Frigid arctic temps, unreliable renewable sources lead to energy crisis
Kinggfisher County residents woke up to the coldest temperatures yet Tuesday in the sustained arctic blast, with actual temperatures at minus 12 and some Cimarron Electric Cooperative customers also woke up to surprise rolling blackouts, which started just before 7 a.m. with no notice to anyone, including the coop’s management.The first notice Cimarron received was when its members southeast of Kingfisher and in Cashion began reporting outages.
With no notice to electrical providers, the Southwest Power Pool raised its Emergency Energy Alert Status back up to Level 3, after dropping to Level 2 Monday afternoon when power supplies weren’t as critical. SPP supplies energy to utilities throughout Oklahoma, as well as in parts of 14 other states.EEA 3 signifies SPP is operating with reserves below the required minimum and may mean that SPP directs power suppliers to curtail energy use through rolling blackouts.Rolling blackouts were triggered, beginning with shutoffs on the east circuit of the Cashion substation and the south circuit of the East Kingfisher substation
.“We were not notified ahead of time that they were going to level 3 or that they were turning off our circuits. We are told from WFEC to expect our circuits to be off for around 1 hour at a time as they perform these rolling blackouts today,” Cimarron said in a Facebook post.
Power had been restored at the first two substations before 8 a.m. Members reported a total outage of about an hour and a half.In all, eight of Cimarron’s 20 substations were powered off and back on in a series of blackouts before the SPP announced just before 11 a.m. that blackouts were suspended until further notice.Snowden said energy supplies were so critically low throughout the power pool that the SPP was making decisions on which circuits to close as the situation developed.“
The SPP is monitoring the deficiencies in the power grid across 14 states and looking at the load in five minute intervals. Based on what they are seeing, they are turning off and on circuits to keep the power flowing and avoiding a total grid shut down,” Snowden said Tuesday morning.
“Sounds like SPP sees it and has to react to the live data quickly and doesn’t have time to contact every generation company in every state. Doing that would likely shut the grid down as time is of the essence.”City Manager Dave Slezickey said Tuesday morning he also was notified by the Oklahoma Municipal Power Authority that blackouts have begun. He received an email saying OMPA staff will be contacting cities to let them know if they will be involved in the blackouts. “OMPA staff will try to give you as much notice as we possibly can, but we are not getting much notice on when these curtailments will happen from the transmission operators,” the email read.
According to the OMPA email, the city will have a little more control over what circuits are affected than Cimarron Electric has been given. If blackouts are required by the city, OMPA staff will call and recommend circuits that don’t have critical infrastructure on them, such as nursing homes, police and fire departments, the hospital, the water treatment plant, etc., “however, you know your city’s system best so if there are circuits you are aware of that you could quickly shed load from, we will ask that you do so.”
According to the OMPA email, city rolling blackouts, if they occur, could last up to two hours. OG&E was providing the same information to its customers. Slezickey said as of 8:50 a.m. Tuesday he had not received requests for rolling blackouts in Kingfisher. “For us, the hospital is on the industrial substation and water and wastewater plants are on the Bowman substation and all of those are priority one assets, when compared to a big city metro area substation of primarily residents and some businesses,” Slezickey said.No city blackouts happened before the SPP called them off just before 11 a.m. Tuesday.
Rolling blackouts were a possibility Monday when an Emergency Energy Alert Level 3 was issued shortly after 11 a.m. across the Southwest Power Pool, which includes most of Oklahoma, until more power was found across the SPP footprint to forestall the need Monday. Some utilities, including OGE, proceeded with rolling blackouts to its customers Monday evening due to issues at one of its power plants, but electric coops and Kingfisher and other OMPA member cities were able to avoid doing so.Both wind and solar electrical generation are unavailable under current weather conditions and subzero wind chills also are affecting natural gas production and transportation.
“Windmills have not operated for the last two-plus weeks due to blade icing in the cold,” Slezickey said. “OMPA doesn’t have a huge solar portfolio, but none of the regional solar farms are producing much due to overcast skies.With over two weeks of no wind and solar, our renewables aren’t producing, which is making electric power plants the sole producer for energy. Coal-fired plants are shut down and dismantling, so we’re depending on natural gas-fired plants.”
Western Farmers Electric Cooperative, which serves Cimarron Electric, reported that natural gas purchased for electrical generation through Monday was 100 times higher than the normal cost.
“We’ve been generating the past four days to put power on the grid, running on diesel only because no natural gas is available,” Slezickey said. “I’m not sure the last time that running diesel was cheaper than natural gas.”
Slezickey said the city’s power plant is committed to putting electricity into the OMPA system and he’s not sure whether any will be available to help power the city to avert rolling blackouts.
“Through our contracts and agreements with OMPA, they control when we run, and if our assets are needed in the market, then we may not have them available for local needs,” he said.“The other side is if they need 2.5 megawatts, we still have five available to use locally, but that still wouldn’t cover our full load, so we would have to schedule outages through circuits.”
Both Snowden and Slezickey warned utility customers to expect much higher bills in February, due to high usage and the high cost of energy generation.
“OMPA spent about $18 million total on natural gas in 2020 and we’ve (OMPA) spent $75 million this week alone,” Slezickey said last week. “We should get about $65 million paid back for energy produced into the market, but we’re hoping for some regulatory stabilization.”
Slezickey said that fuel costs or power cost adjustments are separate from the city’s utility rates and “essentially a tariff passed onto customers to recover the fluctuating costs of power production.” Both Slezickey and Snowden said they would work with utility customers on payment plans.
“If I know our Cimarron board, they will do everything they can to eat as much of that increase as possible before it will be passed on,” Snowden said. “We’re a nonprofit and have no interest in making money off our members’ misery.”
Skezickey said OMPA is looking at ways to minimize impact to member communities, including possibly spreading out the high power cost adjustment over a few months and passing on any federal relief received.
“We’ll have to wait until the market settles to see how that turns out,” he said. “Usage will be higher than normal for both electric and natural gas, regardless of the provider. As usual, in the event of financial hardship, we will work with our customers.”
More Weather Developing
At press time, another front of wintry precipitation was predicted for Tuesday evening and into Wednesday. Fortunately, the weekend front did not dump as much snow as predicted in the county, with six inches the unofficial measurement in Kingfisher, although blowing drifts caused problems on rural county roads. The bitter cold temperatures continued to be the main problem, both for residents and for service providers.
"We are working on opening all east-west county roads, but our biggest problem will continue to be the extreme cold with the machinery,” Kingfisher County Commission Chairman Heath Dobrovolny said Monday morning. “Getting all equipment running has taken several hours and keeping the fuel from gelling is problematic.” He added that the courthouse will open two hours later than normal on Wednesday, due to an anticipated weather delay.
Slezickey said Oklahoma Environmental Management Authority, the city’s garbage contractor, will make the call Wednesday morning whether it would be able to run the city’s residential route.
"At the very least, I would expect it to be delayed, depending on how much more snow we get,” Slezickey said Tuesday afternoon. “The street department got the downtown area cleared on Monday and will continue to work on snow removal. So far, we’ve had no major issues with water or sewer service and our crews are taking care of minor issues.”
And the Good News?
The sun will in fact come out tomorrow, at least for part of the day. Temperatures will begin to warm to above freezing by Saturday (high 37 predicted) and then into the mid-50s next week.