Published February 24th, 2021 at 10:00 AM
EMPORIA, Kan. — A small crowd gathered last Wednesday in Emporia on the hillside next to the Prairie Street bridge, seeking respite from rolling blackouts and extreme cold.
With nothing else to do, they were taking turns sliding down the hill — and enjoying temperatures that had barely risen above 0 following three straight days of record-setting lows.
“It’s warm enough finally to come out here,” said Samantha Rosa. “We thought sledding could be a good distraction.”
Much of Emporia, and Kansas, had shut down for three days, leaving residents struggling to understand the rolling blackouts and skyrocketing natural gas prices. Federal regulators were preparing to launch an investigation into how the Midwest power grid had come so dangerously close to a more catastrophic failure.
Managers of the Southwest Power Pool delivered a series of emergency warnings from their office in Little Rock, commanding utilities across a 14-state region to begin shutting off power for rotating blocks of customers. For Evergy, serving eastern Kansas and western Missouri, that had meant imposing a temporary blackout for 170,000 customers in the Kansas City region, and 60,000 customers elsewhere.
“What happens is that if they don’t take any corrective action, then an unplanned event happens, and it could lead to cascading failures — and that would be a disaster because it takes days to recover from,” said Anil Pahwa, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Kansas State University, where he has taught and conducted research since 1983.
“It’s not just a small part of the city, like Topeka or Kanas City, being in the dark for a short period,” Pahwa said. “We could be talking about all of Kansas being out for days or weeks.”
Critics of renewable energy seized an opportunity to complain that wind was unreliable. The greater risk turned out to be a failure to winterize elements of the power grid in preparation for increasingly likely extreme weather conditions caused by climate change.
Coal-powered plants and wind turbines suffered from extreme cold — temperatures in parts of Kansas dropped into the -20s — and utilities were unable to rely on natural gas to make up the difference, like they normally would, because of scarce supply. Frozen pipelines and well pumps made it difficult to access natural gas at a time when there was more demand than ever to heat homes. The price of natural gas spiked from $3 to sometimes more than $500 per million British thermal units.
Still, Chuck Caisley, a senior vice president for Evergy, stressed in news briefings that Kansas was producing more energy than it needed. The emergency actions directed by the SPP, which extends into northern Texas, were taken to ease the demand for power to the south.
Power pools allow for resiliency and reliability. This time, Kansans suffered rolling blackouts because of failures elsewhere. But if Kansas ever has problems — hypothetically, a tornado outbreak takes out several power plants — residents here could be bailed out by other states.
As Pahwa put it, power pools force utilities to be good neighbors.
“The reason you are pooling your resources is so that you can depend on one another in times of emergencies,” Pahwa said. “Individual utilities will find it very hard to manage their own thing.”
The SPP covers all of Kansas and Oklahoma, nearly all of Nebraska and the Dakotas, part of Montana and Wyoming, and slivers of Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas and New Mexico. The pool generates 90,466 megawatts of power, with 40.9% from natural gas. Other top sources of power are coal (26%), wind (24.9%), hydro (3.8%) and nuclear (2.3%).
Jim Zakoura, president of Kansas Industrial Consumers Group, president of Kansans for Lower Electric Rates, and counsel for large volume energy users, said questions remain about why the SPP declared an emergency when the demand for power reached 44,000 megawatts. Without any wind support, the pool still produces 67,940 megawatts.
“There are likely many reasons — mechanical failure, being unprepared with needed supplies, free riders on the system, etc.,” Zakoura said. “Until we develop the facts and find the reasons of this 20,000 MW of capacity unavailability, this entire capacity failure could be repeated in the future.”
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation on Feb. 16 announced a joint investigation into cold weather operations and power outages. Two days later, Gov. Laura Kelly and Kansas regulators sent a letter urging federal authorities to investigate the cause of system failures and related price surges.
“I have directed my administration to use every tool at our disposal to ensure Kansans are protected from price surges, and that our system is better prepared to handle problems created by circumstances like extreme cold weather,” Kelly said. “We will remain in communication with the Biden Administration to secure aid, and continue to encourage Congress to pass a stimulus package with state and local funding to provide relief to Kansas communities.”
Pahwa said utilities need to review their contingency plans for how to deal with extreme weather. The duration of extreme cold across a large geographical area exceeded anybody’s expectations, he said.
“We don’t know if this event is a once-in-a-lifetime thing, or if this could be expected again in the near future,” Pahwa said.
“At the same time,” he added, “I think one has to be aware of the fact that we are expecting more and more extreme weather events. And that’s because of climate change.”
This story first appeared on the Kansas Reflector, a nonprofit news operation covering Kansas state government and politics that is part of States Newsroom. Sherman Smith is editor of the Reflector. Lucas Lord is a senior at Emporia State University.