough energy online to meet demands without needing to tap reserves.
Tuesday morning's Level 3 order was generated because the current level of electricity demand at that time (42 gigawatts) had exceeded the amount of generation that was available.
The blackouts were needed, officials said, to prevent more widespread and uncontrolled outages. The grid operator said it expected it would see a peak demand for power Tuesday morning of about 44.6 gigawatts at about 9 a.m.
Grid officials warned blackouts might still be required until weather conditions improve.
“We expect ... we could very well be in this situation again, and in and out of required curtailments between now and Thursday,” Lanny Nickell, SPP's chief operating officer, said Monday afternoon.
“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. 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, which could result in uncontrolled outages of even greater magnitude.”
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Why it’s happening
Under normal operating conditions, renewables, coal and natural gas-fired generation are the biggest sources of power available for dispatch within the SPP.
In fact, energy generated by wind was the most-used resource used on its grid in 2020, closely edging out coal from that top position for the first time ever.
But as the extreme demand for energy climbed quickly as temperatures plummeted last week, renewables weren't always been available to supply the needed energy, though in recent days they have been performing as well as or better than what had been forecast.
The increased demand has forced the grid operator to increase its reliance on their coal- and natural gas-fired units to generate more power. That, combined with increased home heating needs, has put natural gas operators in a bind as supplies for that fuel have tightened.
Increased alert status
SPP issued a series of advisories to its members last week and over the weekend that warned the ability to find sufficient power supplies to meet members’ and other market participants’ needs could become problematic during the ongoing storm.
The grid operator first asked its members to delay planned maintenance outages on natural gas-fired and coal-fired power plants, then issued an alert requiring them to activate those facilities and have them available on a standby basis to meet ongoing needs as the storm evolved.
For operators like Oklahoma Gas and Electric Co., that meant activating units that normally operate only during summer peak periods when extra energy is needed, like natural gas fired generators the utility has in Seminole County.
It also meant that utilities and other generator power companies that use a lot of natural gas to make electricity had to lock in supplies to meet their needs before the storm arrived.
As utilities and other major natural gas users scrambled to get that done, prices on secondary markets for the fuel in Oklahoma spiked late last week as buyers bid as much as $600 per million British thermal units to obtain additional supplies.
The strain caused by that abnormally high demand for natural gas wasn’t just being felt by power generators, either. Two regulated utilities that provide natural gas services to businesses and homes across Oklahoma asked their customers over the weekend to conserve its use.
On Sunday afternoon, SPP issued a release that called for members and other market participants to continue to conserve their energy resources in an attempt to mitigate risks for worsening conditions.
It also declared an Level 1 Energy Emergency Alert that took effect at 5 a.m. Monday and then a Level 2 alert a couple of hours later.
A Level 1 alert, SPP officials said, indicates that all available resources are scheduled to meet firm load obligations, making it at least possible the system wouldn’t be able to sustain federally required contingency reserves.
A Level 2 alert means it has arrived at that threshold of having to tap those contingency reserves and that it is requesting its members to urge customers to conserve power.
It issued its first Level 3 alert Monday afternoon before rescinding it a short time later. A Level 3 alert requires curtailments of power to keep the available supplies from collapsing entirely.
Who will it impact?
The short answer is: Every electric consumer in the state of Oklahoma.
There are numerous electricity providers that serve our residents.
OG&E serves about 858,000 customers. Public Service Co. of Oklahoma serves about 550,000 customers. The Grand River Dam Authority provides energy to nearly two dozen Oklahoma communities and their residents. The Oklahoma Municipal Power Authority provides power to residents in 42 different communities.
And Western Farmers Electric Cooperative provides power to electrical cooperatives across the state. All will be impacted by the SPP’s order.
OG&E spokesman Brian Alford on Monday said customers could expect outages lasting up to two hours. The utility would curtail and restore power on a circuit-by-circuit basis, he said.
How long will it last?
The Level 3 alert lasted Tuesday morning until the grid operator had sufficient generating resources to meet demands.
While Level 3 alerts are in force, individual utilities and cooperatives determine how best to curtail their use by the required amount based on their own emergency operating plans.
As SPP and its member companies work to keep regional power supplies balanced on the grid, consumers are urged to reduce electricity use, both at home and work.
“Our grid operators and member utilities are highly trained and prepared to respond to situations like this, and we’re working closely together to ensure the grid maintains a stable and safe operating condition,” said Nickell.
“We are not out of the woods yet. But had we not done the planning we started more than a week ago and not had the cooperation we had from our neighbors (the Midwestern Interconnect System Operator and another cooperative organization in Missouri), the situation could have been much worse," Nickell said.